Terrorist Targets of Choice

This makes sense.

Generally, militants prefer to attack soft targets where there are large groups of people, that are symbolic and recognizable around the world and that will generate maximum media attention when attacked. Some past examples include the World Trade Center in New York, the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai and the London Underground. The militants’ hope is that if the target meets these criteria, terror magnifiers like the media will help the attackers produce a psychological impact that goes far beyond the immediate attack site ­ a process we refer to as "creating vicarious victims." The best-case scenario for the attackers is that this psychological impact will also produce an adverse economic impact against the targeted government.

Unlike hard targets, which frequently require attackers to use large teams of operatives with elaborate attack plans or very large explosive devices in order to breach defenses, soft targets offer militant planners an advantage in that they can frequently be attacked by a single operative or small team using a simple attack plan. The failed May 1, 2010, attack against New York’s Times Square and the July 7, 2005, London Underground attacks are prime examples of this, as was the Jan. 24 attack at Domodedovo airport. Such attacks are relatively cheap and easy to conduct and can produce a considerable propaganda return for very little investment.

Posted on February 4, 2011 at 6:00 AM • 42 Comments

Comments

larry seltzerFebruary 4, 2011 6:30 AM

I'm not sure they think of all the "terror magnifiers" helping them. They go after soft targets because that's the best way for them to kill as many people as possible.

BF SkinnerFebruary 4, 2011 6:53 AM

@ larry seltzer "...kill as many people as possible."

This presumes that killing people is their ends not their means. This doesn't seem to be the case because they aren't killing as many people as they could.

Ron MurrayFebruary 4, 2011 7:31 AM

I've wondered about the part the media play in terrorism. It's somewhat of a symbiotic relationship, really: the terrorists need the media to publicise their attacks, otherwise the effect is much reduced; and the media use the terrorists to sell papers, advertising,etc.
So, what would happen if the media stopped reporting terrorist attacks? Would terrorism just go away, or would we see attacks on an increasingly greater scale, on the assumption that sooner or later they'd have to be reported?
Personally, I don't know the answer.

bob (the original bob)February 4, 2011 8:29 AM

I believe the overwhelming goal of a terrorist attack is to generate headlines; what they want is attention, body count is merely their tool for achieving it.

I think they would rather kill one person (Michael Jackson or Elvis for example) that got them weeks of headlines than an entire planeload of peons that disappeared from the front page within a couple of days (especially since 9/11 raised the "body count headlines threshold bar" so high).

I believe that they would generate larger headlines by, given x terrorists available, to simultaneously attack x/4 lightly defended (but widely separated) targets than x/x heavily defended targets.

GoatRiderFebruary 4, 2011 8:34 AM

The attack doesn't even have to succeed for them to achieve their goals. The shoe bomber and the underwear bomber both got considerable attention and cause quite a bit of economic terror and encroachment on our freedom. The liquid bombers didn't even get close.

Jim HarperFebruary 4, 2011 8:46 AM

Friends, we don't have to figure out for ourselves what we think terrorists are trying to do. Audrey Kurth Cronin, professor of strategy at the U.S. National War College, has it pretty well in hand.

Her latest book, "How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns," captures the strategies terrorism is used for.

http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9012.html

She has a chapter in "Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy is Failing and How to Fix It." (Discl: yours truly co-edited).

http://www.amazon.com/Terrorizing-Ourselves-Counterterrorism-Policy-Failing/dp/1935308300

And the one I like the best, if only because it's short, is her mongraph, "Ending Terrorism: A Strategy for Defeating Al-Qaeda."

http://www.amazon.com/Ending-Terrorism-Strategy-Defeating-Al-Qaeda/dp/0415450624

The strategy Al Qaeda and its franchises most use is mobilization. Violence seeking to exhort others to join the cause. Ain't gonna work, but that doesn't mean they won't keep trying.

John FFebruary 4, 2011 8:58 AM

@GoatRider: "The attack doesn't even have to succeed for them to achieve their goals."

I think a compelling argument could be made that the ultimate goal of Richard Reid's backers (e.g., the folks who provided him the bomb) was for the bomb to fail to detonate. Richard Reid might was probably completely sincere in his desire to blow up a plane, but that doesn't mean his backers intended to allow a plane to be taken down..

