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  • Beatriz Gutierrez

Doctrinary & Tactical aspects of Jihadist "Low-Tech" stabbing operations

Year 3 - Week 22

ISSN 2603 - 9931

The Quran, the Holy Book of Islam, says in its aleyah 4:89 “But if they turn away, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them, and take not from among them any ally or helper”[1]. This text, referred to the Prophets encounters with the primitive Arab infidels, has been widely adopted by the global jihadist movement in an extremely perverted way as a legitimating motive for assassinating all those potential victims that fall outside the category of “good muslims”. Multiple have been the videos, leaflets and publications in different formats and through different formats made public in the last years. One of the last of this propaganda contents was published from Somalia, just a couple of days after Christmas under the title “Hunt them”, and it showed footages of mujahidin approaching Western cities armed with knives and fire weapons, old footages of the most famous ISIS attacks in Western countries, as well as a number of Christmas pictures and images of different churches, priests and even the Pope on a crosshair. And only some weeks ago an individual of Chechnyan origin carried out the latest -by now- of the stabbing attacks in Paris, again, Western soil. Even though the number of casualties was relatively low, the Islamic State message was clear: “Kill them [the infidels] wherever you find them”. But the pattern of this kind of attacks goes far beyond easy performed attacks. They involved a whole doctrinal justification and tactical advantages that explain the high numbers of occurrence.

We must understand the use of “low-tech” terrorism in the framework of the organizative changes affecting to terrorist movement along the last decade. After 9/11 and especially after the US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, engaging the international community in the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), the recruiting apparatus of groups of al-Qaeda lost a good part of its capabilities due to the reinforced international controls over the flow of foreign fighters in support of the jihad. Consequently, the number of new jihadist cadres to be re-deployed in Western countries after been trained in the Afghan and Iraqi bases was dramatically reduced. In this context, some of the strategic theorist of al-Qaeda started to devise a new system for guaranteeing alternative cadres sources to continue the protracted war against the West while preventing the structure to be infiltered or disrupted: in 2004, with the book “A call to Islamic Global Resistance”, Abu Musab al-Sury proposed a system based in Louis Beam’s model of “Leaderless Resistance”, integrating in jihadist thinking the idea of individual terrorist operating following the organization’s guidelines regarding targeting and victims while lacking physical connections with the structure, providing in this way security to the organization and preventing law enforcement or intelligence agencies infiltrations [2]. Internet as communication platform provided the channels of communications, and between 2004 and our days we have attended at a new model of digital propaganda formed by enriched pdf documents and video content distributed for recruitment and indoctrinated which provided not only those ideological lines of action, but also basic military training in aspects such as fabrication of explosives, use of handguns and submachine guns and stabbing techniques [3]. Al-Sury talked about, in a similar way to other irregular warfare authors, a protracted model of conflict that he tagged as “death by thousand cuts” reflecting low scale attacks but repeated so many times all along the world that necessarily would demoralized the enemy -Western countries- leading to its defeat and to the expansion of the Ummah on global basis. Along a number of articles published in Inspire, Al-Qaeda’s journal distributed by internet where al-Sury had a whole section, he provided possible targets to coordinate globally the jihad, as for instance apostate Arab countries, in areas of interest for Western countries, and, finally, in the heart of Western countries themselves against civilians [4].

