The ability to adapt is one of the defining features of high-performing armed groups. In Syria and Iraq, the tactics of the Islamic State (ISIS) have evolved in response to airstrikes and other military operations by the United States and partner nations.
But ISIS’s ability to adapt is not confined to the Middle East battlespace. In Paris on November 13, 2015, and in Brussels on March 22, 2016, local men affiliated with ISIS carried out deadly “Fedayeen,” or "men of sacrifice," operations—that is, multiple, coordinated attacks on lightly defended “soft targets” intended to produce maximum civilian casualties, generate media coverage, and overwhelm emergency services.
In the years since September 11, 2001, US officials have directed policies, programs, and resources towards preventing attacks on iconic infrastructure targets. The incidents in Paris and Brussels suggest that ISIS—and by implication, other terrorist groups—may be focusing increasingly on mass casualty attacks on civilians in multiple locations.
Carrying out a Fedayeen-style attack in the United States would not be easy—but it is possible. In fact, it has already taken place, albeit in a form that was relatively unsophisticated by Islamic State standards. The April 20, 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, which left 12 students and one teacher dead, and more than 20 injured, involved firearms, homemade bombs, and arson.
Since then, first responders have developed effective protocols for responding to such incidents and reducing the loss of civilian life. But more needs to be done at all levels of government.
Assessing the threat
Multiple attacks on civilian targetshave been part of the repertoire of armed groups for decades. It was an Al Qaeda affiliated organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which was responsible for the November 26-29, 2008 attacks in Mumbai. LeT carried out a series of shootings and bombing attacks lasting four days across Mumbai. These attacks established what one analyst calls “a gold standard for how a small group of suicidal fanatics can paralyze a major city, attract global attention, and terrorize a continent.”
Mumbai illustrated the massive impact of such operations, but also highlighted the challenges associated with successfully mounting these kinds of attacks. They are, in essence, commando operations that require training, intelligence and logistical support, and communications security. There is considerable evidence that LeT received assistance from Pakistani intelligence officers. Similarly, Abdelhamid Abaaoud and other participants in the Paris attacks were reportedly trained for the operation in Syria.
Although hundreds of American citizens and long-term residents have gone—or have attempted to go—to Syria, according to FBI Director James B. Comey, there is no publicly available evidence to confirm that any have received the training required to carry out a sophisticated Fedayeen-style attack.
With respect to the threat from ISIS, it appears that the greatest danger is posed by relative amateurs inside the United States who are inspired by the Islamic State’s call to build the caliphate, but have no direct operational ties to ISIS. The husband and wife team responsible for the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California on December 2, 2015 fit this profile.
The good news is that such individuals are likely to be less capable than those responsible for the terrorist attacks in Europe and South Asia. The bad news is that given their lack of any obvious international connection, they may be harder for intelligence agencies to identify and track ahead of time.
Developing a response
The experience captured from dozens of school shootings in the United States has significantly altered tactical thinking over the past 15 years, and has dramatically raised the stakes for rank-and-file patrol officers who first arrive on the scene. In fact, the basic active-shooter protocol in the United States has been fine-tuned to take into account multiple shooters, suicide vests and other dangers that were once close to unthinkable.
First responders are now trained in response tactics that concurrently secure the situation by killing or disarming the attackers, and provide aid to the wounded through immediate deployment of emergency medical technicians to the scene.
The Joint Counterterrorism Awareness Workshop Series (JCTAWS), sponsored by the National Counterterrorism Center and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) since 2010, has helped numerous large cities in the United States discover capability gaps, apply best practices, and leverage available resources from local, state, federal and private sector organizations to mitigate a complex, multi-incident, terrorist attack.
Similar examples of successful interagency coordination, interoperable communications, and tactics that minimize the loss of life should be widely adopted in anticipation of the next mass casualty incident, regardless of the motivations of the perpetrators.
Overall progress on this front was demonstrated following the April 15, 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, which resulted in three deaths and more than 260 injuries. These were the first Improvised Explosive Devices to cause mass injuries in the United States, but over a decade of training on mass casualty events by the emergency managers in Boston’s medical community – including exercises based on a Boston Marathon scenario – prevented the loss of many more lives.
The nation’s challenge in the face of the increased likelihood of terrorist attacks targeting the homeland is not only how to prevent these attacks, butalso – and of equal importance – how we will mitigate the consequences of these incidents as they unfold. Those communities that already have, regrettably, experienced mass casualty incidents, along with the major US cities that have benefited from the JCTAWS program, have clearly shown that enhanced training programs and modified response tactics can save lives.
But more needs to be done. DHS and other US government agencies should focus more resources, on a nationwide basis, towards improving police, fire, and emergency medical response to mass casualty incidents. Although these attacks may be more demanding for our first responders, a vast body of knowledge exists, including after-action reports, lessons learned, and international expertise that could contribute to even more effective training and information sharing across the public safety community.
Rather than drawing an artificial distinction between the immediate response to acts of terrorism versus the response to other domestic mass casualty incidents, it may be more useful to compile the lessons learned from both types of incidents to discover the most effective response tactics.
In fact, the similarities between acts of terrorism and domestic shooting incidents that result in mass casualties suggest that public safety and law enforcement officials could adopt – and in many cases already have adopted – a more consistent approach to incident response that would contain the damage already done, and minimize the loss of additional lives.
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, much of the US government adopted a “never again” mentality with respect to terrorism. Working to prevent attacks is essential, of course, but it is also important to recognize that despite our best efforts, some terrorists will hit their intended targets. If the Paris and Brussels attacks are any indication, ISIS may be adopting Mumbai-style tactics, particularly in the West.
It would be irresponsible for American policymakers to assume that the United States is somehow immune to such attacks. Policymakers and practitioners should continue to build on the progress they have made since Columbine. Although their motives may differ, school shooters, Islamic State supporters, and violent right-wing extremists—whom US law enforcement considers the most dangerous domestic threat—sometimes have employed similar modus operandi.
Looking at mass-casualty violence holistically can help first responders develop more effective means for containing and reducing civilian casualties.
Jason McNamara is Senior Director for Emergency Management Programs at CNA, a federally funded research and development center in Arlington, Virginia. He served as chief of staff for the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 2009 – 2013.
William Rosenau, Ph.D. is a senior analyst at CNA’s Center for Strategic Studies. The views expressed here are those of the authors.