Strategies and Tactics to Counter Terrorist Attacks

By David Harding


During terrorists’ targeting phase, we assumed that the group would carry out some form of dedicated reconnaissance. Reconnaissance aims to identify weaknesses in the site or operation and, with that information, determine the best method of attack.

This means that a terrorist group would have to carry out some form of reconnaissance of our site or surveillance of our operations. In addition, a terrorist cell could also try to monitor one of the locations that NGO staff visited regularly during the course of their normal duties.

To counter the possibility of surveillance, several methods were employed. Counter-surveillance operations were routinely conducted of our compound, our methods of travel, and, in some cases, the destinations that our staff went to. Counter-surveillance also included the regular patrolling of probable surveillance points that terrorists might use.

In an effort to prevent surveillance, several methods of movement were used. On some occasions, the NGO staff would travel to their destinations in armored vehicles and with personal security detail (PSD) escorts. At other times, local vehicles were used. The choice of transportation depended on the reason for movement, which NGO staff member was being moved, and the final destination. In conjunction with this counter was the use of several “dummy” runs that were carried out at varying times and destinations.


Better-trained terrorist or criminal groups might decide to “probe” a target prior to committing forces for an actual attack. Probing is deliberately causing some type of incident that would warrant a reaction from the target security personnel. In Iraq, this would mean that attacks would be made using a variety of weapons, including small arms fire, grenade launchers, and artillery and mortar fire.

A probe might also be carried out externally on locally employed staff. In such a case, staff would be followed and forced to divulge information specific to the target. They might even be forced to take an active part in the attack itself. My staff and I have heard of an example where terrorists abducted a family and then forced the locally engaged staff member to carry out the terrorist demands. If he did not comply with their demands, the terrorists would execute his family.

A very public example was the attack made on a Blackwater security team in Fallujah in March 2004. Rumor at the time indicated that local people working with the Blackwater team had led them into an insurgent ambush. Four Blackwater personnel died in the attack; their bodies set on fire and mutilated. Two of the victims’ charred remains were then strung up from a nearby bridge.

Counters. It is difficult to distinguish the difference between an attack that is intended to get a response and one where the objective is to gain access to the site. Distinguishing the difference is vital, however, since an attack may warrant emergency procedures that require external forces, such as the U.S. military or the Iraqi police or both, to respond.

The possibility always exists that the probe is being made in an effort to get these forces to commit to battle, after which the real attack will be made on the responding forces. In practice, identification of whether an attack was a probe or a real offensive is based on the determination of the attackers.

From a purely military point, a military unit that has good leadership could possibly change the offensive objective from a deliberate probe to an attack on a “target of opportunity” or a weakness within the defenses of its target. The small group tactics that terrorists and insurgents use, however, do not generally lead to attacks on “targets of opportunity.” Also, from my experience, the terrorists and insurgents do not have the leadership capability to seize such opportunities, at least not at the small scale level that we are discussing here. Larger commitments, such as U.S. military attacks on Fallujah, or Sadr City, are another matter.

Final Attack Preparation

Before a terrorist cell strikes, it will move to a location that will allow it final preparation prior to launching its attack. This location, called the forming up point (FUP), will typically be out of direct sight of the target but still close enough to allow some form of surveillance of the site.

Counters. After conducting an area and community analysis, I was able to identify several likely locations that terrorists might use prior to making their attacks. By liaising with the local Kirkuk police, the Iraqi Civil Defense Corp (ICDC), and the U.S. military, we were able to have these locations regularly patrolled. This proved very useful on several occasions when security forces came into contact with terrorists that were in the process of using the identified locations as either a FUP or a surveillance point.

Our relationships with the local community also proved extremely successful here in particular. On several occasions locals gave us information on possible terrorists that were either carrying out surveillance or preparing to make an attack on our compound or one of our movement routes.

Another tactic was the use of a reconnaissance vehicle, either covert or overt, prior to a planned move. The aim was to acquire information on potential threats that may exist along a predesignated route before sending staff.



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