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Preventing the Nice Attack: Learning from Historical Experience

Preventing the Nice Attack: Learning from Historical Experience

July 27, 2016
Christopher Griffin
Christopher Griffin Non-Resident Fellow Strategic Studies and Counterinsurgency

After a terrorist killed 84 people in a horrific attack on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice on 14 July, the reaction in France to the third major attack in eighteen months was not political unity but bitter recriminations regarding how the attack could and should have been prevented. Christian Estrosi, the President of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA) Region (where Nice is located), quickly criticized what he perceived to be the lack of government action to prevent terrorist attacks in the country. On Sunday, 17 July, Estrosi said ‘the government has lied’ about its efforts to stop terrorism and that ‘on the evening of 14 July, the police and military presence [on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice] was insufficient’. On 21 July, the French Interior Ministry announced that it was starting an inquiry into the real state of the police presence in Nice on the evening of 14 July.

Some terrorism specialists in France have claimed since that the controversy over the prevention of the attack is essentially useless, as it could not have been prevented. This claim is based on two fundamental points. The first is that the terrorist, Mohamed Lahouiej-Bouhlel, was not the object of a ‘fiche S’, which is a French intelligence services designation for people in the country who represent a potential threat to national security. The argument follows that, as Lahouiej-Bouhlel was not known to French intelligence, his attack could not be foreseen. On 21 July, the French Government announced, however, that there were in fact five accomplices in custody, who also were not on the intelligence services’ radar. The presence of what appears to be an operational terrorist cell (the nature of its links to Daesh remain unknown) on French territory clearly discredits the ‘lone wolf’ interpretation adopted right after the attack. Second, France’s Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, gave a press conference on 16 July, in which he claimed that Nice was a ‘new type of attack, because heavy weapons and explosives were not used’. The definition is surprisingly limited, given the variety of attacks carried out by terrorists in recent years, but also implies that attacks cannot be prevented due to their purported novelty.

This is an error. It is true that it would have been difficult to identify Lahouiej-Bouhlel and his accomplices before the attack, but the attack in Nice was in no way inevitable. It could have been both anticipated and prevented.

Preventing the Nice Attack

Stephen Van Evera postulated the existence of an offense-defense balance which affects the likelihood of the outbreak of war. He argued that, at points in history when offensive military doctrines or strategies are dominant (meaning more successful than defensive), war is more likely. The above statement by Caseneuve implies that the offense is dominant in the war against terrorism, and that the terrorists hold the initiative in the current strategic balance. A corollary to this belief is that a defensive strategy will only have limited effectiveness in fighting terrorism. The sense of an ‘inevitable’ attack builds on this idea in claiming essentially terrorists are more creative in launching offensive attacks and that defensive solutions are wholly inadequate. Van Evera argues, however, that ‘offensive dominance is more often imagined than real’.

Militaries have often responded effectively to offensive dominance in the past with coordinated defensive solutions. In early modern Europe, advances in artillery made most medieval fortresses obsolete. The defensive response was to build a new type of fortress, stronger and less vulnerable to artillery, called the trace italienne.[1] Sieges became much longer and the offensive lost considerable effectiveness. A more well-known example is the belief in the dominance of the offensive by European armies in 1914 that was destroyed by the development of fortifications on the Western Front and new defensive weapons, most notably the machine gun.[2] It took three years to come up with a solution to the trench warfare problem. Instead of dwelling on the inevitability of terrorist attacks, it would be better to develop a coordinated defensive solution to redress the offense defense balance.

There is a defensive solution that very likely would have prevented the Nice attack.

Concrete barriers (as well as barriers made from other materials) can stop a truck, even at high speed. The UK has tested and installed barriers able to withstand a hit from a truck around Parliament and at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. US-based National Public Radio reporters expressed amazement that this had not been done in Nice. According to CBS, the Department Homeland Security and the FBI published a report in 2010 highlighting the danger of exactly this type of attack, and former CIA deputy director Michael Morell said that the solution was ‘concrete barriers’. This measure would also help to mitigate the potential effects of a car or truck bomb, as the bomber could not approach the crowds as closely. It is also a much more reasonable solution than the absurd call by certain politicians for arming the French military with rocket launchers to stop trucks, a tactic which would surely kill a large number of people in the crowd even in the case of a direct hit on the moving vehicle.

The fact that the UK and the U.S. (as well as a number of other countries) had prepared for this eventuality means that the attack was not in fact ‘new’. It could have been anticipated and prepared for in a meaningful fashion. The fact that this was not done has to do with the way potential terrorist attacks are defined.

Anticipating the Nice Attack

Many of the recent fears of terrorist attacks have coalesced around the idea, mentioned above, that ‘lone wolf’ actors cannot be identified before they strike, and therefore they cannot be stopped. This defines the problem in the wrong terms. Historical defensive (and offensive) military systems were often successful because they responded to specific technological, tactical or doctrinal challenges. Instead of identifying terrorist attacks with the actors themselves, and trying only to stop the terrorists, the real problem should be to better define the range of possible tactics used in terrorist attacks, and to build a defensive system capable of stopping the terrorist/insurgent offensive campaign.

