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“The most dangerous thing about terrorism is the over-reaction to it.” Yuval Noah Harari

“Good actions give strength to ourselves and inspire good actions in others.” PLATO

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” – Sun Tzu

    (Day 79 of the federal guidelines for social distancing)

There has been a shifting trend these past few years in the perpetuation of terrorist attacks in the West. US and European military and law enforcement vigilance and the hardening of potential extremist targets has caused terrorist organizations to have to adapt their tactics and to learn from their mistakes. The tempo of operations appears to have decreased, although I would submit to you that potential terrorists are in a learning and preparation phase for future extremist attacks.

In light of all that is happening globally, surrounding the coronavirus, the wars in Syria and Libya, and the tension concerning North Korea, it would be easy to dismiss terrorism. However, we have seen recently a spate of relatively low-level lone wolf attacks that have been focused on naval installations, specifically the Pensacola Naval Air Station and the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station. There are several lessons to be learned from these events, especially in regard to the hardness of the targets that were chosen by the terrorists.

The choice of targets is a defining decision that reveals the preparedness, training, and resources of the attackers. It says a lot about the capability of the terrorist group, and their goals and skill level. The impact of lone-wolf terrorists and their ability to attack hard targets is becoming increasingly clear.

My goal in this edition of “More than Meets the Eye” is to help us, our communities and our organizations to prepare for the unlikely event of a terrorist attack. I will discuss the types of targets that terrorists choose, why they choose them, and the effect of their choices.

Terrorism is defined as the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property for the purposes of intimidating or coercing a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political and social objectives.  We must resist the temptation of labeling everything bad that happens as “a terrorist attack.”  Limiting the application of the term, “terrorist” to a person involved in a specific event is critical.  If this does not happen, the ability of intelligence and law enforcement is reduced, simply because the tools needed in order to defeat the enemy would not be available.

Review.

At 06:15 am on May 21st, 2020, Naval Air Station Corpus Christi (NASCC) Navy Security Forces successfully responded to an active shooter as an armed suspect attempting to gain entry to the air station. “The Sailor who first encountered the shooter displayed tremendous courage and took immediate action under fire that allowed Navy Security Forces to respond quickly and effectively,” said NASCC Commanding Officer Capt. Christopher Jason. “The gate sentries and responding units promptly contained the situation and prevented the suspect from gaining access to the installation, its employees, and its residents.”

The suspect killed during what the FBI is calling a “terrorism-related” attack at a Texas naval air base voiced support for hardline clerics, according to a group that monitors the online activity of jihadists. The gunman was identified as Adam Alsahli of Corpus Christi, Texas. 

Alsahli tried to speed through a guarded security gate at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, opening fire and hitting a sailor in the chest. The sailor’s bulletproof vest reportedly caught the bullet and she sustained non-life-threatening injuries. She was a member of base security, U.S. officials told the AP.  She was able to roll over and hit a switch that raised a barrier, preventing the man from getting onto the base, the officials said. Other security personnel shot and killed the attacker. 

Social media accounts matching Alsahli’s profile on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp featured support for hardline clerics, mostly from Saudi Arabia, and jihadi figures such as Ibrahim al-Rabaysh, who had been a spokesman for the Yemen branch of Al Qaeda. Al-Rabaysh was killed by a US drone strike in 2015, according to Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group.

As soon as the dust settles after a terrorist attack a basic question for security authorities is, why the target in question was chosen. Attacks such as the one in Corpus Christi are bringing to light the distinct palette of choices that terrorists have when they are choosing a target to attack. They tend to put their attack selections into one of two categories: soft targets or hard targets.

A soft target is a location or place that is vulnerable due to its lack of security or protection, though it is often populated by groups of people. To understand the threats posed to soft targets, it’s important to identify what makes them susceptible to intimidation and acts of violence and terrorism. Examples of soft target locations include libraries, malls, movie theaters, and houses of worship, as well as public venues and events. Each location allows public access to anyone who wishes to enter.

“People may go to a house of worship and have a mindset that it’s not going to happen here,” former law enforcement officer Marianne Alvarez told the Huffington Post. “It’s a place where you feel safe. It’s a sanctuary. People as well can be a soft target.

Attackers fear failure. That is why lions attack weak gazelles. Terrorists prefer defenseless targets. Rapists sometimes “interview” their prey to see if they will submit. Terrorists often pursue soft targets thinking that they will achieve success if their prey is easily subdued. There are a host of ways that people can present themselves as a not-so-soft target. One of the best ways is by being situationally aware, moving with confidence, and acting with determination even in the face of potential attackers. Soft targets tend to be attacked by “unbelievers,” those who are angry or are being paid to act as aggressors.

Increasingly, the Modus Operandi (MO) of terrorists is being evaluated when it comes to target selection. Frankly, much of the target selection seems to make little sense. Why would a 21-year-old community college student think that driving into a heavily guarded naval air station, shooting the guard, and seeking to cause mayhem by killing as many as possible, was going to, not only work but accomplish some semblance of a goal they had devised. It leaves me baffled to think that there was some kind of important operational objective that was worth sacrificing his life.

