One year on from the Paris attacks, what makes terrorist activity so difficult to detect and tackle?

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9 November
15:06
November
2016

A year ago on Sunday 13 November, France experienced the worst terrorist attack in its history which left 89 people dead. This devastating attack was claimed by the so-called Islamic State.

The Bataclan nightclub, bars, restaurants and the Stade de France were subjected to what counter-terrorism practitioners call a ‘complex attack’ – an attack utilising guns, bombs and happening in several locations at once.

Such complex attacks have been at the forethought of counter-terrorism thinking since the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Tayyiba stormed buildings in Mumbai, India, killing 164 people in 2008. This attack was the first time a small group of ten individuals equipped with grenades and rifles had carried out roving indiscriminate attacks against soft targets such as hotels. This was a development from the more traditional terrorist tactics of planting bombs in static locations or shooting at specific targets. Such a development alarmed the counter-terrorism world, with many counter-terrorism practitioners assuming that it was only a matter of time until such a tactic was seen in Europe. The reason for such alarm and pessimism was because complex attacks, like all terrorist attacks, are difficult to detect during the planning stages and they are very difficult to deal with whilst in progress.

“Complex attacks are difficult to detect during the planning stages and they are very difficult to deal with whilst in progress.”

First, in many Western countries the police are not routinely armed with lethal weapons. This means that there is an inevitable delay between the attack commencing and suitably equipped officers arriving on scene. During that time period, little can be done to stop innocent people from dying. For example, since the Paris attacks the UK government has issued new guidance on what to do during such an attack which is summarised by the slogan “run, hide, tell”. Such advice is designed to lessen the number of targets available to the terrorists in a given area, in an attempt to lower the number of casualties caused by the attackers during the time it takes for armed response to arrive.

The Bataclan attacks, Paris, 13 Nov 2015: key example of a co-ordinated “complex attack.”

Even if the police are routinely armed, as they are in France, the Paris attacks of a year ago prove that simply possessing a firearm does not make a police officer immediately capable of stopping more heavily armed terrorists from committing murder. It takes a very high level of specialist training and the right equipment for officers to be effective in such a situation. The death of several Parisian police officers during the 2015 attacks serves as a gruesome reminder of this point.

Second, complex attacks do not tend to remain at a single static location. Prior to the Mumbai attack of 2008, terrorist attacks would normally target either single or multiple locations in singular events. Trends in terrorist tactics dictated that these singular events would most likely be a bomb, like the Birmingham Pub Bombings, but could be a gun attack, like the infamous Loughall Police Station attack in 1987. This makes it easier for appropriate responders to attend the scene after the attack or for the attack to be pre-empted.

Paris attacks, 13 Nov 2015: Simply arming the police does not prevent terrorists from committing acts of murder.In contrast complex attacks create a highly mobile, chaotic environment with armed attackers moving freely through anywhere there are large groups of individuals. This makes it incredibly difficult for responding units to arrive in the right location and means that medical responders can find themselves caught up in attacks as the terrorists re-visit areas they had previously moved from. This is exactly what happened during the Paris attacks, and the chaos caused is made worse by social media, with confused tweets leading people to believe that attacks were happening in places they were not. The lessons learnt in the aftermath of Paris have led the Metropolitan Police in the UK to create a new, highly trained armed response unit equipped with motorcycles so that they can respond rapidly to wherever attacks may be taking place inside the capital.

Third, individuals inspired by the so-called Islamic State have further developed the complex attack tactic. The Paris attacks and attacks they have carried out in Iraq and Syria have demonstrated a willingness for the terrorists taking part to wear explosive suicide vests. This further complicates the task of counter-terrorism practitioners. During the Mumbai attacks of 2008, responding units had the relatively simple task of neutralising the terrorist by either killing them or arresting them. Whilst this took a while, this did happen with nine of the attackers killed and one being arrested and later executed for his part in the attack. Suicide vests complicate this neutralisation process by adding a further dimension to the decision making process of the armed officers.

The Mumbai attacks of 29th November 2008: Without suicide vests, the attackers were comparatively easy to neutralise. 

Normally, armed officers will seek to arrest first, providing the individual does not pose a direct threat to the public or to the officers themselves. Should the individual pose such a threat then force, which is often lethal, will be used to ensure that the risk of harm to the public is removed. However, when confronting an individual wearing a suicide belt, this already difficult decision becomes exponentially harder for several reasons.

“Many home-made explosive substances are unstable and will explode when subjected to a shock. This creates a catch-22 situation where shooting an attacker can cause casualties.”

The presence of a suicide belt places the responding officers in danger if they are within the blast range. It can also increase the danger to civilians due to the instability of homemade explosive compounds such as TATP, which is an acetone peroxide and is an unstable organic high explosive. Many of these compounds will explode when subjected to a significant shock, such as that from a bullet. This then creates a catch-22 situation where shooting the attacker can cause casualties and damage whilst not shooting them can leave them free to carry on their attack.

The use of suicide belts and complex attack tactics are likely to increase as the so-called Islamic State loses more and more territory in Iraq and Syria. As it is displaced from these areas individual fighters are highly likely to return to their countries of origin. As these individuals return they bring with them training and, potentially, weapons which will enable them to carry out such attacks. Also, we may see an increase in attacks, like that carried out in Paris, by individuals who have been radicalised without travelling to Syria or Iraq. The so-called Islamic State is highly likely to encourage such home grown attacks as a way of demonstrating its strength and ability to strike at those it holds responsible for its loss of territory.

In conclusion, a year on from the Paris attacks, the West faces an increased risk from both returning fighters and home grown plots which are highly likely to use the same complex attack tactic. This threat is likely to remain for the foreseeable future and will not disappear with the collapse of the physical territories ISIS holds.

Dr John Bahadur Lamb is a Lecturer in Criminology at Birmingham City University. If you’re interested in a career in criminology, you can view their courses here

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