From Expeditionary Terror to Leaderless Remote Control Terror

David kilcullenDavid Kilcullen, in the Weekend Australian, 17-18 January 2015, where the title is ” Remote Control Terror” See ttp:// for web version where there are lively blog exchanges

LAST week Islamist terrorists killed 17 people in a horrifying raid on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and in a siege at a Paris kosher market. The attacks were a direct assault on free speech in one of the world’s oldest democracies, exacerbated fears of Muslim anti-Semitic violence in Europe and prompted a global response. The attacks particularly resonated in Australia, of course, after December’s deadly Martin Place siege.

CHARLIE HEBDO I KILL --AFP Charlie Hebdo attackers kill policeman–AFP

Fears of follow-on attacks have roiled Europe and America. Police evacuated Belgian newspaper Le Soir after a bomb threat, the French Army increased patrols at public sites and in Germany competing pro- and anti-immigration marchers rallied under heavy security.

New York officials raised threat levels after an Islamic State-linked Twitter account repeated calls for supporters to “rise up and kill intelligence officers, police, soldiers and civilians” in France, Australia, Canada and the US. Since Islamic State first released that message last September, three of those four countries have suffered attacks: unfortunately, we can be certain that more will come.

Counterterrorism professionals are rightly cautious about drawing conclusions from early reports, since later investigation often proves first impressions wrong. Police believe up to six members of the Paris cell remain at large, so the incident may not even be over yet. That said, stepping back from this latest atrocity, a pattern of escalation and adaptation emerges in the co-evolving relationship between terror threats and responses since before the al-Qa’ida attacks of September 11, 2001.

The 9/11 attacks were what we might call “expeditionary terrorism”, an approach dating back to the 1972 Munich massacre, in which a terrorist organisation recruits, trains and equips a specialist team in one country, then infiltrates it into another to assault a predetermined target. In 1972, Palestinian group Black September drew recruits from refugee camps near Beirut, selected a small team for training in Libya, then infiltrated eight attackers into Munich where they retrieved a weapons cache, reconnoitred their target — the Israeli Olympic team — and launched the assault.

A generation later, al-Qa’ida recruited from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Muslim immigrants in Germany, selected a group from training camps in Afghanistan, planned the operation in Afghanistan and Malaysia and infiltrated 19 people into the US to attack the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

Expeditionary terrorism demands a huge investment of time and resources (al-Qa’ida spent five years and half a million dollars on 9/11) and is high risk, but high reward. It can bring payoffs in public profile through media publicity, in enhanced support for terrorists’ agendas and in victim-initiated damage — expensive, sometimes counter-productive responses by targeted countries that magnify an attack’s effects.

The 9/11 attacks, for example, prompted a massive response by the US and its allies, including Australia, and it was this response — as much as the attacks themselves — that catapulted Osama bin Laden and al-Qa’ida to a global leadership role in jihadist circles that was virtually unchallenged in bin Laden’s lifetime, even surviving after his death until the rise of Islamic State.

After 9/11, governments and businesses spent billions on enhanced border surveillance, airline security, hardened cockpits, biometrics and information sharing to prevent another attack. These measures mostly succeeded — there hasn’t been another 9/11, though attempts like that of Richard Reed (the “shoe bomber”) and Umar Farouk Abdulmatallab (who tried to blow up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, and studied in Yemen alongside one of the Paris shooters, Said Kouachi) still continue. This safety comes at a cost, though: increased disruption and security spending amount to a “terrorism tax” on air travel and commerce, while intrusive surveillance endangers our open societies.

But we’ve largely adapted. I teach frequently at a NATO school in Rome, and thus often fly from Fiumicino airport, outside the city, to Washington DC. I’ve seen significant adaptation over time. Thirteen years into what we used to call the Global War on Terrorism, the airport maintains a separate facility for US-based airlines and for El Al, the Israeli carrier. Passengers and bags are screened in a building with blast barriers and extra security personnel, fire-resistant furnishings, and a roof system designed to dissipate bomb blast. The system works seamlessly, and few ever notice it — though if you know what to look for, you can see similar adaptations in most major airports, and many public spaces worldwide.

KILCULLEN PIC-- AFP Liberty at risk in France — AFP

Less obviously, intelligence cooperation, financial monitoring, mass surveillance and terrorism watch lists — which today include tens of thousands of people — have all been put in place since 9/11.

The high payoff for expeditionary terrorism still encourages some to attempt it — Lashkar-e Taiba’s 2008 raid on Mumbai, or al-Shabaab’s attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in 2013 are examples — and we can expect it to remain in the repertoire of terrorists and state-sponsored militants for the foreseeable future. But it’s high risk, and the demands of time, resources and technical skill that it imposes, have prompted evolved approaches including “guerilla terrorism”, “urban siege”, “remote radicalisation” and “leaderless resistance”.