The same may be true of the liquid bomber.


bob (the original bob)February 4, 2011 8:59 AM

...on the other hand, I'm not sure the Moscow attack actually was a terror attack; I think it was the logical result of any international traveler who finally fights his way through customs and then is prevented from getting to his train for twenty minutes by people who drop their luggage blocking the aisle and start hugging relatives who run up to them instead of walking the extra 8 feet off to one side so everyone else can hug and greet THEIR relatives...

NobodySpecialFebruary 4, 2011 9:51 AM

@the original bob - I think the TSA is a conspiracy by a secret group of high speed rail supporters to destroy the romance of air travel.

mcbFebruary 4, 2011 9:56 AM

@ NobodySpecial

"I think the TSA is a conspiracy by a secret group of high speed rail supporters to destroy the romance of air travel."

It's working

scottnottheotherscottFebruary 4, 2011 10:06 AM

@bob the original

The kind of headlines matter a great deal; killing celebrities does nothing to intimidate or influence the general public (who are the targets of terrorism).

Think of the Washington sniper; he generated disproportionate terror precisely because his targets were ordinary and random - they could have been anybody.

Headlines which make ordinary people feel as if *they themselves* are in danger are the right kind of headlines.

Richard Steven HackFebruary 4, 2011 10:18 AM

Stratfor provides "executive summary level" analysis - which is to say for a learning level of roughly kindergarten.

I studied terrorism in detail for over ten years. As I've said here before, the only reason terrorism hasn't brought the US to its knees is because 1) there are few terrorists with a brain, and 2) even fewer terrorists with a plan. Terrorism, properly designed and executed, is the most efficient method of warfare. You can bring down governments, paralyze nations, alter societies, change history, even alter civilization itself. It's not certain or even likely but it could even be possible to alter human nature.

The key phrase, however, is "properly designed and executed."

One fiction novel I read which reflected a notion of "serious" terrorism was "Whisper of the Axe" by Richard Condon. He hypothesized an organization of terrorists conceived and designed by a black female lawyer, financed initially by the Chinese and subsequently by the drug trade. All of which is irrelevant to the tactics described which would be devastating if actually executed in real life. (And that's not including the several nuclear weapons exploded as a start of the campaign.)

The bottom line of terrorism is precisely what the Russian revolutionaries who invented the term (if not the actual process - that goes back to the Sicarii in ancient Israel and probably further) meant it to be: to terrorize the target by attacks from an invisible enemy against which he cannot defend. And the target is supposed to be the oppressive state functionaries and their collaborators, not random civilians (unless your goal is to change the society or human nature, which is a big and probably unrealizable goal.)

Here's one simple scenario: Imagine that instead of blowing up an airport or a plane or even several, that you instead simultaneously assassinated the top news talking heads on all four broadcast networks and CNN, MSNBC, etc. All it would require is a number of guys with silenced semi-automatics (or IEDs or whatever - none of these people have decent security). How significant would the reaction be if suddenly Katie Couric, Brian Williams, etc. - all these people you see on your screen every day - were suddenly gone - dead? Violently dead.

Then let's say you inform those networks that the replacements for these people will also end up dead if the networks do not broadcast your "manifesto" - or do anything else you demand. And when the networks declare "we don't negotiate with terrorists" - they lose the next batch. And they will because you can't protect that many people 24x7x365 - or you kill the CEOs of those networks instead of the anchors - or their top reporters in the field instead.

Waste Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, whoever on the next pass, all in one day or week.

Rinse and repeat in several other industries or social functions. Say, assassinate the top Catholic bishops in the country. Or all the right wing Christian Zionists.

It would have an effect considerably greater than 9/11 eventually. Wouldn't take long. To quote William S. Burroughs: "Can't wait to see weeds growing through empty streets. May not have to wait long."

Remember this line from "The Dark Knight"?

"Look what I did to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets. Hmmm? You know... You know what I've noticed? Nobody panics when things go "according to plan." Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it's all "part of the plan." But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I'm an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It's fair!"

That's how you do terrorism.

Fortunately there are bloody few "real" terrorists. What there is seem to be a humanitarian bunch - or just incompetent. I favor the latter. As they say, never ascribe to malevolence what can be explained by incompetence. Although the hallmark of the state is always both. Look at Mubarak and his thugs - many of whom were captured by the protesters the other day with their police IDs on them.

