What we learned about terrorism in 2017

A reasonable and intelligent strategy for defeating terror attacks cannot focus on the tool used by the attacker, but must focus on the attacker himself


As we consider the major terror attacks in western nations in 2017, one notable trend highlights the ever-changing nature of modern terrorism, and the difficulty of protecting the public from its ravages.

This year, there was a marked increase in the use of vehicles and knives as primary weapons in terrorist attacks on soft targets in western nations. Some of the years’ notable vehicular and/or knife attacks included:

A police officer stands guard as Simon Rubin, 25, arranges flowers at a makeshift memorial to remember the victims of the recent truck attack near the crime scene on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)
A police officer stands guard as Simon Rubin, 25, arranges flowers at a makeshift memorial to remember the victims of the recent truck attack near the crime scene on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

In actuality, these terrorist attacks represented the maturation of trends that began years prior.

The “Palestinian Knife Intifada” that rocked Israel beginning in (roughly) September 2015 was marked by approximately 106 stabbing attacks, another 89 attempted stabbings, and 47 vehicle attacks in just a 12-month period (with many more on either side of this time slice), and focused attention on these methods of attack.

Similarly, the July 14, 2016 truck attack in Nice, France (458 injured, 86 killed), the November 28, 2016 Ohio State University car attack (13 injured), and the Dec 19, 2016 truck attack in Berlin, Germany (56 injured, 12 dead) highlighted the deadly efficiency of vehicle attacks.

Considering this strengthening trend, we’re confronted with some uncomfortable truths about the nature of terrorism in 2017. It’s a natural human reaction to avoid that which makes us uncomfortable, and to selectively ignore it, but those of us in the business of protecting the public don’t have the luxury to engage in that kind of fiction. It’s our responsibility to confront the reality of our situation, no matter how difficult, and figure out the best response.

With that in mind, let’s review some of the lessons and implications of these developing trends in terror attacks:

1. these types of terrorist attacks are exceptionally difficult to detect during the intelligence-gathering stage.

There is very little effort required to plan simple attacks like these. A suitable target must be surveilled and selected, but this is an easy task when the target is a soft target. By definition, a soft target doesn’t have natural obstacles or robust countermeasures to protect it, so the attacker doesn’t have to linger around the target area, spending a lot of time gathering intelligence about defenses. If early reconnaissance indicates that a target may be difficult to attack, there are plenty of other soft targets that the attacker can easily switch to. This reduces our ability to detect him during this early stage of the attack cycle.

2. these types of terrorist attacks are exceptionally difficult to detect during the planning, training and weapons acquisition stage.

Because these attacks are frequently carried out by a single attacker (or, less frequently, a small group of them) acting on a plan of their own creation, there is no coordination required (planning, training and financing) with a large group of conspirators, which reduces operational security risks.

The process of acquiring a complex weapon (such as a bomb), storing it, and learning how to use it effectively increases the risk of detection in comparison to a simple weapon as well. To illustrate, it’s notable that the terrorists in the August Spanish attacks had planned to use explosives in their attack, but switched to trucks as the weapon of choice after an accidental explosion killed the leader of their cell the day prior.

An attacker who chooses a knife or vehicle as his weapon can easily procure them without attracting attention, and without significant financial resources. Rental trucks and knives are cheap, and easily hidden in plain view. For example, renting a moving truck is such a normal, everyday activity that it would be very difficult to identify sinister motives at this stage, and a knife is such an everyday item that it doesn’t even need to be concealed to escape notice.

Since these simple weapons don’t require any special training to use them effectively, there is no need for the attacker to practice with them before the operation, or attempt a “dry run,” eliminating another opportunity for detection.

3. these types of terrorist attacks are exceptionally difficult to detect during the deployment stage.

Attacking a soft target with a simple or unconventional weapon reduces the chance of detection in the deployment stage. It is easy to approach the target without attracting undue attention when the weapon:

  • Is easily concealable (i.e., a knife or gun);
  • Not readily identifiable as a weapon (i.e., a gas can or improvised impact/edged weapon);
  • Or a normal part of the environment (i.e., a vehicle on a road adjacent to a sidewalk).

Because the soft target lacks suitable defenses, it is easy to approach the target without interference, or triggering an alarm. The hapless victims are typically unaware of the threat until the attack is launched in close proximity – the operational stage of the terror cycle.

There are several ramifications to these truths about terror attacks of this type:

  • Terror attacks will continue.

This is the most difficult of the truths to accept, but we must face and acknowledge this reality. The terrorist attacker retains the initiative and has many advantages that make it impossible for us to thwart him with any degree of reliability. There are too many attackers, too many targets, too many opportunities. Despite our best efforts, some attacks will be successful.

Accepting this truth doesn’t mean that we give up. Instead, it means that we can no longer deceive ourselves by seeking quick fixes and magic formulas to solve our problem and make it go away, so we can get back to “normal life.” This is going to be a generational fight, and terrorism is going to be a daily concern for the rest of our lives. It will require sustained commitment, and a change in our normal habits. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we will be able to take meaningful action.

