A Strategic Terror Attack on U.S. Soil


Now that it’s happened, what’s next in the Homeland?

By Brian Fitzpatrick



In the aftermath of the November 13, 2015 coordinated terror attacks in Paris, France and its northern suburb of Saint Denis, which collectively killed 130 innocent civilian victims and wounded over 350—all of whom had simply been enjoying leisure activities or otherwise going about their lives—a major concern arose for us in America. Can or will similar attacks target the American homeland? Well it only took nineteen days—until Wednesday, December 2, 2015—for us to receive an answer. The now infamous terror attackers in San Bernardino, California are still being widely investigated by several Federal agencies regarding whether they were influenced, funded, assisted, or directed by a foreign terror organization, and whether they were members of a larger conspiracy or terror cell in the United States.


As Americans, we of course on September 11, 2001, have already been the victims—on our home soil—of the largest strategic terror attack in history. Thankfully the ensuing fifteen years have not produced another successful (from the terrorists’ perspective) strategic attack that was planned and executed by a foreign terrorist organization. This is largely due to the diligence of our citizens, law enforcement personnel, intelligence community, and military service members, whose tireless devotion and sacrifice have largely kept those who would harm us from our shores. We have, of course, suffered a number of deadly attacks—such as the April 15, 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the November 5, 2009 Fort Hood, Texas massacre—which were inspired by radical Islamic terrorism, but carried out by home-grown or domestically radicalized terror suspects.


We have also, unfortunately, over the years, endured many violent active killer massacres in schools and on university campuses, in restaurants, work places, houses of worship, and other public locations. Most of these domestic active shooter attacks have been carried out by loner type individuals with strikingly similar profiles—alienated, disenfranchised, disgruntled student or former employee, psychological problems, stalking former spouse/lover, feeling wronged or victimized, suffering from behavioral inadequacies, and among other things, having a strong sense of revenge and retaliation. These domestic active killer attacks are largely internal threats, and as a result there likely were red flags or other indicators that were overlooked, ignored or rationalized away.


The strategic level terror attack however, is an external threat and therefore, difficult to prepare for or detect. Terror organizations such as The Islamic State (ISIS), which has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, and to which San Bernardino terrorist Tashfeen Malik pledged allegiance on social media just minutes after she and her husband Syed Rizwan Farook murdered fourteen American citizens and wounded twenty-two others, or Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Hamas, Hezbollah and others are committed and deadly terrorist organizations, all of which have already participated in the mass murder of Americans and several have vowed to bring violent attacks to the American homeland. So let’s start by defining a strategic level terror attack and breaking it down into its various forms, with the ultimate goal of preparing—to the extent we can—for their emergence here in America.



Strategic Level Terror Attack:


A strategic level terror attack is a planned act of violence—typically involving multiple victims (not legitimate military targets)—by an organized group, with the goal of affecting political change by one or more of the following methods:


  1. To manipulate a government into changing an existing policy.
  2. To influence citizens of a country into changing their government.
  3. To discourage other countries from establishing or continuing policies similar to those of the attacked nation.
  4. To send a message to or set an example for a specific demographic for purposes of funding and recruitment (i.e.: 1.7 billion Muslims in the world). [1]



This is important to know because—should you find yourself in the unenviable situation of being in the middle of a terrorist attack—your survivability might very well hinge on your capacity to recognize whether the attack is motivated by strategic terror goals, combined with your ability to identify and respond to the specific terror methodology that the terrorists are employing.


With that being said, it is critical to know that any strategic level terror attack will most likely be carried out in one of four methods. They are:



Strategic Terror Attack Methods:


  1. Decimation Assaults
  2. Mass Hostage Sieges
  3. Hybrid/Synergistic Attacks
  4. Symphonic Attacks[2]



Decimation Assault: A Decimation assault involves one or more attackers who deliver a weapon to a target or target area and then activate it. This attack method is the most common in the middle east and can include suicide bombers, active shooters, timer or remote control bombings, arson, cyber terror, and biological/radiological weapons. This type of attack does not require extensive intelligence but usually targets areas that are known to be crowded with people, such as shopping, dining, and entertaining districts, movie theaters, and large public events or gatherings. Decimation assaults typically begin and end quickly but their casualty count is usually too low for strategic terror goals.


