Foiled attack on US base in Afghanistan

FOB Gardez - an ambitious target

In another example of what I was discussing in this post, Afghan insurgents tried for the second time in three days to attack a fortified US military installation. In today’s incident, a vehicle (presumably a VBIED, the reports don’t specify yet; correction – this report quotes a NATO spokesman who says it was a SVBIED) accompanied by four men armed with rifles and wearing suicide vests tried to breach the perimeter at Forward Operation Base (FOB) Gardez in Paktya province. According to NATO media, the base’s defenders spotted the attackers and engaged them, destroying the vehicle and killing five insurgents. One was reportedly captured. Two Afghan security guard guards were injured and one local civilian employee was killed (it is not clear from the reporting whether the employee was inside the base at the time). The US DoD’s news service suggests that these attackers were part of a larger force of some 20 other insurgents.


Why hard targets?

© Hesco

I’ve been giving some thought to hard targets, as in why do insurgent/terrorist groups attack targets that have some sort of active/passive defences which would hinder the successful execution of a (suicide) attack. Such targets would include:

  • military/security installations (FOB/COPs in Afghanistan)
  • diplomatic/political sites (embassies in Kabul)
  • major international hotels (such as the Marriott in Islamabad, Jakarta)
  • mobile military/security force patrols (armed, possibly armoured, with a degree of situational awareness)
  • airports (think Glasgow)

Now some of these are going to be considerably harder than others – launching an attack on a US Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan or Iraq is a pretty difficult proposition (for example, see the result of this recent failed attack). Given Western forces’ preponderance of surveillance assets and firepower there’s a fairly high probability the attackers are going to be wiped out before they manage to get close enough to do any serious damage. Of course this might be context dependent – attacks on Afghan police sites or Pakistani military compounds may well have a different outcome.

However, despite this insurgents/militants/terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have undertaken these types of attacks fairly regularly. What I’m interested in exploring is the rationale for doing so when there are lots of potentially softer targets that could be attacked with a greater degree of confidence in a successful outcome. So far this is what (from reading various sources) I’ve come up  with:

  • desire to mount spectaculars which will gain greater media attention and create the impression of a worsening security situation;
  • creation of recruitment propaganda;
  • undermine the credibility of the security forces and the state by taking them on directly;
  • contesting ground in areas the insurgents wish to use as safe havens or liberated zones;
  • demonstration of organizational capability and prowess;
  • elimination of a threat to the organization;
  • intimidation of members of the political/diplomatic communities;

I’d be very interested if anybody else has any other ideas or views on any of the above. What other potential motivations would cause a group to expend a good deal of resource and effort on attacking a hard target? Let me know in the comments section.

Insights into Afghanistan suicide assaults

One of the hardest things about researching suicide attacks is getting hold of detailed reporting and analysis of how attacks are undertaken. High-profile incidents such as 9/11 or 7/7 are of course awash with detail, due to the official and media manpower thrown at them, but the daily grind of attacks in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are hard to pin down in any great detail.

Which is why this is so interesting. A report from a private security contractor in Afghanistan, detailing the 5 May suicide assault by nine (probable) Taliban attackers on a government compound in Zaranj, Afghanistan.

Such complex assaults have become an increasing part of the Afghan insurgency’s tactical repertoire. From an abstract perspective such attacks are interesting because they represent an evolution of the suicide bombing tactic in that they:

1. involve the use and coordination of multiple attackers against a specific target. In this instance nine attackers were employed in two vehicles, dismounting outside the target compound.

2. are relatively discriminating; it appears that in this instance the intended targets were members of the provincial council and the governor. Note the comment in the linked post that when moving through the adjacent compounds to get to their target, the attackers did not fire upon their occupants.

3. involve the use of firearms and other munitions in addition to the employment of suicide explosive vests. This requires at least a degree of additional training and practice (though as FRI notes, in this instance the attackers’ weapon handling was pretty poor – something that has been noted about Taliban insurgents more widely). Reportedly one of the vehicles was also a VBIED but the driver  was unable to reach his target and disengaged.

This is some way from one Palestinian teenager blowing him/herself up in a Tel Aviv pizza restaurant, and would have required a degree of planning and reconnaissance as well as the logistic effort needed to muster such a force.

