zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Spree Terrorism

Spree Terrorism

I lack sufficient depth and familiarity with the Indian political context to comment intelligently on the origins and ultimate aims of the shadowy Islamist group that carried out the Mumbai Massacre. I’d love to hear Olivier Roy speculate on the ideological aspect but in terms of organization, I’d bet heavily on a “modular” structure of transnational and indigenous personnel – a strategic alliance between groups or a hybrid operation.

What I can comment sensibly on is the use of “Spree killings” as a tactic by terrorist groups. Spree killings are an attractive tactic because they are easy to initiate, impossible to anticipate and can be massively effective in driving media attention.

Spree killers like Andrew Cunanan or John Muhammed  “the DC Sniper” riveted the attention of an entire nation or acheived international news coverge. Cunanan, while on the run from a national manhunt for earlier murders managed to assassinate celebrity designer, Gianni Versace before committing suicide; Muhammed and his junior partner managed to murder ten people in a metropolitan area blanketed with local, state and Federal law enforcement despite having gandiose plans that were the product of a confused and agitated mental state. “School shootings“, another form of spree killings, have almost become a macabre rite of Spring in the United States and the late 1990’s bank robbery gone awry in Los Angeles, that featured a heavily armed, body armored, pair of criminals holding off dozens of police in a savage shoot-out that may have been inspired by a scene in the Robert DeNiro movie Heat.

Spree killings, though rare, have previously been used to forment terror both by non-state actors as well as by states. A few examples:

 In 1997,  Gamaa Islamiya massacred 58 foreign tourists at Luxor, Egypt an action that led the Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak to crush Egyptian Islamist groups as harshly as Nasser had once cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1990, the Tamil Tigers killed 147 Muslim men and boys at four mosques in  Katthankudi, Sri Lanka ( the Tigers are a highly effective and innovative terrorist-insurgency, having pioneered both suicide bombing and naval-terror operations).

In 1941, the radically fascist and fanatically anti-semitic Iron Guard in Romania attempted a coup d’etat against the nationalist dictator and Nazi ally, Ion Antonescu, which featured wild street violence by Legionaires and a ghoulish pogram against Romanian Jewry so horrific that even German SS commanders on the scene in Bucharest were appalled. Despite having made use of such tactics himself in the Kristallnacht and the Night of the Long Knives and having his own genocidal program for the Jews, Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht and SS to assist Antonescu in crushing the Iron Guard revolt.

Spree killings have almost never produced long term positive effects for the groups using them and we can expect that the Mumbai massacre will have negative consequences for both Pakistan as well as Indian Islamist groups. Despite this, we can expect that the likelihood of spree terrorism will increase when groups become sufficiently radicalized because any semi-open society presents almost ubiquitous oportunities for random mass-murder on a modest budget and the terrorists’ own extremism blinds them to how their actions will be interpreted or perceived.

From an email with security expert Steve Schippert of Threatswatch.org, ( see Schippert’s Mumbai commentary here and here ) I learned that the terrorists in Mumbai were unable to or never targeted any systems in India’s center of capitalism – water, power, internet, road arteries etc. – were left untouched. That in my view is a future danger, terrorists using the all-consuming attention generated by spree terrorism as a trojan horse or distraction to conceal a strategic systems-level attack.

18 Responses to “Spree Terrorism”

  1. anon Says:

    dear zen punditi have been regularly reading your blog for the last 6 months. I would suggest that before you bet or wager try to understand the regional dimensions then write or comment in your blog a reader from india

  2. Ann Says:

    Where can you document that the Mumbai attackers were "Islamic"? Facts please.

  3. Selil Says:

    There are other examples of rampages that caused sweeping and long lasting social and political changes. The "Hollister Rampage" of 1947 by motorcyclists resulted in movies, paraphernalia, an entire "image" industry and spurred development of an entire under ground economy.  And it was mostly staged publicity. In "Rampage: The social roots of school shootings", Katherine Newman takes apart most of our conjecture at rampage incidents. Succinctly most crime and school type shootings have nothing to do with terrorism.However, in "Violence: A micro-sociological theory", Randall Collins, however disagreeable the rest of his writing may be makes  a good case for the violent few. Those few who are able to act violently in a controlled way through training and overcoming social controls. In general most gang violence in the United States is pithy in comparison to soldiers acts of violence. As such the Mumbai attacks look poorly executed and more gang like than true training. Collins who based a lot of his work on the often refuted SLA Marshall would use the poor execution as proof as his premise that people don’t do violence very well. Regardless of the horrific numbers to our minds today the reality is that we as humans can be much more ruthless and violent prone and that Mumbai could have been much worse. The question is will we as nations escalate the violence or determine another course of action to stop terrorism as a valid tactic? 