A prominent example of guerilla terrorism occurred in London on July 7, 2005. For 9/11, as we’ve seen, al-Qa’ida smuggled 19 people into the target country. By 2005, with increased airline security and border surveillance, this was hugely risky — and, in any case, al-Qa’ida had lost its Afghan base and many of the cadres who had planned 9/11 had since been killed or captured. So instead of an expeditionary approach (form the team in country A, infiltrate country B), the group used a guerilla model, growing the team near the target, inside the international barrier established since 2001.

Rather than sending a team in secretly, al-Qa’ida brought one person out openly. Mohammed Siddique Khan, a British citizen of Pakistani descent, travelled on his own passport to Pakistan’s tribal areas for training, then returned to Britain, again openly, where he recruited a team inside Britain’s international border, but outside London.

The team trained, rehearsed, prepared rucksack bombs and then travelled to London where its members blew up three Tube trains and a double-decker bus. The attack killed 52 people besides the four suicide bombers, and injured more than 700. At relatively low cost, al-Qa’ida had used guerilla techniques to sidestep enhanced international security. Preparing the attack inside Britain, but outside London, helped them stay below the radar.

The Paris attacks illustrated a second evolution in terrorist technique: the urban siege. Again, this isn’t new, but the size and complexity of modern cities, and the interdependent systems they rely on, has made sieges increasingly effective. A bombing like London, even a spectacular attack like 9/11, is over quickly — the London attack lasted just over an hour, while the time between the first and last plane crashes on 9/11 was one hour and 17 minutes. By contrast, in Mumbai Lashkar e-Taiba seized two hotels and a Jewish centre, sparking intense battles that lasted 60 hours, while al Shabaab’s attack on the Westgate Mall triggered an urban siege of 100 hours. Both generated massive, sustained global publicity, cost billions and paralysed large urban areas. Sydney, Ottawa and Paris escaped relatively lightly (in terms of urban disruption) in recent incidents, but the power of the urban siege — its ability to create huge impact over a long time for relatively little input — will continue to make it attractive to terrorists.

Today’s attackers are often described as “home grown” or “self-radicalised”, but in fact they represent the fullest development of what we might call remote radicalisation, the third key evolution in terrorism. Remote radicalisation exploits the explosion in mobile connectivity over the last dozen years — the massive expansion in access to smartphones, penetration of the internet into remote areas, social media, and proliferation of tools like Google Earth and YouTube that terrorists can repurpose for operational or propaganda purposes.

As recently as 2005, it was a debate in the intelligence community whether a person could be fully operationalised — taken from basic awareness through increasing radicalisation, given training and tools for an attack, and launched into action — purely through electronic means.

Until then, though people were radicalised online, full operationalisation was extremely rare without some form of personal contact.

Today’s tools have changed that. Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, for example, operationalised Nidal Hassan, a US Army officer, though email, from a remote part of Yemen, to kill 13 people and wound 32 at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009. Awlaki also inspired the London Underground bombers, though he never met them: they watched his sermons while building their rucksack bombs. He met Abdulma-ttalab before his 2009 Christmas bombing attempt and inspired or directed plots in Toronto in 2006 and Fort Dix in 2007.

Al-Qa’ida (and more recently Islamic State) disseminate terrorist tactics and techniques via their online, English-language magazines Inspire and Dabiq, which publish articles on homemade explosives, raiding and ambushing, and pressure-cooker bombs like those the Tsarnaev brothers used to bomb the Boston Marathon in 2013 — another example of individuals being operationalised without ever contacting or joining a terrorist organisation. Terrorist groups claim credit for attacks that fit their agenda (as al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula has done for the Paris attack) without actively planning or conducting them.

Remote radicalisation creates a bandwidth problem for security agencies forced to track a larger group of potential plotters. Terrorists still conduct pre-planned attacks like London, Mumbai or Westgate: remote radicalisation means these operations can camouflage themselves within a higher background level of jihadist activity.

If guerilla and urban siege approaches offer lower cost, lower risk ways for terrorists to operate in the West, then remote radicalisation enables a fourth evolution: leaderless resistance. Again, this is an old concept — it originated among far-right groups in the 1980s as a way to survive and operate in hostile surveillance or law-enforcement environments, and has since been adopted by a wide range of players, from eco-terrorists and non-violent protest movements to Islamist terrorists.

In a leaderless resistance movement, symbolic figures (sometimes anonymous, sometimes acting openly, but without detectable links to the movement) issue general guidelines that self-recruited, independent groups act on without further coordination or communication. A coded language is sometimes used for public statements, allowing specific messages to be passed.