BF SkinnerFebruary 4, 2011 10:18 AM

@Ron Murray "what would happen if the media stopped reporting terrorist attacks?"

This was explored in two works of fiction I know of "Network" and "A Very Proper Charlie."

Go rewatch Network. The people managing those communications systems are human, for a given value of human, by convention only.

Charlie (sorry don't know the writer but I think it was either Analog or Galaxy) actually didn't stop reporting the attacks. (Becuase that's interfering with Freedom of the press)

They stopped reporting them as serious and began to mock the terrorists unceasingly (especially a failed attack). They delegitimized them. The advantage of this was that ALL the other media outlets jumped on the bandwagon becuase it became the story and rating draw.

Once they became a source of laughter not fear the groups suffered a loss of funding. Everyone loves a hero or freedom fighter nobody will give money to a fool (besides Citibank).

Richard Steven HackFebruary 4, 2011 10:26 AM

"killing celebrities does nothing to intimidate or influence the general public (who are the targets of terrorism)."

Wrong. You kill one celebrity, it doesn't matter. You kill a LOT of celebrities, it does matter - a lot. Because people start thinking that if the rich aren't safe, then who is? Also they start thinking, since they're jealous of the rich, that maybe the terrorists are on their side.

Remember, to be effective, terrorism has to be chronic - not something that occurs with the same frequency as being struck by lightning, which is the way terrorism has been done in this country forever. Terrorism has to occur daily.

And unlike the Weathermen, who were idiots, terrorism has to kill - not just blow up statues and buildings. The fear of death is what motivates humans, not property.

And if the rich and powerful can die, then who are the sheep to follow - if not those who have proven themselves even more powerful by killing the rich and powerful?

BlaineFebruary 4, 2011 10:26 AM

|

- So fanatic terrorists strongly prefer soft targets.

- There are many thousands of such soft targets everywhere the U.S.

- But these many easy & plentiful U.S. targets are not being attacked.

- So actual terrorists must be really dumb or very rare.


Years of American hysteria over "terrorism" have conclusively shown to have no practical basis.

Richard Steven HackFebruary 4, 2011 10:32 AM

Actually when the media starts laughing at terrorists in those books, that's when the terrorists start kidnapping and killing the media.

It wouldn't take long for the laughter to stop if the terrorists weren't being caught before they could kill a number of media figures - or their families..

In "The Dark Knight", you'll remember that's exactly what The Joker did - kidnap the news team. No one was laughing then except him.

Properly designed and executed terrorism is no joke.

Danny MoulesFebruary 4, 2011 10:46 AM

"I'm not sure they think of all the "terror magnifiers" helping them. They go after soft targets because that's the best way for them to kill as many people as possible."

Then they're not terrorists. They're merely(!) psychopathic murderers.

CraigFebruary 4, 2011 11:07 AM

Terrorism is all about social impact. The very definition of terrorism itself is "an act of violence to influence political thought."

It's not about body count. Why do you think Al Qaeda has a media operation, handing over tapes to Al Jazeera from time to time? To stay relevant.

SeiranFebruary 4, 2011 11:09 AM

The computer security community has long used arbitrary names for malware in order to deny malware authors the publicity of naming their own virus. The unwritten rule was that the virus was named by the person who first discovered it.

We should have a similar convention for the terror groups. Instead of "al-Qaeda", "Islam", "islamofascism", "Israel", "anti-americanism" and other terms, we should make up our own terms, just like we do for bank robbers.

"Earlier this evening an explosion struck a hotel in New South Wales. Officials have said FOUL PLAY is suspected. CRIMINAL group THE TELETUBBY BOMBERS has claimed credit for the explosion on known extremist FRUITCAKE message boards. "

Carl BussjaegerFebruary 4, 2011 11:10 AM

Pardon my language, but my reaction is pretty much:

Well... no shit.

("A Very Proper Charlie" was written by Dean Ing, who also had an interesting treatment of terrorism in his novel _The Big Lifters_.)

boogFebruary 4, 2011 11:17 AM

@Richard Steven Hack "Remember, to be effective, terrorism has to be chronic - not something that occurs with the same frequency as being struck by lightning, which is the way terrorism has been done in this country forever. Terrorism has to occur daily."

