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.


Interview Insights


Two of the central themes of my research are (a) the centrality of the organization in executing suicide attacks and (b) the extent to which the capability of the organization impacts on the characteristics and outcomes of the suicide attacks it mounts. So it was with some interest that I read these latest articles by Ariel Merari[i] et al, detailing the process and results from a series of interviews carried out with both would-be suicide attackers and their handlers (those who organize the attacks). This is significant, because not a great deal is known about the motivations or characteristics of those who organize suicide attacks.[ii]

Methodologically, Merari and the rest of the study team conducted a series of semi-structured interviews and psychological assessments of three groups of Palestinian prisoners held within Israeli jails (a group of failed suicide attackers, a group of attack organizers, and a control group made of those involved in more conventional political violence and protest). The articles also recount some interesting detail about the discussions that took place with the in-prison leadership of the groups (Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade/Fatah) these interviewees belonged to in order to gain cooperation for the study to take place.

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Practice makes perfect

Arrest of 21/7 would-be bombers


Michael Kenney’s recent article in Terrorism and Political Violence is one of the most level-headed assessments of the threat posed by so-called ‘homegrown’ violent jihadists I have read. As Kenney points out, a lot of the researchers and pundits working in the terrorism field tend to (incorrectly) associate the possession of technical knowledge ‘artifacts’ with the ability to use that knowledge effectively. Indeed UK counter-terrorism legislation makes it an offence to be in possession with items likely to be of use to terrorists. A number of individuals have been charged with merely possessing such items.

The article draws a crucial distinction between what Kenney refers to as techne, or abstract technical knowledge, and mētis, or intuitive, practical knowledge. In the context of suicide attacks, techne might relate to manuals or instructional videos which demonstrate how to construct an explosive suicide vest. Mētis on the other hand might involve knowing, based on experience, how to construct such a device with the materials in your local environment.

As Kenney notes, simply reading about how to manufacture explosives is unlikely to allow an novice bomb-maker to create an effective and useable device, and this is why in recent examples such as the 7 July 2005 suicide attacks in London the perpetrators had travelled to Pakistan to receive instruction in bomb-making. (Its worth noting that the 21 July 2005 attacks may have failed because the cell leader, Muktar Said Ibrahim, did not have sufficient mētis to construct functioning devices – he claimed to have acquired the instructions from a CD, though there is evidence that he travelled to Pakistan also). Kenney also points out that the London and Glasgow attacks of 2007 (the so-called ‘Doctors’ Plot) failed because the two perpetrators, despite a medical/scientific background, did not know what they were doing.

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The State of the Art

ResearchBlogging.orgCrenshaw, M. (2007). “Explaining Suicide Terrorism: A Review Essay” Security Studies, 16 (1), 133-162 DOI: 10.1080/09636410701304580

This article by Martha Crenshaw was one of the reasons I got into my research topic. It was an important piece of analysis, pulling together the various strands which comprised an emerging area of research and injected a good deal of common sense to the debate. In essence, it cuts a swathe through the existing field of research on suicide attackers, highlighting conceptual problems, factual inconsistencies  and weak assertions or conclusions that have been drawn by several researchers.

For example, Crenshaw highlights the difficulty surrounding the issue of defining suicide attacks, pointing out that several authors (notably Robert Pape and Mia Bloom) tend to use ‘suicide terrorism’ as a blanket term for all suicide attacks, regardless of their intended target or purpose. Crenshaw points out that in many instances suicide attackers have targeted government and military targets rather than civilians. This is certainly an assertion which has been borne out by my own research and when capturing and analyzing data on attacks I have sought to draw a distinction between attacks aimed at causing civilian mass casualties and those apparently aimed at military or security forces.

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Dispersed or dangerous?

ResearchBlogging.org If a good deal of the research into terrorism and violent non-state actors is to be believed, the trend towards such groups acting in a dispersed, networked fashion makes them highly effective but largely invulnerable to interdiction or counter-attack by the sluggish, unwieldy, hierarchically structured forces of the state arrayed against them. Such assertions are particularly frequently made with reference to ‘al-Qaida’ – which, depending on your view, is (or at least was) the deadliest terrorist group in history, a loose correlation of aspirational cells, a rallying point, a mythology or just a ‘bunch of guys’ in a cave in Pakistan with a good sense of PR and a video camera.

Calvert Jones presents an alternative viewpoint to the inherent superiority of the networked group in a 2006 article in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs. Jones points out that, in theory, networks provide fast, reliable access to the right people and resources (p. 563), but that in dispersed networks with poor or blocked lines of communication, this may not occur, preventing those with the intent or motivation to carry out some form of violent attack from getting hold of the necessary knowledge, skills or material.

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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.