The shooting this week is already the deadliest terror attack in the US since 2001. It is reinvigorating domestic debates about access to firearms, immigration and the issue of extremist Islam. Yet those discussions sidestep the one issue worth talking about: the vulnerability of soft targets and the sheer inability of authorities to protect civilians.
As this blog has explained before, terrorism is now a fact of life in the modern world and something we will have to get used to. Islamist terrorists are the latest in a long line of actors hoping to sow fear and discord among a population for political effect. The 19th and early 20th century leftists called terrorism “propaganda of the deed” and its purpose has not changed much in the intervening years.
Since the spectacular attacks of 9/11 and other bombings in Europe, the scale of casualties per attack in the Western world has dropped significantly. Those early attacks were clunky, slow-moving and required significant operational planning. So the response to 9/11 was a boost in intelligence and law enforcement abilities making it nearly impossible for large attacks to succeed.
The effect on such groups was fragmentation and the formation of franchises, each unconnected to the other but sharing the same ideology and goals. This severely constrained their capabilities, but it did keep them alive. Those groups knew their limitations and inevitably called upon “grassroots” activists to conduct attacks without the need for operational oversight.
Plenty of Muslims across the world heeded that call, and while the tactic worked well the few attacks that got through Western defence lines killed only a handful of people. This was a frustrating but manageable threat for authorities. Then in 2008, 10 members of a Pakistani Islamic extremist group shut down Mumbai – a city of 12 million people – for four days using only small arms and portable bombs.
A period of time passed, but then in November 2015, nine people shut down large sections of of Paris, killing 137 people. Again, the perpetrators carried small arms and moved mostly on foot. Now, this week what appears to be a single person entered a nightclub armed only with a rifle and killed 50 in a disturbingly short time.
These tactics are more important than any other detail in Orlando. They represent what the intelligence and law enforcement communities of every Western nation considers their worst nightmare: individuals using small arms moving through major cities shooting and killing at will.
Law enforcement might put up a good show protecting venues and critical infrastructure, but each one knows it is impossible to defend every square metre of any metropolis. And from a terrorist’s perspective, every centimetre not protected is a vulnerable target.
Grassroots terrorists or “lone wolves” are more dangerous than structured groups because they do not risk having their discussions intercepted. They can remain undetected until they pull the trigger or command the explosives. Coupled with the infinity of a city’s soft targets, a person with limited training can kill tens or hundreds of people using only the ammunition they carry, in minutes, anywhere, at any time, on any day.
After many years of laughable and overly-ambitious plots organised by incompetent jihadists, the Mumbai attacks were a wake-up call for authorities. They “went to school,” as the Americans like to say, on those attacks and knew they could only ever respond to, not prevent, them.
The central question since 2008 was when exactly it would be that Islamic terrorists realise that while spectacular 9/11-style strikes are impressive, a far greater return on investment is one or a handful of operatives acting alone with readily accessible guns. It was only a matter of time until they figured it out, so authorities will be hoping this week is not that time.