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Terror, from Mumbai to Nairobi



By Shaul Shay

Oct 04 2013

The Kenya attack shows a new pattern of hostage-taking and self-sacrifice, through which terrorists force their demands and command the world’s attention.

Since 2008, al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-affiliated terror organisations have adopted a modus operandi that can be described as “self-sacrifice mega terror abduction”, first introduced by Chechen rebels against Russian civilian targets. The Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi late last month is itself a variation of previous attacks in Mumbai in 2008 and Algeria in January this year. This new kind of terrorist attack is a combination of a self-sacrificial operation along with hostage-taking. The terrorists in such a mission are ready to die, as in a suicide attack. The hostages are used mainly as human shields, and are not real bargain chips in negotiation. The objective of the terrorists is to kill as many civilians as possible and to extend the fighting against security forces for as long as possible (about three to four days) to gain maximum media coverage.

The latest example in Kenya was relatively complex and required detailed planning and advanced operational skills. To a great extent, such attacks match the theoretical model that describes terror as a sort of theatre in which each participant plays a role in transmitting the terrorists’ message. Abductions are generally the most prolonged type of attack and therefore require the “best play”, as well as the “actors’” (terrorists’) ability to adapt the developing drama to shifting reality.

In contrast to attacks that consist of a rapid, dramatic incident, such as suicide bombing, these attacks are prolonged incidents with characteristic peaks. In the case of suicide bombings, the government cannot influence events in real-time due to the speed of the developments. Its main activity is prior to the attack, by taking steps to prevent and thwart attacks, and immediately in the aftermath, by evacuating the victims, making arrests or apprehending the assailants. When it comes to hostages, the government is forced to enter a complex process of crisis management while facing moral, political and military dilemmas under a tight schedule, as well as exposure to public and international censure. Hostage-taking is a particularly effective tool in the hands of the terrorists to present their worldviews and demands, and to force them onto the agenda of the decision-makers as well as influence local and international public opinion.

An examination of the characteristics of these attacks reveals a pattern. For instance, the perpetrators of the last such terror attacks were all linked to al-Qaeda. The Mumbai attack in November 2008 was carried out by the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the strike on the Al Amenas gas facility in Algeria in January was done by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the attack on the shopping mall in Nairobi was by al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen, which is a branch of al-Qaeda in east Africa.

The targets were prominent public places important to the economy and to tourists (hotels in Mumbai, gas facility in Algeria, big shopping mall in Kenya). They were also directed towards foreign hostages and victims (foreign guests in the hotels and Jews and Israelis in Chabad House in Mumbai, foreign workers in the gas facility in Algeria and foreign citizens and Israelis in Nairobi). In all cases, the attackers allegedly had a safe haven in a neighbouring country: Pakistan in the Mumbai attack, Libya in the attack in Algeria and Somalia in the attack in Kenya. The strikes were conducted by big groups of terrorists: 10 in Mumbai, 30-40 in Algeria and between 10-15 in Kenya. The number of hostages taken was also big, in the hundreds in all three cases. Fatalities also numbered between dozens to hundreds, and hundreds were wounded in each of the three cases, with some of the dead being foreign citizens.

The way in which the attack on the Nairobi mall was carried out aligns with a new plan of action put forward in a message by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on September 13. Al-Zawahiri warned against attacks on non-Western states unless the regime was part of “the American forces”. He recommended taking “the citizens of the countries that are participating in the invasion of Muslim countries as hostages so that our prisoners may be freed in exchange”. He also stressed that it was important to avoid Muslim casualties.

The modern urban arena offers many publicity-rich targets, and protecting all potential targets of this type is near impossible. So what lessons can be learned for the future? I would suggest three. One, better and more efficient intelligence before the attack to prevent it and during the phase of crisis management. Two, qualified counter-terrorism units capable of fast response. Kenyan, Algerian and Indian authorities waited too long to take definitive action to kill the terrorists. They allowed the siege to stretch out over three to four days. That may have made sense on the assumption that they were dealing with a “normal” hostage situation but, in future, terrorists should not be allowed to control the situation for so long. Three, better coordination between the different agencies and services involved in crises management.

An attack such as this keeps the terror organisation in the news, extracting maximum publicity. There is evidence to suggest that such operations motivate other terrorist groups to adopt similar methods. The terror organisation constitutes a constant threat based on the trauma of the previous attack, while declaring that similar attacks will follow. So we have to prepare a better response in advance.

Shaul Shay, a colonel (res) and former deputy head of the National Security Council of Israel, is senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies and the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Centre, Herzeliya , Israel