As I write this post, French police are cordoning off Paris streets, counting bodies, and trying to figure out how to mobilize enough forensics people to investigate at least six, and possibly seven different crime scenes. In one of those bizarre episodes of synchronicity that haunt my life, it just so happens that while the terrorists were moving into position to begin their attack I was writing about terrorism in a game forum. One of the many concepts that popped up in that thread was the idea that terrorists are just another kind of criminal. They might be a bit more ruthless, they might be driven by zealotry, but many people believe there is no difference between a terrorist and a serial killer. Completely unaware of the horror about to be unleashed on Paris streets, I replied:
This is a badly mistaken assumption that has been propagandized relentlessly by elements in society that do not understand the nature of terrorism in general, and Islamic terrorism in particular. Every terrorist has a political objective. Period. That objective might be a cover or disguise for simple wealth gathering or sadism (as in the Die Hard series), but this is extremely unusual and I can say with complete confidence it is not something I have ever encountered in the real world. All terror organizations are political in nature, even when they use religious justification for their actions. Terrorists are soldiers in a war with a specific agenda and terror is the strategy they use to fight that war. They are not the same as serial killers, serial rapists, drug dealers, grifters, or common thugs. It is a dangerous mistake to attempt to understand their organizations and motivations using the same thinking as one applies to understanding the criminal mind. They are not criminals. They are soldiers.
Because their goals and objectives are political, they are armies and not gangs. Granted, some of them are poorly organized and poorly equipped, but that does not make them thugs. Their motivations are completely different. Their emotional and psychological weaknesses are completely different. Their entire internal landscape is completely different. When you think of them as criminals you make it easier for them to accomplish their objectives because you put in place entirely ineffective and inefficient security measures. You cannot stop terrorism by using the same tools as you would use for fighting crime. Doing so just makes their job easier because they assume right from the beginning that they will have to find a way to avoid those kind of security measures. Because they think and plan differently than criminals, they simply go around security measures designed to stop crime. In most cases, it doesn't even slow them down.
This morning I was just as horrified as the citizens of Paris to discover the lessons from Mumbai had not been applied. Back in November 2008 the city of Mumbai experienced our world's first swarm attack by Islamic terrorists. (Wikipedia: 2008 Mumbai Attacks) Although I and many other people pointed out that this would be the trend of future terror operations, no one paid attention. (Brian's Meandering Mind, March 4, 2009: A Deadly, Persistent Swarm of Gnats) In January of this year, Islamic terrorists fired another shot across the bow with a two-point swarm attack on the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine. (Wikipedia: Charlie Hebdo Shooting) Once again I pointed out that swarm attacks would become regular occurrences as nimble terror groups using the global internet to recruit and teach strategy to Islamic radicals worldwide inspired local radicals in diverse locations to take action against the modern world. (Brian's Meandering Mind, January 8, 2015: Irony and Hypocrisy) This strategy is going to become far more widespread and frequent as the lessons from each new attack are learned by terrorist leaders.
One approach is to improve government access to the infamous "Darknet" by providing law enforcement and intelligence services with the tools they need to break through high levels of encryption and gain access to internet traffic flowing between foreign Islamic terror groups and local recruits. (Info Security Magazine: Countering the Terrorism Cyber-threat) As governments gain better access to tools for breaking encryption, Darknet providers and hackers improve their own tool sets to protect their hidden domains and social networks. (Rollingstone: Is the Government Destroying the "Wild West" of the Internet?) Focusing on cyberwarfare is an important approach to breaking down the communication networks used by terrorists to recruit, plan, and execute global attacks, but cyberwarfare alone is not enough.
In order for a swarm attack to succeed, several factors must come together all at the same time. The attackers need a source of weapons and ammunition. They need transportation to the attack site, and possibly transportation away from the attack site. To coordinate distractions and diversions they need constant, real-time communication in addition to secondary personnel willing to conduct these secondary attacks. However, the single most important element in a successful swarm attack is a compliant, defenseless target that concentrates large numbers of helpless people in a confined space. In the case of the Mumbai terror attack, the principle target was the railway station. It was only after succeeding there that the attackers moved into the city to their secondary objectives of hotels, cafes, and bars. In Paris, a variety of small attacks and drive-by shootings provided the diversion necessary for three terrorists to slaughter a massive number of people in a packed concert hall. Numerous witnesses emerged from the concert hall reporting that the terrorists had at least fifteen minutes to fire indiscriminately into the tightly packed crowd and then to search through the concert hall for hidden survivors. Fifteen minutes is more than enough time for a skilled AK-47 shooter to unleash a couple thousand rounds at a wide variety of targets, particularly if those targets are in close proximity to one another.