Mass Hostage Sieges: Unlike individual or small group kidnappings for ransom (a common terrorist money maker), the mass hostage siege is a method for terrorists to kill large numbers of innocent victims but in a manner that gives them two or three days of sustained media coverage. This attack method is characterized by a proportionally small number of terrorists taking an exponentially larger number of victims/hostages (the largest possible ratio), ultimately giving the hostage takers the ability to kill the greatest possible number of people.


These are low frequency/high impact events, the shock of which is magnified if the target population consists of helpless children—terrorists’ favored victim demographic—such as in a school takeover. Terrorism scholar John Giduck states “Terrorists have… learned that when they take and hold children, they effectively hold an entire nation hostage, so great is the public interest and horror, and media coverage.”[3] School hostage sieges have occurred with frequency throughout the middle east beginning with the 1973 Ma’alot school massacre in Israel, during which twenty-one children were murdered. Author and law enforcement/military trainer Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman (Ret.) reports that “Turkey has had over 300 schools destroyed by terrorist attacks. Pakistan, Algeria and may other nations, in addition to Russia have experienced brutal school massacres committed by terrorist groups.”[4]


Arguably the worst attack of this type was the September 1-3, 2004 takeover and massacre of Beslan Middle School Number One in Beslan, Russia by forty-nine Chechen terrorists, widely believed to be linked to, funded by, and had received planning assistance from Al Qaeda.[5] Their target, a school building built in the late nineteenth century, outside North Ossetia in the mountainous Caucasus region, to which 895 students were registered or the first day of school—The Day of First Bell—a day of celebration throughout Russia. They initially took 1200 hostages including parents, teachers, siblings and others, many of whom were held under excruciatingly cruel conditions for three days. The end result—detonation of explosives by the terrorists and a battle with Russian special forces resulted in 314 hostages being killed, 186 of whom were children, 761 hostages wounded, thirteen Russian soldiers killed, thirty-one terrorists killed, one taken alive, and unbelievably, seventeen terrorists having escaped.


Mass hostage sieges are sophisticated in nature and thereby require extensive surveillance, planning, preparation and training, pre-positioning of equipment, communications and transportation assets at or near the target location, as well as possible prior infiltration of terror personnel into the target organization or its suppliers, such as companies or agencies that provide or deliver supplies, food, maintenance and other services to the intended victim entity. These prior actions by terror group members will likely provide alert and informed observers (civilians and sworn peace officers) with opportunities for early detection and intervention by authorities.


Mass hostage sieges predictably follow a timeline consisting of six distinct phases. Potential victims caught up in an unfolding hostage siege can possibly enhance their survival probability by deciding to act in accordance with their recognition of which phase is happening.



Mass Hostage Siege Phases:


  1. Attack Phase—Terrorists penetrate the target building. They are acting on prior intelligence, which ensured a soft target. The victim population is in sufficient numbers for strategic terror goals and located inside of, or easily moved to a large central room to house/control hostages.


  1. Submission and Control Phase—The terrorists shock and intimidate the hostages into submission with aggression aimed a small number. They kill those likely to fight back (military age males, athletic men, men in uniform, tactical type clothing or wearing ties). Terrorists give hope to the remaining hostages (“Stay in seats and you’ll be fine.”).


  1. Fortification Phase—The terrorists delay and repel government assault, rescue of hostages and retaking of building. They Reinforce hostage containment, set up booby-traps/IEDs, build hard fighting positions, identify cover and concealment, establish command and control, communications and counter-surveillance.


  1. Stabilization Phase—The building is quiet when first police units arrive. The terrorists’ single purpose is to delay law enforcement/government counter-attack. The hostage-takers will prolong the stabilization phase for as long as possible.


