Terrorist Targets

The choice of target for a terrorist organisations is far from random. What often defines a terrorist group as opposed to those who claim to be freedom fighters or a liberation movement is that a terrorist organisations will strike against non military targets. There has been a radical change in the targeting policy of terrorist groups, traditional politically motivated terrorist groups often seen in the west such as the IRA or the Italian Red Brigades chose to strike at high profile political targets or against targets that would guarantee media attention like the bombing of commercial centres. The targeting was determined mainly by two factors, maximum media attention and little loss of life, the so called Propaganda of the deed, and the by the survival / escape of the terrorists carrying out the attack. The aim of minimising loss of life might seen strange until you consider that such terrorist groups rely on public support and a large number of deaths quickly destroys any ground swell of support from the local population and makes it easier for the authorities to label the groups as criminals. Western style terrorists are not normally motivated by religion and rarely have a desire to become a martyr so escape is a priority, hence the use of snipers, remote bombs or IED’s , methods which allow the terrorist to be a far away from the scene of the crime as possible.

With the growth of religious fundamentalist terrorism the nature of terrorist targets has changed. Attacks which now result in a large number of deaths or civilian causalities are now firmly on the agenda for many terrorist groups, as the attacks of 9/11 horrifically demonstrated. This type of attack has been present in the Middle East for some time with a long tradition of suicide bombings of crowded civilian areas such as bars and night clubs. Secondly for this type of terrorist survival is not a major concern and for some definitely not a desirable outcome as they actively seek death as a planned part of the attack. This means that targets that were previously thought to be safe from attack are now at risk and the chances of a terrorist successfully reaching their target if their own survival is not a consideration is much, much greater. In fact actually stopping a suicide bomber from causing deaths, apart from their own is virtually impossible.

So what do terrorists look for in a potential target? Firstly there is a risk analysis, by this I mean the terrorist organization will consider the potential benefits of attacking a particular target as opposed to the cost in resources and the likelihood of success. Here definitions of ‘Hard’ and ‘Soft’ targets become useful. A ‘Hard’ target is one which is guarded or has considerable security; this means that a terrorist attack runs the risk of being intercepted often with potentially lethal force. Examples of ‘Hard’ targets would include military bases, and political organisations and high ranking politicians and heads of state such as Presidents. A ‘Soft’ target is one which has little or no military protection or security and hence is an easy option for a terrorist attack. This includes commercial shopping centres, power stations, and leisure facilities such as football grounds and sports stadiums. Of course a soft target may become a harder one if a particular event or situation raises the risk, for example the Olympics or a major sporting or diplomatic event , but due to the large amounts of civilian visitors, and the shear number of access points to control they are still generally very vulnerable. Airports since 9/11 fall into this category as although they are more secure since the attacks they still have vast numbers of visitors and many access points, all of which are potential points of entry for a terrorist. It is also worth considering the potential press coverage an attack on a particular target would generate. All types of terrorist seek the maximum media coverage for an attack so a target which has lots of international visitors is a preferred target. For example why target a small local airport in the UK when you could target an international airport like Heathrow which has visitors from many nations. Any attack on such a target would cause causalities among many nationalities and therefore generate maximum international media coverage. What is clear that despite increased security measures the vast majority of potential terrorist targets are impossible to protect, any measures to secure them are often more to calm public fears that in any real hope of preventing an attack. The true hope of preventing terrorist attacks lies in good intelligence and intercepting the terrorist cells before an attack takes place.

How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, TDP. (26 May 2005), Terrorist Targets, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/concepts_terrortargets.html

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