Recent strikes indicate an evolution in terrorist tactics, techniques and procedures
Guerillas launched a coordinated series of attacks around Baghdad today, killing at least 34 and wounding hundreds, using suicide bombings as their modus opperandi. (See also this WP article on the attacks) The attacks targeted the International Committee of the Red Cross and 4 Baghdad police stations -- symbols of international intervention and the U.S.-sponsored regime respectively. The effect on the capital, according to the New York Times, was to plunge the city into chaos. Officials think that a "new element" might be to blame for today's series of attacks.
The attacks took place between 8:30 and 10:15 a.m. local time, leading American and Iraqi officials to believe that they were part of a highly coordinated operation. There was a strong suspicion that foreigners were involved, and American and Iraqi officials referred to a "new element" being responsible for the bombings.Today's attacks come on the heels of a coordinated rocket attack on the Al Rasheed hotel where Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was staying. An American Army colonel was killed in that attack, though Mr. Wolfowitz escaped unscathed. As the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) reports, this attack represents an evolution from the previous six months of guerilla attacks, both in terms of its sophistication and the level of the risk the attackers took to get so close to a high-value target.
The officials differentiated between today's attacks and one on Sunday against a highly guarded hotel where Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz was staying. The Sunday attack was attributed to loyalists to the deposed regime of Saddam Hussein.
The attack on the U.S.-run Al Rasheed hotel, which sits in a vast "green zone" of Baghdad that is off-limits to ordinary Iraqis, marks a shift in the guerrillas' tactics. Rather than just hit-and-run ambushes, they are using more standoff weapons such as mortars, rockets and remote-controlled explosive devices that allow resistance fighters to strike without being hit in return.Analysis: It's far too early to know -- in the absence of a communique' from these groups -- who is responsible for both attacks. However, I think that both attacks represent a paradigm shift in the nature of the guerilla war we face in Iraq, as the Wall Street Journal alludes to in its report. These two attacks are markedly more sophisticated than the hit-and-run guerilla tactics used thus far. Here's how:
Until recently, these rocket and mortar attacks -- including one on Al Rasheed in September -- usually failed to hit their targets. But, in the past few days, the guerrillas managed to inflict dozens of casualties, several of them fatal, by shelling U.S. bases in the cities of Samarra, Baquba and Balad, and by hitting a power station in Baghdad.
This ability to hit even the most protected U.S. targets raises new questions about how the American-led coalition can pacify Iraq. There are now as many as 35 anticoalition attacks a day, most in Baghdad and Sunni areas to its west and the north. In addition, guerrillas regularly kill Iraqis who help the coalition -- including the chief of police in the southern Amarah province, who was gunned down this past weekend.
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Al Rasheed was hit on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan, which is usually a period of increased religious feelings in the Muslim world. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top military commander for Iraq, said last week he expected an increase in violence during this period. He said the guerrilla attacks appeared to be growing more technically sophisticated and more centrally directed.
In the first months after the war, Iraqi militants would try to ambush U.S. convoys with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire -- a tactic that usually led to immediate U.S. response and ended in the capture or killing of the attackers. Recently, the guerrillas switched to placing remote-detonated roadside bombs, usually made of rigged artillery shells -- a tactic successfully used against Israeli troops by Lebanon's Hezbollah militia in the 1990s. These bombs, disguised in crates of vegetables, bicycle baskets or buried in potholes, are hard to spot -- and often pierce through the soldiers' Humvees.
"The systems that they are putting together now are much more sophisticated -- the supposition is that they are bringing in trainers from abroad," says Maj. George Rosser, operations officer for a Florida National Guard battalion that has to deal with roadside bombs almost every night in the western city of Ramadi. "They've backed off from ambushes, from direct confrontation, because they can't stand up against our troops."
- The attacks today were time-coordinated so that they would happen with near simultaneity. That's a significant tactical evolution because a) it's tough to do, and b) it means they're sophisticated enough to know that simultaneous attacks work because your enemy doesn't have time to raise his guard after the first attack. (Attacks in series rarely work because the first one always raises everyone's guard)
- The attacks today employed suicide bombers, something not frequently seen in Iraq. Part of this owes to the lack of religious fervor on the part of the Iraqi insurgents -- they simply don't believe in their cause the way that Palestinian insurgents do. But with the exception of some Fedayeen attacks during the war, we have not seen suicide bombings en masse in Iraq. That trend may be changing.
- Today's attacks also were precisely targeted at "soft" symbolic targets of the continuing U.S. occupation. Rather than attack the CPA headquarters itself or other hard targets, they chose to attack the softer Red Cross and Iraqi police stations. These sites have a lot of symbolic value, because of the role that each organization plays in post-war Iraq. I think this is a pretty sophisticated targeting decision.
The trend is clear: We are seeing the outbreak of a truly 4th Generation War in Iraq, which pits American-led forces against a loose-knit network of guerillas with increasingly sophisticated tactics, techniques and procedures. If I had to guess, these tactics are being heavily influenced by both Al Qaeda and Ansar Al-Islam (see this LA Times article on Ansar Al-Islam by Esther Schrader), as well as other international terror groups, and there are probably a number of veteran terrorists directing the action from behind the scenes now. The only viable course of action at this point is to seize the offensive -- to gather intelligence, launch raids, and disrupt the terrorist cells before they can strike again. Undoubtedly, our enemies are planning to strike again.