Academic journal article Homeland Security Affairs

Paramilitary Terrorism: A Neglected Threat

Academic journal article Homeland Security Affairs

Paramilitary Terrorism: A Neglected Threat

Article excerpt

At 0830 on an otherwise normal autumn morning, a wave of violence erupts without warning at locations across the American heartland, targeting schools and schoolchildren. Improvised explosives detonate in sidewalk trash bins; school buses are bombed; lone snipers target campuses and first responders in hit and run attacks. As confusion and panic spread from local venues to the national consciousness via the twenty-four-hour news media, a band of armed terrorists take over an elementary school in a small Midwestern city. City and county SWAT officers respond to the scene before the scope of the event is clear; trained to respond to a Columbine-like active-shooter incident, they stage a hasty assault which is bloodily repulsed.

Executing a score of adult hostages as evidence of their resolve, the terrorists then herd hundreds of schoolchildren and staff into the school gymnasium, which they prepare with explosives. They upload images of their action onto the Internet. Their postings identify the perpetrators as al Qa'ida-affiliated jihadists. Intelligence from the police perimeter indicates thirty or more fighters, with military small arms, explosives, and heavy weapons, rapidly improving their defenses.

The terrorists announce their intention to execute their hostages, and their willingness to accept 'martyrdom,' in the event of another assault or if the U.S. government does not take immediate steps to meet their single, non-negotiable demand: withdrawal of all American forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the House of Islam.

The scenario above is loosely based on the seizure of Beslan School #1 in the Russian republic of North Ossetia in 2004, where over a thousand hostages were taken, and hundreds of schoolchildren and other innocents were ultimately killed by Chechen terrorists. 1 This attack was conducted by terrorists using conventional weapons and tactics, and required technical expertise less challenging and far more common than the piloting skills that guided commercial jets into American buildings on September 11, 2001.

The Beslan siege lasted three days before ending in massive bloodshed during an assault by government forces - very unlike the instantaneous effects and protracted aftermath that characterize suicide terrorism. The attackers took physical control of high value assets (for what assets are more valuable, in both real and symbolic terms, than our children?), exploited their act for propaganda value, assaulted and murdered hostages throughout the siege, and threatened yet worse consequences if their impossible demands were not met by the Russian government. Although we can only speculate regarding their ultimate intent, which was pre-empted by the government forces' emergency assault, the final outcome in Beslan was terrible enough.

Related scenarios in a U.S. setting are not difficult to construct, applying similar means of attack against a range of soft targets of great iconic, political, or economic value. Attacks on better-protected targets such as nuclear power plants, nuclear materials shipments, or seats of government are generally considered less likely, although surveillance and reconnaissance are known to occur, and some of these harder targets may actually be more vulnerable to seizure and exploitation by paramilitary forces than they are to suicide terrorism.

From the standpoint of preparedness and response planning, such scenarios bear little resemblance to the Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD) scenarios that command so much of our national attention. Assaults by armed groups, employing improvised explosive devices (IED) as enablers or force multipliers rather than the primary mechanisms of attack, are commonplace tactics of terrorists and insurgents worldwide. By contrast, effective WMD attacks, no matter how theoretically attractive to terrorists, and how extreme their potential consequences, remain so far the stuff of fiction. …

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