Europe’s new “soft targets”

Posted by & filed under counterterrorism.

author: Mircea Opris

With France, Belgium and now Denmark under terrorist attacks, a new approach has been taken against some of the European countries that did not have to deal with terrorism in years or almost never in their recent history.

A “new” modus operandi was brought back from the late 70’s – early 80’s. Instead of using explosives and cause mass casualties, the 2014 and 2015 attacks focus on using firearms and shootings.

With the UK and Germany very much aware and fortress-ready against any kind of IS or domestic terrorism, it seems that attackers focus on countries that do not have a strong tradition and clear operational counter-terrorism SOPs and structures.

In the wake on the new year, the attack at the Charlie Hebdo newsroom in France was a signal. Followed up by several terrorist incidents in Belgium, it was now Copenhagen, Denmark to be the target.

In the history of terrorism, a “soft target” is traditionally called an open, public place with a weak or relatively soft enforcement, surveillance and quick response capabilities: from shopping malls, to medium size airports, cinemas, museum etc. Even the 2013 Boston bombing was one of such kind.

Once the drama in Boston is over, attention will inevitably turn to how to prevent another terrorist attack on an event with limited security.

These so-called soft targets–places like malls and movie theaters, as well as sporting events–have always been vulnerable to terrorist attack, especially given how much harder it is to attack aircraft since 9/11. But until Monday’s deadly bombings, it wasn’t a fear for many people.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, security was boosted for airports, government offices, and other high-profile “hard” targets as well as nuclear and chemical plants. And while local authorities were given technologies and resources to respond to an attack–more paramedics and mobile command centers–their ability to prevent attacks on soft targets remains limited–whether it’s a crowded mall during the holiday shopping season or an outdoor summer concert.

For many locations, the resources aren’t there. A security officer at a mall being paid $1 to $10 per hour, depending on location and country, cannot properly respond to a terrorist attack. The burden of the cost of boosting security for these soft targets falls on the owners of the locations, whether it’s a stadium or a movie theatre. For example, the real estate group that owns a mall would have to invest heavily in security. And until there’s a mall bombing at a mall, the likelihood this investment would take place across any country is remote.

REUTERS news agency amde a clear picture of what happened in Copenhagen.

Forensic investigators are seen at the site of a shooting in Copenhagen February 14, 2015.  Credit: Reuters/Mathias Oegendal/Scanpix Denmark

Forensic investigators are seen at the site of a shooting in Copenhagen February 14, 2015.
Credit: Reuters/Mathias Oegendal/Scanpix Denmark


By Sabina Zawadzki and Ole Mikkelsen

“Denmark was on high alert on Sunday after two people were killed and five wounded in gun attacks on a Copenhagen cafe hosting a freedom of speech debate and a synagogue, raising fears the Nordic country had fallen victim to militant violence.

The first attack, in broad daylight on Saturday, targeted a cafe attended by Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who has been threatened with death for his cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.

Also attending a debate at the cafe was French ambassador Francois Zimeray who praised Denmark’s support for freedom of speech following the January attack in Paris on the weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo that killed a dozen people.

Witnesses said that barely had the envoy finished an introduction to the meeting, than up to 40 shots rang out, outside the venue, as an attacker tried to shoot inside.

Police said they considered Vilks, the main speaker, to have been the target.

A 55-year-old man died as a result of that shooting, police said early on Sunday. Police said earlier the victim was a 40-year-old man.

“We feel certain now that it was a politically motivated attack, and thereby it was a terrorist attack,” Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt told journalists, speaking on Saturday close to the site of the cafe.

Police said the cafe shooter had escaped in a Volkswagen Polo and a manhunt ensued with helicopters roaring overhead and the streets of Copenhagen filled with an array of armored vehicles.

Hours later, during the night, shots were fired at a synagogue in another part of the city, about a half hour walk away from the cafe.

A man was shot in the head, and was later confirmed to have died. Two police officers were wounded.


The attacks bore similarities to the Jan. 17 attack in Paris, when brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi burst into the office of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and opened fire in revenge for its satirical images of the Prophet Mohammad.

In all, 17 people were killed over three days of violence in France.

European Council President Donald Tusk called Saturday’s attack “another brutal terrorist attack targeted at our fundamental values and freedoms, including the freedom of expression.”

Helle Merete Brix, organizer of the event at the cafe, told Reuters she had seen an attacker wearing a mask.

“The security guards shouted ‘Everyone get out!’ and we were being pushed out of the room,” Brix said.

“They tried to shoot their way into the conference room … I saw one of them running by, wearing a mask. There was no way to tell his face.”

Denmark itself became a target after the publication 10 years ago of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammad, images which led to sometimes fatal protests in the Muslim world.

Many Muslims consider any representation of the Prophet Mohammad blasphemous.

Vilks stirred controversy himself in 2007 with his drawings depicting Mohammad, triggering numerous death threats.

He has lived under the protection of Swedish police since 2010. Two years ago, an American woman was sentenced to 10 years in prison in the United States for plotting to kill him.

French President Francois Hollande said Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve would go to the Danish capital later on Sunday.

(Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Frances Kerry, Robert Birsel)”.

Unfortunately, European law enforcement agencies and counter-terrorism agencies need to face a new challenge. One they prove cannot deter, prevent and predict, at least for the moment.


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