The Peril of Soft Targets

Jeremy Littlewood wrote the following for the Ottawa Citizen.

Monday afternoon two explosions were reported close to the finish line of the Boston Marathon and initial reports suggest three dead and more than 100 injured. Authorities have ruled out electrical or gas faults, thus implying that the two explosions about 100 yards apart were deliberate acts.

The spectre of terrorism is likely to lead investigators and the public to suspect al-Qaida or a group or individual inspired by al-Qaida’s narrative. Caution, however, is necessary before jumping to such conclusions. Both the Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995 and the attacks in Norway conducted by Anders Breivik in 2011 were initially assumed to be the work of foreign-based, and jihadist inspired, terrorist groups: they were domestic right-wing terrorism. It is therefore important to remember that terrorism comes in many guises — left-wing, right-wing, ethno-nationalist, religious, and what is known as single-issue terrorism that incorporates violent animal right extremists and violent anti-abortionist groups among others.

The attack, if it proves to be terrorism, also underlines that contemporary terrorism often involves deliberately attacking what are known as “soft targets.” This is not new: pre and post Sept. 11, 2001 soft targets such as public gatherings, for example the Enniskillen bombing in Northern Ireland during the town’s remembrance service in 1987, the Bali nightclub bombings in 2002, and the Kampala bombings in Uganda in 2010 while people were watching a World Cup soccer match, have been attractive to some terrorists. A soft target is one that usually has lower levels of security, in contrast to a hard target such as a government building where security barriers and access controls, often in the form of gates, guards, and guns, make it more difficult to attack. Hardening targets is a purposeful counterterrorism strategy, but it does result in what is referred to as the “transference effect” whereby terrorists shift their attack to a place, or event, with lower levels of security; i.e. an easier target. A lower level of security does not mean zero security, but a marathon would represent an easier target and a very difficult security operation.

Even at this early, and unconfirmed, stage it is possible to begin sketching out some potential issues.

First, the attack confirms that the threat of terrorism remains present. Zero attacks, or long-periods between attacks should never be assumed to indicate that the threat has disappeared. As noted, even if one type of terrorism decreases, other types of terrorism still exist.

Second, the targeting of a public gathering, in this case a marathon which usually attracts more than 20,000 runners and thousands of spectators, indicates that killing and maiming civilians remains attractive to some terrorists. Terrorist groups with a domestic constituency to influence such as nationalist groups, are usually (but not always) discriminate in their targeting methods. Indiscriminate targeting — no warnings and little concern for casualties — suggests the perpetrator was not seeking to win support.

Third, why terrorists choose certain targets over others is dependent on a variety of factors, including the ideology of the group, cell, or individual perpetrating the attack, the capability of the perpetrator, the means of attack at their disposal (bomb, assault weapons) and the difficulty of conducting attacks against hardened targets. Soft target attacks, perpetrated without any warning and with relatively crude improvised explosive devices, suggest that the perpetrators are not highly skilled or very experienced. This, of course, is not in any way a consolation to the dead or injured at Boston, but it is something that will have been observed by the relevant authorities.

Fourth, it is likely that the authorities are focusing on a domestic-based, violent extremist given the above combination of target selection, form of attack, and recent history of attempted attacks in the United States.

The apparent attack on the Boston Marathon will have a direct knock-on effect in the U.S. and elsewhere. Security reviews will now be necessary at other sporting events, not least in Ottawa at the upcoming race weekend, and the cost of securing such events could make them unviable if they have to be passed on to competitors. Mega-events, such as the Olympic Games, already have very hefty security costs attached to them, as Canada witnessed with the Vancouver Winter Games in 2010.

Are marathons, fun runs, and hockey games now about to be subjected to significant additional costs? Neither organizers nor spectators at such events are likely to embrace willingly additional searches and the costs of security, but Boston could force that on many other events.

If so, it will be a testament to the potential impact of terrorism and its ability to require a reaction far in excess of the scale of the original attack. However, this is not inevitable; consider, for example, that public transport has repeatedly been targeted in the past but heightened security at train stations, to take one case, does not involve a stop and check search of every passenger; standoff security measures are possible providing the risks are understood and communicated.

A further impact could be individuals — competitors and spectators — simply staying away from such events. Again, this is neither inevitable nor likely within a democracy given the risk to any particular event, which is small, and the resilience, and defiance, of the public to give in to terrorism: “we are not afraid” was one response to the July 2005 bombings in London.

A final aspect to underline is the importance of communicating to the public: it is incumbent upon governments to inform about the facts, advise on appropriate and planned responses, and encourage both vigilance and resilience in the wider public domain. Vigilance to be aware of the untoward and its possible implications; resilience to confirm that attacks on sporting events will not be permitted to close down a way of life.

Despite the horrors runners and spectators in Boston witnessed Monday, one defiant response will be to keep on running.

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Jeremy Littlewood is an Assistant Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA) at Carleton University.

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen


One thought on “The Peril of Soft Targets

  1. Dr. Littlewood offers a practical, sober opinion of factors related to the Boston explosions. Canadian media would do well to follow his example and abandon their naive and annoying search for ‘the story,’ for a more mature discussion of the event and its significance for Canada. Dr. Littlewood’s best suggestion is to not let the terrorists, whoever they are, think they have achieved anything. They will get caught soon enough and be dealt with.

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