Is There Any Defense Against Low-Tech Terror?
The Catalonia attacks are a case study in the future of violent extremism. Governments need to figure out how to respond.
After the fifth low-tech terrorist attack this year alone in the U.K. — not to mention a spate of attacks across Europe since 2014, and earlier — it is time for governments to reevaluate their approach. At the core of this self-assessment should be a simple recognition, which itself requires separating facts from appearances when it comes to terrorism.
Terrorist attacks in Europe have occurred at such a pace in the last few months that we are in danger of treating them as the new normal. No sooner had the attack on Barcelona’s La Rambla district disappeared from the headlines than the Parsons Green London tube station was targeted in an improvised explosive device attack claimed by the Islamic State. Worse, without time to pause, analyze the case facts, or think strategically, law enforcement across Europe and elsewhere run the risk of getting stuck in a reactive rather than proactive stance.
Yet careful analysis exposes common themes across these attacks, which are useful in a strategic response to the hard-to-predict acts of low-tech terror. Although this analysis will focus on the brotherly ties that many analysts missed in the recent Barcelona terror attacks, readers will readily see elements echoed in Parsons Green, in other recent U.K. attacks (Westminster, London Bridge, and Manchester), and beyond. In many cases, the attackers’ networks were held together by family ties. The suspects in Parsons Green, for instance, were foster brothers, young men with recent immigrant backgrounds, who used low-tech terror tactics in busy, unguarded public places; and they appear to have responded to calls from a parent terror organization (in the case of London, by Inspire, an al Qaeda magazine) to attack trains.
The ties that bind
In the three incidents associated with the August Barcelona terror attacks, nine of the 12 attackers were brothers. Only leader Abdelbaki Es Satty and two additional recruits, Mohamed Houli Chemlal and Salh El Karib, did not possess family ties in the group. The operatives were young (with the exception of Es Satty) and shared Moroccan nationality or heritage. This kinship element was often glossed over in discussions of the Catalonia attacks, as well as others in which cell members were often related in other ways (for examples, cousins, via families in marriage, etc.).
Although under-theorized, the subject of kinship in terrorism research reveals the utility of social network theory in underscoring how interpersonal relationships — the ties that bind — structure both groups and commitment levels. In low-tech terror attacks in Belgium, France, the U.K., and elsewhere, these bonds — literal or constructed — help operationalize “brothers in arms” willing to sacrifice themselves for transcendent aims. (Literal bonds involve biological, kinship relations in families, brothers and cousins, while constructed bonds involve the close friendships.)
So what role can identifying kinship ties play in government responses to repeated low-tech terrorist attacks, and can it help to deter such attacks?
Catalonia: the facts and the suspects
Any discussion of preventive and countermeasures must begin with case facts and to contemplate the details of this now familiar style of low-tech, small-cell attack in urban settings. The Aug. 17, 2017, La Rambla van attack was executed by an Islamic State cell and involved three related incidents, all linked back to a central figure, Es Satty. He was incarcerated between 2010 and 2014 for drug smuggling from North Africa, had established ties with al Qaeda jihadis from the 2004 train attack, and successfully appealed his deportation order in 2015 after his release from prison. He was also the subject of recent Belgian intelligence warnings to Catalan authorities.
The Alcanar explosion: The night before the Barcelona attack — Wednesday, Aug. 16 — in the town of Alcanar, several members of the Islamic State cell accidentally blew up their house, killing two members: Es Satty, who rented a room in the house, and 22-year-old Youssef Aallaa, born in Naour, Morocco, and affiliated with the Ripoll mosque, where Es Satty worked as an imam. A third member was injured in the attack — a 21-year-old Spanish national from Melilla, Chemlal, reported to be the bomb-maker, who is currently under arrest.
Like Aallaa and his two brothers, Mohamad and Said, Chemlal was recruited by Es Satty via the Moroccan immigrant community in Ripoll. Authorities discovered more than 100 gas canisters stored at the location, and supplies of triacetone triperoxide (TATP) indicated that the group was planning a spectacular bombing of the Sagrada Família basilica. Es Satty had communicated to his roommate — internet café owner el Karib who bought tickets for both Es Satty and Moroccan national Driss Oukabir — that he was soon leaving for Morocco, where he had already sent his wife and children.
Attack I — La Rambla van attack: On Thursday, Aug. 17, 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaqoub, born in M’rirt, Morocco, drove a van (leased using his credit card) into crowds at La Rambla, a popular pedestrian mall, killing 14 people and injuring more than 140 from 34 countries. Fleeing on foot, he then hijacked a car and stabbed the driver, the 15th fatality. He was finally apprehended on August 21 in Subirats, outside Barcelona. When killed by law enforcement, he was wearing a fake suicide vest and shouting “Allahu Akbar.”
Attack II — Cambrils car attack: Nine hours later in the early morning hours of Friday, August 18, five members of the cell drove another vehicle into a crowd in Cambrils. The attackers, all Moroccans, included 19-year-old Houssaine Abouyaaqoub; brothers Omar Hichamy, 21, and Mohamed Hichamy, 22; 17-year-old Moussa Oukabir; and 19-year-old Said Aalla. Upon exiting their overturned vehicle, blocked by pedestrian barriers, they began attacking bystanders with knives and axes, killing one elderly woman and injuring six others. All attackers — again wearing fake suicide vests — were shot and killed on site by two law enforcement officers, one woman who was a former military servicemember.