  • We must increase our emphasis on public awareness.

Despite their best efforts, law enforcement and intelligence agencies cannot possibly identify all of the potential terrorists that live among us. Even if we expanded the size and authority of public safety agencies to aid in the detection of terrorist plans (an exercise that is fraught with peril, and which threatens essential liberties), it’s still impossible for a small group of people to monitor the activities of such a massive public, and effectively identify threats.

The best solution is to get the public engaged, and encourage them to enhance their situational awareness. If the public is more aware of their surroundings and the activities of the people around them, the possibility of detecting threats before they strike is magnified;

  • We have to stop focusing on the weapon used in terrorist attacks.

It would be ridiculous for us to focus on the weapons used in these attacks and make public policy changes on that basis. Trucks, knives, guns, cars, gasoline, screwdrivers, baseball bats and an endless number of other potential weapons are an everyday part of life and commerce. Even if we chose to, we couldn’t prevent terrorist access to them.

“Truck control” is not the answer to our problems. Enhanced driver background checks, registration of truck renters, one-rental truck-a-month schemes, rental truck speed restrictions, “no rental truck zones,” or rental truck bans are pure folly and the work of simpletons and fools.

It’s patently clear that none of these efforts will improve public safety, and will only infringe upon the livelihoods, rights and quality of life of good people. This is because evil people don’t follow the law, and will never exhaust the list of everyday items that can be repurposed into a suitable weapon for attacking the innocent.

A reasonable and intelligent strategy for defeating terror attacks cannot focus on the tool used by the attacker, but must focus on the attacker himself and public preparations to resist his efforts.

It’s impossible, of course, to harden all of the potential soft targets in our society. However, there are certain places and institutions that, by their nature, are more prone to being selected as targets.

Places like schools, churches, cultural icons and densely populated public areas are likely targets of terrorism, and we need to make real, meaningful improvements in the architecture, access and layered defenses of these vulnerable candidates.

This calls not only for physical improvements such as barriers and defensive architecture, but for changes in public behavior and situational awareness when we are in these places.

  • We need to empower our citizens.

We cannot harden all of the possible targets, we cannot detect all of the possible attackers, we cannot prohibit access to all of the possible weapons and we cannot protect all of the citizens. The best we can do is to empower the public with the skills and tools necessary to aid in their own defense and recovery.

One of the most critical things we can do to help educate and prepare the public is to get them trained in the basics of hemorrhage control, and provide ready access to the necessary supplies and equipment to treat mass casualties. Experience has proven that survivability is dramatically enhanced if blood loss is controlled and the patient is transported to a hospital in a timely manner.

Terror attacks like the Boston Marathon bombing and the recent Las Vegas sniper attack have demonstrated that while many members of the public are willing to take action to assist those in need, they generally lack the knowledge, training and equipment to do a good job of controlling blood loss. A public campaign that provides basic hemorrhage control training in schools and the workplace would pay vast dividends, as would stationing publicly-accessible bleeding control/first aid kits in likely target areas.

Additionally, we need to get out of the business of creating new soft targets for terrorists and criminals. Public disarmament policies fail to create safety. Instead, they risk the safety of law abiding citizens who are now defenseless against criminals and terrorists.

“Gun Free Zones” and the like are nothing but dangerous fiction, because guns and other weapons are most certainly present in these zones – they are just in the hands of evil. Creating a disarmed and vulnerable population for terrorists and criminals to strike with impunity is sheer madness, and these policies must be eliminated in the name of public safety. There is a reason that terrorists attack schools, churches, businesses with “no guns” policies and sidewalks of pedestrians in major cities around the world that are famous for disarming their citizens – they expect to encounter no armed resistance.

In a world where the threat of terrorism is ever present, and the police cannot protect the public from it, it’s inexcusable to deny the means of self-preservation to responsible, law abiding citizens. We should use our special experience and training as law enforcement officers to help promote the instruction of responsible citizens in the lawful and ethical use of force, and should also use our special position as community leaders to oppose reckless public policies that would disarm them in the face of evil.

Summary

The truth can be uncomfortable, but it remains the truth. Terrorism isn’t going away anytime soon, and the best we can do is confront the reality of these attacks and take meaningful steps to defend against them, instead of wishing them away and pursuing “feel good” public policy options that fail to adequately address the real issues.

Terror attacks like these can be demoralizing, which is by intent. It’s easy to become distressed and disheartened when we suffer a loss like this, but we cannot relent in our efforts to oppose this evil, and we must not consider sacrificing our liberty for the false promise of additional security.

We salute the public safety professionals that responded to the attacks of 2017 and those who stand ready to defend their communities from more of the same. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and families affected by these attacks, but our vision remains focused on a better future where America’s strength will defeat this threat.

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