Why then would a terrorist go after a hard target? What might he hope to accomplish? First, note that terrorists are attacking softer targets these days.  Academic research identifies three features commonly attributed to militant Islamists – (1) They target indiscriminately. (2) They have a mass casualty focus. (3) They prefer soft targets. 

So again, why would Adam Alsahli hope to pull off a successful terrorist attack against such hard targets as the Pensacola and Corpus Cristi Naval Air Stations and what would he hope to gain by attacking them? The three above features answer that question. Alsahli’s attack was likely a hastily thrown together operation. He reportedly had other weapons in his vehicle, but there is little evidence that he had a plan or accomplices. His MO was to kill people. What would he hope to accomplish?

This is difficult to understand but he would most likely hope for seven things. The martyr (shahid) is given seven special favors and privileges from Allah. Once the first drop of his blood is shed, all of his sins are forgiven. Before he dies, the martyr (shahid) can see the beauty of his palace in Paradise. The martyr (shahid) will not be tested in the grave, nor will he be punished in the grave. The martyr (shahid) will not feel fear on the Day of Judgment. A crown of honor will be placed on his head, which has jewels that could illuminate the Earth from their brilliance. The martyr (shahid) will marry the most beautiful women of Paradise. The martyr (shahid) will be able to intercede for seventy members of his family, who can be rescued from the punishment of the Hellfire and will enter Paradise in honor of the martyr (shahid). For a young man seeking to make sense out of his life living in a, what he obviously considered a foreign land, these rewards would be quite tempting.

For what did Alsahli seek? Nobody really knows, but from research that has been done over the past 40 years, terrorist operations generally are categorized in terms of their associated goals. These goals traditionally are divided into five categories: recognition, coercion, intimidation, provocation, and insurgency support. Anyone of these could have been Alsahli’s motivation.

Why.

There remains a need for us as individuals, as business owners or organizational leaders to continue to stand vigilant against possible terrorist aggression. It would be easy to begin to believe the rhetoric of mainstream media that tells us that the terrorist threat is no longer real. Just ask the young female sailor at NAS Corpus Christi who is recovering from a gunshot to her chest, if the threat seems real to her. 

Learning how to move ourselves and our organizations from perceptible “soft targets” to becoming genuine “hard targets” will be a greater means of safety than anything else we could do.  There is a reason that lions attack and kill gazelles on the open plains instead of alligators in the river. 

I say it again for our benefit:  Attackers fear failure.  We must present ourselves and our companies as “hard targets,” thus the likelihood of being targets of terrorist attacks will be reduced exponentially.

Action.

  1. Download and read the Security of Soft Targets and Crowded Places Resource Guide published by Home Land Security.  Click here to download.
  2. Conduct “Situational Awareness” training on a regular basis. I can assure you that situational awareness will reduce your risk by upwards of 90%. Not every location, business, or school will have the ability to construct high walls, purchase additional stand-off distance, or hire armed security personnel. They can, however, train their employees, visitors and students to be more situationally aware, and to report situations that “don’t feel right,” including the sudden change in a colleague’s online persona. In short, become that additional set of eyes-and-ears that local law enforcement needs. This refocus on enhanced situational awareness and broader information sharing, coupled with traditional physical security features where possible, will provide a holistic security posture that will result in a true hard target.
  3. Learn to present yourself, your company, and your home as a hard target. Move with intentionality. Remain in well-lit areas. Travel in pairs. Don’t allow yourself to be cowered because of your need to be polite. Say, “No” and mean it.
  4. Remember:  Attackers fear failure. 

The follow-up.

Renewed trust and cooperation could finally ‘unlock progress’ toward peace in Syria – UN envoy… https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/05/1064292

Libya Update… https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/libya

The feed-back.

For your comments or questions about any of our digests please feel free to write to me at:  david@morethanmeets.co

Resources.

https://www.cisa.gov/publication/securing-soft-targets-and-crowded-places-resources

A History of Shootings at Military Installations in the U.S.

https://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=113067

https://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/world/2020/05/22/Shooting-at-Texas-naval-air-station-terror-related-gunman-neutralized-FBI

https://www.businessinsider.com/troops-wait-in-cars-corpus-christi-shooting-2020-5

https://www.voanews.com/usa/group-texas-naval-base-shooter-voiced-support-clerics

http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/642/html

https://www.ravemobilesafety.com/blog/hardening-soft-target-locations

https://www.asisonline.org/security-management-magazine/articles/2018/09/soft-targets-hard-challenges/

https://fas.org/irp/nsa/ioss/threat96/part04.htm

https://saudigazette.com.sa/article/529534

https://www.cisa.gov/sites/default/files/publications/19_0424_cisa_soft-targets-and-crowded-places-resource-guide.pdf

https://www.military.com/spouse/military-life/hard-target-stay-safe-when-you-are-alone.html

© 2019 • More Than Meets