From time to time, I will sit down to write a series of analyses on a particular topic, such as the fundamentals of terrorism series last February. Other times, unrelated events in different parts of the world are tied together by analytical threads, naturally becoming a series. This is what has happened with the last three weekly security analyses -- a common analytical narrative has risen to connect them.
First, we discussed how the Jan. 16 attack against the Tigantourine natural gas facility near Ain Amenas, Algeria, would result in increased security at energy facilities in the region. Second, we discussed foreign interventions in Libya and Syria and how they have regional or even global consequences that can persist for years. Finally, last week we discussed how the robust, layered security at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara served to thwart a suicide bombing.
Together, these topics spotlight the heightened and persistent terrorist threat in North Africa as well as Turkey and the Levant. They also demonstrate that militants in those regions will be able to acquire weapons with ease. But perhaps the most important lesson from them is that as diplomatic missions are withdrawn or downsized and as security is increased at embassies and energy facilities, the threat is going to once again shift toward softer targets.
Obviously, individuals desiring to launch a terrorist attack seek to strike the highest-profile, most symbolic target possible. If it is well known, the target can magnify the terror, especially when the operation grabs the attention of international media. Such extensive exposure not only allows people around the globe to be informed minute by minute about unfolding events, but it also permits them to become secondary, vicarious victims of the unfolding violence. The increased exposure also ensures that the audience affected by the operation becomes far larger than just those in the immediate vicinity of the attack. The attack on the U.S. diplomatic office in Benghazi and the killing of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens led to months of media coverage that has included televised congressional hearings and fierce partisan and bureaucratic squabbles in the media. It was the terrorist equivalent of winning the lottery.
However, in the wake of terrorist attacks, increased situational awareness and security measures make successful attacks difficult to replicate. Targets become more difficult to attack -- what we refer to as hard targets. When this happens, attackers are forced to either escalate the size and force used in their attack, identify a vulnerability they can exploit or risk failure.
In the August 1998 attacks against the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, al Qaeda planners turned to the first option: a larger attack. They attempted to use large truck bombs to overcome the embassies' layered security. The embassies had decent perimeter security but lacked enough distance between the street and the buildings to protect them from a large blast. In both attacks, the attackers also tried unsuccessfully to get the bomb-laden trucks through perimeter security vehicle checkpoints to detonate them closer to the embassy buildings.
After those bombings, security enhancements made most diplomatic facilities more difficult to attack, leading militant groups to turn their attention to hotels. A strike on an international hotel in a major city can make almost the same kind of statement against the West as a strike on an embassy. Hotels are often full of Western business travelers, diplomats, intelligence officers and, not insignificantly, members of the media. This has made hotels target-rich environments for militants seeking to kill Westerners and gain international media attention without having to penetrate the extreme security of a hard target like a modern embassy.
But increased security is not the only factor that leads those wishing to conduct a terrorist attack to gravitate toward softer targets. For the better part of a decade, we have chronicled how the global jihadist movement has devolved from an organizational model based on centralized leadership and focused global goals to a more amorphous model based on regional franchises with local goals and strong grassroots support. For the most part, these regional franchises lack the training and funding of the al Qaeda core and are therefore less capable. This means franchise groups are often unable to attack hard targets and tend to focus on softer targets -- such as hotels or the U.S. ambassador while he is staying at a poorly protected office in Benghazi rather than at his residence in Tripoli.
Changing Threats in North Africa
As hotels in places like Amman and Jakarta became harder to attack with large vehicle bombs, attackers began to smuggle in smaller devices to bypass the increased security. There was also a trend in which attackers hit restaurants where Westerners congregated rather than the more secure hotels.
The same dynamic will likely apply today in the Sahel. We believe that the attack at the Tigantourine natural gas facility in Algeria was greatly aided by the complacency of the security forces. The attackers did not demonstrate any sort of advanced terrorist tactics or tradecraft. It would be very hard to replicate the attack on another energy facility in the region today due to increases in awareness and security. The increase in security will be compounded by the fact that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its jihadist brethren in the Sahel lack sophisticated terrorist capabilities and have lost their