  1. Negotiation Phase— The terrorists will likely wait for police to contact them first as they perceive early efforts to contact police/government forces as weakness. They may communicate that they’re not afraid to die and will threaten to kill hostages in alarming ratios for every terrorist killed or wounded. Terrorist organizations commonly study negotiation tactics and the culture of the target country.


  1. Rescue Phase—Three possibilities:
    • Immediate assault—based on events occurring when L/E first arrive
    • Emergency Response Assault—triggered by events inside location after stabilization phase (killing/abuse of hostages, shots fired, explosions, fire)
    • Strategic Assault—planned attack on government’s time line.[6]


Hybrid/Synergistic Attacks: This type of assault combines the two previously listed attack methodologies (decimation assault and mass hostage siege) to achieve a greater death toll. Specifically, the hybrid/synergistic attack utilizes the mass hostage siege as a means of carrying out a large scale decimation assault. The first known attacks of this type were the Al Qaeda terror attacks on September 11, 2001 in New York City, Arlington VA, and Shanksville, PA. As John Giduck explains in When Terror Returns, “…on 9/11 weaponized aircraft had to be delivered into designated buildings whereupon they were self-activating. To accomplish that, they [the terrorists] had to control the passengers onboard. However, they did not have to fortify or fend off government assault…”[7]


Although commercial airline security screening and protocols have improved significantly over the past fifteen years, they are still far from perfect. The Federal Sky Marshal program was a good start but has been plagued with administrative, supervisory, and morale problems, and was always too small numerically to assign agents to large numbers of flights. A low cost means of hardening the commercial aviation target, in my opinion, would be to allow off-duty and honorably retired law enforcement officers, who have fulfilled special training and certification requirements, and who are ticketed passengers, to carry their concealed handguns on flights, with only the flight crews (and any on-board air marshal) knowing who they were. If such a program was instituted and made public, potential hijackers would have no way of knowing, and would always be in doubt, as to whether or not the flight in question was a soft or a hard target. But ultimately, the most effective protection against terrorists hijacking commercial aircraft is the alertness and diligence of the gate agents, ticketed passengers and cabin crews combined with their willingness in a post 9/11 world to intervene physically and dynamically in the event of an onboard threat.


Symphonic Attack: Like a symphony from which its name is derived, this refers to multiple coordinated attacks—usually at least four—each carried out by small teams of terrorists, with similar attack methodologies for each target, typically consisting of a combination of small arms, hand grenades, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and/or homicide/suicide vests. This is based on the Al Qaeda “swarm attack” method devised by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, originally planned as the 1993 “Landmark Plot” against New York City.


The recent Paris attacks fell into this category but the original and grand daddy of symphonic attacks was the November 26-29, 2008 coordinated attack against five target packages in Mumbi, India by ten terrorists in two man teams. The Mumbi attackers were members of the Pakistani Lasakar-e-Tayyiba (“LeT”) terrorist organization, which trained in Pakistan for eighteen months with the support of the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence agency. The attack, which targeted three hotels (Taj Mahal, Trident and Oberoi), the Leopold Café, the CST train station, and the Mariman Chabad house, all of which were know for being patronized by westerners and/or Israelis, left 172 dead and 259 wounded. Nine of the ten terrorists were killed and one captured, who was later executed.


Despite the carnage and having immobilized the City of Mumbi with three days of siege, the LeT terror organization largely failed in its strategic terror goal of sustained media coverage in the United States because of two competing stories. The Mumbi terror attacks occurred over the Thanksgiving weekend. The two most widely viewed items on American media were the National Football League games and coverage of the Kobe Bryant rape trial.[8]


What is the Answer?

As a private citizen, you do have power, and you can take action to protect yourself form strategic level terror attacks. I believe that there are two distinct levels of solutions to protecting our homeland and ourselves. Let’s call them macro protection methods and micro protection methods. These are my terms (which I haven’t heard anyone else use) so feel free to substitute your own words to define these theories.


