Who Defines a Hard Target?

June 6, 2018

This article was written by TrapWire Director Michael Maness, who spent two decades as a senior operations officer and field manager with the Central Intelligence Agency and was involved in counterterror investigations ranging from Pan Am 103 through 9/11.

Understanding the motivation and rationale for a criminal event – be it a school shooting, an armed robbery, or a terrorist attack – is as much art as it is science. It is easy to dismiss every school shooting as a violent cry for help by a mentally unstable individual, every robbery as an act of greed, and every Middle East terror event as being “jihadist” inspired. There are, of course, numerous examples to fit these paradigms; however, this simplistic rationalization risks missing the forest for the trees. It can also lead someone to believe they have a thorough understanding of their adversary – which is always a dangerous assumption to make.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

– Sun Tzu

Unfortunately, it is this assumption — that we completely understand how the enemy views the world — that can lead to short-sighted solutions to complex security issues. Take for instance the terms “hard” and “soft” targets. For thousands of years, we deemed something a “hard target” by building high walls and fences and surrounding it with armed guards and, more recently, electronic detection equipment. But is that how a terrorist or criminal would define a hard target? Not always. If someone with the proper motivation and resources decides facility X is worth attacking, they will study the target and devise an operational plan to achieve their goal. (Who would not have viewed the Twin Towers or the Pentagon as hard targets prior to 9/11?) And therein lies the crux of the issue: too often, after we’ve “hardened” a target we deem the location secure, and trust that those who would prey on the site view it the same way. To compound the situation even further, by focusing all our resources on the hardened perimeter, we too often ignore the operational environment around our site, giving the criminal element free rein to study our buildings, employees and security features without fear of discovery.

As an operations officer for the CIA, I was often called upon to run surveillance against foreign targets. High walls, armed guards, and metal detectors rarely deterred me. But an inquisitive security guard, nosy employee, or local resident hanging out their window all day usually gave me pause for concern. Even if I was confident in my cover story explaining my presence in that particular location; if I was noticed more than two or three times, most often I’d abort the mission, or hand it off to someone else who hadn’t been burned. This focus “outside the wire” is a security posture that most soft targets in this country can employ. Not every location, business or school will have the ability to construct high walls, purchase additional stand-off distance, or hire armed security personnel. They can, however, train their employees, visitors and students to be more situationally aware. To report things that “don’t feel right” or the sudden change in a colleague’s online persona. In short, to become that additional set of eyes-and-ears local law enforcement needs. This refocus on enhanced situational awareness and broader information sharing, coupled with traditional physical security features where possible, will provide a holistic security posture that will result in a true hard target.

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