The killing of eight people and the injuring of eleven on the streets of New York City by a man driving a truck has once again shown that in an open society, there is no lack of soft targets that can be attacked by anybody at all. We have to ask ourselves what purpose such attacks on ordinary people serve. One is of course to create fear among the population. But that has no strategic benefit and indeed has negative blowback.
When it comes to major groups like al Qaeda and ISIS, they tend to want to use attacks to show their power and as a recruiting tool. The attacks of 9/11 had an audacity and level of careful planning that was clearly meant to impress their enemies and thus encourage potential recruits to join up with them because people tend to align themselves with strong groups. Similar motivations apply when those groups attack highly fortified targets like military installations and government buildings. But attacking extremely soft targets, like pedestrians in the street using a truck, will be seen as a sign of weakness because it is such an easy thing to do that it is unlikely to produce anything like admiration in potential recruits. When those people claim to have done it in the name of ISIS, as this person supposedly said, they are in fact diminishing that group’s prestige, not enhancing it, because it sends the message “Is this the best that you can do?”
One sees similar patterns play out in many insurgent guerilla wars around the world. The insurgent groups first attack the government and military targets and this can garner it admiration and sympathy from those who feel that they are being oppressed by both. The real test is what the guerilla groups do when they do not get immediate results. The groups that become eventually successful are those that remain disciplined and confine their attacks to difficult targets and protect ordinary people, thus gaining further support. But many groups seem to get frustrated and start killing random civilians in order to strike terror and that usually signals the beginning of the end for the groups. Few people like innocent people being killed, whatever the reason or cause, and will turn against the guerrilla groups.
The fear produced by random attacks on civilians tends to be short-lived because it quickly becomes clear that it is isolated and not the precursor to anything major. As Jean Hannah Edelstein writes, people in New York continued to go about their Halloween activities undeterred, even after hearing about yesterday’s attack. People in Las Vegas are going about their daily routines. That is as it should be and people in other countries that have experienced random acts of violence against the public do the same thing.
When militant groups shift their attention from hard to soft targets, it is a sign of frustration due to declining power and influence.