Leaderless resistance reduces risk, since there’s nothing to compromise — no hierarchical structure, no communications system, no secret plan, no formal organisation. Small groups act on their own initiative, following a general methodology and target set. Members of each cell know only each other, and thus cannot compromise anyone else. Symbolic figures can inspire attacks without directly ordering them, protecting themselves from prosecution and rendering surveillance pointless.

Al-Qa’ida on 9/11 was the antithesis of leaderless resistance: it had thousands of members in a tight hierarchical structure, organised in committees, camps, operational groups and support networks. It sought to preserve itself by maintaining the secrecy of its clandestine network. This proved highly vulnerable to so-called “direct action” — drones and special operations raids to kill or capture individuals in the network — as well as to surveillance of communications, interdiction of finances and supplies, provocation and entrapment, and penetration by intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

As a consequence, with al-Qa’ida’s network damaged and its leadership challenged by competitors like Islamic State, terrorists have evolved an advanced version of leaderless resistance that exploits social media, the deep web and broadcast journalism to motivate and direct loosely affiliated movements.

Islamic State is the most accomplished practitioner of this approach: its online presence, active social media, high production-value films and gruesome execution videos attract individuals who can then access propaganda materials and learn techniques, procedures and tactics online.

Islamic State spokespeople — characteristically, using social media and online tools — have urged supporters in Western countries (as in the September 2014 message mentioned earlier) to attack targets of opportunity, wherever they may be, using materials to hand, without coordinating or informing others.

This is leaderless resistance, and it makes Islamic State much more resilient, harder to kill, and enables it to survive under especially harsh conditions. Our adaptations since 9/11 — drones, special operations, enhanced surveillance, improved travel security systems, hardened public sites and so on — are of little help against this evolved approach.

Thus, as we look beyond the atrocity in Paris, a few things stand out. First, the threat will continue to evolve, through adaptations including (but by no means limited to) guerilla terrorism, urban sieges, remote radicalisation and leaderless resistance. Second, there will be more attacks, most involving very small numbers of attackers and a low level of technical sophistication — though not necessarily a low level of lethality.

Third, attackers may not fit the terrorist stereotype: a military-aged male who is a member of a clandestine organisation, a loner, a radical, with specialised training and a predetermined plan of attack. These people will still exist, and some (like the Paris attackers) will be former fighters from conflicts like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. But an increasing number will have a different profile — active social media users, connected electronically but with weak social ties, not members of any radical organisation, though perhaps professing radical beliefs, not displaying special skills or training. Age, gender and ethnic profiles will diversify, with increasing numbers being women, coming from ethnic, educational or religious backgrounds not traditionally ass-ociated with terrorism, and from a wider age range.

Finally, it should be clear that there’s no magic bullet here: no technological fix, no cadre of super-soldiers or all-seeing surveillance gadgets that can protect society from this threat. We improve airline security; they use guerilla tactics to avoid the need to travel by air. We target their communications and finances; they decentralise and reduce costs through leaderless resistance. We harden our buildings; they get a bigger or a stealthier bomb. Ultimately, the victim-initiated damage — the terrorism tax, economic cost and secret police surveillance — implied by this approach will do more harm than the terrorists themselves.

Instead, we need new approaches, designed to break the escalatory cycle of threats and countermeasures seen since 9/11. It’s not my place to decide what those approaches should be — that’s for society as a whole, through public debate and political discourse.

But in the interest of informing that debate, it seems clear to me that it might include a discussion on what level of terrorist threat we’re prepared to tolerate as the price of preserving economic and civic liberties.

It might also involve a debate on ways to detect and intervene in the radicalisation pathways of at-risk individuals, efforts to increase community vigilance of the sort that foiled Richard Reed and Umar Farouk Abulmatallab, the design of decentralised, resilient urban systems that are less vulnerable to disruption and media protocols (like those recently adopted for school shootings in the US) that deny perpetrators the fame and validation they seek.

None of this will “solve” the terrorism threat — indeed, my point here is that our very efforts to solve it have, in part, prompted the escalation we’re dealing with today — but such a debate is a good place to start figuring out how to preserve our democracy in an age of persistent terrorism.

David Kilcullen is a US-based counter-insurgency analyst and a former adviser to General David Petraeus. He is the author of Out of the Mountains (Scribe , 2013).


Filed under Al Qaeda, authoritarian regimes, cultural transmission, Islamic fundamentalism, jihad, life stories, martyrdom, military strategy, politIcal discourse, power politics, self-reflexivity, suicide bombing, Taliban, terrorism, the imaginary and the real, vengeance, world events & processes, zealotry

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