(Editor’s Note: The Grugq is an information security researcher and operational security expert. Over the past few years, he’s been kind enough to share with me a good deal of knowledge about operational security and clandestine activity. I highly recommend that you follow him on Twitter here.)
ISIS is fielding a junior varsity team of terrorists who are running circles around the counter terrorism professionals. One reason for their success is that Team ISIS has decided that they’ll play for smaller stakes than Team al Qaeda. No more “airplane plot,” they’re content to have a guy (try to) shoot up a train, or shoot up some restaurants and a concert hall. The combination of low stakes, cheap attacks, and young terrorists leads to some interesting phenomena.
Fast, Cheap and Out of Control
The [Islamic State] group also did not use traditional lines of communication he said, making them harder to trace.
The source agreed with Mr Harvey’s assessment that because Al-Qaeda traditionally engaged in operations that took a lot of planning, he and his colleagues had had a better chance of thwarting the attacks: “their communications were easier to monitored because there was more of them,” the source said. “The focus on smaller attacks makes them faster and harder to stop.”
Source: The Telegraph
Simple attacks involving gunmen require less planning than car bombs, are affordable without a huge bank roll (enabling self financed terrorist), and are capable of running at a high operational tempo even without significant coordination. This makes gunmen based attacks more feasible, faster to iterate, and less reliant on command and control.
Smaller attack plans allow for faster iterations, and more attempts. By sheer volume they are bound to get lucky eventually. They require less planning and preparation, which allows for smaller cells and less operational chatter, making them safer for terrorists. Additionally, gunmen are generally deadlier than bombs, and require less skill than mixing explosives and assembling an IED.
Pay Peanuts, Get Monkeys
ISIS can maintain a high operational tempo using self funding operators who plan and execute their own attacks with minimal oversight. In theory. In practice, the low skill DIY terrorists have not been particularly effective.
- January 2015: an ISIS terrorist attempts to aid the Charlie Hebdo shooters storms a grocery store, killing 4. Operatives: 1, Leaders: 0
- February 2015: Abaaoud’s first planned attack ended in failure (both operatives died in a gun fight). Operatives: 2, Leaders: 0
- April 2015: An ISIS terrorist shoots himself in the leg, aborting his mission. Operatives: 1, Leaders: 0
- August 2015: An ISIS terrorist is tackled by passengers when he tries to shoot up a train. Operatives: 1, Leaders: 0
- November 2015: ISIS terrorists conduct a multi pronged assault on Paris, killing 130. Operatives: 9, Leaders: 2
Although conducting an attack with only one or two operatives is fast, cheap and easy, it is also unlikely to succeed. When ISIS needed an attack to actually work, they sent seasoned fighters and, crucially — two commanders on the ground. Rather than sending emails or texting instructions, these guys were there directing things personally. This was a critical factor in the success of the more complicated Nov ’15 Paris attacks.
Is there a downside to sending any random loser who comes along out as a card carrying ISIS terrorist? Well, they tend to be abject failures as terrorists. When ISIS wants something done right, they have to do it themselves.
Young, Dumb, and Full of Guns
One finding from terrorism studies is that older terrorists mellow out and are more open to peaceful solutions. For example, during The Troubles in Northern Ireland the Original IRA was slower and less inclined to violence than the Provisional IRA, who were younger, more aggressive and hungrier. A decade or three later and the Provos were involved in politics and peace. This has some trivial parallels with al Qaeda and ISIS, although lets not put too much weight on it.
The generational shift is, however, worth exploring.
(Editor’s Note: Next Monday, we’ll publish another article from The Grugq about Generation Jihad 2.0’s use of technology and communications security.)