From single attack methods to combinations

Earlier we said that attempting to emulate or surpass a predecessor or rival does not necessarily involve copying the precise method or attack type that the predecessor used. An obvious innovation that is available to the copycat (and any other terrorist or terrorist group) is the combination of attack methods. We can illustrate the importance of this by two cases: (1) Brenton Tarrant’s March 2019 mosque attack in New Zealand and (2) the copycat or emulation attempt perpetrated by Stephan Balliet on a synagogue in Halle, Germany, in October 2019.

In March 2019, Brenton Tarrant perpetrated New Zealand’s most deadly mass shooting when he attacked mosques in Christchurch.There were 51 people killed and a further 50 injured. At one mosque, he killed 42 people at the scene. At a second mosque, he killed seven people. Two other victims died later in hospital. Around 20 minutes of the attack was ‘live streamed’ on Facebook Live. The attack was an armed assault, using up to five different firearms. He discarded weapons along the way, at times retrieving new weapons from his car when he ran out of ammunition. There were some improvised explosive devices (IEDs) attached to Tarrant’s car. These appear to have been booby-traps and were defused without incident. The attack was motivated by extreme ideologies, which Tarrant outlined in a 74-page manifesto (banned from distribution in New Zealand). In it, he apparently claims not to be a Nazi but rather to be an ethno-nationalist and eco-fascist. In a sense,Tarrant might also be viewed as something of a copycat. He claims inspiration from Anders Bering Breivik, the Norwegian lone wolf terrorist who killed 77 people in a combined bomb and spree-shooting attack in Norway in 2011.

Just over 6 months later, 27-year-old Stephan Balliet attempted a similar attack in Germany. This time the target was a synagogue. The suspect was heavily armed with guns when he drove to the synagogue and attempted to enter. There were around 60 worshippers inside.The synagogue’s heavy doors were locked and Balliet was unable to enter. After shooting at the doors, he shot dead a woman on the street and then shot dead a man at a kebab shop around the corner (which was possibly symbolic given the idea of kebabs as a symbol of ethnicity is prominent in the type of literature referred to by Brenton Tarrant in his manifesto). Two other people were wounded before the gunman was arrested. Part of the attack was also live streamed, this time on the gaming platform Twitch. The prosecutors will argue that Balliet aimed to create a worldwide effect by deliberately copying the actions of Brenton Tarrant (BBC News 2019).The copycat element is obvious. How does it illustrate some of our pattern predictions?

The first thing that we notice about Tarrant’s armed assault is that the outcomes are high. In Table 5.1, the average inflicted fatalities for armed assaults worldwide in 2016 were 2.68.The standard deviation, though, is relatively high at 9.51, indicating that outcomes well above average are not out of the question, especially if a log normal distribution is assumed. Even so, the number of people killed (42) at the first mosque that Tarrant attacked is an unlikely number for an armed assault. The seven people killed at the second mosque, where Tarrant was initially unable to find the entrance, is much closer to the expected outcome. Because the reference point set for prospective copycats by Tarrant is so high, we would expect one of two different choices to characterise a copycat. We would expect a similarly motivated individual either to choose an entirely different attack method such as a vehicle attack or, more likely, a combination of attack methods. The second approach is the pathway chosen by Balliet. While Balliet was armed with guns and attempted to enter the synagogue with the same intent that possessed Tarrant when he entered the mosques in New Zealand, Balliet had four kilograms of explosives in his car. He tried to detonate the explosives at the synagogue. Balliet attempted a combined armed assault and bombing attack, closely matching the type of actions chosen by Breivik and deviating in this regard from Tarrant. Breivik, of course, inflicted 77 fatalities to Tarrant’s 51. Balliet may have seen in Breivik’s choices a method for exceeding the reference point set by Tarrant.

A key feature of the attacks that we have been discussing as well as the entire history of terrorist attack method choice is that terrorists do not always choose single attack methods. In fact, choosing combinations of attack methods is the most common characteristic of terrorist choice. It is also the most commonly overlooked characteristic of terrorist choice. This oversight is a significant problem because combinations of attack methods have quite a distinct nature, with features that affect the outcomes that we can expect from terrorist attacks. We must understand not only the nature of attack method combinations but also why terrorists choose to combine attack methods. One of the absolutely fundamental risk management strategies that people follow is diversification. They try not to put all their eggs in a single basket.This results in combinations of things in portfolios. Modern portfolio theory (MPT) was created in the 1950s (Markowitz 1952). We can use portfolio theory to explore how terrorist groups combine attack methods in order to achieve desired payoffs (Phillips 2009). Advances in behavioural economics have provided us with behavioural portfolio theory (BPT). BPT provides us with another, deeper, level of narrative to describe how these combinations are chosen and formed. We turn now to a discussion of MPT and BPT in a context where terrorist groups choose not one but a combination of attack methods. The result is that terrorists face less risk than we might think.

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