In yesterday’s edition of The Australian, counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen implored us to examine ‘the military-style ‘urban guerrilla’ and ‘urban siege’ tactics’ used in the Paris attacks. While the full picture of the pre-operational component of the attacks will take some time to be fully assessed, the operation itself utilises a range of tactical approaches that have been clearly effective in previous attacks. There’s much that can be learned from unpacking the tactics of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, perpetrated by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), as well as those used in other similar operations undertaken by a variety of terrorist groups. Understanding both the underlying vulnerabilities and the limitations of ‘urban siege’ warfare can help policymakers to better prepare counter measures, and to limit the impacts of those types of attacks. Those tactics are utilised because they present a relatively simple yet highly effective mechanism for launching terrorist operations. The impacts on France, Europe, and indeed on the Western world more broadly will be substantial, and ongoing.
In the first instance, urban siege tactics rely on effective target selection. The first component is identifying soft targets that offer symbolic value, are appropriately populated by ‘the enemy’, and are sufficiently high profile so as to guarantee international media attention. The Stade de France and the Bataclan Theatre in Paris, and the Taj and Oberoi hotels in Mumbai reflect these parameters. The Paris operations benefitted from taking place in a location that guaranteed Western media coverage, regardless of their scale or effectiveness. Increasingly, this is an additional tactical consideration open to terrorists. Knowing that any terrorist attack in the West will garner substantive international media coverage makes those targets all the more appealing.
Next, the use of diversionary tactics plays a key role in undertaking urban siege attacks. The deployment of low-level incidents such as timer delayed IEDs in Mumbai, or the deployment of lone gunmen and solo suicide bombers in Paris distracts resources and response capabilities away from key sites of the overall attack and enhances its sense of chaos resulting from the attack. An important element of the operation is to create fear and a sense of paralysis across the target city, and utilising diversionary tactics is a substantial contributor to this.
Swarming tactics are highly effective at achieving disproportionate effects from dispersed, small, mobile tactical units, ideally functioning strategically as a collective whole. Ensuring that those teams operate synchronously, and with a clear overall strategic objective is what enables the amplification of otherwise small scale actions. The Mumbai operation utilised a remote command and control model to ensure cohesiveness, however target selection can be sufficient in achieving the desired amplification effects. It’s unclear at this stage whether the Paris teams were in communication with each other, or if it was simply well planned and practiced.
Finally, the use of siege tactics, or what in the Jihadist context is referred to as fedayeen attacks, serves a number of key purposes. Originating, in its modern form, with LeT operations in Kashmir, the core component of the Mumbai operation leveraged those tactics in unprecedented ways, with the prolonged siege of the Taj Hotel. The capture of the Bataclan Theatre provided the operatives in the Paris attacks with a contained target, in a confined environment, with international resonance and newsworthy content.
Overall, the attack demonstrates highly sophisticated tactical planning, combined with an understanding of the strategic implications of this type of operation. By leveraging the existing vulnerabilities inherent in an open, democratic society, the attack exposed the relative ease with which a modern, urban metropolis, even one in a high state of alert for terrorist incidents, can be brought to a standstill with small arms, explosives, and effective tactics.
In seeking to better prepare for this type of incident, which was done extensively in the post-Mumbai context, law enforcement in particular face a number of substantial challenges. The near certainty of the attacker’s preparedness to die alters the dynamics of counter force operations. Additionally, hostages no longer provide an opportunity for negotiation, but are for the purposes of media attention and are an expendable resource to the terrorists. French authorities were right to act quickly to bring the incident, in particular Bataclan Theatre component, to speedy resolution.
Mitigating against this type of operation without sacrificing the freedoms of a liberal democracy is almost impossible. Additionally, the underlying drivers of those attacks, which in part stem from the conflict in Syria and Iraq, are unlikely to find sustained resolution in the short to medium term, providing Europe with a challenge of an immeasurable scale.
Regrettably, no one should be surprised by the events in Paris. In fact, it represents a worst-case scenario for most counterterrorism communities in the Western world, in part because preventative measures are limited, and the consequences are substantial. The Paris attacks will resonate well beyond the immediate damage and death, with substantial international consequences yet to play out. Worst of all, after Mumbai, it has demonstrated the high levels of effectiveness and impact of urban siege, and the limited measures that can be taken to prevent it.