The terrorists’ growing arsenal of weapons

I am fairly certain that I have mentioned on more than one occasion that I really enjoy the humour of Monty Python.  One of the sillier skits – not that it is easy to choose just one – was when John Cleese plays a drill sergeant trying to teach recruits how to defend themselves against foes armed with…fresh fruit.  As Cleese leads the men through a series of feigned attackers wielding bananas and raspberries Eric Idle (one of the recruits) keeps asking to learn about how to avoid being killed by a man with a pointed stick, only to be repeatedly rebuffed by Cleese.

What can this possibly have to do with terrorism?  Well, the way things are going I would not be surprised to see a terrorist attack in which a pointed stick is the weapon of choice. After all, we have witnessed aircraft, guns, bombs, knives, swords, trucks, cars and even a hammer used in recent years.  Some of these take some kind of skill of course: the 9/11 hijackers took lessons on how to fly 747s after all (although they curiously had no interest in either taking off or landing and it still is odd that no one sought to ask why at the time).  Others can be used by anyone with no skill at all (a knife) and are readily available in any household (that same knife).

The challenge for security intelligence and law enforcement agencies tasked with detecting and preventing terrorism is what to do with this broad range of threats.  It is one thing to harden aircraft (secure cockpit doors, increase security screening, etc.) and put restrictions on certain firearms (the US notwithstanding), but quite another to come up with a plan to police the rental or use of cars and trucks, let alone what to with a cleaver from a butcher block.

Terrorists are doing exactly what recruiters and propagandists in extremist groups have been advocating for years: keep it simple.  Ezines like Rumiyah and Dabiq have published articles in which wannabe jihadis are told to avail themselves of whatever tool or device can serve as a weapon.  There is also likely a fair bit of mutual reinforcement going on where a particular individual (such as the Manhattan terrorist) successfully uses one of the simple vectors, a group like Islamic State claims the attack – whether or not it had anything to do with it –  and praises the MO, this encourages others to follow suit and we may get some copycat incidents.

If we cannot prevent these everyday items from constituting the weapon of choice for terrorists then it stands to reason that we cannot prevent the attacks themselves.  Nor can we easily detect them. Those that elect to stick to the more ‘traditional’ terrorist tool, say a bomb, have a slightly bigger chance of being noticed and the attack can be disrupted (if the appropriate agencies are watching them in the first place: this is what seems to have happened in a case in Montreal where a couple downloaded instructions, but not in the case of Aaron Driver).  Those that get behind the wheel one day with murderous intent, as just occurred yesterday once again outside of Toulouse, which French authorities maintain was not an act of terrorism but rather the act of a psychologically sick individual, are all but unstoppable (again, unless they are already on a list and are being actively monitored, although the Martin Couture-Rouleau case in 2014 illustrated that even under surveillance a committed actor can carry out a plan).

I fear that we will see more and more attacks of this nature as more and more everyday items that have become the backdrop of normal life are deployed. I have no idea how we stop them.  If someone has any thoughts on how to do so I’d love to hear them.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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