US embassy attacks and mass casualty bombings

US embassies have been a common target of terrorist attacks. The historical record of embassy attacks intertwines with some of the tactical changes that have characterised the methods that terrorist groups have deployed, especially the move

The impact of enhanced security measures

FIGURE 3.3 The impact of enhanced security measures.

towards ‘mass casualty bombings’ (Quillen 2002). On April 18, 1983, the US embassy in West Beirut, Lebanon, was the target of a suicide bombing perpetrated by a pro-Iranian group calling themselves the Islamic Jihad Organisation.The attack killed 63 people.The following year, on September 20,1984, Hezbollah perpetrated a suicide bombing on the relocated US embassy in East Beirut.The attack killed 24 people. These attacks remained the deadliest to have been perpetrated against US embassies until Al-Qaeda’s dual attacks in Kenya and Tanzania on August 7, 1998, which together killed 224 people.

In perpetrating embassy attacks, terrorists groups have displayed patterns of behaviour that can be captured by the neoclassical model of choice (with some adjustments). Bombing embassies was itself a relatively new activity. Although some of the earlier attacks on US embassies were bombings (such as the attack on the embassy in Saigon, Vietnam, in 1965), most attacks prior to the 1980s involved shootings and mob violence. At other embassies around the world, a common terrorist tactic was to storm an embassy and kidnap the diplomats and staff. Better security raised the relative price of this type of activity and made bombing a more attractive alternative (Jenkins 1983). This is a pattern of choice predicted by the neoclassical consumer theory applied to terrorism. In Figure 3.3, rather than ‘terrorism’ and ‘legitimate activity’ as the two choices, we could have ‘kidnapping’ and ‘bombing’.10 The efforts to reduce kidnapping could be said to have reduced the relative price of bombing, leading to a reallocation of resources by terrorist groups towards that type of attack. Substitution in response to deterrence initiatives could also be observed when embassies were increasingly fortified against bombings. At that time, terrorist groups switched course again to concentrate on assassinations and kidnappings of embassy staff outside of the fortified compounds (Enders & Sandler 2002).

Although embassies were among the early targets of mass casualty bombings, this was part of a general transition by terrorist groups of many diverse backgrounds towards this type of terrorist action. In between the two Beirut embassy bombings, the barracks of the peacekeeping forces in Lebanon were targeted in an October 23, 1983 bombing that killed more than 300 people. This is among the first on a long list of attacks, stretching from the Middle East to Sri Lanka to Oklahoma to Omagh (Northern Ireland). The Omagh bombing, carried out on August 15, 1998, killed 29 people, illustrating the stark departure that mass casualty' bombing represented from existing attack methods for those terrorist groups who adopted it. The provisional IRA had perpetrated bombings across Western Europe for decades and had even carried out a bombing in the town of Omagh previously (in 1973). But the Omagh bombing of 1998 was different. Although the group responsible, the real IRA, denied it had targeted civilians, these denials appear to have been attempts to mitigate the damage caused by the backlash against the attack.The bomb had been planted in a car parked in a busy shopping district where, clearly, civilian casualties must have been expected.

The Beirut barracks attack and the Omagh bombing were just two examples of the more than 70 mass casualty bombings (where more than 25 people were killed) recorded between 1950 and 2000 and in which a total of more than 5,000 people were killed (Quillen 2002). In some ways, the transition to mass casualty bombings mirrors the transition towards bombing of civilians during military campaigns, especially during World War II. When particular targets, such as industrial facilities, became too difficult to destroy from the air at night, the British and US air forces lobbied for permission to strike much larger targets: cities (Ellsberg 2017). Analogously', specific traditional terrorist targets became far more difficult to attack and so terrorist groups shifted their resources towards much softer civilian targets. This is just another form of substitution, which is a standard pattern of behaviour that is predicted by the neoclassical model of choice. We would expect, based on the reasoning embedded in the model, that efforts to harden obvious civilian targets, such as airlines and public transport systems, will lead to a reduction in the number of attacks on those targets but that, unfortunately, the threat of terrorism will be shifted to different targets.

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