The attack against a Christmas market in Berlin follows an all too familiar pattern: an individual who was known to local law enforcement launches a violent attack using an improvised weapon against a soft target. In this instance, the assailant, Anis Amri, escaped from the crime scene (similar to the Paris attack planner, Abdelhamid Abaaoud) and is now being sought by police and intelligence officials. Everything about this event – and other terror attacks over the past several years – shows some level of pre-attack preparation. It is highly unlikely Amri decided on the spur-of-the-moment to hijack a truck, kill the driver, and drive it through the market. It is more probable that he chose this target, studied possible attack scenarios, located an area where delivery trucks were parked, and had an escape route planned….possibly indicating the presence of accomplices. It was known and publicized before the attack that European authorities were worried about terrorist targeting of Christmas markets, yet Amri’s attack was still successful probably due to his pre-attack preparations.
Similar to Belgium and Paris, local law enforcement operations may have actually accelerated the operational planning in Berlin. German police had recently undertake a series of raids against a jihadist network facilitating the travel of fighters from Europe into the Middle East. Amri was apparently part of this group and may very well have stepped up his operational plans when he saw the noose tightening. This is similar to the situation in Belgium, when the terror cell there apparently accelerated their airport attack planning after the arrest of Salah Abdeslam, whom the Belgium group feared would betray their plans.
Both of these situations support our previously stated conclusion that terror networks are already in-place throughout the West and are actively engaged in operational planning at this very moment. While immigration control or border closures may temporarily stem the influx of new recruits, it appears these operational cells already have more than enough personnel or willing volunteers to undertaken a variety of attacks throughout Europe and the US. Similar to Paris, Belgium, San Bernardino and Orlando, much of the initial focus after the Berlin attack was on trying to identify the specific terror organization behind the event. As we have noted previously, the more important question to answer is “how” this attack was carried out rather than which group will eventually claim responsibility.
Answering the “how” of these types of attacks requires greater collection of “street level” intelligence. These recent operations were planned and developed with minimal contact or communications with known terror organizations. As such, traditional HUMINT and SIGINT operations will be unlikely to collect actionable intelligence. Stopping these home-grown operations requires four basic steps:
- Robust information sharing systems between the public and private sectors
- Increased training of law enforcement and private security personnel in pre-attack indicators
- Greater analytic support to See Something campaigns
- Improved contacts and relationships with Muslim communities to identify radicalized individuals
As with any complex problem, there is no silver bullet, no one, single solution to defeating terrorism. Success will require the coordination and cooperation between public officials, private industry, and the general public. It is unlikely the arrest of a single operative, or the capture of one laptop computer or cellphone will provide all the evidence needed to thwart a well-planned attack. Instead, law enforcement and intelligence officials must begin taking smaller bites at the apple: tying together seemingly insignificant clues to identify and thwart these operations in their planning stages.