I disagree. I could be wrong, but many of the most effective terrorist attacks seem to contradict your reasoning. 9/11 was a terribly effective terrorist attack, but such attacks do not occur daily, as you said yourself.

@Richard Steven Hack "In "The Dark Knight", you'll remember..."
I'm fairly new to reading this blog, but it seems so far that movie plot speculation isn't generally received well. I love that movie too, but it is, after all, just a movie.

xd0sFebruary 4, 2011 12:18 PM

@Richard Steven Hack

"Fortunately there are bloody few "real" terrorists. What there is seem to be a humanitarian bunch - or just incompetent. I favor the latter. As they say, never ascribe to malevolence what can be explained by incompetence."

While fair, I think it may also be a tough line that "Religion" based terrorists have to draw between doing what is needed to achieve the terrorism, and at least talking to the points of the religion they support. Eventually they have a hard time getting supporters if they are brutal enough and willing to do the things needed to truly achieve the ends you are referring to.

I'm not saying they are not brutal killers, just that level of anti-social behavior needed to really pursue a "well designed and executed" terror campaign eventually runs afoul of the base regligion they claim to support. I'd still wager with you on the less competence side, but I think it's not all attributable to that alone.

cbFebruary 4, 2011 12:25 PM

The strategy of terrorism is all about reducing a citizenry's trust in their government for the terrorst's political ends. All the rest is tactics.

The media may be an incidental multiplier associated with a terrorist event, and there are many incentives for them to be, or a purposeful multiplier chronically devoted for political purposes, or both, as with Jon Stewart's favorite cable opinion and news organization.

John HardinFebruary 4, 2011 12:37 PM

@boog: No, movie plots aren't received too well as serious propositions here - generally because they are so ludicrous - but that doesn't mean a character in a movie can't tell us a Basic Truth.

BF SkinnerFebruary 4, 2011 12:38 PM

@Richard Steven Hack "that's when the terrorists start kidnapping and killing the media"

Well it was more when the media became effective in denying the terrorist their props but I take your point. It is a predictable consequence.

But that's happening now anyway. Look no further than how foreign media is being treated by both sides in Egypt.

Or a Reporters without borders fatality report. Murdering the messenger may not be skillful but it's the first choice for a lot of the world.

Richard Steven HackFebruary 4, 2011 1:29 PM

Boog: 9/11 was only effective because the Bush administration made it so with the over-reaction. Had they not over-reacted, it would have faded away. In fact, it has by now. You cannot run a terrorist campaign with one major operation every ten years, that's just ridiculous.

As for "movie plot speculation isn't generally received well.", I'm not speculating on the plot, I'm pointing out a principle that the writers illustrated in The Joker's dialog quite well.

Richard Steven HackFebruary 4, 2011 1:34 PM

cb: "The strategy of terrorism is all about reducing a citizenry's trust in their government for the terrorst's political ends".

That's the Marighella theory. But the original theory from the Russians was as I stated: throw fear into state functionaries. A very different approach, although it may end up in the same place.

Marighella suggested creating chaos which causes the government to increase repression after which the populace will revolt. This rarely happened in South America, because the governments were able to repress so well the terrorists went out of business. Also creating random chaos just makes the population dislike the terrorists as much or more than the government.

The Russian strategy works better. But very few terrorists these days - almost none - use it or use it badly.

GabrielFebruary 4, 2011 2:00 PM

Someone beat me on the Dark Knight, but the Joker's dialogue with Harvey Dent says it all:

Quote:
The Joker: I just did what I do best. I took your little plan and I turned it on itself. Look what I did to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets. Hmmm? You know... You know what I've noticed? Nobody panics when things go "according to plan." Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it's all "part of the plan." But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!
Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I'm an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It's fair! /quote

boogFebruary 4, 2011 2:17 PM

@Richard Steven Hack "9/11 was only effective because...over-reaction."
Isn't that a goal of most terrorist plots: over-reaction? There was an over-reaction to the attack because of the attackers' choice of targets, which is one of the premises of the linked article (in addition to "soft targets").

