Thursday, February 19, 2009

Armed citizens and al Qaeda swarms

This recent op-ed offers a sobering look at the evolution of terrorist tactics.

The Coming Swarm

WITH three Afghan government ministries in Kabul hit by simultaneous suicide attacks this week, by a total of just eight terrorists, it seems that a new “Mumbai model” of swarming, smaller-scale terrorist violence is emerging.
The basic concept is that hitting several targets at once, even with just a few fighters at each site, can cause fits for elite counterterrorist forces that are often manpower-heavy, far away and organized to deal with only one crisis at a time. This approach certainly worked in Mumbai, India, last November, where five two-man teams of Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives held the city hostage for two days, killing 179 people. The Indian security forces, many of which had to be flown in from New Delhi, simply had little ability to strike back at more than one site at a time

The author believes that current US doctrine is too centralized to deal effectively with this type of multiple, small-scale attacks. He recommends dramatic changes or necessary to prevent Mumbai-scale carnage in this country.

At the federal level, we should stop thinking in terms of moving thousands of troops across the country and instead distribute small response units far more widely. Cities, states and Washington should work out clear rules in advance for using military forces in a counterterrorist role, to avoid any bickering or delay during a crisis. Reserve and National Guard units should train and field many more units able to take on small teams of terrorist gunmen and bombers. Think of them as latter-day Minutemen.

He overlooks a critical dimension that is directly relevant to his scenario. The original Minutemen were civilians ready to take up arms in defense of their community. A non-trivial minority of US citizens still live by that ideal. Armed citizens may be the most effective force in limiting the death toll should terrorists try to carry out swarm attacks here.

I argued that point here in response to Richard Clarke's "scenarios" several years ago. The new terror tactics make civilian response even more promising.

For one thing, small terrorist teams (two men each in the Mumbai example) decrease the odds against civilian responders. Private citizens fight back--successfully-- against armed assailants everyday. It may appear suicidal to take on eight or ten terrorists with a handgun. That is not the case when armed citizens fight back against one or two criminals.

Second, the slow expected response by the professionals actually undercuts one of the most popular arguments against civilian resistance to terror attacks. Skeptics often claim that arriving first responders will shoot anyone with a gun. Thus, fighting back makes you a target of both the terrorists and counter-terrorist units.

But if the counter-terrorist response is expected to be slow and deliberate, then the risks are all on one side. The danger of being mistaken for a bad guy by the SWAT team is low. Against terrorists any resistance is better than passive capitulation.

See also:
Richard Clarke in The Atlantic

"But Richard Clarke was a wimp"

Mall Shooting and future terrorism

Lessons and preparations

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