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.

Inside a school for suicide bombers

I discovered earlier today this video up on the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) website. I’ve been vaguely aware of TED for a while, but this TED Talk caught my attention, for obvious reasons. Its given by a female documentary maker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who hails from Pakistan.

Entitled ‘Inside a school for suicide bombers’, her talk revolves around her new documentary, ‘Children of the Taliban’. The video shown during the talk centres on excerpts from Taliban propaganda coupled with interviews Obain-Chinoy has conducted with children who have been through the schools she claims the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) are now running expressly to indoctrinate children.

The talk outlines what Obaid-Chinoy beleives is the TTP’s five-step process for turning young boys into suicide attackers:

  1. The recruiters target large, poor rural families who can’t afford to look after all their children; with promises that their kids will be fed, sheltered and educated, the parents give up their children to the recruiters.
  2. The children are taken to madrassas where they are taught to read the Koran, in Arabic (which they don’t understand). So they are reliant on the instructors to teach and interpret the Koran for them. The kids are banned from reading or listening to any external media source, thereby isolating them from all external views and events.
  3. The kids are taught to hate the world they live in, through a process of beatings, underfeeding, and a ban on any form of recreation. All the children do is read the Koran for eight hours at a time.
  4. Older Taliban fighters are then brought in to tell the kids about the glories of martyrdom and the rewards that will await them in the afterlife if they sacrifice themselves.
  5. The Taliban show the children propaganda films showing the deaths of civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, telling them that the Western powers and their local client states do not care about civilian casualties and thus civilians who support the government are legitimate targets.

Its a pretty interesting talk, particulalry the segment where she interviews a boy who has been through the process and she asks him:

‘Do you want to carry out a suicide attack?’. To which he replies ‘I would love to. But only if I get permission from my Dad. When I look at suicide bombers younger than me, or my age, I get so inspired by their terrific attacks’.

Time to start trawling through the TED archive perhaps.

Attacks in Pakistan, Iraq

Following on from yesterday’s assaults in Lahore and Kohat, there was another suicide VBIED attack on a police investigation agency building in Peshawar. Eleven were killed and 15 injured, including three police officers.

Initially it was reported that the attacker might have been a woman on a motorcycle.  However, police have apparently now retracted this claim and think the woman may have been an innocent bystander.

Police now believe a woman seen near the scene on a motorcycle was an innocent victim and had been a passenger on a motorcycle travelling behind the car bomb, reports the BBC’s Aleem Maqbool in Islamabad.

This would have been significant as it is virtually unheard of for women to mount suicide attacks in the region. The only such case I am aware of was in December 2007 when a woman tried to attack a military checkpoint in Peshawar.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, there was an attack in Tal Afar, near Mosul. A bomber detonated himself in a Sunni mosque. Apparently the atacker first shot the mosque’s imam and then blew himself up, killing eight and wounding 30. I suspect this will turn out to be another AQ in Iraq hit on someone who was opposing them locally. There appears to be a tendency for these attacks to occur during Friday prayers – presumably because it represents a fixed point in time and space when they can be sure the target will be present. I wonder if there is a religious element also?

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.

Increasingly bloody attacks in Pakistan

Hakimullah Mehsud

Following on from the attack on the Pakistani military’s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, and a mass casualty attack on a market on 9 October, there has been another suicide VBIED in the North West Frontier Province. Reportedly a VBIED struck a military vehicle in a marketplace in Alpuri, killing at least 40 people and wounding many more. Ten of the dead are said to have been military personnel.

What is interesting about this is that, to date, suicide attacks against military and security forces in Pakistan have been relatively discriminating (in that they did not normally have very high levels of collateral civilian casualties).  Previously, mass civilian casualty attacks have been limited to sectarian attacks on Shia mosques or neighbourhoods.

When Hakimullah Mehsud became the leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, he was described as reckless and more aggressive than his predecessors. So with this attack and the incident on the 9th, where another 40+ were killed in an apparently indiscriminate attack on a market in Peshawar, it might be that we are about to see a much more lethal set of incidents in Pakistan, as the TTP become less fussy about who they kill in their attacks. As Pakistan gears for a much-heralded offensive against the TTP, there may be bloody days ahead.

Mass casualty attack in Peshawar

From the The Associated Press:

A suicide car bomber detonated his vehicle along a road near a well-known market in Pakistan’s northwest city of Peshawar on Friday, killing 41 people and underscoring militants’ ability to strike in major cities despite

Television footage showed the charred skeleton of a bus flipped on its side in the middle of a major road. Twisted remains of a motorbike lay alongside the bus. A nearby vehicle was in flames.

Peshawar Police Chief Liaqat Ali Khan said the attacker was in a car packed with “a huge quantity of explosives and artillery rounds.” A minibus apparently carrying passengers nearby was also leveled in the blast.

Pakistani Taliban claim UN atack

Hakimullah Mehsud

Hakimullah Mehsud

The Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan) have claimed responsibility for yesterday’s  attack on a UN office in Islamabad, stating that international relief is not in the interest of Muslims. A Taliban spokesman is reported as saying:

“We proudly claim the responsibility for the suicide attack at the U.N. office in Islamabad. We will send more bombers for such attacks..The U.N. and other foreign (aid groups) are not working for the interest of Muslims. We are watching their activities. They are infidels.”

As far as I am aware this is the first time a suicide attack has hit a major NGO in Pakistan. I wonder how this will impact on the UN’s operations in the region. When their HQ in Baghdad was attacked by a suicide cement-truck bomb in August 2003, killing 17, the organisation pulled out for some time.