A few years back I wrote about the strategic utility of terrorism. One thing I did not mention in that post was the use of a tried and true guerrilla tactic as part of the terrorist arsenal: the sucker ploy.
In guerrilla warfare the sucker ploy is a tactic whereby the weaker irregular forces stage an incident in order to provoke an over-reaction from their stronger adversaries. Examples include killing a local official so as to have the security forces engage in mass repression of the people in the locality in which he worked. Another is firing at enemy aircraft or armour from inside villages in order to have them retaliate indiscriminately against the entire village. The objective is to alienate and erode support for the enemy by the victims.
For the last five years or so, the international jihadist movement spearheaded by al-Qaeda and now the Islamic State have evolved their tactics to suit the strategic environment they are confronted with. No longer able to carry out large scale attacks such as 9/11 or the Bali, London and Madrid bombings, would-be jihadists have been encouraged to engage in self-radicalised “lone wolf” or small-cell attacks within their respective countries using their familiarity with the local terrain and knowledge of local customs and symbology. These are low level, highly independent and autonomous operations, as was seen in the Boston Marathon bombings last year.
Attacks of this nature are tactically opportune but strategically insignificant. They do not present an existential challenge to any established state. By themselves they are tragic but politically inconsequential.
The motives and desired impact of the perpetrators may differ from those of the Islamicist leadership. Perpetrators may wish to strike a blow and sow localised fear while achieving martyrdom. The Islamicist leadership desires a strategic victory. The only way that it can do so is to use these types of attacks as a sucker ploy.
If governments respond to lone wolf and small cell low level terrorism with blanket increases in mass surveillance, national threat levels, expansion of security and anti-terrorism laws and restrictions on freedoms of association, movement and speech by groups associated with the perpetrators by virtue of religion, ethnicity or the like, then the strategic objectives of the Islamicist leadership are being served. That is because such measures target innocents, not only on an indiscriminate mass scale but often because of who they are rather than anything they have done. That further alienates and marginalises previously passive but increasingly disaffected sectors of society, thereby delegitimising governmental authority while breeding new recruits to the cause.
The temptation for democratic governments responding to such attacks to engage in large scale security tightening is overwhelming, which is of course what the Islamicists are banking on. The public needs reassurance, security agencies see opportunity and conservative politicians want their pound of flesh. Few opposition politicians want to appear soft on the threat of terrorism, Â much less by opposing moves to “tighten” security in the wake of lethal attacks in the West motivated by Islam. But that urge, even if given carte blanche by the media-fed hysteria of the moment, needs to be tempered with a broader perspective and deeper analysis of what is at play.
Of course security measures need to be in place in order to thwart such low-level attacks. In Ottawa they clearly were not. But this is no excuse to engage in a knee-jerk over-reaction that results in the type of divisive measures that serve the purposes of the Islamicists more than the population at large. To do so is to fall into the trap set by the Islamicst leadership when they ordered the shift in tactics towards decentralised low level operations conducted by “home-grown” jihadis.
A couple of points worth mentioning: The Canadian threat environment and exposure to Islamic terrorism is different and greater than that of New Zealand and has been for some time. IS had directly threatened Canada before the attacks because Canada has actively joined the conflict by sending ground attack aircraft and special forces troops to the fray.
The perpetrators responsible for this week’s crimes were not returning from the killing fields of Syria or Iraq. They were native born Quebecois, evidencing mental halt issues, with prior criminal records who were known to the Canadian authorities. They were recent converts to Islam, one of whom had been placed on a so-called “watch list” and had his passport revoked because of his overt Islamicist sympathies. The other, a recovering drug addict, was waiting for a passport application to be processed, was living in a half way house, and was frustrated by the delays in securing the passport. Â Unable to leave Canada, both turned their murderous gaze inwards.
This should serve as a lesson on several levels. But the foremost one is simple: beware the sucker ploy.