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Sunday, 03 July 2016





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Istanbul: tactics of urban terror

To Sri Lankans, already familiar with the urban guerilla strikes in their own cities, the methods and style of the Istanbul attack may seem déjà vu.:

Global aviation travel is at its zenith today as people travel thousands of miles on business and leisure. Therefore, airports have become more crowded, with a mix of foreigners. This is a prime reason for airports to be selected for terrorist attacks as they yield a higher death toll and worldwide media publicity. Since proclaiming a worldwide Islamic Caliphate in 2014, ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant with origins dating to 1999) continues to dominate certain regions of the world, and unleash violent terror attacks.

During this holy month of Ramadan, one must remember that millions of Muslims live in peace all over the world and have contributed immensely to their respective societies, drawing from their magnificent heritage from the lands of the Fertile Crescent. As renowned Islamic scholar Dr.Zakir Naik often says on Television, 'Islam is a tolerant and peaceful religion".

Changed the pattern

Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey is the third busiest airport in Europe. In this incident it is noteworthy that the suspected ISIL members have changed their normal attack pattern of suicide explosions. The three men had managed to come to the first checkpoint of the airport. When subject to the usual X-ray scan they realized that they had been "given away" and began to fire into the crowd with AK 47 assault rifles. A gallant policeman on duty grappled with one gunman, until the gunman detonated his deadly suicide vest. Meanwhile, other security staff opened fire on the two remaining gunmen who also exploded themselves. At present, there are 44 dead and 239 injured and hospitalized. In 2001, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) awarded Istanbul's airport for being the safest Airport in the Middle East and the Balkans.

The three gunmen had come in a taxi, and many now opine that vehicle entry check failed to identify the concealed assault rifles. Taking a common taxi also tends to relax some checking as security guards may often be suspicious of a tinted black vehicle. Loose (baggy) clothing and jackets in foreign nations makes it easy to conceal a suicide vest, pistol or even an automatic gun like the Uzi. The gunmen came from Russia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Intelligence and security analyst of Kings College, London Mr. Fredric Baum commented that this deadly onslaught was the work of trained and experienced terrorists. Ataturk Airport's International Terminal boasted a total of 38.2 million passengers in 2014.

The choice of weapon clearly shows that the gunmen desired to kill as many as possible, whilst the shooting rampage also tends to terrorize crowds who would run helter skelter to escape. The AK 47 is an automatic assault rifle made in 1949, for the Soviet Union. Some models still use a 7.62 cartridge (M67 variety) and in fully automatic mode releases a fiery outburst of 100 rounds per minute, cycling fresh rounds into the chamber. This enabled the gunmen to take 44innocent lives in a relatively short firefight.

This attack is a clear indication that ISIL has gone onto an offensive mode 'taking their fight' into nations that despise and outlaw them. This is a classic case of the Ideological Killer, though it deviates in one point that the gunmen were ready to die. The motive here defers from the recent club shootings in Florida, where Omar Mateen was a solitary Active Shooter claiming 49 lives.

New challenge

Aviation security worldwide now faces a new challenge as the inside of the airports are well secured with armed guards and CCTV surveillance. The outer perimeter will now have to be extended, perhaps with 2 or 3 perimeter defences before entering the main terminals. A brilliant example of Terminal approach defense upgrade is our own Katunayake Airport where the terminal walkways are quite long, and could therefore restrain and mitigate an attack of this nature at the first entrance check point, giving those inside the terminal, time to escape.

ISIS terror strategies will continue to evolve and terrorists may even use airborne attacks (ie helicopters) to breach ground security using the advantage of the air ceiling and can load the chopper with explosives and directly ram it into a parked aircraft or terminal for an extensive kill. Helicopters and single engine planes are very common aeriel vehicles in advanced countries with many civil pilots. Former Head of Security at Heathrow Airport, Norman Shanks reckons that crowds at airports will always attract acts of terror. He also suggests that advanced face recognition systems will help identify suspects via CCTV as they enter the first gates. Often, security checks of airport staff and flight crews are not very strict and emphasis must be given to subject them to the same routine of passengers.

Examining loads of baggage is indeed a challenge and puts great stress on security staff. One has to then deal with the threat of poisonous gas which can be fed via cooling systems and kill in seconds. Hence, terminal ventilation systems must meet tough security compliance and routine maintainence. The passenger will require more time and patience to check- in, in future. Air cargo needs to be double checked prior to loading. Cyber attacks may also paralyze a Control tower, putting flight operations into chaos. Finally, airports must be upgraded to detect CBRNE- Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Enhanced Conventional Weapons with trained first responders.


British philosopher, Jonathan Glover once noted the human species is fascinated with inflicting brutality on itself. This analysis has now been endorsed by such violent attacks. A suicide bomber behaves like a rational actor (Coleman and Rosenberg 2009). According to an estimate by the CIA the combat ready forces of ISIL in Iran and Syria stand at 31,000 fighters, with a majority being foreigners. The foreign mix aids would be bombers to easily blend into places like resorts, convention centres and airports, as they don't fit a text book type terrorist profile. Intelligence reports indicate that about 3,400 ISIL fighters are from Western Nations. The outfit continues its 'psychological warfare' by displaying brutally graphic beheadings.

The Philippines based group Isnilon Totoni Hapilon swore steadfast allegiance to the Islamic Caliphate and its Leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014. Subsequently, they began to abduct people for ransom, to fund their ongoing operations.

This paved the way, in 2015, for the formation of Ansar Khalifa in the Philippines. ISIS agents and members of 'sleeping cells' have been able to convince and enlist 500 combatants from Pakistan, 200 from Malaysia and 500 from Indonesia, according to a UN report. According to TRAC (Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium) the Jundallah (soldiers of god) group in Pakistan has strong bonds with ISIS.

The Turkey attack is a tactical shift of the ISIS. Our neighbour India, has come under the spotlight with 18 of their citizens being in ISIS ranks and 43 Sri Lankans are suspected to be combatants for ISIS in the Syrian region.

According to counter terrorism expert Professor Rohan Gunaratne, the ISIS affiliated volunteers may increase in the future after being radicalized.

The defiant Caliphate has a list of nations they desire to invade by 2020; Sri Lanka and India are also on the list as stated by Andrew Hosken of the BBC.

Given this backdrop, it is paramount that our law enforcement and intelligence agencies work together, to filter and mitigate such future threats that may even target Sri Lanka.



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