The Mumbai massacre may not be a “new” terror tactic. The mass firearms attack riveted the world in 1972 when the Japanese Red Army gunned down 27 people at Lod Airport. Since then the annals of terrorism have included innumerable other examples, most notably al-Gamaa Islamiya’s 1997 Luxor Massacre in which 59 tourists were murdered.
Still, the Mumbai attack stands out in its scale and has led many analysts to wonder if the mass firearms and bomb attack will be tactics of choice for the next 9/11. A useful way to examine this proposition is to invert the question, and ask, “Why hasn’t this already happened in the United States?”
Mass Shooting in the US
Considering the relative ease of acquisition of firearms in the United States and the general freedom of action (we have no internal checkpoints) it would appear that the Mumbai type attack is easy to carry out. Terrorists creative enough to seize airplanes and to use as guided missiles should not have readily grasped a concept that has long been a Hollywood staple. What’s more, the United States has a lengthy history of domestic mass shooting events – although none close to the level of the Mumbai attacks.
But a casual glance at the mass shooting attacks in the United States reveals a potential barrier to a Mumbai-style operation. Disturbed individuals carried many of these mass shootings out. Some had deep psychological problems (such as the VA Tech shooter) while others were at the least very impulsive (such as the July 4, 2002 LA airport shooter). Individuals operating in this manner may cause substantial mayhem on their own – but their ability to engage in long-term planning within a team is likely to be limited and that will also mitigate the amount of damage they can do.
(The closest the United States may have come was the DC area sniper, who did use careful tactics. But that attack went on so long in part because the sniper remained at the fringes of a metro area, rather then trying to penetrate a central and highly symbolic target.)
Physical barriers to committing mass firearms attacks in the US are limited, but it appears that there are other barriers.
Strategic Thinking & the Kashmiri Network
Successful terrorists select their tactics based on the cold, hard logic of their capabilities and what is effective in terms of achieving their goals. The Kashmiri Islamists had links to organizations that employed suicide bombers and drank from the same ideological well – but they did not employ this tactic. This was, in part, a function of geography. After being indoctrinated and equipped a suicide bomber has limited range. The farther they travel, the more likely they will be to abandon the mission. Thus suicide bombers were extremely effective in places like Iraq, Israel, and Sri Lanka where the networks could insert the bomber relatively close to targets.
Kashmir is much less densely populated and has very difficult terrain. Terrorists infiltrating Kashmir have to travel long distances and are likely to encounter Indian security forces before arriving at a population center. The Kashmiri terrorists adopted fidayeen tactics of infiltrating small teams of gunmen who could both massacre civilians and effectively engage Indian security forces.
Teams are essential. The Kashmiri terrorists receive extensive training (about 40 or 50 days.) This training not only schools them in tactics, but also indoctrinates them further into the cause and prepares them to take human lives. The training also fosters the small group dynamics (excellently detailed in Marc Sageman’s Understanding Terror Networks) in which the individual group members systematically reinforce one another and keep the group committed to the mission. Without these dynamics, the small teams hiking through the Himalayas into Kashmir might quickly lose their motivation. The attack on Mumbai was an increase in the range and scale of these types of operations – a difference of degree, not kind.
Back to America
To carry out a similar attack in the U.S. would require either training the attackers here, or inserting them from elsewhere. Both are possible, but neither is easy.
In Kashmir there is a network of training camps, a pre-set structure. Here, a group of radicals would have to self-train. Possible: of course, but not easy. Without a formal structure, could a dozen Americans (many with jobs and families) put themselves through this rigorous program and stick to it over months – without anyone noticing?
In fact there have been several self-starting cells, and they seem to get rounded up fairly early.
The other option is to smuggle the operatives in. But this is also difficult. While America’s borders and coastlines are poorly protected (and penetrated by smugglers almost constantly) this doesn’t mean that terrorists will necessarily have an easy time of it. Sailing direct from Karachi to a U.S. coast in a vessel small enough not to be noticed would be an impressive act of seamanship. More likely the terrorists would move more closely to the United States (for example to Latin America) and then infiltrate. But would they have the local contacts to acquire guns and transport without being noticed?
Most Latin American intelligence agencies are extremely concerned about being the base for an attack on the United States and would be on the lookout for such an infiltration. And the more operatives that are involved in the attack, the greater likelihood one will be detected.
Anything is possible and none of this is to argue that the United States should be sanguine about a Mumbai style attack. Border and coastal security ought to be strengthened for many reasons. Law enforcement should train for the “moving shooter” scenario. Intelligence connections with neighboring countries should be further strengthened, and most importantly the United States must develop effective strategies to keep young people from being recruited into terrorist organizations. But to develop effective and appropriate counter-measures, terror threats should be assessed soberly – as dispassionately as the terrorists themselves develop their tactics.