Over the past few years, the nature of terrorism has altered noticeably. As the military campaign against ISIS continues to gain steam by rolling back ISIS-controlled territory, it is ever more likely that the world will continue to see low-cost, high yield attacks like the ones in Nice and Orlando. In stark contrast to the large scale attacks that are iconic of the Bin Ladinism legacy within jihadi organizations around the world, spectacle and low operational costs have become the priority for the Islamic State’s path to continued relevance. The new normal of low-cost, high yield attacks will permanently alter the way the Western world responds to terror threats and will force ISIS’ competitors to alter their strategies to keep pace.
Western security services often face the difficult decision of balancing public space security with the unique sense of liberty these societies have embedded in their social fabric. Critical infrastructure like utilities, landmarks, and government buildings can be hardened – secured by law enforcement and physical barriers – but the same cannot always be said for public space like squares, promenades and entertainment venues.
The recent attack in Nice highlights the difficult decisions balancing liberties and safety security services must make during high profile events. By utilizing unconventional methods such as a European lorry (about the size and scope of a mid-size Uhaul truck) as a ramming tool, securing public spaces becomes a nearly insurmountable task for law enforcement and security services, as these types of attacks are virtually unpredictable and undetectable. Adding further wrinkles to the conundrum security services face, the attacker was not on counter-terrorism officials’ radar, and like others in recent attacks, was a French citizen – removing one of the easier mechanisms for detection, travel records.
Security is inherently reactive to circumstances like the Orlando shooting, the two Paris and Nice attacks and the attack on Turkey’s Istanbul airport. Hindsight is 20/20 as the saying goes, and it’s easy to Monday-morning-quarterback failures to connect the dots by intelligence services that run down thousands of leads a day, most of which are vacuous tips. In the wake of 9/11, the United States and its allies constructed a vast framework for tracking, disrupting and dismantling terror cells and plots that al Qaeda (the preeminent global jihadi organization at the time) hatched, and has become extraordinarily successful. But, due to the high rate of effectiveness in countering the al Qaeda style of large scale planning and attack, terrorist organizations have learned to keep their planning and operational phases as offline and minimal as possible. This will invariably lead to smaller and smaller circles of actors challenging the ability of law enforcement and intelligence services to keep up, detect trends and predict likely attacks. After all, not every nightclub and street can be secured at all times.
With greater scrutiny on the embroiled war zones of ISIS’ Iraq territory and the Syrian civil war (the new training ground for global jihadis flocking to the case), self-radicalized individuals who aren’t on intelligence radars – or have been cleared in previous investigations due to lack of compelling evidence – will become the central actors for jihadi organizations with global aspirations. Without warning and with little to no indications of their private inclinations, these individuals and their actions will uniquely challenge the core of Western liberal sensibilities regarding liberties and security. How the Western nations choose to respond to this challenge will determine the success of these attacks because terrorism is not about a body count; it is about altering the mindset of their target into a state of submission and paranoia. And nothing sparks fear and paranoia like the existential feeling that one could be gunned down by a secret terrorist neighbor down the street coming out of the woodwork anytime, anywhere.
Image credit: Lionel Cironneau/AP