Active shooter, not urban siege: tactics in Paris
26 Nov 2015|


David Kilcullen was on the money last week when he implored us to examine the tactics used in the 13/11 Paris attacks. As the facts continue to slowly emerge, it’s a bleak story. Unfortunately too much of the public analysis of those facts focuses on apportioning blame and not nearly enough on evaluating tactics.

While analysing the 13/11 tactics for this piece, I found myself lamenting the early days of my intelligence career. We knew our enemy so well, including their doctrine and tactics. It was a world defined by two types of operations: defensive and offensive. And the military tactics doctrine for many armies was so rigid as to make them predictable.

In contrast, the analysis of contemporary terror tactics and strategy is exponentially more difficult to understand and predict. Changes to doctrine and tactics are continuous in contemporary terror organisations; the groups are great innovators and early adopters of technology.

I enjoyed reading Levi West’s recent Strategist piece on the Paris attacks. He’s bravely started the search for a theoretical model for classifying the attacks with an argument that the Paris attacks were an ‘urban siege’ or ‘urban guerrilla’ strategy. While he uses the counterterrorism lexicon of the day, his commentary doesn’t resonate with the French tactical responses to 13/11.

To date, the analysis of the Paris attack tactics, including Levi’s article, reminds me of the parable of the elephant and the six blind men. Everyone is applying their subject matter expertise to analyse the attacks from their perspective, but fail to account for other possibilities.

Urban guerrilla tactics aren’t new to terrorist organisations. The Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) used a number of urban guerrilla tactics throughout the 70s and 80s. In 1981, PIRA ambushed a military detachment in South Armagh using infantry tactics. And again in 1985 they attacked and blew up a police station in Northern Ireland, killing two officers.

The tactics used by ISIS in the 13/11 Paris attacks can hardly be considered guerrilla warfare. When ISIS tactics in the Paris attacks are contrasted with guerrilla warfare established practitioners such as PIRA their tactical sophistication pales. The attackers don’t appear to have used any form of infantry tactics in the attack phase. In fact, one could argue that the Paris attacks have more in common with active shooter incidents such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in the US. There was most definitely sophistication in the coordination and targeting of the Paris attacks, but the actual tactics employed during the attack phase were by no means sophisticated nor military or guerilla in nature.

Hostage situations involve threats by persons who have barricaded themselves in a building, or protected area, but aren’t actively harming anyone, despite possibly threatening to do so.

Police responses to hostage-taking focus on a measured and delayed response. Police best practice in those incidents involve cordoning an area and containing the hostage taker. Police efforts are then focused on negotiating with the offender or offenders to prevent violence to achieve the release of prisoners and a resolution that doesn’t result in deaths.

Hostage or siege-type operations are also not a new tactic for terror organisations. There’s little doubt that the Westgate and Mumbai terror attacks both involved extended urban sieges and hostages taken.

But there was no hostage-taking incident at the Bataclan concert hall Paris on 13 November 2015. Three men actively engaged in killing people in a confined and populated area—it was an active shooter attack. From an applied policy perspective there’s a real danger in creating a new theoretical framework for this tactic when one is readily available.

Active shooter situations occur when police officers on the ground believe that the armed individual is actively inflicting injuries or death. The shooter’s aim in those cases is to inflict mass casualties as quickly as possible, which is what we saw in Paris. And tragedies such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre illustrate that the shooters are also committed to dying just like the jihadis.

Looking at the scene in the Parisian concert hall, there was an individual who was shooting innocent individuals while his two counterparts were controlling the crowd. The three men were focused solely on inflicting as much damage as possible as quickly as possible: there was no room to cordon, contain and negotiate responses.

From a strategic perspective, we’ve seen a paradigm shift in ISIS operations. They have internationalised their terrorism program enhancing their ‘lone wolf’ strategy with multi-phased synchronised and coordinated attacks. And finally and probably more worrying, the Paris attacks have shown us that they’re using active shooter strategies focused on killing, and not on establishing a siege or hostage scenario.

Those types of attacks are difficult to prevent, but we can proactively prepare for them. Fortunately we can draw many lessons from US and Canadian active shooter incidents. We can draw together programs for coordinated lock down procedures for schools, offices, hotels and other such venues. We can also adopt active shooter training for police.

Australian police use the active shooter response for their specialised tactical units. The need for this type of training for general duties officers has been noted by Australia’s state, territory and federal police leaders. One of the first lessons from the Paris attacks for Australian policymakers is that, in light of a rising domestic terror threat, our active shooter police response capability needs to be rapidly enhanced.