There are two ways to counter a swarm attack: put up an obstacle that is impossible for the attackers to scale and/or provide a much higher level of response by the target than the attackers anticipate. The problem with the first strategy is that no matter how good your obstacle is, sooner or later there will be enough attackers to swarm over it and around it and reach the target. Increasing the number of law enforcement, providing law enforcement better equipment, pre-positioning law enforcement at possible targets, and even restricting access by ordinary citizens to weapons and ammunition are all examples of building bigger obstacles. With time, planning, and careful execution, all of these obstacles can be surmounted by a determined team of attackers. It is impossible to stop a swarm attack simply by erecting obstacles. Notice, for example, how badly this strategy has failed in Israel. (Haaretz: Gazans Work to Repair Flooded Smuggling Tunnels)
That leaves us with the second option: provide a much higher level of response by the target than the attackers anticipate.
Sooner or later swarm attacks by terrorists will happen in the United States. It is inevitable. We are, after all, "The Great Satan" that every single Islamic terror group in the world seeks to destroy. Naturally, even governments like Iran and North Korea would like to see the United States implode from our enduring flirtation with utopian delusions. When those attacks begin, they will target "Gun-free Zones" with dense crowds. Shopping malls, NFL/MLB stadiums, as well as arenas for basketball, hockey, and concerts will all be high priority targets. Broadway theaters, Wall Street corporate headquarters, subway and train stations would also be viable targets because all of them restrict access points while demanding people disarm before entering. "Shooting fish in a barrel" is what happened at the concert hall in Paris and it is also what will happen when terrorists finally start attacking targets in America.
I suggest we start arming the fish.
Expanding concealed carry in the United States is the only viable strategy for countering swarm attacks by terrorists. Back in August three Americans and one Briton thwarted a lone wolf terror attack on a French train. (NY Post: How American Heroes Stopped a Terrorist) The most important response to a swarm attack will not come from law enforcement racing to assist, nor from armed guards pre-positioned to respond. In any small arms based ground attack, the most important first responders are the intended victims. How many lives could have been saved if only five concert attendees in Paris had been armed? Even if they died in the resulting shootout, armed civilians in the audience could have provided precious minutes for greater numbers of people to escape through the emergency exits. When a swarm attack does finally occur in the United States, your only hope for survival will be either the ability to immediately respond with a firearm of your own or the presence of someone else with a legal concealed weapon. If the intended victims respond with gunfire of their own then the swarm attackers will be unable to press their attack and will be forced to delay, retreat, or accept fewer casualties than they planned to achieve.
This is also why I advocate for the entire world to codify local equivalents to our Second Amendment. It is only when every citizen is armed that terrorists and criminals both must ask themselves if dying to achieve little or nothing is really worth the effort of planning and execution. It takes months to plan a Mumbai or Paris-style swarm attack. It takes tens of thousands of dollars to secure weapons, ammunition, and transportation. If a terrorist group or even a criminal group knows their intended victims are likely to return fire and end their attack before it even starts, they will be far less likely to invest the time and money into setting up the attack in the first place. This will force them to fall back on car bombs, suitcase bombs, and other indiscriminate weapons which can be more easily detected and prevented from arriving on the scene. As we saw recently in Egypt, terrorists are still more than happy to look for ways to bring down airliners filled with people. (International Business Times: Metrojet Flight 9268 Crash Update) We have already put in place countless obstacles to planting a bomb on an airliner and yet this is still a viable strategy for anyone seeking to create massive casualties with minimal investment. The very least we could do is not make the same mistake in our efforts to thwart the much simpler to counter swarm attack.
As I pointed out in a game forum last night, we cannot fight terrorism using the same kind of thinking we use when fighting crime. Terrorists are smarter, better equipped, and more prone to developing detailed plans than criminals. The vast majority of crimes are crimes of opportunity or passion. They are unplanned forays into simple overpowering of the prey by the criminal predator. Like all predators, the criminal seeks out the weakest victim in the most vulnerable position, then strikes and walks off with their reward. Terrorists have a much different objective. They are seeking to make a political statement and achieve a political goal. In order to do this, they will invest as little resources as possible in creating the maximum amount of terror. Remember the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? (Wikipedia: Boston Marathon Bombing) After running over and abandoning his brother, the surviving terrorist eluded a 30 hour manhunt involving seven different law enforcement agencies, thousands of law enforcement officers, and costing untold millions of dollars. He was finally found cowering in a boat by a civilian several hours after the search was called off. Tens of thousands of Americans were imprisoned in their own homes "for their own protection" while militarized law enforcement teams combed their hometown only to completely fail in their primary objective: arresting a single poorly armed terror suspect. This is what happens when we use the same kind of thinking to pursue a terrorist as we would to pursue a common criminal.
Creating obstacles to terrorism has completely failed. The time has come to allow the intended victims the opportunity to arm and train themselves in preparation for that fateful day when they encounter a terrorist face to face. We cannot stop a swarm attack with better policing. A swarm attack can only be stopped by the first person on the scene: the intended victim.