Terror Tactics and Techniques for our Times

Stop and think about terrorist tactics over the last decade for a minute, if you would. Al-Qaeda and similar groups’ tactics, at any rate, if you’re confused about what constitutes terrorism and what doesn’t.

We’ve seen traditional explosive-vest suicide bombings, VBIEDs, regular IEDs, sniping, the use of explosively-formed projectiles, the use of jets as weapons, the use of rockets and mortars and other indirect-fire weapons, and a couple of obscure oddities like camels rigged with explosives. (No, really.)

What kind of surprises me, though, is that when you start looking at specifics, a lot of the most spectacularly successful techniques were only used for a brief period of time.

Ramzi Yousef blew up one plane, and put a hole in another, and that was pretty much it for trying to blow up airplanes in flight (at least until we invaded Iraq and everyone got their hand on MANPADS, and even that’s been pretty unsuccessful). Some folks in a boat put a gaping hole in the side of the USS Cole… and nobody seems to have tried that again since. Four jets were hijacked and turned into weapons in September 2001, and… that was it. For a while, EFPs were in the news every day, putting holes in anything and everything they were aimed at. Then… they seemed to just disappear, as far as I can tell. In the early days of the Iraqi occupation, snipers like the possibly mythical “Juba” killed and wounded dozens and dozens of allied soldiers. There are still snipers, it seems, but nothing like what there used to be.

Why is that?

Some of it might be attributable to shifts in tactics by western forces and governments, but not all of it. Whither the EFP? Nobody ever conclusively answered whether they really were coming from Iran or not, but that several Iraqis were arrested in connection with them, and now you don’t get ’em anymore, suggests, to me, that they were an indigenous product with no outside backing.

But that doesn’t explain why additional USS Cole-style bombings have never happened since, or anywhere else. (Even the Tamil Tigers, as crazy a bunch of extremists as you’ll ever come across, and who had pitched battles with the Sri Lankan navy – and usually won – never resorted to blowing up boats full of explosives in the process.) Oh, navies made changes in tactics following the attack, but as far as I’m aware, nobody’s even tried since.

There are still terrorists willing to martyr themselves for the cause, but it seems like everyone’s pursuing low-budget, minimal-planning instant gratification. It’s weird, really.

I’m not complaining about the lack of successful, high-profile terrorist attacks in recent years, mind you. I just find it weird that the IED and the truck-bomb seem to be the enduring terrorist techniques of our time, is all. Oh, they’re effective, I’ll grant you that, but so were a number of other things that, as acts of terror, were subjectively much more effective. (Sure, a VBIED could be anywhere, on any road, anywhere in the world, at any time… but how much do you really worry about that? Probably rather less than you do about the airliner you’re on being hijacked and turned into a missile, or the ship you’re on being captured by pirates or being blown up by terrorists. As tools for striking fear and terror into the hearts of infidels the world over, the IED and VBIED are, when all is said and done, kind of meh by now, you know what I’m saying?)

For that matter, it’s been a couple years since any terrorists surprised the rest of the world with a new or novel tactic or technique. Why might that be?

Discuss amongst yourselves. 🙂

Published in: General, History | on May 6th, 2009| 1 Comment »

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One Comment

  1. On 5/10/2009 at 4:47 pm BCPRS Said:

    One one level, it’s important to remember that what we hear in the media is only distantly related to what’s happening on the ground in Iraq. EFPs were killing troops long before the media picked up on the “superbomb” story, and they remained a story in the US media well after the EFP threat had been significantly mitigated. One of the bomb types most feared by troops, the deep-buried IED, really never crossed the media’s radar. That said, there are several factors to the EFP’s disappearance. A paradigm-shifting weapon like the EFP focuses commanders’ minds, let me tell you, so the EFP “problem” was hit from several angles. Extremely focused convergent intelligence leading to interdiction of the EFP supply made them prohibitively expensive. Rapidly evolving mitigation tactics (many invented by troops themselves and quickly replicated theater-wide) made them unreliable. Finally, their use was mostly confined to particular groups that are no longer operationally active. The “traditional” IED and VBIED don’t need careful aiming or split-second triggering, and their manufacture requires fewer expensive and traceable specialty components, thus their enduring popularity.

    That particular case aside, your broader point is totally true, and really fascinates me as well. We gripe about a “failure of imagination” on the part of our intelligence services, but that phrase applies doubly to our terrorist enemies, and thank God for it, too. There are scenarios I can imagine that could wreak untold havoc if they were to take place in London, Paris, or D.C. rather than Ba’qubah or Kandahar. Even boring old IEDs and VBIEDs would be considerably less “meh” if they were popping off randomly in Western cities, and we may never be certain exactly why they aren’t. That’s what would keep me up at night if I were the type of person to worry about these things, rather than just muse about them.