The Manhattan attack & the fight against network organizations

Year 2 - Week 43

ISSN 2603 - 9931


The 9/11 took by surprise to almost everybody. It was hardly believable to use two planes as guided missiles to topple down two iconic infrastructures as the Twin Towers buildings. Counterterrorism, as many other security responses, is more normally than not, reactive. The problem of this fact is that once counterterrorist and security measures adapt to the new faces of terrorism, the phenomenon evolves.


We could start pointing out the fact that terrorism as an activity, and especially terrorism as an organization are social structures and consequently they are organic, alive entities subject to biological rhythms and to the influence of a conflict ecosystem. Yet the main change regarding modern jihadist terrorism is the increase in the number of inputs incoming this social entity, called it al-Qaeda or Islamic State. As any other organization, terrorist groups react to different stimulus, and the number of them has increase dramatically in the last two decades thanks to the use of internet and all the new platforms of communication, from the quite obsolete forums to IM applications such as Telegram: the fluid exchange of information under new parameters and new security measures –including a massive flow of data worldwide- has blurred classical command and control structures and hierarchies giving space for new networked structures.


This organizational reconfiguration is going to present advantages and disadvantages in the three levels of warfare, but probably one of the most interesting is the new developed resilience of terrorist network organizations as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Resilience affect the strategic level, but it is rooted in the tactical one: as David Kilcullen stated in his now classical work “Countering Global Insurgency”[1], complex insurgencies –as it is the case of network terrorist groups- present a higher degree of resistance to surprise attacks, or in other words, a higher degree of adaptability. The more shocking the counterterrorist measures are, the faster they become obsolete. This is one of the specific of network terrorist structures: while a command and control structure is easily targeted once it is identified, decapitating the structure, the lack of this hierarchical organization in the network structure allows hindering decapitations and absorbing the strikes, responding with an adapted reaction. One clear example of this behavior has been the change produced in both main jihadist organizations, moving from mediatic well-planned attacks as the 9/11 to low-tech and scarcely sophisticated ones: the main reason, the strengthening of law enforcement and intelligence agencies controls over terrorist networks in Western countries and the counterinsurgent effort of the same Western countries in the territorial bases of the same terrorist networks in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or Somalia.


So the problem, again, relies on the reactive behavior of State structures, understood in the bigger framework of public administration and the slower pace in adaptable responses. Probably we could divide them in three different spheres of action: the international one, in the form of the current coalitions striking active terrorist groups in areas such as Iraq or Syria, the national one based on law enforcement and intelligence agencies fighting the development of operative cells, radicalization processes and recruitment and deployment apparatuses, and finally, a local sphere where both public administration –including also law enforcement agencies- and citizens role emerge as key actors in the fight against terrorism.


Since the new pattern of attacks seems to be based on low-tech attack carried out on many occasions by lone individuals loosely affiliated to the network organizations, often just at the ideological level and without physical and logistic ties with it, the higher level of counterterrorism, although totally necessary, wouldn’t be connected with the local security needs in matter of terrorist incident prevention. An obvious step closer is the role of intermediate agencies in the detection and infiltration of terrorist operatives, management of de-radicalization programs, et cetera. But, the closer ring of counterterrorism regarding citizens and providing security in the streets is the local one. Cities as independent political and social autonomous entities have role in the protection of their citizens, a sort of “duty of care” that must be deployed in a specific configuration that preserves the way of life of its society while preventing the occurrence of facts as the ones seen last Tuesday 31 of October in Manhattan, where a lone jihadist terrorist drove over a number of tourist in a bike lane, killing eight people and injuring eleven.


Probably New York City is in general terms one of the most secure cities and with a higher level of security awareness after the 9/11 facts. Probably they were ready for another big entity terrorist attack, but prevention of low sophisticated terrorist attacks is as difficult in NYC as they might be in any other big city in the world. Again, a diffuse threat, based on lone jihadist wolves with the capability to carry out attacks almost everywhere without needing a high level of planning or technical sophistication, has materialized in one of the most mediatic cities in the world. So when may we find suitable management tools to minimize the effects of terrorist attacks such as last week one?


Since the odds of knowing the exact date, time, and place of a lone jihadist, low-tech attack are close to zero, and since preventing self-radicalization is still as desirable as hard to achieved, probably response should go along two elements, passive security measures and social threat awareness. Regarding the first element, a whole doctrine of environmental design has been developed for preventing crime, from where we may extract a number of valuable lessons, but again, much has to be updated. Just an example: the FEMA Guidance 430 “Site and Urban Design for Security: guidance against potential terrorist attack”[2] considers interesting measures as stand-off areas that would reduce the expansive wave after a bomb blast, and even spatial design of new buildings, but the handbook, published in 2007, focuses on high-risk sites and in classical terrorist modus operandi such as IEDs and even WMD, but there is no mention to the risk of a van ploughing into a pedestrian lane because of an obvious reason: this kind of attacks have become normal in the last two years. So the doctrine exists, but it needs a revision and an update. The configuration of new streets and neighborhoods may include a more secure approach without disrupting daily routines nor urban functionalities.


The presence of visible security measures may contribute also to rise threat awareness among population, but on the other hand the specific security culture of each country may change the extent of this aspect: the presence of, for instance, armed policeman on patrol will not be perceived in the same way in countries as the United States, Israel, Spain or Sweden. One key step to be taken in this sense is training: training regarding the threat, regarding how to prevent it and how to manage an armed incident with multiple victims. We have discussed this topic in previous articles: this kind of training should be assumed as a public administration responsibility based on the moral duty of care over its citizens, and probably this responsibility is, because of its closeness, to the local administrations.


Coming back to David Kilcullen aforementioned work to draw our conclusions, the Australian author points out a set of six methods for attacking insurgencies as the global jihadist terrorist one, being one of them denying the organization their outputs[3] or the results of their actions –the terrorist attacks properly said-. Reducing the odds of having the adequate physical environment to carry out a car ramming terrorist attack withdraws the terrorists the outcome of showing strength and deployable capabilities, as well as the number of victims and the chance to spread the message of terror. Secondly, trained and aware citizens are key elements in reducing the number of casualties in an active incident by acting as immediate responders, but also aware citizens are key in containing the spreading of the message of terror. Honestly, we can’t signal one golden rule for put an end to terrorism. But we can affirm, and again, raise awareness about it, that since the new terrorist network structures are highly adaptative, responses must be equally complex, multidisciplinary and integrated, and enough flexible as to adapt too to a changing phenomenon. Only joining multiple approaches societies might be able to disrupt the message of terror. But for that, societies need to accept their role and assume their responsibility.





[1] Kilcullen, David (2004), “Countering Global Insurgency”, in Small Wars Journal, p. 31.

[2] See

[3] Kilcullen, op. cit., p. 33.

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