Soft Targets Back in Focus – Stratfor

Soft Targets  Back in Focus is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

Read more:  Soft Targets Back in Focus | Stratfor

By Scott Stewart Vice  President of Analysis

From time to time, I will sit down to write a series of analyses on a  particular topic, such as the fundamentals of terrorism series last  February. Other times, unrelated events in different parts of the world are  tied together by analytical threads, naturally becoming a series. This is  what has happened with the last three weekly security analyses — a common  analytical narrative has risen to connect them.

First, we discussed how the Jan. 16 attack  against the Tigantourine natural gas facility near Ain Amenas,  Algeria, would result in increased security at energy facilities  in the region. Second, we discussed foreign  interventions in Libya and Syria and how they have regional or even  global consequences that can persist for years. Finally, last week  we discussed how the robust,  layered security at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara served to thwart a  suicide bombing.

Together, these topics spotlight the heightened and persistent terrorist  threat in North Africa as well as Turkey and the Levant. They also demonstrate  that militants in those regions will be able to acquire weapons with ease. But  perhaps the most important lesson from them is that as diplomatic missions are  withdrawn or downsized and as security is increased at embassies and energy  facilities, the threat is going to once again shift toward softer targets.

Soft Targets

Obviously, individuals desiring to launch a terrorist attack seek to strike  the highest-profile, most symbolic target possible. If it is well known,  the target can magnify the  terror, especially when the operation grabs the attention of international  media. Such extensive exposure not only allows people around the globe to  be informed minute by minute about unfolding events, but it also permits them to  become secondary, vicarious victims of the unfolding violence. The increased  exposure also ensures that the audience affected by the operation becomes far  larger than just those in the immediate vicinity of the attack. The attack  on the U.S. diplomatic office in Benghazi and the killing of U.S. Ambassador  Christopher Stevens led to months of media coverage that has included televised  congressional hearings and fierce partisan and bureaucratic squabbles in  the media. It was the terrorist equivalent of winning the lottery.

However, in the wake of terrorist attacks, increased situational awareness  and security measures make successful attacks difficult to replicate. Targets  become more difficult to attack — what we refer to as hard targets. When this  happens, attackers are forced to either escalate the size and force used in  their attack, identify a vulnerability they can exploit or risk  failure.

In the August 1998 attacks against the U.S. embassies in Nairobi,  Kenya, and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, al Qaeda planners turned to the first  option: a larger attack. They attempted to use large truck bombs to  overcome the embassies’ layered security. The embassies had decent  perimeter security but lacked enough distance between the street and the  buildings to protect them from a large blast. In both attacks, the attackers  also tried unsuccessfully to get the bomb-laden trucks through perimeter  security vehicle checkpoints to detonate them closer to the embassy  buildings.

After those bombings, security enhancements made most diplomatic  facilities more difficult to attack, leading militant groups to turn  their attention to hotels. A strike on an international hotel in a  major city can make almost the same kind of statement against the West as a  strike on an embassy. Hotels are often full of Western business travelers,  diplomats, intelligence officers and, not insignificantly, members of the media.  This has made hotels target-rich environments for militants seeking to kill  Westerners and gain international media attention without having to penetrate  the extreme security of a hard target like a modern embassy.

But increased security is not the only factor that leads those wishing to  conduct a terrorist attack to gravitate toward softer targets. For the better  part of a decade, we have chronicled how  the global jihadist movement has devolved from an organizational model  based on centralized leadership and focused global goals to a more amorphous  model based on regional franchises with local goals and strong grassroots  support. For the most part, these regional franchises lack the training and  funding of the al Qaeda core and are therefore less capable. This means  franchise groups are often unable to attack hard targets and tend to focus on  softer targets — such as hotels or the U.S. ambassador while he is staying at a  poorly protected office in Benghazi rather than at his residence in Tripoli.