As for the "movie plot speculation", I wasn't referring to the Joker's dialog (that is a fantastic quote, by the way), but rather to your other comment about him kidnapping the news team. Not that this couldn't happen in the real world; I just wanted to make sure you realized that the Joker's kidnappings/bank robberies/assassinations/bombings/etc. would not have been a success if it weren't for the help of many expendable gangsters, corrupt Gotham police officers, and a profoundly creative writer.

scottnottheotherscottFebruary 4, 2011 6:43 PM

@Richard Steven Hack

Poor language on my part - killing celebrities does something, it just does *less* than killing members of the general public. It also does less than hitting institutions that hold meaning to the general public.

True, I'm forced to disagree with your unsubstantiated theory on the basis of my own unsubstantiated theory, but mine makes more sense to me ;-)

If celebrities were targeted then celebrities will be incredibly terrified. But we wouldn't see any Homeland agents outside of Beverly Hills, because everyone else would know where the terrorists would strike next.

If the rich aren't safe, then *I* am, because the terrorists are obviously targeting the rich, and an attack with a known target is not nearly as frightening to me. The terror after 9/11 was that no one knew *where* they would strike next.

If a terrorist wishes to make a political statement, they should attack a political target - an embassy, a Pentagon, a financial heart. If they wish to prove the reach of their arm, they should hit a well secured target, or pull off a large scale, complicated plan. If they wish to terrorize the general public, they should blow up a shopping mall or a bus or an airplane or an airport or a mailbox or...

If they wish to do none of these they should target a celebrity.

Richard Steven HackFebruary 4, 2011 10:00 PM

"Isn't that a goal of most terrorist plots: over-reaction?"

Not really. That again is the Marighella Theory (which really is what a lot of terrorists believe in or used to, especially in South America.) But Al Qaeda doesn't believe the US population is going to overthrow the US government in reaction to its activities.

And not that over-reaction is not a desirable result from the terrorist point of view. Al Qaeda would love the US to ground all its aircraft and waste billions on security theater and invade Iraq and waste more hundreds of billions.

And of course since the goal of terrorism is produce fear, fear inevitably leads to over-reaction.

But fear is the goal, not the over-reaction per se. That's just a bonus.

The problem for Al Qaeda is that really the US government doesn't fear it. In fact, the US government loves Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda justifies both expanding wars for the war profiteers and US hegemony and expanding state power to control US citizens.

Al Qaeda is the US government's loyal opposition.

That is the flaw in Al Qaeda's terrorist strategy.

Not that it's been a complete failure. Since Al Qaeda is attacking the US because of US policies in the ME, some people have woken up to that fact. Unfortunately for Al Qaeda, none of those people have the power to change US behavior. So in that sense, Al Qaeda has failed miserably.

We can't say Al Qaeda has succeeded in destroying the US empire yet. My opinion is that the US would have done what it did regardless of 9/11 - just maybe later rather than sooner. The Afghan war was in the cards - actual planning stages - before 9/11. So was Iraq. So is the upcoming war with Iran. All of these were on the neocon and Israeli agenda before 9/11. All Al Qaeda did was provide the "Pearl Harbor" the neocons were hoping for in their PNAC document.

So can we attribute the eventual collapse of the US superpower status on the effects of Al Qaeda's terrorism? Not entirely.

So can we say that Al Qaeda succeeded in destroying the US because it provoked the US to over-react? Maybe in a time line sense - sooner rather than later - but it would have happened eventually anyway.

Equally importantly, what if the Bush Administration had NOT ignored all the counterintelligence warnings (including a VERY specific warning from an FBI translator who was present when the FBI interviewed an ex-SAVAK agent who explicitly told the FBI that Al Qaeda was planning to attack "tall buildings" with airplanes)? 9/11 might never have happened or been as successful. So how much was the success of Al Qaeda due to Al Qaeda and how much was due to Bush incompetence and/or Cheney's desire to see such an attack succeed?

Richard Steven HackFebruary 4, 2011 10:09 PM

Boog: "Joker's kidnappings/bank robberies/assassinations/bombings/etc. would not have been a success if it weren't for the help of many expendable gangsters, corrupt Gotham police officers, and a profoundly creative writer."

