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How do terrorists select their targets? The Counter Extremism Project (CEP) has analyzed attacks carried out by al-Qaeda and ISIS operatives in the United States, Europe, and Australia. CEP’s report—Terror Targets in the West: Where and Why—explores the ideological and tactical rationale for terrorists’ selection of targets.

Key Findings

  • Common al-Qaeda and ISIS targets in the West include airports and airplanes; cartoonists who have drawn the Islamic prophet Muhammad; public spaces and transportation infrastructure; Jewish and Christian institutions and individuals; law enforcement personnel; and military installations and personnel
  • Al-Qaeda may be more likely to target civilians in a country that is military involved in the Middle East, whereas ISIS is eager to direct and inspire attacks against civilians in any Western country — regardless of the country’s policies.
  • Al-Qaeda justifies its targeting and weaponization of airplanes by likening airplanes to catapults. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri cites an example in Islamic historiography in which Muslim armies laid siege to enemy villages with catapults — indiscriminate weapons unable to distinguish between civilians and enemy soldiers.
  • Al-Qaeda has inferred that targeting a cartoonist who has drawn the Islamic prophet Muhammad is a “greater cause than fighting for Palestine, Afghanistan, or Iraq.”
  • While claiming responsibility for an attack against law enforcement, ISIS has referred to policemen as the “protectors of the crusaders.”

Overview

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.

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