Kabul and Karachi – the results from swarming attacks are the same

An Associated Press news story in the 30 June issue of Herald-Zeitung described the 28 June night attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul. Nine attackers, a four-man heavily armed attack team and five others equipped guns and suicide belts, entered the hotel compound from a secluded area behind the kitchen. They then moved through heavy vegetation along a hillside to the front of the ballroom. Wearing a ‘security uniform’, they were able to approach the checkpoint, where they killed two guards. One attacker was killed in an exchange of gunfire. Some television reports claim that remaining police guards fled the scene at this point.

The targets of the attackers were the participants in a two-day conference on transferring the responsibility for national security to Afghan forces before the end of 2014. While some of the gunmen went to the roof of the hotel, presumably to hold rapid-reaction security forces at bay, the others went through the hotel knocking on doors and trying to find their intended targets.

While the attackers were not successful in killing their targets of choice, by Wednesday morning Afghan intelligence officials reported that 11 civilians were dead, including an appeals judge from Logar province, five hotel workers and three policemen. The Interior Ministry reported 18 people were wounded in the attack, including 13 civilians and five policemen. It appears that all nine attackers were killed.

An attack against the Mehran Naval Air Station at Karachi, Pakistan, was carried out in a similar fashion on the night of 22 May by a group of six attackers. A report in AlJazeera said that the attack lasted for 16 hours before ending on Monday afternoon. In that case, 10 ‘security officials’ were killed and 15 ‘others’ injured. In addition, two of the Pakistani navy’s nine P3C ‘Orion’ maritime patrol aircraft were destroyed. Four of the attackers were killed and two escaped.

A BBC news report indicates that the Mehran attackers wore either dark commando-style clothing or naval uniforms and that they cut through the perimeter wire fencing where they could not be detected by security cameras. The BBC report said the attackers first targets were the naval patrol aircraft parked on the tarmac and equipment in nearby hangers, which they destroyed with rocket-propelled grenades. Afterward, “they opened indiscriminate fire, killing several naval personnel as they carried their raid into the heart of the base.” Other eyewitnesses said “the attackers were dressed as naval officials and were aware of the security protocol at the base and carried themselves like soldiers.”

Terror attacks have now ‘morphed’ into a much more dangerous form that allows the aggressors to penetrate with relative ease standard security defences typical to most government installations. Gate guards and perimeter patrols are no match for heavily armed and concentrated attackers. Using uniforms creates a moment of doubt in the defender’s minds as the attackers close and overwhelm the sentries. This not only increases the chance of successful entry but also of delaying the raising of an alarm. In both attacks, a prime target was specified, but in only one case was it found and successfully attacked. Apparently, the Intercontinental Hotel’s guests were advised to remain behind locked doors after retiring for the evening as a standard precaution. In effect, these were ‘inner security zones’ that were erected around each of the ‘targets’ and which were effective in providing protection for long enough to allow rapid reaction forces to arrive on the scene. At the Mehran base, the same individualized protection either could not be provided for the aircraft or the naval personnel. A general slaughter followed the attackers’ first efforts in both cases.

What does it all mean? Determined attackers are now sufficiently well organized and trained to penetrate all but the most hardened of static defences. This places even more emphasis on intelligence gathering as the principal means of detecting and stopping attacks before they develop. In places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, when counter-terror intelligence operations have many obstacles to overcome, attacks like these will continue. Their recent successes will embolden the terrorists to attempt even more significant attacks. In places like Canada and the USA, intelligence operations will have far better chances of success, so long as sufficient resources are dedicated to them. The key to deterrence is preventing the attacks, not in retribution against offenders. The arrest and trial of the ‘Toronto 13’ was a landmark success. Despite this, more needs to be done to prepare for the event of a successful terror swarm attack.

Perimeter defences must be re-examined for their defensive value. However, even if they are reasonably robust and secure, there is no guarantee that they cannot be breached by a moderately effective attack team that will almost certainly use disguises, decoys or diversions. Our own security people need to be well trained and able to raise an alarm swiftly. They may have only moments to do so. Their main purpose is really to buy time and warn others of the danger. Internal security zones are required and training instituted that informs people of where to go and what do in the event of such an attack. Rapid reaction forces will need to be maintained locally that are effective enough to deal with a six to ten person attack team.

Whether at home or abroad, Canadian defence and security forces need to be prepared for swarming attacks. Those potentially in target areas should also be warned and adequately trained. A very dangerous operating concept is now being used that has changed the security calculus.