Of the various misconceptions surrounding terrorism, a surprisingly common one is the misunderstanding about the political motivations behind terrorism. This might sound surprising because, as many of you know, the political aim of terrorism actually appears in its dictionary definition. And yet, the misunderstanding persists.
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for this is because when people think back to specific terrorist attacks and recall the chilling images that were portrayed in the media, many tend to impulsively declare that the sole intent of such shocking attacks is to create death and destruction. Slightly more reflective people will claim that terrorists are indeed trying to create death and destruction, but that this is in order for people to live in terror – hence the term Terrorism. The misconception that is contained in both of these claims is a classic case of mistaking tools for goals.
Yes, it is true that most terrorist attacks cause death and destruction, and that death and destruction evoke feelings of terror, but these are merely tools (or sub-goals at best). Terrorism’s ultimate goal is for the feeling of terror to affect public opinion in such a way that it trickles into the political system – bringing about the desirable political change (declaration of war, pulling out of troops, granting independence, cutting economic ties, etc).
This misconception is one which people should not be be blamed for harboring. That’s because this misconception is deliberately created by the perpetrators of such attacks, and for very good reasons. When people think that the only goal of terrorist attacks is the creation of death and destruction, they usually assume – wrongly – that planning such attacks is a quick and simple affair. What, after all, is so difficult about placing a homemade bomb on a random busy street?
Most terrorist organizations want people to wrongly believe it’s easy for them to carry out such attacks. If you think it’s easy to plan and carry out a terrorist attack, you will be much more likely to believe the type of declarations they make after their attacks, in which they warn that you and everyone you know are never safe, that you can be reached at any place at any time. The idea here is to convince as many people as possible that they too can be personally and physically affected by terrorist attacks – thereby creating a terrorizing multiplier effect.
The reality of terrorist attacks is that in relative terms, only very few people can actually be harmed. Casualty numbers from most terrorist attacks in the west usually range from single individuals to dozens. Only in very rare cases (like 9-11) will these casualty figures range up to the hundreds. And though dozens or hundreds of casualties might sound like a lot, the idea is to affect tens of millions of people by convincing each and every one of them that this could just as easily happen to them.
This type of multiplier effect is crucial for terrorist organizations because political systems are much more effectively swayed by widespread public opinion than by small scale, localized ones. Case in point is the 2004 Madrid bombings. These attacks caused the deaths of 191 people and wounded over 2000, but their real effect was in swaying millions of people to elect the anti war socialist party only three days later. The newly elected Spanish government then proceeded to pull its troops out of the Iraq war. This is a prime example of the unfortunate effectiveness of terrorism, and how it enables relatively localized attacks to have profound national, and even international, effects.
One way to start understanding how difficult it actually is to plan and carry out a terrorist attack is to follow a deductive process and to reverse engineer the attack to figure out how it was planned. Again, if the goal is to simply create random death and destruction, then there might not be all that much planning involved, but if the goal is of a political nature, we are likely to find much more planning behind it. Suddenly, every little detail becomes important – from the exact location and timing to the scale, type of attack and profile of the victims. And indeed, studies show that terrorist attacks have statistically longer planning stages than any other type of crime.
It is these planning stages that we, as proactive security professionals, seek to disrupt in an attempt to prevent rather than react to attacks. For this reason, it becomes more important than ever to understand the hostile planning process of an attack. Only once we understand this type of hostile planning, locate its weaknesses, and learn from case studies, will we be able to disrupt it and prevent it from manifesting itself into an actual attack.
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