Four remaining suspects who were not killed during the attacks are under supervision or arrest: Driss Oukabir (who turned himself in, saying he was innocent); 27-year-old Mohamed Aalla (the registered owner of the Audi A3 used in the Cambrils car attack); el Karib (the Internet café manager in Ripoll); and 21-year-old Chemlal.
It is worth noting by way of context that Spain has remained largely quiet in recent years, thus, containing this form of terrorist threat since its early exposure in the 2004 Atocha al Qaeda train attacks in which terrorists killed more than 190 people. Afterward, the Spanish government prioritized — often leading the pack — aggressive terrorist-related law enforcement measures, including surveillance, detentions, and arrests. Spain’s National Police and National Intelligence Center forces proactively monitor persons of interest and foil plots, including those linked to Spain’s rarely discussed North African enclave cities of Ceuta and Melilla. This forward-leaning posture is no small achievement given rising EU attacks, longstanding North African immigration into Catalonia, the high density of Salafist mosques there, and the broader migration crisis across Europe in which savvy Islamic State operators target refugee flows and traffickers (and Syrian passports) to achieve goals.
Battlefield antecedents to low-tech terrorism
In planning Barcelona, Es Satty — much like the loose Belgian-French cell responsible for coordinated, recent Brussels and Paris attacks — appears to have tapped into adaptive jihadist alliances and networks in and beyond the Islamic State. In recruiting, planning, and tactics, these incidents are designed to be “low-tech” — low-cost and high impact, with low barriers to entry for recruits.
The reference points analysts too often use are “lone wolves,” when we should be thinking about asymmetric battlefield tactics: IEDs, suiciders, small military units, attacks against soft targets for large strategic effects, commercial technology repurposed for military capabilities, and the use of geographic or human terrain as force multipliers. Such structured, small group radicalization dynamics are a strategic alternative to al Qaeda-style, large-scale attacks and “lone-wolf terrorism.”
In Europe and beyond, the similarities of the attacks — often down to minute details — are not accidental. Explicit instructions on vehicular ramming attacks to achieve maximum carnage are evident as early as al Qaeda’s 2010 article, “The Ultimate Mowing Machine,” in the second issue of Inspire. Cars and heavy trucks have been used as weapons repeatedly in France, Israel, Germany, Sweden, Canada, the U.K., the United States, and elsewhere — with more than 100 innocents killed in the EU since 2015 alone.
While these are not the only examples of Islamic State signature attacks, the group has been explicit in advocating low-tech tools and tactics, especially vehicles, knives, and more recently attacks on trains. Abu Mohammad al-Adnani’s audio message in 2014 told recruits to target “disbelievers … with your car.” Rumiyah 3 in “Just Terror Tactics 2: Vehicle Attacks” lays out specific rationales for “the just terror mujahid” stationed “behind enemy lines.” When initiating an attack, the authors write, “it is important to define the objective. One’s attack may be to harvest a large kill count. It may be aimed at disrupting the financial stability of a specific nation. It may simply be aimed at terrorizing the enemies of Allah and depriving them of a peaceful sleep,” as “the mujahid must choose a method that best suits the operation at hand.”
The Islamic State is still getting mileage — and willing recruits — out of its open advocacy for singling out “soft targets” in glossy online magazines in the West. We must recognize these tactics for what they are: irregular, military-style attacks against civilian populations who remain in too many cases unaware and unprotected from them.
Countering low-tech terror: advice for governments
So given the possibility of more low-tech terror attacks carried out by low-skill terror cells, what can governments do?
In addition to keeping an eye on family members (especially young males) in cases known to security services, other practical, policy, and strategic measures for further discussion and research include, firstly, immediate and practical measures to lessen the effects of vehicles in terror attacks, such as erecting pedestrian barriers in high-density public spaces. Similarly, law enforcement should continue to regulate the current “low-tech” weapons-of-choice with regulations or background checks. In Barcelona, for instance, perpetrators couldn’t use heavier trucks (as they did in Nice) without proper permits.
Secondly, nations should take intelligence-sharing seriously. Spain has a forward-leaning posture on intelligence sharing. Unlike the U.K. — where the MI5 security service was warned five times about Salman Abedi before the Manchester attacks — Catalan security forces arrested four suspects in April who were linked to the Brussels terror attacks using information provided by the public. But if CIA did warn of the Barcelona threat, then a better preparedness process is needed.
Thirdly, governments should respond strategically to what the Islamic State and other actors are telling us in what amount to public statements of military strategy. Earlier this year, the Islamic State pronounced that it would target Spanish tourist hot spots, called vehicles “weapons of mass destruction” and vehicle attacks a “just terror” tactic, and identified in detail whom to target, which trucks to use, how to procure them, how to deploy them, etc. In fact, the Islamic State — even more than al Qaeda or Lashkar-e-Taiba (behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks) — is chatty about its terror strategy. So let’s pay heed to what terrorists are saying to us and each other and be prepared. Recently, Inspire issue 17 told recruits to go after trains — and they appear to have been listening, in the case of the recent Sept. 15, 2017, London Tube train attack — as well as an attack at a French metro train station, which has barely received news coverage.
Lastly, we must take politics, emotions, and ideologies out of the equation now that we are faced with difficult public safety, public security, and logistics issues in pluralist societies. This stance will mean coming to grips with EU immigration policies that missed fraudulent passports used by foreign fighters, or the demonstrated cross-border mobility of terrorist actors, or immigrant integration issues arising from home-grown attacks involving European nationals with Mideast or North African heritage. In short, uncomfortable facts must be integrated into a planned preventive response, especially as law enforcement agencies prepare for future attacks.
Photo credit: LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images