Difficult to Counter the Potency of ‘Swarming’ Terrorist Attacks

This article first appeared in the 5 October 2010 edition of The Irish Times and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

OPINION: Those issuing the latest terror alerts will be mindful of a highly effective tactic, writes RICHARD WHELAN

THE WARNINGS from US authorities to their citizens to avoid public places in Europe must be taken seriously. The UK government warning on Sunday particularly focused on France, Germany and the UK itself. Sweden also raised its threat alert to its highest level.

Like the rest of us, the al-Qaedaists (the core al-Qaeda group and those who adhere to its ideology) reuse successful tactics. They have hit multiple targets simultaneously on 9/11 and in London in 2005 with great success (from their perspective), and also in Iraq, Afghanistan, Mumbai, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Turkey, Yemen and elsewhere, in a tactic known as a “swarming attack”.

Hitting several targets at the same time, even with just a few fighters at each site, causes huge problems. Counter-terrorism forces are usually manpower-heavy, distant and organised to deal with only one crisis at a time, and rescue efforts demand priority. Such swarming attacks can be extraordinarily damaging.

In November 2008, five two-man teams of terrorists who took taxis to their initial targets held Mumbai hostage for more than two days, killing 179 people and running rings around Indian counter-terrorism forces that had to be flown in from New Delhi. Similarly, in February 2009 simultaneous suicide attacks in Kabul by just eight terrorists on three separate Afghan government ministries caused significant deaths, injuries and damage.

This tactic is not new. On Christmas Eve 2000, Jemaah Islamiyah (the terrorist group responsible for the Bali nightclub attacks that killed 202 people) mounted simultaneous attacks on 16 Christian churches in Indonesia, leaving security forces there totally flat-footed. In 2001, the 9/11 attacks had swarm-like elements, with four small teams of al-Qaeda operatives simultaneously seizing four commercial aircraft to use as missiles. Closer to home, the London attacks hit multiple public transport targets simultaneously.

Intelligence from a variety of sources has been warning of an attack in Europe for some time. Particular concerns have been expressed about UK and German citizens or residents with possible Pakistani/Afghan connections and training.

France is also on high alert because of its recent abortive attempt to free French hostages kidnapped in north Africa, prompting al-Qaeda threats of retaliation.

In theory, everywhere and everyone is a target. The writings of the al-Qaedaists (too often ignored by many commentators) assert that all countries in the world today are illegitimate and therefore all their citizens are legitimate targets. (The only regime that ever met the strict requirements for legitimacy of the al-Qaedaists was the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.) However, in practical terms, the al-Qaedaists like to achieve multiple objectives in any target chosen.

Their likely targets will be in countries associated with the military efforts in Iraq or Afghanistan, targeting particularly Jews, Christians and Hindus, and where significant casualties are likely.

The latter objective would suggest iconic buildings and tourist sites, transport nodes, shopping malls, appropriate high-rise office buildings, or anywhere else with lots of people and few exits.

This form of conflict was first predicted in a 1992 essay by John Arquilla and David Ronfeld. It was explored in more detail in their 1996 Rand Institute report The Advent of Netwar.

As explained by Arquilla recently: “That study aimed to raise the consciousness of the government, military, and mass public regarding both the rise of networks and the distinct doctrinal innovations they would likely bring to conflict. Most specifically, the guiding notion was that fighting networks composed of many small cells would tend to ‘swarm’ their opponents – that is, their dispersed nodes would launch loosely co-ordinated, omni-directional attacks on more centralised foes.” (A ‘Net Shift’ for Afghanistan, John Arquilla, Prism, September 2010.)

The repeated international warnings can achieve a number of important objectives. They can tell the terrorists that they have lost the important element of surprise; they can heighten the focus of the security forces and ensure all citizens, tourists and travellers are much more on their guard. Hopefully this will help avert the threat.

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