Why? The US has many expendable gangsters. The US has many corrupt police officers. The Gotham police weren't involved in the news crew kidnapping. And in the case of the kidnapping of Dent and Bruce's girlfriend, the police were irrelevant - kidnapping isn't hard to do.

And the writing in this instance wasn't as creative as reality. Nothing The Joker did (in general concept) was completely implausible - except his getup. Most of what Batman did was implausible, not what The Joker did. Although I did find the lack of any cops during the whole Dent transfer vehicle chase to be a little ridiculous, not to mention embedding a cell phone bomb in a thug. So I'm talking here about the more common crimes The Joker did. This is in the context, remember, of kidnapping and assassinating media figures.

The fact that we don't see such behavior normally in the real world is because of what I said - most criminals and terrorists don't have the imagination or the motivation or the brains or the plan.

Richard Steven HackFebruary 4, 2011 10:23 PM

Scottnottheotherscott:

"If celebrities were targeted then celebrities will be incredibly terrified. But we wouldn't see any Homeland agents outside of Beverly Hills, because everyone else would know where the terrorists would strike next."

No, you're limiting yourself to a specific definition of the term "celebrity" to mean "Hollywood celebrity". I'm talking about anyone who has influence, power, money, position.

"If the rich aren't safe, then *I* am, because the terrorists are obviously targeting the rich, and an attack with a known target is not nearly as frightening to me."

That's a very limiting view of the impact of terrorism. The reality as we all know is that 99.99 percent of the population is always safe from terrorism. It's the perception of the EFFECT of terrorism on the cohesion of society that matters. If the average person believes society is coming apart, that induces fear.

" The terror after 9/11 was that no one knew *where* they would strike next."

Again, everyone knows the odds of being hurt by a terrorist attack is less than being struck by lightning. The real effect the terrorist is going for is not fear that the average person's life is directly in danger from the terrorist - but that the average person's life is in danger of being affected by the RESULTS of terrorism.

"If a terrorist wishes to make a political statement, they should attack a political target - an embassy, a Pentagon, a financial heart. If they wish to prove the reach of their arm, they should hit a well secured target, or pull off a large scale, complicated plan. If they wish to terrorize the general public, they should blow up a shopping mall or a bus or an airplane or an airport or a mailbox or..."

All that is correct.

"If they wish to do none of these they should target a celebrity."

Celebrity culture is embedded in US culture. If you kill a celebrity, you affect people. Why do you think they hit the World Trade Center? Because they knew there were thousands of people in there? Or because the World Trade Center is a SYMBOL of US imperialism?

Killing a celebrity is a symbolic act. Terrorism is very much about symbolism as well as fear. You can induce fear by messing with the psychological structure of the population by symbolic acts. The purpose of terrorism is to tear away the foundation of the ruling regime, to induce fear in either the ruling elites or the population, and change the behavior of one or both in favor of the outcome the terrorist desires.

I submit the fear of being killed by terrorists is less than the fear of being controlled by terrorists. In the end, of course, it still boils down to the fear of death. Everything humans do boils down to that. But there are degrees and nuances in the expression of that fear.

DFebruary 5, 2011 9:28 AM

If the definition of "newsworthy" is related to "things that are infrequent or uncommon," how long before these little 'terror' incidents are so commonplace that they have no effect on us? It's like homicide. It happens regularly enough, and although many incidents of homicide make it on the local news, I don't see reports from New York about this weeks murders on my local news channel.

Richard Steven HackFebruary 5, 2011 9:59 AM

There is a slight risk of that. However, homicides are definitely "random" as far as the average person is concerned. If you don't know the victim, you don't care. Also, there is no political or social content as long as the number of homicides is not great. Most homicides are either crimes of passion or drug industry business problems.

Terrorism is different. Even so, in many countries with really chronic terrorism (Turkey in the past, Italy during the Red Brigades), many people do eventually become somewhat inured. It becomes a low level anxiety rather than actual terror. Still has an effect, though.

That's easy for a terrorist to fix, however. Just do something novel. That will make the news, especially if it involves the media personnel getting killed in the process. It's easy to do something novel because there are so many targets. Any evidence that the terrorism is expanding and the situation is getting worse will revive the fear and elevate it about chronic anxiety to a motivational level again.

The fear has to be motivational or it's a waste of time.