Weapons of choice are intimately connected to the doctrine, but also to the organizative aspects, both of the attack and the bonds linking the attacker with the terrorist group. Even though fire weapons are characteristics of lone wolf attacks, since they are easy to use, in addition to homemade bombs, which require a higher level of expertise, data shows a limited number of attacks using these two weapons. Two explanations are provided: first, the logistic capability -including aspects such as access to specific weapons-, and second, know-how or adequate training for operating in conditions of success those specific weapons. In this sense, Jasparro points out that lone actors tend to use “low-skilled, pragmatic weaponry” [5] as vehicle collisions and knives. But another connected variable is the target of choice. Terrorist attacks, in opposition to other typologies of armed incidents, are in general terms carefully designed through a planning cycle which integrates intelligence about the target and ways of approaching to the organization’s desired result: in this sense, doctrine of combat as the intersection of ideological background and scope of the attack will determine the characteristics of the action, the range of potential victims and, consequently, it will define the weapons of choice in order to achieve that double motivation. Likewise, terrorism goes far beyond of the “military results”, counted on the number of victims or the level of destruction on the physical target, to focus also its attention into the message launched with the attack: in this sense, we can say that the psychological effect of a highly-sophisticated terrorist attack launches a message of fear because of the level of technical capabilities of the organization, but a lowly-sophisticated one, such as a stabbing or a car ramming will create fear as a general sense of vulnerability among society [6]. Finally, and connected to the relation with organization, the lack of connections with the organization but because the ideological connections, the logistics capabilities in matter of access to weapons might be also limited, so weapons of choice tend to be depending on the level of expertise on two main sets, homemade explosives and IEDs and weapons of fortune, as knives and vehicles might be.

So, why choosing vehicles and knives? In 2010, the second number of al-Qaeda’s magazine, Inspire, published an article titled “The latest mowing machine” where it explains how to carry out successful car rammings attacks over civilian population, preferably in areas with a high concentration of pedestrians and a low one of traffic, to maximize the number of casualties. In the same way, the second number of Rumiyah [7], the Islamic State’s magazine, analyses the use of knives as weapons of choice. As aforementioned, the weapon is part of the message: terror and vulnerability, since the weapons is highly accessible and consequently everyone may carry out an attack.

Tactically speaking, we may extract some lessons about the use of stabbing operations from the available propaganda distributed by -in this case- the Islamic State. First, the need to select carefully a suitable knife, with fixed blade and not a folding one which might collapse during the attack. Secondly, target selection: meanwhile cars and trucks are suitable for large gatherings so to provoke a high number of casualties, knives are suitable for much smaller crowds. While a large crowd could subdue the attacker during the attack, a smaller crowd is going to be inflicted the same terror message but with a much more limited capability of response. Thirdly, effectivity of the attack: in order to maximize the number of casualties, the attack should be oriented to injuring and killing and not to mediatic assassinations as for example beheadings of the victims; although that would be a highly impacting modus operandi, it would take much more time that should be dedicated to kill more victims instead. To achieve the higher possible number of casualties, one key factor is striking at the victim’s organs (heart, lungs, kidneys) or arteries (at the internal side of the body) so to provoke the immediate collapse or a mass bleeding: to start with and preventing been stopped at the beginning of the attack, a first stab accompanied of slitting the throat is advisable so the first victim won’t be able to warn other potential targets around. Since clothing might represent a difficulty when the attacker is novel in the use of cold weapons, it is recommended to hit the uncovered parts of the body, as the neck, but also consider the timing of the attack and to carry it out during the warmer seasons as Spring, Summer of Autumn. Finally, the message: Western countries, where low-level violence in the form of frequent brawls is quite common, might mistake one operation with one of these violent acts, so the mujahidin must ensure the message of terror reaches the target audience by leaving any kind of identifier so to connect him to the global jihadist movement.

From all these elements we may conclude that low tech terrorism and stabbing operations are an outcome of the organizational changes that international terrorism has suffered and which are especially affecting jihadist terrorism. The difficulties in accessing weapons, especially in Western countries, limit to a good extend the tactical options for developing and attack, in addition to the lack of an effective military training. The typology of probable targets, non-hardened places with presence of civilians, reinforces the psychological impact of the attack but it also makes unnecessary the use of more complex tactics with more sophisticated weapons. These factors make of stabbing operations one of the preferred jihadist lone-wolves tactics because of its efficiency in terms of cost, effort and results.

[4] Al-Sury, A.M. (2011)., The jihadi experiences, Inspire 8, pp. 18-19.

[5] Jasparro, C. (2010) Lone Wolf: the threat from independent jihadist. Jane’s Intelligence Review, pp. 3-4

[6] Gill, P., and Corner, E. (2016) Lone-actor Terrorist Target Choice. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, issue 34, pp. 693-705.

[7] Rumiyah (2016) Just terror tactics, Rumiyah n. 2, pp. 12-13.

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