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The Age of the Fidayeen: Terror's New Tactic

As the physical and psychological trauma of the Mumbai attacks continues to settle in, the Indian media is beginning to refer to the incident as their "9/11'.  Mumbai, and the region at large, are no stranger to terrorist activity. In fact, coordinated bombings in 1993 and 2006 both had higher death counts than the events that played out over the past few days.  Casualties aside, the most recent attacks ,much like 9/11- represent a sea change in terrorist activity across the region, and probably the globe.  The 1980s and 1990s witnessed a rise of attacks on government sites and commercial aircraft.  The early 2000s saw a dramatic wave of suicide bombers.  Now, we are entering the next phase of terrorism, the age of the Fidayeen.


Terrorist methodology comes in successive patterns, often triggered by a singular successful campaign and then mimicked by less-organized copycats.  In the latter part of the 20th century, Islamic extremists kick started the age of terrorism with the bombings of the US Marine barracks in Lebanon. The year was 1983, 241 Marines were killed.  Two years later, a bomb aboard Indian Air Flight 182 detonated killing 329 people.  The years that followed were punctuated with similar attacks: ten large scale assaults on government property and five major commercial aircraft bombings.  This epoch of jihadi warfare ended in 2001, culminating with the attacks of September 11th.  The subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ushered in the era of the suicide bomber.  Of the approximately 2000 estimated suicide bombings launched since the attack on the Marine barracks 25 years ago, nearly 90% have occurred after 2001.   These periods of historical terrorism are in no way concrete, but patterns are clearly identifiable.  Each age was initiated by a singular terrorist catalyst that acted as a watershed for future attacks. Mumbai is such a moment.  As 2008 saw the decline of the suicide bomber, 2009 will witness the rise of the Fidayeen.


Fidayeen attacks, while ultimately acts of suicide are distinct from the contemporary "suicide bomber'.  Militants armed with ammunition, weaponry, and small-scale explosives infiltrate their targets (often military bases or civilian institutions) and begin to open fire.  The attacks continue until the militants run out of ammunition or are killed by security personnel.  Escape is possible, and has occurred, but is unlikely and often accidental.


Historically, fidayeen ("Death-Defying" or "Commando") squads were introduced by Pakistani radical organizations funneling weapons and personnel in to Kashmir during the 1990s.  It was the preferred method of Lashkar-E-Toiba, a Karachi-based extremist group blamed for attacks across the subcontinent.      


This type of terrorist activity, exemplified by recent events in Mumbai, will likely become the preferred method of violence in the coming years for several key reasons:


Increased Recruitment:  The possibility of survival, repeat attacks, as well as a prolonged engagement with the enemy makes recruiting for fidayeen cadres far easier than more conventional suicide missions.  As more and more terror organizations face a shortage of suicide bombers, highlighted by the increased use of women and the mentally handicapped, they will begin to rely on fidayeen fighters as their primary method of assault.


Cost and Availability:  Guns are cheap, particularly in regions prone to terror activity.  Not only are they inexpensive, they are available.  The same is true for grenades and small-scale explosives.  Whereas large, al-Qaeda inspired attacks demand the use of hazardous materials and rare chemicals, Fidayeen strikes avoid these pitfalls.  In societies where gun ownership is a way of life and weapon caches are often abandoned by military outposts, many fidayeen attackers already possess the weapons with which they execute their plots. 


Difficult to Disrupt:  Terrorist plots are inherently difficult to disrupt.  The cells are indescribably agile and willing to exploit vulnerabilities in the target's society.  In the West they abuse civil liberties and legal protection (freedom of speech, due process); in the Middle East they abuse cultural taboos and religious restrictions (the use of female suicide bombers to avoid physical searches).  Fortunately, these plots are susceptible to disruption in two key areas: acquiring dangerous materials and communication amongst members.  Unfortunately, fidayeen assaults often bypass these restrictions.  There is no large scale purchase of high-grade explosives, no smuggling of illegal weaponry, and very little money transacted.  Similarly, fidayeen cadres do not rely on day-to-day communiqués, require little technological exchange, and can simply be organized in person or hours before the attack.   This is not to say that large, Mumbai-scale attacks do not require proper planning or training, but simply produce less paper-trails and opportunities for apprehension. 


Duration and Adaptability: Most disturbing, these methods are preferable in their prolonged duration.  Whereas suicide bombings, no matter the scale or coordination, take a matter of minutes, fidayeen attacks can last days.  Even the attacks of September 11th, a sort of hybrid suicide attack, lasted mere hours.  The attacks of Mumbai transpired over days and could have lasted longer.  As events unfold, attackers can also adapt to changed circumstances.  This includes the taking of hostages, negotiations, and the possibility of escape.  It also provides the terrorists the opportunity to personalize their experience.  Unlike suicide bombings, where carnage and casualties are actually taking place after the militant's death, fidayeen fighters can now single out westerners, target elites, or avoid women and children (if they so choose). 


Essentially, it is the ease-of-use and the increased chance of success that makes these assaults so appealing.  Most terror organizations would love to execute the "holy grail' of the jihadi movement: attacks on Israel, the United States, or the United Kingdom.  This desire is hampered by operational limitations in equipment, personnel, and risk of capture.  To execute an al-Qaeda style, spectacular attack offers very high reward but also a very high probability of disruption.  Fidayeen assaults offer a different path.  Its victims are not terrorized by the size of the explosion, but by the duration of the attack.  The rewards are high, the risk low.


Imagine this nightmare scenario, both in its likelihood and simplicity.  Twenty terrorists (divided in to four strike teams) relocate to four medium sized cities scattered throughout the American heartland.  They communicate using prepaid cellular phones and free e-mail accounts, referring to their impending attack as a birthday party or wedding ceremony.  They purchase conventional rifles and shotguns either on the black market or through American born associates, and combined spend less than $20,000, or $1000 per militant (the 9/11 attacks cost somewhere around $500,000, over $26,000 per hijacker).  They choose four separate shopping malls around the Christmas shopping season, synchronize their attack, and begin the assault.  The impending siege lasts days and kills over 400 American shoppers.


The psychological impact, physical death toll, and economic effects would be devastating.  The risks of capture or disruption are minimal at best.  With all of these advantages, why would any terror cell choose another methodology? Apart from the occasion risk of spectacular AQ-inspired attacks, I fear that we will all become familiar with fidayeen attacks in the near future.



Josh Hammer

Josh Hammer is an International Relations theorist, with expertise in terrorist ideology, American foreign policy, and war / conflict resolution. He currently holds a Master's of Science degree in International Politics from the University of Edinburgh, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations from the George Washington University. Josh's most recent work, his M.Sc. thesis, is a comparative analysis between Marxist / Leninist ideology and Osama bin Laden's global jihadi movement. He currently resides in New York.

Areas of Focus:
Terrorist Idealogy; American Foreign Policy; Conflict Resolution;


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