In the May 2016 issue of its English-language magazine Inspire, al-Qaeda called on its supporters in the West to “strive hard in choosing a target, laying a plan and [taking] all the possible precautions and security measures….” ISIS’s leaders, meanwhile, have instructed followers to attack civilians and other targets in the West. But why do al-Qaeda and ISIS select the targets that they do? (Sources: Inspire, p. 44, Long War Journal, Reuters)
In Middle Eastern warzones, anything and everything might be a target. Mosques, busy streets, buildings, and small villages are regularly subjected to attacks. And yet ISIS and al-Qaeda attacks in the West—smaller in number and meticulously covered and analyzed by international media—appear to be targeted against specific symbolic locations.
Attacks carried out by al-Qaeda and ISIS’s operatives and lone-wolf supporters have been directed at airplanes and airports, military targets, law enforcement, and transportation systems such as buses and trains. Cafes, clubs, concerts, and sporting events that draw large crowds are also common targets. Both terrorist groups have also attempted and carried out attacks on cartoonists that have drawn the Islamic prophet Muhammad, as well as Jewish and Christian institutions and individuals in the West.
Counterterrorism analysts have posited that terrorist groups seek to attack symbolic targets—such as airports, famous landmarks, and other status symbols—in order to attract attention and spread panic and fear. According to terrorism analyst Jessica Stern, terrorists seek “to hit targets that will make us maximally afraid, and inflict the maximum amount of humiliation.” In addition to prioritizing symbolic targets, CEP has found that terrorists select targets that allow them to inflict a high number of casualties—such as clubs, cafes, and sporting events—while still remaining operationally feasible. In al-Qaeda’s spring 2016 issue of Inspire, the terror group called on lone wolves to consider the “security and fortification” of a targeted area before carrying out an attack which, as al-Qaeda notes, “ranges from place to place.” (Sources: NPR, Inspire, p. 69)
This report seeks to highlight not only the tactical considerations for terrorist targets, but the ideological justifications as well. Analyzing al-Qaeda and ISIS’s previous attacks in North America, Western Europe, and Australia, this report indicates the terrorists’ theological and strategic justifications for specific target types, as stated in the groups’ online magazines: al-Qaeda’s Inspire and ISIS’s Dabiq and Rumiyah. The report also draws on the groups’ justifications from their official statements, as well as from specialized online releases and other primary sources.
By analyzing the terrorists’ justifications and preferences for attacking specific locations, CEP aims to expose the prevalence of common target types, and to further reveal the terrorists’ dangerous underlying ideology fueling their target selections.