It is much easier to anticipate a certain terrorist tactic than it is to identify the terrorists themselves. The Nice attack is a case in point, and could have been anticipated for a number of reasons. First, as mentioned above, U.S. and UK authorities had already thought about and prepared for the possibility of a vehicle attack against crowds. The Department of Homeland Security published a report in 2011 on protecting buildings, which includes an entire chapter on how to stop vehicles with barriers (the primary threat was considered to be car bombs). Second, there were attacks in France in 2014 (which were never proved to be linked to terrorist groups) in which a van was driven into a crowd at a Christmas market in Nantes and a car deliberately hit a number of pedestrians in Dijon. If these incidents were not direct test runs for what happened in Nice, they were surely an inspiration for Lahouiej-Bouhlel. Third, the Nice attack came soon after a huge truck bomb attack carried out by Daesh in Baghdad, which killed 300 people. It resembled to a great extent the attack in Nice except for the fact that the driver in France had not loaded his truck with explosives.

The third reason illustrates at least a major part of the problem in analyses of potential terrorist attacks. The range of potential attacks are often determined primarily based on recent previous attacks in Europe and in North America. Earlier historical experience with terrorism in Europe is rarely taken into account (1960-1995, for example), and even more importantly, the recent history of terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria has not been used productively to identify potential terrorist tactics.

The Brussels attacks in March 2016 are an example of a failure to think historically. The attacks were nothing new, as there have been major attacks on airport terminals in the past. The Japanese Red Army attacked passengers in the Lod Airport terminal in Israel in 1972, and the Abu Nidal Organization launched twin attacks on the Rome and Vienna airport terminals in 1985. These are only two examples of this type of attack, which was used again in 2007 when a car rammed the terminal building at Glasgow. The security problem in airport terminals is well-known. Like Nice, the Brussels attack could have been anticipated and prepared for with a coordinated defensive response. It will not be easy to find a solution to the terminal vulnerability problem, but one could have been devised after 44 years of experience.

After the Paris attack in November 2015, many sources were quick to say that Daesh had developed a ‘new kind of warfare’. This point of view again fails to look at the problem historically. The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria provided insurgent groups, Al Qaeda in particular, with fifteen years of experience in testing many different kinds of terrorist attacks in those countries. Daesh is the successor to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which fought American forces and carried out attacks across Iraq for nearly a decade. That experience is surely being mobilized by Daesh commanders for attacks in Europe and North America. The Taliban did not seem to have direct ties to AQI, but Al Qaeda leaders in Iraq surely observed Taliban tactical successes and failures in Afghanistan (and vice versa) to develop their own tactical framework. Daesh is surely using this Iraq and Afghanistan ‘playbook’ today to plan attacks not only in Syria, but also in Europe and North America.

Some information is available on AQI tactics in Iraq. A 2013 Institute for the Study of War report suggested that by 2012 AQI had shifted largely to Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) attacks. The report also suggested that AQI was capable of ‘simultaneous attacks involving many cells’. Truck bombings were also used much earlier, especially against Shiite populations during the height of violence in 2006 and 2007. AQI relied a great deal during this earlier period on high profile suicide attacks with explosives intended to cause a maximum of civilian casualties, as was the case at least partly in Paris. Suicide attacks were also used as a means for assassination in Iraq. High profile hostage beheadings, as in France in June 2015, also began early in AQI’s campaign, and the group did not hesitate to kill rival Sunni leaders. Attacks against American soldiers were usually carried out with IEDs or direct fire. Bombing airplanes in flight, such as the Russian plane in the Sinai in October 2015, was on the agenda of Al Qaeda Central since the 1990s.

It would seem that a spillover of terrorist tactics from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan into Europe and North America is currently occurring. Even a cursory glance at the situation suggests that Western governments should be preparing defensive measures against VBIED attacks, IED attacks and mass-casualty suicide bombings, with the possibility that they will be carried out simultaneously. This recommendation of course does not preclude the surveillance of suspected terrorists and the need to understand and fight radicalization.

The Nice and Brussels attacks demonstrate the need to think more historically and with a larger geographic scope about potential terrorist attacks. More effort needs to be made not just to stop individual terrorists, but to examine the tactics used by Al Qaeda in Iraq, Daesh, and other groups over the last fifteen years (and further back as necessary such as with Brussels), and aim at creating a coordinated defensive response to the specific tactics used by those organizations. In this way, it may be possible to prevent or halt future terrorist campaigns by redressing the current offense defense balance.

[1] Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution: Military innovation and the rise of the West, 1500-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 7-16.

[2] See Michael Howard, ‘Men Against Fire: The Doctrine of the Offensive in 1914’, in Makers of Modern Strategy, ed. Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 510-526.

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