Changing Threats in North Africa

As hotels in places like Amman and Jakarta became harder to attack with large  vehicle bombs, attackers began to smuggle  in smaller devices to bypass the increased security. There was also a trend  in which attackers hit restaurants where Westerners congregated rather than the  more secure hotels.

The same dynamic will likely apply today in the Sahel. We believe  that the attack at the Tigantourine natural gas facility in Algeria was greatly  aided by the complacency of the security forces. The attackers did not  demonstrate any sort of advanced terrorist tactics or tradecraft. It would be  very hard to replicate the attack on another energy facility in the  region today due to increases in awareness and security. The  increase in security will be compounded by the fact that al Qaeda in the Islamic  Maghreb and its jihadist brethren in the Sahel lack sophisticated  terrorist capabilities and have lost their bases in northern Mali.  This means they will be hard-pressed to conduct a successful attack against a  hard target.

Furthermore, having lost substantial quantities of men and materiel, and with  French and African forces potentially interdicting their lucrative smuggling  routes, these jihadist groups will be looking to refill their coffers.  Kidnapping is a longstanding way for militant groups in the region to resolve  precisely these issues. Although they have lost control of the towns they  captured in northern Mali, these groups will continue to pose a  threat of kidnapping over a wide swath of North Africa.

Turkey and Lebanon

While the jihadist militants in Syria are currently fixated on attacking the  Syrian regime, there is nonetheless a non-jihadist threat in Turkey — and  perhaps Lebanon — that emanates from the Syrian intelligence and its proxy  groups in the region. However, the Feb. 1 attack against the U.S.  Embassy in Ankara demonstrated the limitations of the capabilities of one of  those proxies, the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front.

Carrying on the operational legacy of its parent organization, Devrimci Sol,  the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front aspires to conduct spectacular  attacks, but its attacks frequently fizzle or fail. Successfully striking a  hardened target such as the U.S. Embassy is beyond the group’s capability. In  fact, the group frequently botches attacks against softer targets, as in the  attack against an American fast food chain outlet in May 2012 that  failed when the explosive device malfunctioned.

The Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front’s limited tactical  capability supports the theory that the attack against the U.S.  Embassy in Ankara was commissioned by the Syrian regime. The group has even  failed in suicide bombings against Turkish police stations with far  less security; it knew it was attacking something beyond its reach.  But at the same time, the group’s limited capability and the failure of the  attack against the U.S. Embassy will likely result in a shift to softer targets  if the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front was acting at Syria’s  behest and the Syrians have asked for additional anti-American attacks.

As noted last week, Devrimci Sol conducted dozens of attacks against U.S. and  NATO targets in Turkey during late 1990 and early 1991 at the behest of Saddam  Hussein. The majority of these attacks were directed against soft targets such  as U.S. corporate offices, nongovernmental organizations, hotels and  restaurants. We believe these same targets are in jeopardy of attack by  the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front now.

Syria maintains a number of proxy militants in Lebanon, including Hezbollah. Hezbollah has its own  calculations and may not be as willing as Syria’s smaller proxy groups  to act on Syria’s behalf. Hezbollah maintains a far more sophisticated militant  capability than these small groups and is able to attack hard targets, unlike  the smaller groups. Therefore, if the Syrians commission a terrorist  attack in Lebanon and Hezbollah does not help them, the attacks their proxy  groups will carry out will be quite limited — and will again focus on soft  targets.

For the most part, soft targets are soft by their very nature. It  is not only impractical to employ embassy-like security at a fast food  restaurant, but it is inordinately expensive — too expensive to be economically  feasible for a business. Still, there are some simple and practical security  measures that can be taken to make them slightly more secure and hopefully cause  anyone planning an attack to divert their operation toward an even  softer target.

Additionally, individuals living in or traveling to these places can and  should practice good situational  awareness, review their personal  contingency plans and mentally prepare  to respond to any crisis.

Read more:  Soft Targets Back in Focus | Stratfor

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