Where the al Qaeda of Osama bin Laden’s leadership flew an airplane into the Pentagon in a meticulously prepared operation, the tip of today’s global jihadi spear is increasingly pointed at exploiting such “soft targets” as shopping malls, sporting events, tourist attractions and, in the case of this week’s horror in Paris, the office of a satirical news magazine.
It’s a trend that intelligence officials say makes the fight against terrorist threats more complex and potentially more disturbing because the kinds of attacks now grabbing global headlines require far less planning and are harder to detect and disrupt.
Underscoring the difficulty facing counterterrorism forces, French officials were still hunting late Thursday evening for the two French-born Islamic brothers named as prime suspects in the attack that killed 12 and wounded 11 at the offices of the weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
There is evidence that the remnants of bin Laden’s original “core al Qaeda” continue to plot sophisticated, mass-casualty strikes on hard targets, but the vast majority of jihadi attacks over the past five years have been carried out by “lone wolves” on lightly defended, easy targets.
Such operatives do not rely on smuggled tapes and faxes from bin Laden and his top aides for their missions. Instead, they turn to social media networks that weren’t available in al Qaeda’s early days, said Robert McFadden, who served as special agent in charge in the Naval Criminal Investigative Service until 2011.
“We’re talking about cells acting on ideology rather than direct contact with the mother ship,” said Mr. McFadden, who now works as senior principal at the Soufan Group, a private intelligence firm.
SEE ALSO: Said Kouachi, Charlie Hebdo terror suspect, trained with al Qaeda: officials
Instead of the Pentagon, targets have included such locales as a Delhi luxury hotel, London’s subway, the Boston Marathon and a Pakistani grade school.
The U.S. intelligence community is having a significant debate over the extent to which al Qaeda and other terrorist groups such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State movement in Syria and Iraq are orchestrating the strategy shift.
A U.S. official who spoke anonymously with The Washington Times said it “is hard to deny that there is something of a trend,” but stressed that the overall threat picture is “extremely nuanced” because major al Qaeda affiliates in the world “still want to pull off a spectacular attack against the West.”
Another U.S. official told The Times that a key factor in the trend may be that “the bar has been raised for pulling off those sorts of attacks,” because American and other intelligence agencies have focused so intensely on preventing them during the nearly 14 years since 9/11.
“Al Qaeda core has not been able to do that kind of coordinated plot for quite a long time now because members of the core are on the run,” said Audrey Kurth Cronin, a terrorism analyst at George Mason University.
SEE ALSO: Charlie Hebdo terror suspects: 88K mobilized for Said and Cherif Kouachi manhunt
While the attacks this week in Paris have increased fears of similar incidents in the United States, Mrs. Cronin cautioned against promoting anxiety that a grand al Qaeda strategy is at play.
“It’s far more complicated than 10 years ago,” she said, adding that it is more difficult now to clearly pin blame for an attack like the one in Paris on any specific terrorist organization.
“It’s very unwise to jump to conclusions,” Mrs. Cronin said. “There’s a tendency to drive a response that might not be directed at the right threat and a tendency to develop this anxiety among the broader public.”
But such anxieties are already running high because the soft-target and lone-wolf trends have become apparent during recent years through a host of attacks in several corners of the world.
They include the U.S., where two Chechen-born brothers are accused of detonating homemade pressure cooker bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013, as well as Britain, France and Canada, where a lone gunmen opened fire on the nation’s Parliament building last year.
Mr. McFadden and others say the shift was envisioned by bin Laden and has been called for over the past four years by Ayman al-Zawahri, whom intelligence officials say took the helm of al Qaeda’s original core in Afghanistan and Pakistan after bin Laden’s death in 2011.
More recently, al-Baghdadi, whom analysts say is eager to use social media and other digital propaganda techniques to eclipse al-Zawahri as the world’s top jihadi leader, also is thought to be encouraging extremists around the world to take action on their own.
“Every Muslim should get out of his house, find a Crusader and kill him,” stated an article last year in Dabiq, the main propaganda magazine circulated by al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State movement.
“Secrecy should be followed when planning and executing any attack,” the article stated, according to a translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute in Washington. “The smaller the numbers of those involved and the less the discussion beforehand, the more likely it will be carried out without problems.”
Analysts say there is evidence that more established and sophisticated al Qaeda-affiliated outfits also are shifting to soft targets.
The grisly 2013 siege of an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, for instance, was carried out by roughly a dozen gunmen from the Somalia-based terrorist group al-Shabab, suggesting that the group strategically chose its target based on the ease with which it could be attacked.
Jihadi groups in general have “sort of expanded their repertoire, so to speak, more than gotten away from one tactic in favor of another,” said Bill Roggio, an Islamic terrorism analyst who edits The Long War Journal at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.
It may well be far more difficult today for terrorists to pursue such plots as the 2004 Madrid train bombings, in which sophisticated explosives stuffed into backpacks detonated in a coordinated series of blasts that killed 191 people and wounded nearly 2,000 others.
But, Mr. Roggio said, that does not mean al Qaeda and the Islamic State are not bent on at least encouraging different types of attacks drawing from the strengths that the groups have built over the past decade.
“Keep in mind, they have a larger group of people around the world now who have experience with firearms because they fought in Iraq, in Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mali, North Africa, Egypt, the Caucasus, etc.,” he said, adding that the use of machine guns by the attackers in Paris should not have come as any surprise.
Mrs. Cronin expressed a similar view but stressed that “tying everything to al Qaeda, including this attack, would be to miss everything that’s going on.”
“I think it’s far more likely that we’re moving back to the kinds of incidents that France experienced in the 1990s,” she said, referring to a slate of attacks carried out by Algerian Islamic extremists who attempted to spread the North African nation’s war to France.
The trend of smaller attacks on soft targets may be expected to continue during the years ahead “because there are lots of fighters in Syria and Iraq carrying out violence there and may be returning to where they came from,” she said. “Getting on top of what their motivations are is going to be very difficult.”