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.


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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Al-Maqdisi and targeting

Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi

Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi

Marisa Urgo, of the ever illuminating Making Sense of Jihad blog has an interesting post up today about the changing ideological views of jihadi theorist Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi (former spiritual mentor of the late al-Qaida in Iraq leader al-Zarqawi and who the CTC centre at Wespoint has labelled the most important thinker in the salafist-jihadist movement).

Urgo points to a recent interview in which al-Maqdisi speaks against the deliberate targeting of Muslims in jihadist attacks, saying

The iniquity of letting 1,000 infidels escape is smaller than the sin of shedding a drop of blood of any Muslim. Therefore, one should not be lenient about the sin of shedding the blood of Muslims based on suspicion, jihad, or other things. Indeed, the blood and properties of disobedient Muslims cannot be violated even if they commit iniquities. It is our duty to call them into religion and try to bring them from darkness to light and not to engage with them in battles.


I have written on this many times and I dissociated myself from the undisciplined operations that others commit outside the bounds of shari’ah – operations that result in thousands of victims and in which much blood is shed without any legitimate benefits to jihad or Muslims

Certainly in the latter quote, he appears to be distancing himself from AQI and his former protege. Urgo also suggests that al-Qaida core follows al-Maqdisi’s thinking closely and that this may lead them to focus more on attacking political and security figures rather than the wider population. Though presumably this restraint is intended to be applied to Muslim populations only, leaving non-believing civilians as legitimate targets.