  4. TopAssistant Says:

    I suggest you view the video, The Third Jihad a full-length movie on what we are now facing in America and the world. Radical Muslim’s want Sharia banking first, next is Sharia law. Go to, http://europenews.dk/en/node/16405 to view the video on RADICAL Islam.  Our first war with Muslim terrorists/pirates was the Barbary Wars. The two wars lasted thirty-two years and involved six years of overseas warfare against Muslim terrorists, and spanned four U.S. presidents those of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Go to WallBuilders and read the article: http://www.wallbuilders.com/LIBissuesArticles.asp?id=384View the video and read the article before commenting!

  5. zen Says:

    Hi Anon and Ann,
    Welcome!  While I am not an expert on India, I do know more than a little about terrorism. If either of you would like to offer a theory as to an alternative orientation of the terrorists than Islamist ( not "Islamic" Ann) say Naxalites, or Sikh radicals, or Communists or militant Vegetarians, please go ahead.  If your argument is plausible, I’ll take it seriously as will the regular commenters here.
    What I’m not going to do is entertain "prove to my satisfaction" type homework assignments from random commenters that run against even basic media coverage of the Mumbai massacre, much less the analysis of people who are experts in the security field. If you have an argument to make, skip the vague allusions and put it out there.

  6. zen Says:

    Hi Selil,
    I take it the " hollister rampage" inspired the classic "The Wild One" ?
    If I recall, SLA Marshall asserted that a percentage of soldiers were unable to fight to kill and in combat and shot into the air, wildly, did not shoot etc. And subsequently, it has been charged that Marshall made up some of his sources and exaggerated his own service in WWI. Nevertheless, an influential character on the U.S. Army in his time.
    I think "poor execution" however is more plausible than pure aversion which is what makes spree terrorism attractive to semi-trained groups – by assuring a very large target density of unarmed civilians ( shopping mall, hotel etc) you overcome the incompetency factor and snag an impressive body count. Nobody except intel specialists cares about or counts the hundreds of rounds that missed.
    School shootings and political terrorism definitely have different motives and demographic profiles. But psychological ? I would expect that you have degrees of congruency in terms of societal alienation and isolation between school shooters and terrorists.

  7. Dave Schuler Says:

    The media reports have said that at least some of the attackers were Pakistanis.  They’ve also reported that three of the attackers confessed to being members of LeT.  The Indian government has said that the attacker they’ve captured is Pakistani.  While it’s not a metaphysical certitude, that the attacks were Islamist ones is a reasonable inference.

  8. The SHEEP'S CRIB - Issues Says:

    A world caught in the headlights of Islam!…

    A universe of intelligent people are caught asking the wrong questions about the Mumbai terrorists: Were they Brits? Were they Pakistanis? Afghans? Al Qaeda? Home grown Indian? Is this a new form of terrorism?…

  9. Lexington Green Says:

    Dave Grossman posits in his books that S.L.A. Marshall, despite whatever methodological deficiencies his work may have had, was generally correct, and he cites to the history to support that contention.  The Army, as a result, changed its training methods after World War II, which improved infantry performance.  I found Grossman’s discussion convincing.  So, I don’t think it is entirely accurate to say Marshall was "refuted".
    If it is correct to say that the Mumbai attackers were not terribly competent, that only highlights how much damage a competent group of equally determined and suicidal attackers could accomplish. 
    I don’t know if it makes sense to categorize this with "spree killings".  Aren’t those usually individuals or pairs of people who act out of subjective grievances?  Something this big must have been driven by someone’s ideological or political agenda, even if the actual attackers were dupes.  But whose? 
    The idea that these were not Islamist terrorists seems unlikely, but it would be interesting to hear any evidence supporting that notion.  At this point, however, the burden of proof has shifted, and any major attack is assumed to be Islamist in origin.  If ordinary Muslims around the world don’t like that, they would be advised to police their own communities better. 
    A more interesting question may be: Which faction or group in Pakistan orchestrated this, since the attack apparently originated there, and what does that faction or group hope to achieve by it? 
    Also, the long term question: Does possession of nuclear weapons make you permanent safe-haven for terrorists and source of terrorist attacks, with no one having any recourse?  If so, I have been wrong in advocating the "soft kill" in Iran, and the proper response would probably be a preemptive nuclear attack, as much as I hate to think it.  Lot’s of implications here.  

