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How Governments Are Fighting Security Threats In an Era of Soft Target Attacks

Recent attacks in Paris and Sydney highlight the shift away from large-scale terrorist attacks and towards so-called "soft targets" like cafes and grocery stores.

by Colleen Curry
Jan 13 2015, 11:15pm

Imagen vía Francois Mori/AP

The deadly shooting at the Paris headquarters of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo last week, was the latest in a string of terror attacks at civilian locations such as cafes, grocery stores, crowded streets, and marketplaces around the world.

In the law enforcement and military community, these are known as "soft targets," and they represent nearly all of the spaces in modern-day America where citizens work and relax. The opposite — "hard targets" — are places with intense security that have traditionally been the targets of large-scale terror attacks like 9/11.

As calls from Islamist militant groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State urge followers and sympathizers around the world to carry out small-scale terror attacks where they live, places that once seemed unattractive to terrorists are now thought of as more vulnerable.

"The Lions of Allah who are all over the globe, some call them lone wolves -— should know they are the West's worst nightmare. So do not belittle your operations. Do not undermine your Jihad," al Qaeda official Sheikh Nasr Al Ansi told the jihadist magazine Inspire in December. "Because some deaths are caused by a thousand cuts. And a small blood clot paralyses the whole body."

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In an appearance on CBS's Face the Nation on Sunday, US Attorney General Eric Holder said, "I think the possibility of such attacks exists in the United States. It is something that, frankly, keeps me up at night worrying about the lone wolf or a very small group of people who decide to get arms on their own and do what we saw in France this week."

Scott Stewart, the vice president of tactical analysis at the global intelligence and advisory firm Stratfor, told VICE News that the shift from hard targets to soft targets escalated in 2004, when al Qaeda began branching off from one cohesive group with professional terrorists in its ranks into an amorphous movement made up of many disparate groups.

"Once you get to the broad movement, you start to incorporate people through the leaderless movement that really don't have the terrorism trade craft," Stewart said. "They have the desire to conduct terror attacks but not the means. That's why they focus on simple attacks against easy targets or soft targets."

As part of that, there's been a movement away from bombings and toward armed assaults with guns. Stewart attributed this to a number of botched lone wolf bombings and the challenge of acquiring bomb-making materials in a Western country.

The important thing to remember about soft targets — and amorphous, leaderless terror groups — is that the threat is wide, but not deep, Stewart said. Many locations are vulnerable to attacks, but the attacks are small and few and far between. "They're a mile wide but an inch deep," he said.

"It's a large threat that's amorphous and hard to get a handle on and they seemingly pop out of nowhere, but it's not a severe threat. These are guys running around with hatchets or running over soldiers with cars, not necessarily taking out Navy war ships," Stewart said.

Security experts say there is no real way to ensure the security of soft targets. Marie-Helen Maras, a security professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, explained that if there were police or military officers posted in or near every soft target — including cafes or movie theaters — people would no longer go to them. They would be convinced they were in more danger with the officers there, and police need to ensure they are not creating more fear than is necessary.

"We have to accept the fact that there's no such thing as absolute security," Maras told VICE News. "All of us in security have a choice to make about how much of our resources we will use. There's no way we can protect every soft target."

Law enforcement has to prioritize its security resources, Stewart explained. According to him, the government can't allow something like a nuclear weapons storage facility or chlorine plant to be attacked; the repercussions could be catastrophic.

"The conundrum is for law enforcement and security that you can't protect everything. That's the paradox they're faced with," Stewart said.

What law enforcement can do, Maras said, is ensure they can mitigate the effect of any lone wolf or group attack on a soft target by having quick response times and by providing training for all the private security personnel employed by malls, offices, and hotels.

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Police departments should be working with those private security firms to provide training, Maras said, which is easier in cities or counties that have enough resources devoted to counter-terrorism and training in their police forces.

"Security professionals at hotels and malls are not the primaries, but they need to know the basics," she said.

Additionally, Maras explained that a lot of the targets might be in areas we wouldn't expect, with attackers focusing on areas that are unprepared. For this reason, training would need to be across the board.

"They're not all happening in major cities. So we need to be thinking about it from the terror groups' perspective," she said.

What law enforcement and security professionals need to do is try and imagine types of attacks that haven't yet been seen in other parts of the world, Maras said. Hotel bombings and café hostage situations that have happened abroad give US authorities a chance to study and prepare for them happening here; the challenge, however, is imagining the unprecedented.

For citizens, this challenge is less concrete. Stewart said that while people need to accept that this is the world we live in now, but it doesn't mean people need to live in fear.

"It's just fact of life today, and people need to understand things can go bad and know how to act when something does go bad," he said. "Practice the proper level of situational awareness, and be aware of what's going on around you."