Monday, November 16, 2015

ISIS and the Mumbai Model

In November of 2008 a group of 10 Pakistanis carried out 12 coordinated attacks in Mumbai. The event lasted four days. The weapons were assault rifles and grenades: Nothing exotic. What we saw in Paris was actually more sophisticated in that they had suicide vests (the creation of which is a specific skill), a network of support across national boards (possibly using the preferred PlayStation 4 for encrypted communications). The body-count from Paris is similar to Mumbai (168 killed, over 300 wounded in 2008).

Given that this method of attack--the Mumbai model--is effective across the entire spectrum of terrorist goals, requires a very small footprint in terms of gear, and seems like it could be easily put together, why have we not seen more of it? Is it what's next?

A Few Considerations

There are a few things we should be aware of when looking at the Mumbai Model. The first--and most obvious--is that no one involved expects to live. It is one thing to plant bombs and then detonate them remotely. It is another thing to engage a full state security force. While terrorists typically do have access to suicide troops the average suicide bomber is ill-suited to extensive clandestine work. For one thing, many of them may be, literally, suicidal--meaning they just want to die and are less interested in an aggressive campaign of killing before hand.

This is echoed in the Mumbai training: there were two major phases of ideological conditioning that took place in remote areas. Out of 26 potential recruits, 10 were chosen. In the Paris attacks, it seems that although there were several parties involved, the actual suicide assault was limited to 4 shooter/bombers.

This is a relatively small number: The Omnivore asserts that the attacks would go with as many simultaneous combatants as possible since, in the aftermath, there will be little chance for a follow-up (last night, across France, there were 150 arrests). The terrorists know this and it seems likely that suicide shock-troops are in far shorter supply than bombers and are probably more emotionally fragile in the sense that forcing someone to work for extended periods of time in an enemy country with plans to self-annihilate is probably more difficult than getting a suicidal person to remain suicidal for less than four hours.

Secondly, there is the need for a support network. These attacks require coordination, logistical planning, and support. From the Paris attacks, we saw that the attacks did not go to plan: a bomber was stopped at the gate to the sporting event. The attacks were spectacular enough that it mostly didn't matter--but to get as far as they did, they needed luck, skill, and help.

The Omnivore is not surprised that Belgium was indicated as the place where most of the help came from. For whatever reason it is a reservoir of jihadi activists and a likely place where attacks could be coordinated from (most of ISIS's western followers have come from Belgium). The US, comparatively, does not offer a similar resource.

Thirdly, there are infiltration problems. It appears that the Syrian passports that were found with the Paris attackers may have been fake. If this is true, then it is less that Syrian refugees are simply becoming ISIS attack teams and more that with a great influx of refugees ISIS was able to send people in with fake credentials.

Now, to be sure, this isn't a lot better--but it is significant: fake passports are a weak-point in the operational chain. It is important that they were required. This speaks to the fact that not-just-anyone with a fully loaded AK and a grenade can be effective in this kind of operation.

Finally, there were warnings. Yes, these kinds of warnings come all-day, every-day--but The Omnivore suspects that operating in America is harder than operating in Europe (for a number of reasons including a more radicalized, less integrated populace) and thus "noisier." It may also be that our electronic surveillance works better (it has been noted that most of the Internet services used for communication 'live' in America giving us a kind of home-field advantage no one else enjoys.

What About Concealed Carry, Size of Country, Etc.

Isn't it also possible that America, as a target, is simply "harder" than Paris? After all, America is bigger--making no one target as appealing. Secondly, America is, well, loaded with guns--isn't it?

The Omnivore doubts this. Yes, targets have to be "significant" to have propaganda value--and yes, America's best targets (Disney World) are pretty well guarded--but there are plenty of places that would have enough symbolic value--and a high body count will go a long way if the target is second-rate.

Guns are also probably not a concern. It's not that too few people carry or that the terrorists can just pick a "gun free zone" (The Omnivore's observation is that Paris' police force is pretty heavily armed and fairly pervasive)--it's that concealed weapons are not much of an obstacle to coordinated attackers with full-auto assault rifles. Yes, it's better than nothing--but if the attack involves high volumes of fire in two to three minutes, the odds of mounting a successful counter attack in the panic and chaos are pretty low. The Omnivore suspects that terrorists would happily take their chances.

We also don't allow guns in most places with security (sporting events) with good reason: drunk idiots. It's worth remembering that what went wrong in Paris was mundane security (which stopped the bomber from getting in) and not Jr. G-Men with concealed weapons.

The Net-Net

The Mumbai-Model is, likely, what we're going to see from ISIS for a while. The "raw numbers" (men, money, etc.) suggest that ISIS is going to do its best to export atrocity. We also know they will want to target America (revenge for killing Jihadi John?). We should not think "it cannot or will not happen here"--but similarly we should not lose sight of the fact that while legitimately scary, attacks like we've seen in Paris and Mumbai are not events against which we have no resistance. We do have resistance--and it's pretty good. As The Omnivore has said, it seems likely that ISIS is going to come to regret its recent successes.


  1. I don't know about that prediction that "ISIS will come to regret its recent successes". Given that about ten Republican governors to date have expressed a desire to block immigration of Syrian refugees (and at least one Republican presidential candidate has proposed what amounts to a religious test to filter out "undesirable" prospective immigrants), I think it's all of us who will come to regret the way we're so blindly playing right into ISIS' hands. They have succeeded in engineering a humanitarian catastrophe already, and seem to understand our politics only too well; in my opinion, the predictable right-wing response to the Syrian refugee crisis is only furthering what amounts to a Xanatos Gambit. Pretty much any path we take at this point only exacerbates the crisis or undermines the foundations of our own society, or both.

    So what are they likely to regret, exactly? They're resorting to terrorism because that's pretty much the only recourse available to poor nations or groups; obviously they can't oppose the West with raw force, so they're using a form of strategic judo instead, knowing that our leaders are dumb enough to take the bait.

    Worse: they may have no choice, politically. Either way, the "bad guys" win.

    -- Ω

  2. Omnivore- Great piece, as usual. Dershowitz' book "Wht Terrorism Works" is essential reading here. The ratio of resources necessary to carry out these kinds of attacks versus the impact is astounding. The TSA (a post-9/11 invention) costs ~$8B per annum. The war in Afghanistan (arguably an insignificant geographical target for 9/11 retribution) cost trillions and thousands of lives. My point is, we are being had. There must be a different strategy to defeat terrorism, and we have little to no idea what that is, yet. Further, Anonymous' recent declaration of war against these miscreants is the most intriguing development yet, IMHO. The Achilles heel of any organization relying on technology IS technology. It would be as ironic as it would be game-changing for a non-country to take down this non-country.