Robert in San DiegoFebruary 5, 2011 10:13 AM

I think it was Richard Laidlaw, I forget the book title, but the basic continuum/premise was the smaller, less effectual of political change, etc., the "terrorist group" the more indirect, non sequitor-ish, basically unrelated, as well as violent, their target choice.

Where it gets really scary is when a dissident or disadvantaged political faction does start winning, or at least gets a chance at, and accepts a seat at the table of government. The militant activists may form splinter factions and go all "there are no innocents" with a bombing campaign against people doing their shopping. Or a high school.

While I'm at it, I'll go ahead and state the obvious. These are "Terrorists." They want the populace scared, for whatever reason. They won't attack anything guarded and more fortified if an easier, less defended target is available, especially if the less defended target is closer. Often a lot closer. If I was going to pick a target, I'd have to pass three supermarkets, a WalMart, and two libraries before I'd get to the nearest non-automated military facility.

Not to pick on terror groups here -- sometimes "State Actors" work the same way. When troops on the ground or leadership at the top feels frustrated in the effects of their efforts or the failure to reach a planned goal, they sometimes escalate by widening their selection of targets from the strictly military, governmental, or infrastructure pick lists.

Richard Steven HackFebruary 5, 2011 5:19 PM

Fairly obvious - it's called "frustration". Which is why one becomes a terrorist in the first place.

Like Petraeus in Afghanistan who has escalated the air strikes, the use of tanks, artillery, etc. Has just managed to escalate the civilian body count while the Taliban are at the same strength they were a year ago.

tired of blogsFebruary 5, 2011 10:42 PM

There are only so many newscasters, and only so many landmarks. People in big cities have gotten blase about terrorism. But look how half the small towns in the Midwest and the South fortified their town halls after 9/11. Imagine what the effect would be of actually hitting small towns.

If I were a terrorist who wanted to strike fear into Americans' hearts, I'd pick a dozen Wal-Marts at random and hit them simultaneously. Bombs, guns, gas, doesn't matter. People aren't scared yet? Hit a dozen McDonalds next week. The targets of opportunity are endless.

MethuselahFebruary 6, 2011 12:39 AM

The self-satisfied Hack wrote:

> Stratfor provides "executive summary level" analysis -
> which is to say for a learning level of roughly kindergarten.

Just what kind of kindergarten did you attend?

boomboomFebruary 7, 2011 11:16 AM

I can't think of a softer target with more media frenzy potential than a school.

The fact that there are no hints of a coordinated attack even being considered against schools shows that the terrorist threat to the USA is deliberately over-hyped by the feds. I suppose it's possible that the terrorists are simply too stupid to do anything but light up their underwear on a plane, but does that really justify the TSA?

Dirk PraetFebruary 7, 2011 4:39 PM

Resources and skills are determining factors for an organisation's ability to successfully attack high-profile targets that make a lasting impression on the general public. In that respect, 9/11 was an unparalleled achievement for any terrorist group. Although AQ an its affiliates have managed to carry out a number of other operations (USS Cole, Kenya and Tanzania embassies, Madrid and London transport system bombings) and several more were foiled, they simply do not have the means, the people or the support to strike as much as they probably would like to.

It stands to reason that common terrorist management in this context wil prefer to hit soft targets, especially if the few people you can actually find to carry out attacks are even too incompetent to get the job done. Whether or not this also means going for the low-hanging fruit (schools, Wal-Mart etc.) IMHO is a management decision and part of their broader strategy. I believe that AQ leadership not only finds no honour in such attacks on US or European soil, but also doesn't wish to sacrify the few competent operatives they have for it. In addition, they would massively lose face not only with moderate muslims, but also with radical intellectuals whose support they so desperately crave.

The difference with Caucasus groups is that these really don't give a damn about such musings and will try to hit whatever they can, including schools, theatres and the like. Only today, Dokku Umarov, a Chechen islamist leader has threatened with more attacks on Moscow. My take is that Russian authorities genuinely have much more reason for concern than their US and European counterparts. Their strategy is also slighty different than in the US. Instead of spending billions on security theatre, they go with a more straightforward "seek and destroy" policy. I still believe that had 9/11 occured in Moscow, OBL would have been dead and burried a long time ago.

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