From Church to a Beach: The New Terrorist Target Is You
Only good intelligence gathering can stop terror attacks before they begin, and that’s harder to do post-Snowden. Meanwhile jihadist targets are getting ever more random.
The photograph of Seifeddine Rezgui that surfaced after he slaughtered dozens of mainly Western vacationers in the Tunisian resort of Sousse is a picture of beachside nonchalance. Take away the Kalashnikov held languidly in his right hand with the barrel pointed down and he looks like just another beachcomber going for a stroll, kicking up some spray by the Mediterranean’s edge.
The targets Rezgui chose couldn’t have been much softer. This wasn’t some battlefield action with bombs and bullets flying, some jihadist war against armed “Crusaders,” this was the cold-blooded and methodical shooting of vacationers unarmed and relaxing and utterly vulnerable.
And that fits into the increasingly common modus operandi of these jihadist killers. They are likely to hit softer and softer targets, not least, because improved security and greater vigilance are making it harder for more complex terror plots to be executed.
Intelligence officials on both sides of the Atlantic say this chapter of “low-grade” 24/7 terrorism with any Westerner a target wherever he or she might be—sunning on a Mediterranean beach or nipping out to the corner shop in London—needs to be answered with more intrusive intelligence and surveillance and a dramatic increase in resources. They bewail the fact that it coincides with Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s metadata surveillance and, at least in the U.S., just as the threat of random terror is rising, some restrictions are being placed on the government’s authority to conduct surveillance.
In Europe, despite the theatrical criticism of the scale of U.S. surveillance whenever there’s another disclosure of American spying on European leaders, the EU governments themselves are gearing up to mount more invasive intelligence operations involving NSA-style surveillance, and even the manipulation of social media sites to disrupt and sow confusion among jihadis.
From Britain to the Netherlands, France to Italy, legislation similar to parts of America’s much criticized post-9/11 Patriot Act have been passed or are being proposed. Civil libertarians remain opposed, arguing the increase in surveillance is dangerous for basic democratic freedoms, but for many in the West the war on terror is the higher priority for now, the governments’ reactions inevitable and, more to the point, necessary.
Forget the spectacular 9/11s that require some ingenuity, planning and training for months even years. What we have now is the targeting of the easiest, most vulnerable victims and in the least challenging circumstances for the gunmen armed with the most rudimentary of weapons available to them.
In Tunisia, it was a Kalashnikov and a couple of grenades—not difficult to secure in a North Africa awash with weaponry. Nowadays guns are also not so hard to secure in France, where in Paris earlier this year Jewish shoppers in a kosher supermarket and French cartoonists gathered for an editorial meeting were gunned down. In London in 2013 the target was an off-duty 25-year-old soldier hacked to death on a residential street in front of distraught shoppers.
And on it goes.
Likewise, the perpetrators don’t need any more military training than white supremacist Dylann Storm Roof had for his terrorism in a church in Charleston in June. The new-generation jihadis, encouraged from afar, inspired rather than operationally controlled in many cases, are as ignorant about warfare as they are about the Quran. When veteran extremists start returning from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, the military skills of the murderers may improve, but the targets are likely to remain the helpless and the unwary.
“This is a threat that faces all of us,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron as Black Friday unfolded. “These events have taken place today in Tunisia and in France but they can happen anywhere.”
There was a time when the kind of killings we are witnessing now would have been rejected by jihadist leaders as too simple, not “spectacular” enough and lacking in the kind of apocalyptic significance they wanted from targets. The 9/11 attacks were meant to be symbolic, striking at icons of American financial, military and political power. Gunning down holiday-makers on a Tunisian beach isn’t in the same league.
Egyptian ideologue Ayman Zawahri, for years Osama bin Laden’s deputy and now the leader of al Qaeda, reportedly vetoed a plot for a cyanide gas attack in the New York subway in 2003 as he felt the target wasn’t big or symbolic enough. He was also a longtime critic of the beheadings so favored by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant and mentor of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared caliph of the so-called Islamic State.
Slowly but surely the jihadis have been lowering their sights. A desperate bin Laden, months before his death, began to examine the potential of the U.S. rail sector as a target.
And the new generation who have come in his wake are even more nihilistic in their approach, going for targets wherever and whoever, if they are Western or can be linked with the West—or if they are Shia Muslims. Hence the murderous 2013 assault on a shopping mall in Kenya or the bombing of Shia mosques in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
There is, in fact, little that Western governments can do to protect their citizens when they holiday abroad. “With mass tourism now there are many parts of the world where people want to travel and want to take holidays and enjoy them where security is not of the standard we expect here,” says Paul Clarke, the former head of Britain’s Counter Terrorism Command. British vacationers bore the brunt of the beach massacre in Tunisia 30 or more Britons killed in the attack.
Even at home in the West governments can’t promise total security, especially if the targets are going to be as “low-grade” and quotidian as they are now. In some ways the move away from the highly complex attacks like 9/11 and the 7/7/2005 London bombings that left 56 people dead and 700 injured is a reflection of how effective intelligence and law enforcement agencies have been foiling large plots—and forcing the extremists to go for ever easier targets.
Since 9/11 more than 50 terror plots have been foiled in the U.S., mostly due to old-fashioned intelligence and law enforcement methods using informants rather than the National Security Agency’s “bulk” surveillance of phone and email communications, according to the New America Foundation, a U.S. think tank.
In the UK, at least 45 terror plots have been disrupted by British security services since the 7/7 bombings in 2005.
But as the extremists cast their sights lower it becomes much harder to foil random attacks against targets that lack obvious symbolic significance and are being mounted by a mixed bag of mentally unbalanced “lone wolves” recently radicalized and more inspired by the ISIS than operationally directed by it. Western intelligence agencies are stretched.
Says the UK’s former anti-terror chief Clarke: “About 350 people have returned from Syria. It is assessed that one in five are a high risk. The level of arrests of people in connection with terrorism is at it highest ever level, it is about one per day. There are about 120 people waiting trial on terrorist related charges. So the tempo in terms of counter-terrorism and law enforcement is the highest it has ever been.”
But on a day like last Friday, the tempo of terror seems to be setting the pace.