The Wicked Problems of Low-tech Terrorism (by Gregg Favre)

Saturday, July 16th, 2016

When ideology is primary, the “means” is a matter of access

In France, the investigation into the Bastille Day attack is in its infancy. During the nation’s declared days of mourning, specialists will confer to uncover the specifics of how this horrific event occurred. Over the coming days and weeks, details will emerge about the driver, his networks and, perhaps most importantly, his motivations. But what is known now is that a rented delivery truck evaded security measures and menacingly ran down innocent men, women and children. While many share the brutality of the attack, its lack of sophistication should come as a surprise to few.

For numerous terror groups and their supporters, spectacular attacks like September 11th remain the aspiration. Indeed, there continue to be legitimate concerns over threats that involve complex weapons systems or those that target intricate cyber or infrastructure-based networks. But a review of recent attacks shows a purposeful focus on low-tech violence, relying not on airliners and biological warfare to kill and disrupt, but rather, on Kalashnikovs and rudimentary explosives.

Take, for example, the 2015 Paris attacks where multiple teams of coordinated active shooters, armed with assault rifles and explosive vests opened fire at cafes, a nightclub and stadium, killing 130 people. Or the recent Brussels bombing on March 22nd, 2016, where three synchronized nail bombings occurred in Belgium, targeting an airport and metro station, killing 32. These are just two of hundreds of global attacks this year that employ a similar methodology. From the Pulse nightclub in Orlando to attacks on beach resorts in the Ivory Coast, recent assaults by non-state actors finds that the means, almost exclusively, are low tech in nature.

These examples show a specific pattern that applies accessibility over intricacy. Often, in lieu of more grand governmental or economy-focused targets (which have become highly fortified), attackers concentrate on open and public soft targets that offer the opportunity for significant damage and are difficult to defend. Indeed, while terror groups and their supporters idolize the spectacular, the acts they execute are often overwhelmingly simplistic acts of brutality.

This type of low-tech threat pallet poses three significant challenges. The first is accurately judging both the size and realistic expectations of modern state’s security structures. Governments and security practitioners must continue to ask difficult questions about the appropriate scope of our deterrence and prevention models relative to the probability of the type of attacks we can expect. While non-state sponsored terrorist groups continue to have an interest in cyber, chemical and infrastructure-based attacks, their ability to inflict this type of damage remains limited for the moment. Significantly more likely – and much harder for authorities to disrupt – is a relatively simple multi-site, active shooter event that requires only a small team, readily available equipment and minimal reconnaissance.

These types of attacks highlight the second critical problem, attempts to regulate terror. When ideology is the primary impetus for an attack the “means” is a matter of access. Terrorism, by its design, is asymmetrical in its approach to violence. Similar to how liquid seeks the path of least resistance, terrorists remain focused on exploiting system vulnerabilities in order to accomplish their objectives. Attempts at post-event regulation often miss the mark because convenience rather than effectiveness influences the specific tools chosen. While we should always seek smart initiatives to keep the most dangerous tools out of the wrong hands, lethality comes in many forms and reactive regulations only provide false security against a creative adversary.

Finally, and perhaps the most wicked problem of the three, is that current low-tech attacks exist against the backdrop of a highly complex world. Terrorists currently use highly adaptive, non-linear approaches in ideology and tactics, to assess weaknesses and achieve their objectives. This juxtaposition between the capability for drone-enabled reconnaissance coupled with the simplicity of driving an oversized vehicle through a crowd poses a significant meta-leadership challenge. As the complexity of prevention and mitigation increases across functional groups, clarity and connectivity must remain the watchwords of success. Dynamic, progressive partnerships across the operational security space must continue to be developed, and we must jettison the antiquated models of “silos” of responsibility.

Without question, the life cycle of attacks will continue to increase in complexity as national security professionals wrestle with adversaries. Moreover, because of the ideological nature of terrorism, there are few solutions to these types of attacks that are all encompassing. While we can focus on minimizing frequency, it is foolish to think that they can be eliminated outright. In an age of constant change, and against a dynamic enemy, we must sustain the difficult discussion that requires us to continually measure and reevaluate our strategic and operational focuses while leading across disciplines.

Captain Gregg Favre is the Homeland Security Officer for the St. Louis Fire Department and an executive member of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. He holds graduate degrees from the Naval Postgraduate School and The George Washington University and is a former Fellow in the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard University. Gregg also serves as a Board member at (On Twitter: @GreggFavre)