Islamist extremists have proven themselves capable of increasingly sophisticated and complex attacks targeting well-guarded business and state sites in recent years. The most recent example of this was the hostage crisis in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, from 21 to 24 September. The hostage taking was led by Al-Shabaab, a Somali-based and al-Qaeda-linked armed group, which is currently battling the AU forces and Somali government in Somalia. The group stated that the operation was in response to the Kenyan government's military offensive into Somalia in 2011 (Operation Linda Nchi). The final count of the operation is 72 dead and over 200 wounded. The attack against a prominent business site in the heart of Kenya’s capital shocked the nation and questions have been raised about how this could happen? Of course, to those in the know this attack has been waiting to happen and is not something extraordinary. In fact in 2013, there have been at least two other major militant-led operations in Algeria and Iraq.
Algerians woke up to news of a major militant incursion into the southern In Amenas desert town area during the morning of 16 January. The world would later recount the horror of a mass hostage taking and killing of foreigners by militants loyal to the veteran fighter, Mokhtar Belmokhtar. The attack involved extensive planning and was executed without the knowledge of the relatively sophisticated and well-resourced Algerian security forces. The militant band, approximately 40 men, infiltrated a highly secure area, skirmished and defeated, at least initially, crack Algerian troops and police units, and then took control of a major gas processing plant, Tigantourine, for just under three days, despite the presence of hundreds of Algerian security force personnel. Once the incursion had finally been overcome the losses were significant. At least 37 foreign hostages had been killed, including many by Algerian security force assaults, and 29 militants were dead. *For more on the attack read Statoil’s post-incident analysis http://www.statoil.com/en/NewsAndMedia/News/2013/Pages/12Sep_InAmenas_report.aspx
Iraq has been beset by rising casualty figures in 2013 as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and its close affiliate, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), have initiated wave after wave of once-off and coordinated countrywide mass casualty attacks in the country. The group has proven itself capable of astonishing feats. The most extraordinary in 2013 must be the July Abu Ghraib prison break. Multiple waves of suicide bombers attacked the facility while secondary gun attacks targeted the outer perimeter allowing upwards of 500 prisoners to escape the, arguably, second most well-guarded site in the country after the International Zone in central Baghdad. Among the escapees were dozens of senior AQI commanders. ISIL quite rightly lauded the operation as a major success and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was left embarrassed. *For further information on the insurgency in Iraq and the prison break, check this out http://iswiraq.blogspot.com/.
The complex attacks in 2013 show us a number of things. One, militant groups exist and many are well-resourced, motivated and trained. Two, major militant players are aware of the value of operational planning and intelligence gathering. Three, they know which sites to target to inflict the most damage to a state’s reputation or to advertise its goals. Four, they are willing to operate extra-territorially. Five, major militant groups are willing to sacrifice large numbers of its fighters to meet its goals (in all three cases most of the fighters were apprehended or killed). Six, many governments are unprepared to prevent a determined militant attack.
Complex mass casualty attacks are (the big call) likely to continue to be a major issue in the near-term. Developing conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and Asia have given rise to numerous well-armed and resourced non-state armed groups who will have studied the complex attacks in Algeria, Kenya and Iraq and seen the value the attacks have received for seemingly a bit of effort. For government’s and counter-terrorism planners the task of countering the threat is enormous. There are simply too many targets militants could strike against that would serve their goals; however, work must be done and intelligence needs to be ramped up if we are to prevent future such attacks.
The local view - South Africa is increasingly involved in extra-territorial disputes and conflicts (DRC, CAR etc) and as we attempt to further strengthen or continental position we will, like Kenya, increasingly come within the gaze of the militant groups we are attempting to subdue or overcome. South Africa’s intelligence gathering is weak (as was proven by the CAR fiasco), our borders are porous (walk a few hundred metres from a border crossing and you can cross without being bothered) and we have infrastructure that can allow militants easy movement and accessibility to high value targets. The large number of Western tourists in the country must also be of massive appeal to foreign-based militant groups. Finally, weapons are easily accessible in South Africa and planning and executing an attack in the country appears to be quite possible. It would be foolish to think that SA is immune to attacks in the future and it is incumbent upon the government to work to prevent future possible attacks.
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