The dynamics of a target selection process

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With the Society for Terrorism Research (STR) 8th Annual International Conference fast approaching, STR, partnered with the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies (CTSS), is launching a series of guest blog posts, written by those who will be presenting their research at STR14. In the first of this series Cato Hemmingby, Senior Advisor to the Norwegian Government Security and Service Organization and PhD Candidate at the Norwegian Police University College, provides a outline of the research he has been doing with Prof. Tore Bjorgo, aimed at understanding the process of target selection by terrorist actors. 

Why do terrorists end up with the targets they actually attack? This is a basic question victims of terrorism indirectly tend to ask moments after an attack, as in why me, why here and why now? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers, but that fact can’t discourage us from looking for answers.

In the period from the 1970s to the mid-1990s terrorism in Western Europe was dominated by autonomous far-left groups and ethno-nationalistic organizations. Not without exceptions, these actors mainly conducted small-scale attacks with a certain degree of selectivity in their targeting. Then militant Islamists entered the arena, and suicide-bombings, indiscriminate targeting and mass-casualty focus became a game-changer, calling for new CT-strategies and countermeasures. The threat has evolved even further, as centralized terrorist structures have been weakened, leading to their promotion of leaderless resistance-strategies and lone actor terrorism. As illustrated, the general threat picture, including the targeting issue, is a complex matter.

In order to examine the evolution of terrorist targeting in a holistic perspective, the Norwegian Police University College has launched a project applying case study methods on a small number of actors – including lone actors, network-related cells and structured organizations. Even though identification of variables linked to ideology, strategy, capacity and opportunity provide us with important information, the target selection process is also very dynamic as these factors interact. Just as importantly, perpetrator personalities, psychology and intragroup dynamics may have a substantial impact on both attack methods and choice of targets.

At the Society for Terrorism Research (STR) 8th Annual International Conference, Professor Tore Bjorgo and myself are looking forward to sharing with you our analysis of the target selection process of Anders Behring Breivik, who was responsible for the 22 July 2011 attacks in Norway. Why and how did this terrorist, who killed 77 people, end up with the targets he actually attacked? What were the alternatives considered? Which factors made him dismiss some targets to the benefit of others, and at what time in the process did crucial decision-making sequences take place? In most terrorist plots such questions are unlikely to be answered due to unknown or dead perpetrators, lack of cooperation from the terrorists captured, limited research material or no access to classified documentation. However, for this specific case a satisfying amount of primary sources opened up for a rare opportunity to analyse the target selection process of this lone actor.

This research has found that even a ruthless terrorist like Anders Behring Breivik acted under the influence of a number of constraints. These were caused by a variety of ideological, strategic and operational factors, as well as the psychological dimension and his personality disorder – in sum settling his scope for action. As these different variables interacted, it is evident that the target selection process of Breivik became much more dynamic. Even after the operational phase had been entered, his original ideas and plans repeatedly had to be changed even until the very day of the attacks. In conclusion, this study of Breivik’s target selection process contributes to a better understanding of his rationality, why things developed as they did, and how dynamics and pragmatism played a considerably role during the process.

Who will benefit from knowledge about terrorist target selection processes and decision-making? First of all, it is highly relevant for analysts working on areas like trends, profiling and threat assessments, many of which are serving key policy- and decision-makers. Additionally, knowledge on this issue is useful for practitioners on preventive security, for example those working on emergency planning and object security.

The Society for Terrorism Research conference represents a unique opportunity to listen to the most respected researchers on counterterrorism. My own expectations are therefore high, but I am confident that I will come out satisfied in the other end. Why so? For one, here we academics can learn from practitioners, and visa versa. As a researcher I can get valuable feedback from experienced colleagues on my work, and also discuss matters of common interest on a high level. Furthermore, I expect to get new and exciting acquaintances, maybe establishing a potential for future cooperation. In conclusion, I think there are a number of good reasons for visiting Boston in September. See you there!

Cato Hemmingby will be presenting alongside Prof. Tore Bjorgo at the Society for Terrorism Research Conference on Communication and Collaboration for Counter-Terrorism, September 17-19th, in Boston, MA. Cato Hemmingby is a PhD Candidate at the Norwegian Police University College (2012 – Present) and Senior Advisor to the Norwegian Government Security and Service Organization. His research interests include extremism, terrorism and social security. Additionally, he is a Middle East expert with special competence on Israel, and the conflict in Northern Ireland.

If you are also presenting at STR14 and would like the opportunity to write a blog post for this series please contact strconference@uml.edu

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