Year 2 - Week 36
As normally happens, the context, the operational environment, is a key element in any terrorist attack planning cycle. Probably the week of August 15th is one of the most used in Spain for going on holidays. There are celebrations in thousands of villages, cities and neighborhoods all around the country. Most of the Spaniards are enjoying the weather, the summer and the festivities in the streets, and with them many tourists from all over the world. One of the Spanish touristic capitals is Barcelona. And last Thursday 17th of August, in the city’s downtown, something changed completely the course of history: thirteen years after the infamous 11M, Spain, in this case Barcelona, suffered another terrorist attack, this time claimed by the very same al-Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State.
In later times, jihadist modus operandi have suffered an evolution on their techniques. Attending to the most mediatic attacks as the 9/11, Madrid 11M or London 7-J, where the targets were the symbolic global economic epicenter, or overcrowded transport critical infrastructures, the attack planning cycle was utmost implemented along time. The intelligence gathering about targets, schedules, or security measures could take months. The recruitment and training of the operative cell was adapted to the typology of the attack, from piloting a plane to manipulating and planting explosives. The result maximized the number of victims and was a frontpage of the military capabilities of al-Qaeda and its will to spread terror over the Western model of life. But an unexpected (though expectable) result of this first wave of jihadist attacks on Western soil was the hardening of many already hard targets, and the increasing control over the human flows of mujahidin arriving to the training camps –and active wars or insurgencies- of Afghanistan and Iraq. In this context al-Qaeda coined a new doctrine of combat, later on inherited by the Islamic State, based on loose ideological ties between worldwide emerging cells without an operative or logistic relation with the core organization. This untraceable structure provided security to the cells and mitigated the vulnerabilities of the core structure regarding law enforcement and intelligence agencies infiltrations by reducing the physical links between both entities. Nevertheless, the system had also fails that had to be fixed, in good way thanks to the rising star of Internet and social networks: problems such as recruitment, indoctrination and especially operative training moved from physical spaces –from the mosque to the Iraqi or Afghan training camp- to the cyberspace. Even though these classical ways of interaction have remained, cyber relations have reduced the flaws of, for instance, traveling to a training camp in the Middle East, putting at risk the whole network, whereas it allows the anonymous distribution of material addressed to provide both indoctrination and operative training. These notions, based on the idea of Louis Beam “Leaderless resistance”, is also basic in understanding the figure of the lone jihadist, but it also explains the impermeability of jihadist structures in Western countries and the difficulties they present to be detected and neutralized.
The organizational change came with a parallel change in the tactics. The lack of direct logistic channels of financing reduced the organizational complexity of the attacks, with a change in the targets: from hard targets to softer ones, and from highly planned and intelligence-based attacks to low-tech attacks where both planning, intelligence gathering about the target and complexity in the attackers operational skills are much limited. In this sense, the bigger the operational structure is, the bigger capabilities they may present and the lesser time it is going to invest in executing the planning cycle. Put in other words, the planning times would be significantly shorter when facing a cell than when facing a lone jihadi, considering the same choice of tactic to be used. Hence, in terms of maximization of capabilities, if possible the organization of a cell is tactically more advantageous than the individual cell or lone jihadist.
How may we analyze last week Barcelona terrorist attack under this paradigm? We may point out a unified attack divided in three scenarios as a consequence of the nature of the cell. According to the ISIS’ news agency claim of the attack, two synchronized covert units targeted the “Crusader” cities of Barcelona and Cambrils. The presence of a cell, thus, tells us about a higher level of sophistication in planning than the one showed by lone jihadist such as Anis Amri, who perpetrated the Berlin truck ramming last December, 2016. But if we attend to the problematic logistic relation of the loose structure of jihadist operatives with the core organization, we may find some elements leading to the final outcome of the attack.
1.- The foiled bomb rampage. Wednesday explosion in a countryside house in Spanish Eastern town of Alcanar was firstly believed to be related to a drugs lab. Only one day later, when a van ploughed into the pedestrians in Las Ramblas de Barcelona, different traces started to lead the suspects of the attack to Alcanar house. Among the 100 gas bottles found in the house, there has been discovered traces of TATP or triacetone triperoxide, the trimer of acetone peroxide. TATP has been used in suicide terrorist attacks in the Middle East, but it has also a whole chapter in al-Qaida’s magazine Inspire 6 (Summer 2011), where it is explained how to produce the explosive and operate it in a bomb. Probably the choice of TATP is not casual, but based on the existing know-how distributed through jihadist propaganda means. Despite of this, the more than probable lack of experience –due to the lack of physical links with the central organization- in manipulation of explosives drove to the fatal explosion that not only foiled a bomb rampage in any of the harder targets of Barcelona, such as the Sagrada Familia Cathedral, or the Camp Nou stadium, but was the cause of a whole reconfiguration of the tactics and the targets.
2.- The Barcelona van ramming. Once blocked the more sophisticated plan of attack and with police on alert, the window of opportunity grew smaller for the cell, so they had to turn to one of the by now classical low-tech with scarce planning attacks: using the vans that would had been used for deploying the explosives, one split team of the cell ploughed on Thursday evening into pedestrians in Las Ramblas area, in Barcelona downtown, mowing down 15 bystanders and injuring to more than a hundred. Since the time elapsed between the explosion and the van ramming was of less than 48 hours, the target selection was a clear one: soft target, always overcrowded and more than probably with tourist from all over the world. Interestingly enough, there is an episode more to mention: at the first moments of the evening, media covered an allegedly hostage taking situation in a near bar by some members of the cell that finally proved false. The Islamic State news agencies have capitalized this false news for certain, claiming not only a hostage taking situation, but storming the bar with light weapons and killing and torturing the Crusaders and Jews inside. Apart from the development of the terrorist operation, the use of propaganda and disinformation is an element that should be consider as recruitment mobilizer.
3.- Cambrils car ramming and stabbing. About nine hours later than the terrorist attack in Barcelona, another car also loaded with the second unit of the terrorist cell, crashed with a police checkpoint car after running down pedestrians in the seaport area. On this occasion the terrorists carried knives and cold weapons, as well as fake explosives belts, in a queer similarity with the London Bridge terrorist attack of last June. The terrorist unit was shot down by police on the spot, but in the process they added a stabbed casualty and a second seriously injured ran down victim. Again, the pattern of target selection is the same than in the Barcelona case: a highly touristic area with low security measures –strengthened due to the earlier attack. And again, the tactical choice was a copy of previous attacks in Europe, where the know-how could be an advantage to minimize the lack of specific operational training.
The lack of a highly sophisticated planning doesn’t mitigate the danger, on the opposite, it probably enhances it. The difficulties of effectively preventing a low-tech attack are unquestionable, and some of the responses must go through target hardening physical measures. But a second set of responses converges with preventing more sophisticated attacks, where the formation of a whole cell is required, in addition to intelligence gathering, material and logistic acquisition, among other activities that may raise suspicions. In this second set of responses citizen cooperation is a key element in early warning detection. Obviously the red line between paranoia, panic and awareness is thin, but it must be found. And the only way is through training in the whole process of management of a terrorist attack, from the previous and less obvious stages to the very same moment of the attacks. Saving lives is more than a matter of seconds, it must be perceived as a whole integrated process, a shared burden between all the forces of society. A common responsibility.