Macro Protection Plan: Strategic level terror is a global phenomenon with international reach, a problem for which very few private individuals—little guys and girls like you and me—have resources, control, or decision making authority (other than indirectly by voting). Consequently, international terror needs to be addressed by governmental entities. As the world’s only true super-power, we should be leading the fight against ISIS (and other major terror organizations) with multi-lateral coalition forces not unlike the Allied powers during World War II. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be happening and the terror has already reached our shores. So as private citizens, we need to support advocacy organizations and political candidates whose stated goals are to defeat terrorism, to support the military and intelligence services, and to secure our national borders. The first step is to support candidates or political leaders who acknowledge that we have a problem, that it’s caused by radical Islamic terror groups, who have articulated a realistic plan to combat the problem, and who have not diverted attention away from the problem by propping up straw arguments—such as, that making it more difficult for law abiding citizens to own guns will help solve terrorism.


On a local level, we need to be supporting our law enforcement agencies (and pro-police state and local political leaders/candidates) to make sure that they have the best training, equipment, leadership, and doctrine to detect, respond to, and defeat domestic and international terrorists in our country. It was just a few months ago, in the wake of the Ferguson, Missouri rioting when activists, pundits, and pandering politicians were on the “Let’s demilitarize the police” bandwagon. Well we all watched the San Bernardino, California terror suspects battle with police officers and sheriff deputies on television. Do you think that it might have ended differently if the police didn’t have armored vehicles, tactical body armor, assault rifles, and tactical training?


Micro Protection Plan: As a private citizen, you and your loved ones must acquire the knowledge, skills, and mindset to survive a variety of possible attack methods. Mindset refers to your overall worldview, awareness, and inclination to act in certain ways in response to problems or threats. You aren’t born with a particular mindset but must acquire and develop it through your investment in time, leaning, and training, as I explain in detail in my earlier article, “Surviving a Violent Encounter: Are you Prepared?” http://www.activeshootercivilianresponse .com/articles.html.


In the event you find yourself in the middle of an attack, your early identification of the incident as a terror attack, combined with your recognition of the attack type and method, will help you to survive. For instance, just from what you’ve read in this article, you’ll know that if you’re caught up in a mass hostage siege, that your best chance for survival is to escape or intervene during the initial attack phase or early in the submission and control phase. If you wait until the stabilization phase, your probability of survival has significantly diminished. In fact, early recognition and decisive action will likely enhance your survivability in all four strategic level terror attack methods.


Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman (Ret.) discusses his three “D”s (Deter, Detect, and Defeat) for combating both domestic and strategic level terror attacks against institutions, buildings, and public gatherings in our homeland.[9] With those dimensions as a foundation, in my next article I will explain in detail various ways to “harden the target.” That target might be your school, office, business, house of worship, medical facility, public gathering place, dining or entertainment venue, commercial transportation carrier, or you as an individual.


As I mentioned in my earlier article about surviving violent encounters, I tell people to be prepared, not paranoid, but that is not meant to downplay the need for all of us to prepare ourselves for a horrible day that we hope and pray will never come. I’ll end with another quote (author unknown) from that article, which was ubiquitously uttered by drill instructors in the police academy from which I graduated. “When the time to perform has arrived, the time to prepare has passed.” That pretty much says it all.

[1] John Giduck, When Terror Returns: The History and Future of Terrorist Mass-Hostage Sieges (Golden, CO:    Archangel Group, Inc., 2011), 57-59.

[2] Giduck, 60-65.

[3] Ibid., 63.

[4] Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (Ret.), forward to Terror at Beslan: A Russia Tragedy with Lessons for America’s Schools, by John Giduck (Golden, CO: Archangel Group, Inc., 2005), 13.

[5] John Giduck, Terror at Beslan: A Russia Tragedy with Lessons for America’s Schools, 86-87.

[6] Giduck, When Terror Returns, 609-646.

[7] Ibid., 64.

[8] John Giduck, (author and terrorism scholar/researcher), Mumbai, India attack debrief, attended by author, Long Beach, CA, January 17, 2012.

[9] Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (Ret.), (author, psychologist, military & law enforcement trainer), Bullet Proof Mind seminar, attended by author, Cypress, CA, November 24, 2015.