I’ve noted before the phenomenon of attackers detonating themselves without any prospect of killing the ‘other’ – either as human demolition charges or against infrastructure targets. This incident is an excellent example of such tactics, with the attackers gradually whittling away their numbers in an attempt to breach a series of defensive obstacles.

While such attacks do indicate an impressive degree of resource on the part of the Taliban, i.e. the ability to field nine suicide attackers simultaneously and to sacrifice them in such a way (rather than, say, using them individually in separate attacks). Also, their devices all appeared to have functioned and there is little doubt that the attackers were well motivated.

However, as the FRI report notes, their reconnaissance was lacking (their approach route had been blocked by new roadworks) and when they were unable to proceed to their objective, they simply blew themselves up in a futile effort to breach a wall. There is little to suggest that the attackers were able to adapt their plan when it began to go wrong.

This is a fairly typical outcome for such assaults in Afghanistan – the guard force tends to kill the majority of attackers before they even get to within striking range of their objectives. Which does somewhat beg the question why do the Taliban keep committing such significant resources to normally unsuccessful attacks? (In this instance nine attackers died in return for the deaths of one provincial council member, two policemen and a civilian). Perhaps the answer lies in the ‘propaganda of the deed’ concept – it does not matter all that much that the attack was largely a failure; the value lies in the fact that they were willing and able to attempt it in the first place. It shows that the Afghan government cannot even protect its own offices and compounds, much less the population.

LTTE Assault on Colombo International Airport

Aftermath of assault

Aftermath of assault

On 24 July 2001, 14 members of the LTTE’s Black Tiger suicide commando unit assaulted Sri Lanka’s main military and civil airports. The heavily guarded military side was struck first. The attackers initially gained access to the airbase via a gap in the perimeter fencing which was used by air force personnel for visiting women in the neighbouring commercial manufacturing district.[1] This movement was timed to coincide with a nationwide power-cut between 21:45 and 23:15, aimed at reducing electricity consumption.[2] The assault team proceeded to cut holes in the fencing surrounding the aircraft parking area and hangars and placed explosives on three electricity transformers, which were detonated at around 03:15, plunging the base into darkness again.

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Suicide Assaults in Pakistan

A Pakistani bomb disposal squad member removes a suicide jacket from the body of an attacker in Lahore (AFP)

A Pakistani bomb disposal squad member removes a suicide jacket from the body of an attacker in Lahore (AFP)

It would appear that the Pakistani Taliban are attempting to forestall a much anticipated Pakistani military offensive by pre-empting with one of their own. Three security buildings have been attacked in Lahore – the Federal Investigation Agency offices and two police training facilities. There has also been a suicide VBIED attack on a police station in Kohat (scene of a suicide attack on 18 September).

Four gunmen are reported to have attacked the FIA building, killing at least three in addition to the attackers. At least one of the assaulters had a suicide vest. The same building was hit by a suicide attack in March 2008.

At the Manawan police academy, three attackers are said to have detonated suicide vests, killing at least six police personnel. The same building was struck in March earlier this year in a similar assault.

The third target in Lahore was the Bedia police training complex, which was attacked by a team of at least eight gunmen – it appears fighting is still ongoing at time of writing.

The SVBIED in Kohat apparently struck the wall of the police station, causing both police and civilian casualties.

The use of suicide-vest wearing assault teams appears to be a growing tactic. We’ve seen repeated instances of this approach recently in Afghanistan, with attacks on government buildings and security stations in Kabul and wider afield. The team that attacked the Pakistani GHQ over the weekend was also apparently wearing suicide vests. It is interesting that the attacks in Pakistan appear to be more successful than those in Afghanistan, where the attackers are frequently killed before they have a chance to inflict significant casualties. This either suggests that Pakistani Taliban’s operatives are considerably more effective and better trained, or that the Pakistani security forces are less capable than their Afghan and ISAF counterparts – especially given that two of the sites attacked today have been struck quite recently. Perhaps its a combination of both.

Its also worth noting that the TTP have been able to coordinate three different attack teams against three separate ‘hard’ targets across Lahore in near-simultaneous attacks, an indication of a pretty sophisticated planning capability, not to mention the men and materiel requirements.

Dying without killing?


