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 of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have evolved in response to airstrikes and other military operations by the United States and partner nations. But ISIS’ ability to adapt is not confined to its Middle East battle space.
In Paris on Nov. 13, 2015, and in Brussels on March 22, 2016, local men affiliated with ISIS carried out deadly fedayeen (“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 9/11, US officials have directed policies, programs and resources toward 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 ISIS 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.