Small Wars Journal

On a Modern Form of Terrorism: Small-Scale and Self-Contained

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 4:03pm

On a Modern Form of Terrorism: Small-Scale and Self-Contained

Kyle R. Brady

The recent vehicle-based terror attacks in London and Stockholm have been noted as much for their devastation and chaos as for its low-tech approach to terrorism.  At the core, these attacks are predicated upon a very simple premise:  drive a regular civilian passenger vehicle through crowds of people in a very public, high-profile, and undefended area -- colliding with as many individuals as possible -- with some form of knife-based or small-arms attack afterward, if desired.  As devastating and chaotic as these are, this is not a new form of attack.

The problem, however, is that this form of attack is so simple and effective.  These attacks can be executed with very little planning, no training, no funding, and no preparation, which makes them quick, easy, and deadly.  Given the simple and self-contained nature of these attacks, there is very little law enforcement, the intelligence community, or even the military can do:  when a future terror actor decides to undertake this effort, they simply don't raise any red flags that would trigger various forms of government surveillance or contact. 

Moreover, these forms of attack are extraordinarily difficult -- if not impossible -- to prevent.  Cities cannot simply wall off all roadways in order to ensure vehicles don't become weaponized and employed against either people or buildings.  Governments cannot easily install security features around every public space and security gates in every driveway entrance.  Law enforcement agencies cannot place officers and agents in every location that may experience a vehicle-based attack.  There is no easy form of protection against these kinds of attacks.

One attempt to address this small-scale and self-contained form of modern terrorism is through what is known as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE):  an integrated approach to terrorism that includes attempting to prevent individuals, in the early stages of radicalization, from undertaking a path to terrorism.  These efforts, however, are both new and as-yet largely unsuccessful, in part because the pathways and motivations to terrorism are many.  Since terrorists have no universal set of motivations, personal characteristics, demographics, birthplace, backgrounds, or behaviors, it is extraordinarily difficult and costly to target allegedly at-risk individuals in a way that is comprehensive, effective, and on-budget.  The end result, then, is that terrorists are most often met on the battlefield they choose.

There will always be disaffected members of society who desire to make their voices heard and the modern prevalence of terrorism -- as well as the messaging, strategy, and tactics of most terror attacks -- have ensured that this method of individual expression is considered viable.  For the most desperate, the most dedicated, or the most disturbed, terrorism -- in all its forms -- presents a curiously plausible option.  Now that terrorism is no longer understood as requiring formal affiliation or field training, the decision to employ terror to meet a goal has become that much easier.  A major consequence of this confluence is that small-scale and self-contained attacks will become increasingly common:  as more such attacks occur, they will garner media attention, they will become more interesting to certain individuals, and more attacks will occur.  It has become a self-feeding cycle.

Short of locking down cities in attempt to prevent all forms of attack, there would seem to be only three options to address this modern form of terrorism:  acceptance, indifference, or diversion.

The most basic response to the evolution of urban terrorism is simply to accept that it can happen, may happen, and, over a long enough timescale, will happen.  Although this requires no extra resources or efforts, it is quite clearly a response that cannot be tolerated.  No society should have to accept the possibility that attacks can, may, and will occur -- at any time, in any place, and involving any persons -- as this places an undue burden of existential fear on citizens and residents.  A pervasive fear of harm or death is not conducive to a productive or content society.

Indifference to these attacks, as experienced by the attackers and those who may be inspired by them, is a choice worth exploring.  Since the success of a terror attack, by very definition, can be measured as much by the second- or third-order public fear created as by the actual casualties of the attack, perhaps new media response structures should be put in place.  If the media does not cover small-scale terror attacks, then perhaps the self-feeding cycle of this type of terrorism can be broken by refusing to provide attention to actors and inspiration to others.  Although not a new concept, it remains largely unapplied and unexplored, despite its potential to achieve very real and very successful results.

A third option, diversion, presents interesting possibilities as a fusion of a variety of counter- and anti-terrorism concepts.  If assumptions are made that small-scale terrorism cannot be prevented, that such attacks cannot be tolerated, and that current CVE practices are insufficient, then perhaps an effort should be made to divert the focus of attacks.  Instead of terror actors targeting random groups of people unaffiliated with their complaints or concerns, efforts should be made to guide acts of terrorism toward targets more in-line with their goals:  if there is a grievance against government, let the government suffer the attack.  By encouraging terrorists -- through media campaigns, carefully crafted responses to attacks on the public, and more -- to more selectively target their actions, the public no longer suffers.  Moreover, if the fundamental components of terrorism -- wanton violence and widespread fear -- are negated, then terrorism becomes asymmetric warfare and the problem produces a solution, as warfare is a subject modern governments know very well how to address.

Governments need a better plan for addressing terrorism, since current efforts are not working and attacks will not cease on their own.  Moreover, terrorism cannot be prevented by diplomatic or military efforts:  terrorism is sourced in the disaffection of an individual and this individual need not live abroad.  The actual strategies and tactics of terror actors will continue to evolve alongside technology, media coverage, and the inspiration of others, which inherently requires that solutions focus on either the sources or consequences of terrorism, rather than the means.  However, in an age when terrorism is undertaken for seemingly endless reasons, focusing on mitigating the consequences of terrorism -- if only at the level of small-scale and self-contained attacks -- would appear to be a worthy effort.

Opinions expressed here are directly and expressly the author's own; they do not represent -- unless stated -- his employers (past, present, or future) or associated/affiliated institutions.

About the Author(s)

Kyle R. Brady (website) is a security-oriented academic with a primary interest in contextualizing security concerns, which he currently explores as a postgraduate student at King’s College London in the Department of War Studies.  He also holds a Masters in Homeland Security from Pennsylvania State University with foci on terrorism, public administration, and emergency management, as well as a Bachelors in Political Science from San Jose State University with interests in international relations and political theory. 



According to you, using objects such as vehicles as weapons to cause mass casualties is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, people have used masonry, knifes, industrial explosives, farm implements, tools, fire, water and even domesticated animals for such purposes.

You also claim that the terrorists of the kind who struck London and Stockholm, and ostensibly Cannes and Berlin as well: "have no universal set of motivations, personal characteristics, demographics, birthplace, backgrounds, or behaviors".

So why the fuss? Why the need for CVE? These sorts of atrocities are nothing new. Indeed they are part and parcel of living in large cities or living in modern societies, no?

Governments have been dealing with and improving their response to "disaffected individuals" for decades. What is your point?