The al-Sarafiyah Bridge in Baghdad - April 2007

Recently a reader of this blog (its good to know I have at least one) emailed pmsmartbomb at gmail dot com and asked some interesting questions about whether suicide attacks had ever been used against infrastructure targets rather than aiming at causing mass casualties.

The short answer was, yes they have.

The first incident I came across was in Iraq in 2003, when three explosive -laden boats attempted to attack an important offshore oil platform near Basra. The attack was beaten off by US naval forces, with two American fatalities. According to reports at the time the terminal was responsible for most of Iraq’s 1.9 million barrels per day of exports. So, strategically a fairly important target.

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26/11 revisited

Wpic3.jpgVanity Fair has a worthwhile article about the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. In general it does a very good job of humanising the attacks, talking with those who lived through them and those who lost family and friends.

What really comes through however is the sense of chaos that appears to have existed within the Indian security establishment as it tried to respond to the situation. Police officers on the scene, motivated although poorly equipped, sat for hours outside the Taj and Oberoi hotels and waited for their chain of command to make decisions while inside the hotels the attackers were killing, taking hostages and preparing defensive positions. It appears that they spent hours waiting for military special forces to arrive:

It would take hours for the commando force to get from New Delhi to Bombay. First they had to wait several precious hours for a plane. What went wrong? The chief minister who could have countermanded the order to wait for the commandos was out of town. The army blamed the navy. The navy blamed the Bombay police…Landing in Bombay at three a.m., the commandos found no helicopters to transport them into town. They had to wait for buses to take them.

Contrast this to the attackers, who were in constant communication with their handlers via satellite phones, receiving tactical updates from what was being reported in the media. At one point they took a hostage, and not believing his story about being a teacher, had their handler look him up online and identify him by describing the picture he found on a website.

Also of interest is the claim that Indian intelligence had warned at least two months before that the two hotels might be targeted by Pakistani militants and a range of security enhancements had been recommended but not implemented.

An interesting example of what happens when a motivated, small, dispersed group with good intelligence, planning and communications comes up against a large, rigid, slow-moving hierarchical force. Further, it shows the potential for a well-motivated group of individuals set on conducting a suicidal rather than a suicide attack (i.e. they expected to die in the course of their actions, but dying was not a prerequisite for the attack to be conducted).

Update: On reflection, I wonder if Mumbai was a bit like 9/11, in that it changed the rules of the game. On 9/11, one of the hijackers’ key advantages was that no-one expected them to fly the aircraft into buildings. All the responses, from the unfortunate souls on the aircraft through to the military expected them to land the aircraft and negotiate. Perhaps one of the reasons the response to Mumbai was so slow and ineffective was that the paradigm they had prepared for was that if armed men stormed a building, they were expected to barricade themselves, take hostages and wait for the negotiations to begin. Police would have expected to secure the perimeter, wait for specialist back-up and then slowly work towards a negotiated settlement or a violent but brief and (relatively) controlled storming of the building. Even the Chechens took and held hostages for a period of time (although things tended not to end well in those instances).

One wonders how police forces in the West would have handled this? How would the Met police in London have coped if 10 heavily armed men had gone on the rampage in Canary Wharf? I struggle to think of any instances where police firearms teams in the UK have had to face well-armed, serious opposition. How many Armed Response Units could they have mustered, deployed and coordinated? I’m sure they would have had to ask for military back-up also – though I guess it would not take eight hours to get from Hereford to London.

Update 2: I asked the above question over at the Small Wars Journal and got a fairly detailed response from a UK police officer:

I suspect that even the Met (MPS) would struggle to respond and rely on containment in the first hour. Containment of the scene would be from a distance, choosing Canary Wharf as your example would help the MPS, rather than say another symbolic target in London, say a major railway station. This first response would absorb all the 24/7 three-man response cars (last figure was eight on duty) and others available e.g. Diplomatic Protection (far larger numbers). Even they would IMHO be quickly be outgunned and run out of ammunition; H&K machine pistols being standard issue. Back-up from better armed and trained full SWAT-like teams would follow, from planned operations and training. Even with those teams deployed it would be containment.

After the MPS come other police SWAT teams, e.g. Ministry of Defence Police (usually on guard duty) and the London-based Special Forces contingent (for VIP protection etc).

See the full answer here.