The recent jihadi attack in London, drawing parallels with past attacks, raises the question of whether terrorists are becoming much more sophisticated in their planning?
What is certain is that jihadi terrorism returned to the streets of London using a very low technology approach — a rented SUV and two knives. But, within minutes of the attack, three people lay dead, one was fighting for her life in the River Thames, and a police officer was bleeding to death, having been stabbed multiple times.
The concept for this sort of terrorist “shock and awe” was developed by the United States military. The idea, ahead of the attacks on Iraq in 2003, was to quickly overwhelm the defence; to put them on the back foot, struggling to keep up with the operational tempo of the assault.
In Paris, Nice, Berlin — and now London — we have seen terrorists understand this principle; that to keep the emergency services behind the curve in terms of their response you have to set the operational tempo. Using a combination of distraction techniques and dividing the attack into a number of carefully choreographed phases, terrorists have learned they can stay one step ahead of the response. Critical to the success of these terrorists is the coordination of the response in the first few moments.
This military approach stems from long-standing American military doctrine. It was US Air Force Col. John Richard Boyd who invented the Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) loop. Flying F-86 Sabre aircraft against aerodynamically superior MiG aircraft in the Korean War, he learned he had to get ahead of the enemy’s decision loop in order to control the engagement.
This profound observation — emerging from high-speed air-to-air dog-fights — has now become a fundamental military axiom. It appears terrorists have also figured out this salient point about engagements. To secure a high body count, terrorists have to try and stay one step ahead of authorities.
This was illustrated in the attack in London. The rented SUV used by Khalid Masood to strike people walking along the usually busy Westminster Bridge just after lunch provided the initial distraction. In any such event, it takes time for people to realise what is happening. But once they do realize their life is in danger, they turn and run. Panic quickly sets in as people flee, almost sheep-like, away from the threat. The herding instinct applies.
A well-planned terrorist attack takes advantage of this, setting a secondary trap for those who flee in the obvious direction away from an initial threat vector. Their situational awareness, which is often narrowly set, sees the threat and, flight or fight –a basic human instinct – takes over.
Running away from the threat is the obvious response. It is something terrorists increasingly consider. They understand the military concept of manoeuvre. In Madrid, when the first bomb detonated in Atocha Station on the Cercanías commuter train system, many ran into the second bomb and where killed instantaneously.
In London, the initial attack saw the driver deliberately try to ram the fence surrounding the House of Commons. That created a distraction. In the resulting pandemonium, armed police responded to what they quickly determined was the “seat of the attack.” But, in doing so, they followed the current doctrine, which clearly has been shown to have its weaknesses.
In the United Kingdom, the policy for armed police response has changed. Instead of trying to contain the situation, armed police now attempt to confront armed perpetrators. The aim is simple: the quicker the armed assailant is neutralised, the smaller the ultimate death tool will be. This approachapplies across the United Kingdom.
That approach, however, led to a series of mistakes being made. Under pressure, these are understandable. Imagery emerging on social media shows armed police running towards the vehicle as it lay at an angle against the fence. At that point, the assailant was calmly making his way towards the now virtually unguarded entrance to the House of Commons.
He had managed to lure armed officers to what they thought was the centrepiece of the attack while walking towards his true target. Close circuit television coverage shows clearly at one point that the main gates to the open concourse at the front of the House of Commons remained unguarded. Imagine if a second attacker had now appeared armed with an automatic weapon. What additional carnage might have resulted?
One interesting point is that the attacker was not shot dead by uniformed police officers. As the policy states, they had gone towards the attacker. Masood was shot by plain clothed members of the protection detail who rushed to the scene from within the Palace of Westminster. They provided a second line of defence that was not penetrated. But as events eventually revealed, had a second attacker been involved — as reports from the scene initially suggested — the outcome could have been far bloodier.
In Paris, in November 2015, a similar tactic was used. The initial three suicide bombers at Stade de France provided the same distraction. Within minutes of the first bomber killing himself, armed officers responded to the event from the center of Paris. The second phase of the attack, carried out by three gunmen wired in suicide vests, then was launched as a car drove down one of the most popular restaurant areas in Paris spraying gunfire into the bistro before walking in, shooting and detonating their vests. This latter phase lasted for 15 minutes.
The commander of the attack, Abdelhamid Abaaoud – a former Iraqi military officer – then received a text message from the team that carried out the third phase of the attack. On entering the Bataclan theatre, they said, “we are going in now.” This started 20 minutes after the beginning of the attack at Stade de France. It was the third element of what was a highly-sophisticated attack that created a degree of chaos (shock and awe) which was inevitably going to result in an uncertain response.
What the attack in London showed was that even a single lone attacker has the ability to create chaos, even if they did not plan it in any great detail. The timing of the attack, in the early afternoon, did not place as many people at risk. Had it taken place during rush-hour, the death toll might have been higher. In the early morning, Westminster Bridge is very busy.
So, by attacking after lunch, the density of targets on the bridge was reduced. But the numbers of tourists would be higher. Traffic conditions were also more conducive to enabling Masood to drive along the pavement attempting to kill and maim people. Had traffic been backed up over the bridge, as it often is in rush hour, his freedom of manoeuvre would have been less. This analysis, if correct, suggests at least some degree of prior planning in the execution of the attack.
While it is hard to speculate on the exact planning that went through Masood’s thinking, he did achieve the essential element of surprise desired by all terrorists to gain an initial advantage and to dislocate the response of the emergency services. In that brief period, he succeeded in creating a situation where he could walk into the main estate of Parliament, and was only a matter of yards away from entering the building when he was challenged. Sadly, the police officer who challenged him paid the ultimate sacrifice.
In the wake of the attack, the former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Lord Ian Blair, called for a review of the security arrangements at the Houses of Parliament. It is a piece of advice that needs to be heeded. The paucity of the security veneer around the mother of Parliament was clear. What also need to be addressed are the doctrine, training and deployment of armed police officers guarding the heart of the British system of government. Revisions are clearly in urgent need of review.
The abiding lesson from the attack in London is a relatively simple one. While terrorists are clearly evolving much more sophisticated approaches to multi-phase attacks, as events in Paris so dramatically illustrated, even a lone individual with little prior planning can create a sense of chaos in the critical opening minutes when the decisions of first responders can fundamentally shape the outcome of the attack.
For in those opening minutes, people’s lives hang in the balance. Getting this part of the response right is where the priority lies.
Dr. Dave Sloggett is a Senior Contributing Editor and authority on international terrorism with over 42 years of experience in the military and law enforcement sectors working in a variety of roles, specializing in intelligence analysis and human behavior in the context of hybrid and asymmetric warfare. He is an authority on counterterrorism and his work has taken him to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans, West Africa and Northern Ireland where he has studied the problems of insurgencies, terrorism and criminality on the ground, often working closely with NATO. His research work at Oxford University in the United Kingdom focuses on the prevention of acts of terror.