By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
For the second time in several years Al-Shabab terrorists have taken over a civilian structure and are purportedly involved in a massacre of non-Muslim university students. Al-Jazeera reports, “the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab group said their gunmen were holding Christian hostages inside the complex in revenge for Nairobi’s troops fighting in Somalia.”
These kinds of attacks have become more common in recent years and are often highly lethal. In Mumbai in 2008 ten attackers killed more than 164 people in a half dozen locations and it took days to stop them. Similarly the Westgate Mall attack in 2013 stretched over days as four attackers killed 67 people. The Beslan school hostage crises of 2004 was thought to involve 31 Islamist perpetrators and resulted in the deaths of 385 people and also lasted three days. The 2014 Peshawar school massacre took the lives of 145, mostly students, at the hands of seven Taliban gunmen.
The pattern we see is relatively similar. Highly trained terrorist gunmen, motived by Islamist ideology, intent on mass murder, sometimes of non-Muslims, sometimes of Muslims, at a civilian target. This is different than the mass terrorist attacks using bombs, such as at Bali (2002, 2005) London (2005), or Madrid (2004).
Why are these mass shooting attacks so hard to neutralize quickly? Why does it often take days to deal with them? The terrorists are often not actually involved in taking hostages so much as they are intent on killing them. The supposed demands they claim to have, as in Kenya complaining about Kenyan involvement in the Somali war; they don’t actually want them met. There is little evidence that in any of these cases they want anything except to kill as many people as possible and that they expect to be “martyred” in the attack. The supposed “hostage” nature of these events is often revealed afterward to be not as much as hostage crises as an ongoing killing spree, in which some hostages are kept alive until the end. In the case in Mumbai, for instance, the Pakistani handlers were speaking with the terrorists holed up at the Chabad house, and ordered the final murder of the Jewish hostages.
Given what we know about these kinds of attacks why is it so difficult to end them quickly? Consider the case of the Moscow theatre siege in 2002. In that case more than 50 Chechan gunmen took over a theatre with around 900 civilians in it. They demanded Russia withdraw from Chechnya. The narrative of the end of the Moscow siege often portrays it as ruthless but effective. An unknown gas was pumped into the building, the terrorists succumbed, were executed by a special forces raid and the hostages, also unconscious (and 130 of them lated dead from adverse reactions) were taken out. But the facts are more foggy. The gas was pumped in but took more than 30 minutes to take effect. The special forces raid took another hour or more to eliminate all the hostage takers. In such a long period of time the Chechans could have executed all the hostages. They didn’t, but instead engaged in an increasingly groggy gun-battle with the best that the Russian army could muster against them.
Time and again what we see is that police and armed forces, despite massive firepower and years of training, are simply not up to the task of killing what amounts sometimes to a small number of zealous murderers. In hostage crises they prove equally incapable, as the ATF proved at Waco in 1993. Small numbers of gunmen for some reason are a match for all manner of “special forces.” The television stories of snipers and special forces dispatching large numbers of the enemy in a short period of time, usually in quiet and stealth, is mostly just nonsense.
Why is that? Why is it that well trained snipers, that special forces teams, negotiators and governments with everything at their disposal, including secret noxious gases, simply cannot defeat groups of armed men without large numbers of casualties. Why is it so difficult?
We don’t ask that question enough and in general it seems countries simply do not understand what to do. During the Columbine mass killing it was revealed that police did not have a proper framework for entering the building. Police have changed their tactics, when there is an active shooter, the view is not to sit outside and create a “siege”, but to kill the perpetrator.
Evidence points to the fact that killing terrorists quickly, without mercy, is the most effective way to reduce casualties. Risking the lives of “hostages”, who are often not actually hostages in the traditional sense, in return for having less civilians be killed over days of “sporadic gun fights” seems to be a better course of action than laying siege with thousands of army personnel and police to a large civilian complex. Quick, almost immediate, lethal assaults would seem to bring better results.
So if we know so much, why are we doing so little? Why do patterns persist? There will be terrorist attacks. There will be more Charlie Hebdos, more Mumbais and Westgates. That’s a fact of the world we live in. It’s time to have better international training frameworks on the best methods to deal with them. It is also time for countries to stop worrying about casualties as much. Sitting around with large numbers of armed soldiers doesn’t accomplish much. Long exchanges of gun-fire with terrorists, while other civilians are being massacred, doesn’t help. In short: Just kill them. They want death. They should receive their request in the quickest time possible.