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Atocha’s Impact


The Madrid Atocha train blast is being vastly underrated here in the US, and to a degree in much of Europe. The threat level is nothing short of the ability to paralyze European metropolitan centers as well as changing public perception of risk, disrupting coalition formation and cohesion.

The decision to target trains is inspired as it is a preeminent form of transit in Europe. Train/metro/mass transit systems are virtually indefensible. (See recent articles in WSJ and Washington Post among others.) When citizens abandon mass transit for their cars, creating debilitating traffic jams, it will be time for simplistic WMD, mainly simple biological and radiological devices -- or even devices that resemble WMD in their characteristics. Depending upon the agent used, disruption is as valuable as lethality, although attacks have increasingly focused on achieving mass casualties. The impact on business will, of course, be significant.

Atocha displayed a level of logistics, tradecraft (operational skills), command & control, and explosives common to the best of al Qaeda confederacy: simplicity wherever possible, elegance where necessary. Low tech and high impact. Al Qaeda, much like the IRA, plans two to three steps in advance so we would expect the next European targets to be in pre-selection. (Actual order will depend on local opportunity or, conversely, police presence.)

For example, the cell phone detonation technique originated with the RAF (Red Army Faction) in Italy, migrated to Hamas and Hezbollah, then into al Qaeda. Note that this remote detonation process sidesteps the martyr and so allows recruiting to ramp up by removing an inhibitor to growing the operational base.

Atocha reflects the al Qaeda’s ‘lessons learned’ between World Trade Towers 1993 and 2001, i.e., Al Qaeda now understands redundancy and delivery. Where one device would have grabbed headlines, al Qaeda used thirteen. We will see more of that using low tech or the lowest tech suitable to the task. Al Qaeda is attentive and patient, learning from each success and failure and monitoring the weaknesses displayed by current and future targets.

It is interesting that much commentary focuses on the exposure of the English and French by virtue of their Muslim populations but few mention Italy which has received the brunt of certain North African migrations, or Germany which prosecuted Muslims related to 11 September. In fact, some of the best Intel on the Atocha perpetrators is coming from Italian sources. The Atocha operation reflects a trans-European planning and delivery mechanism.

Europe is a densely populated area with many soft targets that do not enjoy the protection due airports and essential government buildings. As has happened in the US, governments will have to spend heavily to ramp up security measures, but there will not be enough to uniformly cover all possible targets.

Firms representing US interests, or seen as symbols of US presence, will increasingly be targets as anti-US and anti-Western grievances merge within the mostly have-not mentality of many European Muslims, fueled in part from increasing persecution by their non-Muslim majorities.

Remember that Pan American Airways (Pan Am) was once a global target by all manner of terrorists long before Lockerbie as it was considered the US flag carrier and a national symbol. Still today, few foreigners or Americans know that Pam Am was NOT a flag carrier, or that the US never had a flag carrier, but was merely a significant, private world airline. Perception was everything and Pan Am was a common, often the sole, target of the day.

Major US firms will be seen as ‘national symbols’ either because of their overall size or the relative size to a local al Qaeda confederate who has some operational freedom to select their targets.

Such firms also make soft targets in terms of people and infrastructure and, as such, are predictable targets. It takes training, monitoring, assessment and planning to remove oneself from a soft target group, which is the only effective way to deal with these threats. In other words, you do not want to stay on their list of promising targets so you move through a series of actions that moves the perpetrators along to a less defended target.

The level of sophistication of this attack coupled with the election results in Spain has only emboldened the threat groups. Soft targets now have less time to prepare. It's a grim perspective but that is the reality of the current environment.

For many reasons, Atocha is far more threatening than it appears to be.

Gordon Housworth


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