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  • Beatriz Gutierrez

Situational Crime Prevention Against Lone Wolf Terrorist Attacks.

Year 2 - Week 39

A lot has been said about physical security measures installation in our cities, especially after last month Barcelona terrorist attacks, where a van ploughed into a crowded street, mowing down and killing at thirteen people on the spot and injuring more than a hundred. Yet in fact, the attack is just the pike of the iceberg. Behind every attack there is an underlying planning cycle where a set of decisions regarding targets, tactics, weapons or escape route are taken.

Opposite to other models of armed incident such as an amok case, terrorism is due to a planning cycle that in general terms follows common patterns that only differ in their level of sophistication. From inception to completion, a terrorist attack takes time, so prevention shouldn`t be considered as one-stage strategy, a multi-layered one when multiple actors may play a key role.

In the development of this planning cycle, however, there is one element that will determine the attack outcome: the organizational structure of the terrorist group. Classical terrorist groups could gather a good number of members, going from the leadership echelons –decision makers- to cadres –operatives undertaking military actions-, and in lower stages, sympathizers both active –with logistic and intelligence roles- and passive –merely supporting ideologically the movement, but playing a role a potential recruiters for the movement. But environmental and technological changes have allowed in the last decades a reformulation a this organizational system in broader and more diffused networks where information moves freely and hierarchies seem to be blurred. In this new framework, especially well-exploited by groups such as al-Qaeda, a new element has been introduced, as it is the figure of the lone-wolf. Without entering in further explanation, since it is a topic previously presented in this blog[1], just mention that lone wolves appear in the context of white supremacist United State movements and Louis Beam idea of “leaderless resistance”, as a way of protecting the core organization from law enforcement infiltration, while maximizing the structure capabilities to strike. This notion has been recover by al-Qaeda and later on its offshoot, the Islamic State, to solve problems as human resources shortcut or how to infiltrate and train cadres in Western countries: through propaganda, ideological digital radicalization processes and digital training and operative guidelines. Since these unipersonal operative cells are only linked to the echelons by ideology, are almost undetectable due to the lack of physical ties. But in addition to these advantages, there are also a set of shortcomings that will have an impact on the planning cycle that must be taken into consideration when designing a preventive strategy.

Let’s go first explaining each planning cycle step.

1.- Broad target selection and intelligence and surveillance. The organization defines a set of possible targets, and refine de selection through surveillance and gathering intelligence about the potential target. Ideological considerations may be involved in this stage, but also operative ones as what kind of target, present security measures, potential number of victims or psychological effect of the attack over the target audience. It is obvious that the task is much easier in presence of a labor division in a multi-member cell that in the case of an individual one who has to develop the whole step by himself. In the same way, individual technical capabilities are more limited in terms of time and space than those of a cell.

2.- Specific target selection and pre-attack surveillance and planning. Once the specific target is chosen, a second round of surveillance and information gathering about the target is needed. The lack of details may lead to the failure of the attack, but again the capability to gather information is related to the number of operatives involved and the time available before the attack.

3.- Attack rehearsal. As a consequence of the previous stages, the details needed for the final planning –including modus operandi and weapons of choice- are related to the manpower capabilities of the operative structure. In this way, lone wolves will tend to less sophisticated tactics to reduce the timing, and they will expand the preparation stage in time to increase the technical complexity of the operation. In this way, we may conclude that the timing is directly proportional to the complexity of the tactic and the logistic aspect of weapons acquisition. In this sense, it is harder to get the components and training to make an explosive and mount a bomb, than undertake a car ramming. Even though there are many handbooks available on digital formats, acquiring the ingredients in the required amount needs a specific training that is based or in experience and know-how –which is hardly available in the case of lone wolves unrelated with the core operative organization’s structure- or time to practice and test the explosives and the functionality of the device. A good example of this is Anders Breivik plot, which was previously conceived to be based on four car bombs distributed by different government buildings in Oslo, but due to the delay in making the required amount of explosive was reduced to only one car in combination with an active shooting rampage in Utoya Island, and, even more recently, the earlier and uncontrolled explosion in Alcanar, Spain, which obliged to the Islamic State cell to change on the spot their modus operandi by a low-tech and almost unprepared car ramming in Barcelona streets.

4.- Attack as the outcome of all the previous stages over the target. The proper surveillance, the right selection of the target, the time of the attack, will be key elements in the success of the operation. It won’t be the same bombing a government building at 11 a.m. on a March Monday, when it will be probably overcrowded with potential victims, that the very same day at 11 p.m., when the outcome will be mainly material damages, but probably close to zero victims.

5.- Scape planning. Depending on the ideological and religious orientation of the terrorist group this last element may even be present in quite different ways. As frequently happens with jihadist suicide operations –both because the death of the terrorist is condition sine qua non to the success of the attack or because the terrorist is seeking for being assassinated by police to die as a martyr-, the escape route goes through dying while killing as a strategy to maximize the number of victims. Otherwise, excluding this specific cohort of cases, scape planning involves more logistic considerations as a back-up car and a defined route to scape.

Attending to this five stages, and crossing categories with prevention models such as situational one, we should focus on three elements: the offender, the target, and the place where the attack occurs. Three main actions could be taken, detecting the offender, disrupting the attack over the target, and deterring the attack over the place. Following Clarke and Eck’s problem triangle diagram[2], each of these elements can be regulated by external actors: 1) handlers. They are influential individuals in the lives of the potential offenders, so they can supervise them and prevent the planning cycle and even the previous radicalization process aimed to use violence against a target. Examples of handlers would be a peer group, family or friends; b) guardians. They are police, security, counter-terrorist agents, and all those protecting property and people inside it from any harm, being in this sense related with the physical place; c) Managers supervise the place, owning the location or controlling accesses to it. In this way, we have a shared structure of responsibilities joining social control elements (detection), disruption (police and security work) and deterrence (target physical hardening), but to be actually functional it must be well coordinated and oriented in a comprehensive way to the five planning stages of the terrorist cycle.

In conclusion, situational prevention understood as the set of tools oriented to decrease the benefits of perpetrating a crime while increasing the costs and disadvantages for the offender, should be implemented through a multi-faceted approach undermining the logistic choices –i.e., access to weapons or explosives ingredients-, hardening the targets –with physical barriers, surveillance systems, et cetera-, and reinforcing the levels of social awareness to detect and neutralize the offender in his earlier stages –by knowledge and training about what the threat may represent and how it may look like. Prevention against lone wolves attacks is as complex as the very same phenomenon, so its design needs to be equally complex and integrated by all the possible stakeholders. In one word, the whole society.

[1] For a more detailed account on the figure of lone wolves, both jihadist and non jihadist, see Crevillén, D., “Hacia una categorización de tiradores activos (II): lobos solitarios” and “Categorización de tiradores activos (III): el jihadista individual”.

[2] Gill, Paul (2015) “Lone actor terrorist”, Routledge, London. pp. 157-168.

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