WHY do terrorists choose to strike soft targets? The conventional answer would be because they feel hitting hard targets is becoming increasingly difficult. So what constitutes a ‘soft target’?
Security experts are trying to understand the issue of soft targets from a variety of perspectives. There are still many unanswered questions. For instance, do terrorists really consider it a soft target — as described by the state? Do they randomly hit so-called soft targets, with less strategic thinking and planning? And, most importantly, how do terrorists define their enemies or attack targets?
These are genuine queries for both practitioners and academics. But it appears as if the state and its security institutions are deliberately manoeuvring the ‘myth’ of soft targets to cover up their weak responses. As they have done before, after the recent attack on lawyers in Quetta, the government and security establishment came up with the excuse that terrorists are on the run and therefore are now choosing soft targets. The fact of the matter is that, even after the Army Public School, Peshawar, attack in 2014, terrorists have been successful in carrying out large-scale and well-planned attacks across the country — although the frequency of such attacks has decreased compared to previous years.
Usually, non-combatants, civilians and unarmed individuals, groups and communities are considered ‘soft targets’. The recent spate of terrorist attacks across the world indicates a disturbing trend of a visible increase in attacks targeting non-combatants. Many experts link this increase to the emergence of the militant Islamic State group, its affiliates or inspired groups, which are innovative in their strategies and tactics, and are expanding the range of their targets. The terrorist attack on crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, the suicide attack on a Kurdish wedding ceremony, and the suicide attack in Madina, are just some examples of terrorists expanding the range of their targets.
Weaknesses of the government and security establishment are the terrorists’ strength.
At the same time, militants are exploiting security gaps to execute tested terrorist strategies. Taking people hostage and mass shootings are dangerous practices that they have applied in many operations, including in the attack on a café in Dhaka and on Kabul’s American University a few days ago.
Many security experts assume that terrorists target non-combatants to divert the attention of security institutions from conventional security targets. Then, an attack on civilians increases the impact of terrorism and puts states on the defensive due to public pressure. However, if we look at the patterns of attacks, terrorists continuously target specific non-combatant individuals and groups. With little variations in different regions, terrorists mainly target sectarian and religious minorities, intellectuals and sociopolitical elites and other groups that hold divergent views from those held by them.
Terrorists consider these segments their enemies. But in most cases, security institutions prioritise securing state infrastructure and power elites. Militants take the same amount of time in planning and executing their operations to hit both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ targets. The state and its security institutions may have an excuse that they lack human resources, logistics, and even capabilities, but terrorists exploit these same weaknesses.
Collateral damage is another myth directly linked to the notion of a soft target. While counterterrorism operations might cause collateral damage, terrorists are also least concerned about the casualties of ‘neutrals’ and even, in some cases, their sympathisers. A recent report by Action on Armed Violence revealed that during the last five years, 77pc of the total number of deaths and injuries (145,565) recorded in armed conflicts were ordinary people going about their daily business. According to the report Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen were the countries that saw the highest levels of civilian harm in this period. These figures include both ‘collateral damage’ and non-combatants who have been deliberately targeted.
However, terrorists always prioritise important strategic security installations and targets that have national and international significance — ranging from diplomatic missions to religious and cultural heritage sites. Although they continuously focus on their non-combatant enemies, their prime objective remains to hit hard and cause maximum casualties. Globally, attacks on non-combatants constitute 30pc of all terrorist attacks, but these attacks cause more human losses compared to others.
Similar patterns can be witnessed in Pakistan. According to open-source databases, different perpetrators including the TTP, other Al Qaeda-inspired groups, sectarian militants and nationalist insurgents in Balochistan have managed to carry out 7,311 terrorist attacks in Pakistan from January 2011 to mid-August 2016. These attacks claimed 9,689 lives and left 18,812 others injured. Fatalities among security forces personnel, including paramilitary forces and police, were 2,672.
In the incidents of violence recorded during this period, fatalities among civilians were 38pc, security forces 12pc, and among the militants 50pc. Police fatalities were almost 40pc of the total fatalities among security and law enforcement personnel.
Of the 30pc of attacks directly targeting non-combatants, these included attacks on sectarian and religious minorities, political parties and workers of secular parties and alternative voices (such as those recently targeted in Quetta). The percentage of collateral damage is quite high in Pakistan; approximately, it contributes more than 55pc in non-combatant deaths.
In many cases, the perception of state and society about militants — that they are not rational actors — complicates the situation. People get confused when terrorists target segments of a society holding views different from that of a country’s establishment. This happened recently when IS attacked a Kurdish wedding ceremony in Turkey.
The recent terrorist attack in Quetta — and other attacks in the past that target political leaders, nationalist political workers and religious scholars, who hold views contrary to the terrorists’ — triggered anger against the government and the establishment. In such situations, it becomes difficult for the victims to rationally analyse the situation. This is a war on another level, where terrorists can trigger anger potentially more explosive than the physical sort.
The security institutions’ weaknesses are the strength of the terrorists. The government and establishment should not expect that the mantra of ‘soft targets’ will absolve them of their responsibility to protect the people.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, August 28th, 2016