No More Martyrs: A Shift in Terror Tactics?

As police across Europe and the Middle East continue their search for Istanbul nightclub attacker Lakhe Mashrapov, one cannot but notice an emerging trend with terror attacks over the past two years, namely, the apparent intent by some terrorists to survive the event. San Bernardino, Brussels, Paris, Berlin and now Istanbul are just a handful of examples where terrorist operatives carried out their attack and successfully fled the scene. Thankfully, in most cases law enforcement was able to identify and eventually capture or kill the perpetrators; however, in some cases the terrorists were on the run for several weeks before apprehension, giving them sufficient time to plan or carryout additional operations. It is also worth noting that in several cases (such as Berlin) the terrorist made a mistake – in this case dropping his identity papers – which provided law enforcement with an essential lead for their investigation. Unfortunately we cannot simply count on our adversary’s clumsiness after future attacks.

If we truly are witnessing a new modus operandi by terrorists then we must ask ourselves “why?” Is this new breed of lone wolf less believing than their more radical brothers who sought paradise with suicide or martyrdom attacks? Based on our analysis of terrorist operations over the past 24 months we would argue this is not the case. Another, more disturbing possibility is that these new operatives are hoping to live and fight another day. This could harken back to the terror groups of the 1970s and 80s, such as Abu Nidal and even the Baader Meinhof/Red Army Faction in central Europe. Both groups developed and maintained a small, hardcore cadre of professional terrorists whom they used in multiple operations to great effect. These operatives proved to be very elusive for law enforcement, and extremely adept at moving from location to location to plan and execute their operations.

With the continued losses being experienced by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the much weakened state of Al-Qa’ida, it is not hard to imagine that radical jihadist groups may be turning the page from martyrdom to the establishment of similar hardcore cadres that are trained, funded, and then dispersed to carry out operations around the globe. As we saw with the attacker in Berlin who was able to board a train and travel through France and into Italy, our adversaries are very confident of their ability to “hide in plain sight” and possibly live to fight another day.

What does this mean for our anti-terrorism efforts? Planning for escape after an attack adds a new challenge for the terrorists, one that will require them to engage in even greater pre-attack preparation and intelligence collection. A suicide bomber usually pays minimal attention to the reaction time or even the location of law enforcement or first-responders, whereas a terrorist planning to survive an operation will have studied both of these security measures very closely. Escape will often also require support or coordination with other operatives – opening another potential vulnerability for intelligence and law enforcement to exploit. One thing is clear: if terrorists begin planning to fight another day, then we must improve our situational awareness training and expand our suspicious incident reporting and analysis in order to identify and thwart these attacks in the planning stages rather than trying to stop then on the day of the event.