Soft Targets And Tourist Terrorism

It seems that nearly every week now we are confronted by horrific headlines involving the carnage of tourists and ordinary citizens who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and become victims of acts of terrorism in the West. While the victims are often random, the perpetrators of these attacks may engage in planning these attacks for weeks or months. Many of this year’s attacks throughout Europe are continued evidence of this. Contrary to commonly held belief, these are often not the result of “lone wolves,” but rather “soldiers” of ISIS and other terrorist groups who are following the orders of their handlers online.

Citizens of a given city or country may not have a choice about where they live and work ― but tourists do. Like Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups before them, the Islamic State (IS) is frequently targeting tourists in order to achieve their objectives. In doing so, they not only usually succeed in killing their targets, but in severely damaging the tourism business where the attacks occur. One need look no further than the downing in 2016 of Metrojet Flight 9268 (at Sharm el-Sheik) and Egypt Air Flight 804 (from Paris to Cairo, which is widely believed to have been the result of terrorism) to see what kind of impact acts of terrorism can have on a nation’s tourist industry.

In 2010, the amount of revenue earned by Egypt through tourism was estimated to have been in excess of $12 billion, accounting for 11 percent of the country’s GDP, more than 14 percent of its foreign exchange reserves, and attracting nearly 15 million visitors[1]. In 2015, that figure was already just under half that amount, at $6.1 billion[2]. In the first quarter of 2016, Egypt attracted just over 1 million visitors.[3] Egypt had seen this before, following the Luxor attacks in 1997 and the changes in government during the Arab Awakening. It took the industry many years to recover.

In 2014, a record 37 million tourists visited Turkey, accounting for almost 5 percent of GDP[4]. As of the second quarter of 2016, following successive terrorist attacks, year-on-year tourist arrivals in Turkey had fallen by 35 percent to 2.5 million, the largest drop in 22 years. Visitors from Russia had declined 92 percent[5] (the result of the fallout from the downing of the Russian military jet earlier in the year), and substantial drops had been reported from tourists from a variety of (particularly European) nations. Given the number of terrorist attacks that occurred in Turkey that year, the Istanbul airport bombings were considered the death knell of Turkish tourism for the short-term.

Cost Effective Terrorism

The sad truth is, terrorism can be very cost effective. In 2004, for less than $1,000 Al Qaeda bombed Spanish trains and succeeded not only in its objective of punishing the Spanish people and government for their support of the war in Iraq, but also in achieving a Spanish pullout from the American-led coalition forces in Iraq. The added bonus was the ability to ultimately change the Spanish government, as the Socialists were swept to power in the wake of the bombings. By any measure, that is good value for money. The fact that so much can be achieved by spending so little is certainly an incentive for other terrorist groups to want to try to do the same thing.

Spending so little to achieve so much was nothing new for Al Qaeda. It is estimated that for less than half a million dollars they achieved all that was 9/11, which resulted in the loss of some 3,000 lives and more than $50 billion in property and related damages. For $74,000 Jemaah Islamiah (an Al Qaeda affiliate) killed more than 200 and temporarily ruined the tourist industry in Bali in 2002. Other examples of cost-effective terrorism in include:

· The IS spending less than $10,000 to finance the Paris attacks in 2015, resulting in the deaths of more than 130 people;

· The twin truck bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than 200 people in 1998 for $10,000; and

· The bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, which killed 17 people in 2000 for less than $10,000. [6]

One of the lingering impacts of these attacks was that Al Qaeda and the IS permanently raised the price of travel-related security, at great cost in terms of time and effort expended by millions around the world, and the firms that operate those modes of transportation. The cost and resources required to implement airport-style security for trains and buses is simply too prohibitive and unrealistic, which is why they are, and will remain, exposed and targets of at-will attacks.

The New Soft Target Normal

We have known for some time now that terrorist groups prefer to attack “soft” targets because they usually lack proper security, and there are many more soft targets than hard targets. Hotels (Mombassa), restaurants/night clubs (Bali), museums (Tunis), places of worship (Istanbul), trains (Madrid) and buses (Israel) are targets of choice. This being the case, there should be greater effort made to implement at least minimal security for soft targets that have any reasonable appeal to terrorists. If this can be done in developing countries with meager financial resources, it should be achievable in the developed world.

In many places in the developing world the entrances to metro rail systems are checked in the same way entrances to department stores, office buildings, and shopping centers are checked. Security personnel check everyone’s bag or purse as individuals enter. Is this a guarantee that a bomb will not be smuggled onto a train? Of course not, but apart from providing some peace of mind, it is a sufficient deterrent to prevent would-be bombers from attacking with impunity. Had such a system been implemented in Madrid, most, if not all, of the bombs would likely have been detected. Surely, the cities where these protocols are in place would have experienced many more bomb attacks if they did not have this rudimentary system in place.

The root of the problem is that businesses tend to be more reactive rather than proactive when it comes to risk management more generally, and governments tend to be reactive rather than proactive on the subject of terrorism. The stakes have never been higher for citizens, businesses and countries. The knock-on effect of crippling a country’s tourism industry can be devastating, as anyone in the tourism industry in Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia, and host of other countries can attest.

The Barcelona attacks once again illustrate how vulnerable individuals and cities are to terrorist attacks, many of which are now driven by Virtual Terrorism – using the Internet to communicate and plan attacks. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies can, regrettably, only do so much to identify and monitor the individuals engaging in Virtual Terrorism, so the advantage is presently in the terrorists’ court. Only a sea change in how individuals, businesses and governments think about and combat terrorism will turn the tide. If we fail to get in front of this problem now, the tide may never turn.

*Daniel Wagner is author of the new book “Virtual Terror” and Managing Director of Risk Cooperative.

This article first appeared on LinkedIn.