Terrorism Tradecraft

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October 4, 2012 | 0900 GMT

By Scott Stewart

One of the distinctive features of Stratfor’s terrorism and security analysis  is its focus on the methodology of attacks. Of course, identifying those  responsible for an attack is important, especially in ensuring that the  perpetrators are brought to justice. But Stratfor believes that analyzing the  way in which an attack was conducted is more important because it can prevent  future attacks and protect potential victims. It is likewise important to  recognize that even if a terrorist is killed or arrested, other groups and  individuals share terrorist tactics. Sometimes this comes from direct  interaction. For example, many of the Marxist terrorist groups that trained  together in South Yemen, Lebanon and Libya in the 1980s employed similar  tactics. Otherwise, a tactic’s popularity is derived from its effectiveness.  Indeed, several terrorist groups adopted airline hijacking in the 1960s and  1970s.

The mechanics of terrorism go far beyond target selection and the method of  attack. This is especially true of aspiring transnational terrorists. Basic  military skills may be helpful in waging terrorist attacks in areas where a  militant group has access to men, weapons and targets — such was the case with Ansar al-Sharia in  Benghazi, Libya — but an entirely different set of skills is required to  operate in a hostile environment or at a distance. This set of skills is known  as terrorist tradecraft.

Foundational Skills

Before an attack can be planned, an aspiring terrorist group must be  organized, funded and trained. Would-be terrorists in Libya, Yemen or Pakistan’s  North Waziristan agency can achieve these things relatively easily. However,  aspiring terrorists in New York, London and Paris encounter more difficulty. The  recent arrests of such terrorists in the West, most recently the Sept.  15 arrest of a would-be jihadist in Chicago, show just how difficult it can  be to find like-minded individuals to organize a terrorist cell.

Therefore, operational security is a critical skill that must be mastered to  protect the fledgling organization from infiltration by law enforcement or  intelligence agencies. Every person brought into the group decreases the group’s  operational security. So the very existence of the group must remain hidden, and  every new member must be thoroughly vetted to ensure they are not plants. As the  organization matures and becomes involved in actual attacks, operational  security will continue to be vitally important to the organization’s success and  survival.

A key sub-skill to operational security is the ability to procure false  identification documents. False identification is required for more than just  international travel; these documents are required for domestic travel as well  as for commercial transactions, such as buying or renting vehicles, procuring  safe-houses and purchasing firearms, explosives and other components of  manufactured explosives and improvised explosive devices. False documents are  more important for operatives or organizations that want to attack continually  than they are for suicide bombers, provided the authorities do not know the  identity of the bomber and provided the bomber can travel to the operational  destination.

Establishing a secure form of communication is also a priority. As a  terrorist group grows, communication tradecraft must evolve beyond the verbal  communication. Naturally, the more members a group has, and the farther away  they are from one another, the more challenging secure communication  becomes.

Once a group is securely organized, the members must fund their operations.  Indeed, the ability to transfer funds clandestinely is a skill closely related  to communication. Funding varies greatly from organization and location. Some  terrorist groups obtain funding from the surrounding population. In places where  the group is seen as fighting a colonial power or a dictator, financial support  may be willingly given. In other circumstances, the population may give support  grudgingly through extortion or informal taxes levied by the terrorist  group.

State sponsors are another source of funding, as are wealthy individuals  sympathetic to the terrorists’ causes. Terrorists also are funded through  illegal activity, including large-scale narcotics sales, which are frequently  used by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the Taliban. Hezbollah  generates revenue through cigarette tax fraud and through selling counterfeit  goods and fake prescription drugs. Kidnapping is also an age-old method of  funding terrorism.

The Attack

With organizational structure and funding in place, the terrorist  organization can then turn to acquiring the skills necessary to conduct an  attack. But to understand the tradecraft skills required to conduct an attack,  one must first recognize that attacks do not happen randomly. They are the  result of planning that follows a discernable attack cycle.

The specific skills required  to conduct an attack can range from constructing an improvised explosive device  to marksmanship, to driving a truck or even piloting a jumbo jet. Sometimes  these skills can be acquired legally by joining a gun club or attending driver  or pilot training. In other instances, skills like bombmaking must be learned  illicitly, either by trial and error or by attending a terrorist training camp.

Perhaps the most important tradecraft skill in the attack planning cycle  is surveillance  tradecraft, or the ability to observe a potential target without alerting  anyone that the target is being watched. The vulnerabilities noted during  surveillance are frequently used in selecting the target. Further surveillance  is often used to plan the attack, and then another round of surveillance may be  conducted as part of the attack to track the target’s progress to the attack  site.

Planning the attack is another tradecraft skill, which requires the ability  to observe a target, identify a security weakness and then contrive a means to  exploit the vulnerability. The best planners devise novel approaches, such as  using jumbo jets as human-guided cruise missiles, or invent ways to disguise  more traditional devices, like improvised explosive devices, in such items as  dolls, radios, shoes, underwear, bottles of contact lens solution, brassieres  and pregnancy prosthetics.

An attack tradecraft component that has often proved vulnerable  during the attack planning cycle is weapons acquisition. In fact, many  attacks were disrupted when the plotters attempted  to procure firearms or explosives.

Operational security continues to be important during the attack planning  phase. Operatives must be able to create believable cover stories to explain  their presence and actions in certain locations. This cover ranges from clothing  — wearing a telephone company uniform while conducting a kidnapping or dressing  as a road repair crewmember to plant an improvised explosive device, for example  — to renting a farm in order to purchase large quantities of ammonium nitrate  fertilizer, a common ingredient in improvised explosive mixtures.

Projecting Power

Generally, these tradecraft skills are not concentrated in one member of a  terrorist organization. Some people will be proficient at surveillance while  some have a knack for making money or procuring weapons. Others may be good at  manufacturing improvised explosive mixtures or assembling improvised explosive  devices. However, this is true only of groups operating in their native  areas.

The problem comes when a group wants to project power and conduct  transnational attacks outside its core territory. In such a case, the group must  identify a person proficient in a number of these tradecraft skills who can  conduct an operation alone or with the assistance of a small group. This person  must also be able to travel to the targeted country — a requirement that has  caused groups like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to attempt transnational  strikes from afar. The fact that the al Qaeda franchise’s attempts to go long  have all failed — the underwear bomber and the printer bomb plots, for example  — demonstrates how difficult such plots are.

Many groups simply cannot plan and execute complex transnational attacks like  the 9/11 plot and the Mumbai attacks. However, this does not mean they are not  threats. Operating in their home territory, they are very capable of causing  carnage. This holds true not only for jihadist groups like the Islamic State of  Iraq or the Haqqani network in Pakistan, but also for groups like al Qaeda  in the Islamic Maghreb, Somalia’s al Shabaab and Nigeria’s Boko Haram — all of  which have a demonstrated ability to conduct devastating attacks against targets  located in their home territories. In fact, the impact of Ansar al-Sharia’s  Benghazi attack may be regarded as a pattern, which shows how an attack that  required very little transnational terrorist tradecraft nonetheless had a large  international impact

Read more: Terrorism Tradecraft | Stratfor

Terrorism Tradecraft is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

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