Decentralisation, destabilisation and insurgent methodology using mixed techniques in multiple sites, simultaneously. It is neither ISIS nor AQ but a combination of both- employed by invisible citizen soldiers who have been trained by seasoned fighters. These are the hallmarks of the new wave of terrorism Europe is grappling with. The existing structure of law enforcement and prevailing views of terrorism are officially antiquated.
As dawn breaks in Paris, the era of violent transnational social movements has been cemented into history.
Hybrid terrorism strikes Paris as the effects of Snowden’s security leaks are finally revealed to the world. A pseudo military-terrorist unit was able to elude the combined efforts of multi-national, joint agency surveillance and monitoring. Europe is on a heightened state of alert and still a cloak of secrecy surrounded the planning and execution of the 11/13/15 attacks in Paris. This is the stuff intelligence nightmares are made of.
The attackers were able to mount this sophisticated attack without coming to the attention of law enforcement. It is not that the French were incompetent- in fact French intelligence is highly regarded. The issue is that Snowden has effectively plunged agencies in the dark as if flicking a switch to the off position. The terrorist cell was able to operate below the radar and demonstrated an ease and familiarity with insurgent techniques. They moved convincingly, unobserved and invisible amongst the crowds of French citizens, hiding in plain sight, not raising alarm until they commenced their attacks. The ability to blend in ensures lethality in this and future attacks in other cities around the world. We should be under no illusion about the fact that this is the new blueprint for future terrorist attacks.
The November attacks denote hybrid techniques which illustrate a levelling up in the nature of the terrorist threat which states face. The actions of the attackers cannot be easily placed into a framework for analysis, using existing tactical identifiers. The seven simultaneous and co-ordinated attacks were well planned and had significant infrastructure behind it, funding it and supporting it. Suicide bombs and active shooters combined in six different locations is beyond the ability of any state law enforcement apparatus without taking into account the fact that long range strategic planning is hindered by a lack of chatter and the complete darkness which well informed terrorists now know how to ensure. Surveillance of email, phone communications and messaging is now useless and irrelevant. The publicity around monitoring them ensures that those who seek to do harm no longer use them.
Tactical terrorist hybridity and decentralisation of command
The November 13th attacks suggests a large network with the ability to manage complex co-ordination for obtaining weapons, explosive devices, transport and logistics required for up to six shootings in separate areas and several reported suicide detonations. The hostage taking which occurred inside the BATACLAN club/concert hall is not a technique which is associated with ISIS outside of its areas of operation but it is a technique which we associate with Al Qaeda. In particular, this clash of knowledge and technique occurs in Syria in the shape of the al Nusra front and early ISIS incarnations. Specific attention might be drawn to the Khorasan group which is a loose network of individuals. It is not a terrorist group in the conventional sense. In much the same way, we can suggest that this attack is not a ‘conventional’ terrorist tactical style.
The venues were civilian but the attacks were military in nature and precision. The hostage takers were all described as young. The shooters were calm and focused and did not speak except at one location. This suggests that they have been trained and are familiar with weaponry, as well as able to deal with adrenalin, noise and confusion. It suggests familiarity with active, hostile, conflict environments or war zones.
The nature of the events suggests that this is the work of well-trained, sophisticated operational planners of a military background or trained by military professionals. They may be a military unit of suicide bombers who are members of a secondary, informal and decentralised group who have received training by either ISIS or an AQ affiliate and may not be formally part of one of those groups. While the ability to blend terrorist and mainstream military activity does bear the hallmark of ISIS, other elements, such as the simultaneous coordinated nature of the attack suggest AQ.
The hybridity of techniques used, in particular, suggests an element of “mix and match.” ISIS has not yet claimed the attack, as they have done with previous attacks with which they were involved. Even if it does so in the future it still denotes a new phase of decentralisation. It is not thought AQ has the infrastructure to mount such a large-scale attack in Europe and all these factors point to an evolution in terrorist tactics. This type of hybrid attack which combines the lethality of a suicide attack with active shooters and hostage taking is complex to plan and even harder to deploy, train and prepare a tactical response to. It is unusual. It is unprecedented and it is a technique law enforcement, in its present incarnation, is incapable of dealing with.
This gives rise to the possibility that the Nov 13 group is made up of individuals with different degrees of exposure and influence to both methods of terrorist tactics. This is an alarming development which demonstrates the morphing of the threat we are facing in the West. Terrorism may no longer be the domain of the “terrorist group”. Terrorism may be evolving to become the domain of anyone who reads and can get training from a seasoned fighter. There are thousands of ‘seasoned fighters’ who have ben to Syria and Iraq and Libya who are returning under the radar and blending into communities around the world. These citizens of our countries are a decentralised wave of insurgents whose role is destabilisation of our cities. Paris is only the first of these destabilisation missions.
The decentralised nature of a cell under its own impetus and using its own resources demonstrates further evidence that the nature of this conflict is shifting and twisting away from accepted definitions and more importantly from accepted ways of fighting terrorism. The old methods will no longer work if the ‘enemy’ is in the population. Targeting a population means targeting civilians. Turning civilians and citizens into the ‘enemy’ will have long term effects which have not been considered. There was apparently no consideration of survivability on the part of the hostage takers and shooters, implying that this is not a political act concerned with domestic matters within the borders of France and for which negotiation might bring resolution. Rather this appears to be an act which is focused on issues external to the borders of France and for which no negotiation is required or desired.
The implications for policing and counter-terrorism are immense.
Focused attacks on the hallmarks of civilisation
The intention and motivation of any terrorist action is to ensure panic and psychological trauma. These attacks have accomplished this. The attacks occurred at a football game, a restaurant, a bar, a night club- in the very streets where freedom and liberty were fought for. They represent an attack on liberal western civilisation. The choice of targets should not go unnoticed. They were selected because they are the places that young westerners go to relax and share social life and community. The target choices deliver a message to populations in all cities that security services cannot protect them and living a social western lifestyle is now dangerous.
The US and other European capitals must now factor in the capacity to deal with entities which can conduct multiple simultaneous attacks of this magnitude. This is unprecedented. Our thoughts are with Paris and its law enforcement community and to the officers who fell in the line of duty protecting the people, the way of life and the state they love.