Attacking public spaces: an emerging operational targeting pattern against the “softest” amongst the “soft-targets”? – by Emilio Palmieri

Over the recent months, transnational violent extremist networks have been responsible for what appears to  be an emerging targeting pattern: attacks against public places like restaurants, bars, pubs or small markets. The following commentary tries to explore whether these significant events may represent a trend in the operational approach that is currently being adopted.

What we know.

We would offer a quick review of the essential elements concerning 3 cases of attacks that have been carried out against limited, pinpointed but highly impacting “soft-targets” of the kind under scrutiny by “red forces“, using small arms (mainly assault rifles) and based on a specific scheme of maneuver:

09 January 2015 Paris, Hypercacher Kosher Supermarket 1 IS affiliate Hostage taking situation, targeted killing –   4 civilians murdered

–   1 terrorist dead (as a result of the police raid)

13 November 2015 Paris,

a. Le Carillon Café (outside), Restaurant Le Petit Cambodge (inside)

b. Café Bonne Bière (outside)

. Restaurant La Belle Équipe (outside)

d. Comptoir Voltaire Café (inside)

3 IS affiliates Indiscriminate killing a. 15 civilians murdered, 10 wounded, 2/3 terrorists fled the scene

b. 5 civilians murdered, 8 wounded, a terrorist fled the scene

c. 19 civilians murdered, 9 wounded, 2 terrorists fled the scene

d. 19 civilians wounded, 1 terrorist dead (suicide operation)

01 January 2016 Tel Aviv, Simta Pub 1 terrorist (unknown affiliation) Targeted killing –  2 civilians murdered

–   the terrorist fled the scene

What we do not know.

At this time, we do not have any solid and confirmed information if the abovementioned events are indications/warnings of plans, intentions and capabilities pertaining to a new enduring campaign which is currently being carried out by violent extremist networks; or if the attacks are sporadic and unrelated incidents.

What we think.

The following are insights that might be related to the subject:

morphing tactics: a targeting shift from attacks against larger and “harder” soft-targets (like hotels, malls, stadiums) that over the years have been engaged with complex attacks (the so called Mumbai-styled);

operatives: usually lone actors or a pair (belonging to a larger attack network if/when committed to hitting multiple targets simultaneously), often residents, sometimes cyber-linked with a larger network, come of them cyber-radicalized, with a possible military experience, with the suicide option not always considered (in order to assault more targets following an escalating pattern);

the targeting cycle: the process seems to be easier than the one applied for attacking complex infrastructures; the assailants do not need to swarm and saturate the target, they do not need communication equipments given the solitary execution of the attack; a deliberate (planned) targeting process is being used and is based on information gathered through human assets: the takfiris employ deception – like drinking alcohol or hanging out with girls –  in order to better infiltrate target sites;

weaponeering: instead of making use of several weapons and explosives usually pre-positioned in improvised caches close to the target (in so doing exposing the plan to failure), the attackers just use individual weapons (automatic rifles, suicide vests) carried directly by themselves;

the timing: the attacks, when non-suicidal, are usually rapid actions executed with a massive employment of fire and with the escape of the author in order to conduct follow-on operations;

operational options: several courses of actions are being considered like direct actions, indiscriminate shooting, hostage-taking situation, the suicidal option;

less expeditionary, more domestic: the shift implies that violent networks tend to avoid resorting to operatives coming from abroad (easy to track and tackle) but they gain tactical advantage by employing local assets while maintaining operational security;

second order effect: the relevance of a single event (a tactical action against a limited target) that, given the nature of the objective, delivers a strategic outcome which multiplies the terror effect and the following propagation of fear;

enduring implications for “blue forces”: authorities responsible for keeping public order and security will be forced to develop capabilities and capacities for a more territorial spread swat-like police force specifically trained and equipped in order to provide first responses.