  10. henrythethirdiam Says:

    LOL@Dave Grossman and SLA Marshall. When I was in the military these guy’s ideas were worshipped like cult leaders by a minority of officers. There is plenty of contemporary writing that pokes massive holes in both their arguments..So, yes, Lex, Marshall was "refuted," as much as the cognitive dissonance is kicking in and you want it to be true. .In fact, in modern blogging terms you could say he was "eviscerated." Here is one website that also links to other websites on the matter: (1) http://www.theppsc.org/Grossman/SLA_Marshall/Main.htmSecondly, Grossman himself was thoroughly ripped to shreds by Pinker in the chapter on Violence in ‘The Blank Slate’. Pinker quotes several other sources in the footnotes, I believe, from other writers who have also thrown Grossman’s work onto the pile of blank slate, Rousseau-esque, bad science writing that is it. While I too enjoy Grossman’s works, his original book ‘On Killing’ is incredibly wrong at a scientific level (and if it is bad at a scientific level, and our military believes and acts on these ‘truths’, what does that say?).Thirdly, your contention that <i>"despite whatever methodological deficiencies his work may have had, was generally correct, and he cites to the history to support that contention."</i> I don’t think so. When you start ignoring the fact that you are wrong and that: (1) Others have ripped Marshall’s theory to shreds, and also teared up Grossman’s synthesis and; (2) You grab whatever historical data points you want to support your crumbling theory. Then you start to become like the ID creationists, postmodernists/colonialists, and other academic quacks. 

  11. historyguy99 Says:

    Good discussion points made by most above, regarding spree killing in the name of terrorism.

    A comment on SLA Marshall. His studies of soldiers in World War II were as Lex notes, closer to the truth especially for new and unseasoned troops. Other observations of seasoned soldiers showed that hatred and a desire to kill the enemy became paramont among those who survived the first round or two of hard combat. It is of note that this hypothesis does not hold water with the Marines, training and ethos overcoming the innate desire to flee or bluff, before resorting to killing.

    Scenes that played out in Mumbai seemed more akin to themes from "Die Hard" movies. I could never understand watching those movies how you could convince dozens of men to launch an attack within the confines of the U.S. knowing full well that overwhelming force would eventully end their mission.  Now, with the spector of reaching some form of nirvana via a religious experience driving the motives, we have to consider all the possibilites. God forbid, it is only a matter of time before we experience such an attack in the U.S.

  12. Lexington Green Says:

    "…you want it to be true."
    Henrythethirdiam is a mind reader, apparently, just not a good one.  I don’t have a professional stake in this stuff and don’t "want" anything, nor do I have cognitive dissonance.  I read books and they seem plausible or not.  Marshall and Grossman both did, and do.  If there is some coherent body of thought proving them both wrong on important points, good, put it into the conversation, as you have started to do here.
    I don’t see the point of the jeering and invective, though some people seem to enjoy pushing conversations in that direction.  It does not make them more convincing however.  Being able to handle civil disagreement is a big part of being a grownup.

  13. Seerov Says:

    This kind of attack is the type I thought we’d see after 9-11 in the US?  Its very easy is plan and carry out.  All you need is 20 to 30 people who are willing to die and send them a plane/bus/train ticket to a central location.  They meet with a contact out in the woods or desert where each man receives a Bush-Master plus 500 rounds of ammunition.  Next 4 vans pull up and the terrorists load up. 
    On the way to the local shopping mallthe driver of the van briefs the men on what the mission is.  The mission is storm a local shopping mall on "Black Friday," at about 2 or 3 in the afternoon.  Six 5 man squads get out at different doorways and enter the mall.   The terrorists shoot everyone in sight while the van drivers drive around the parking lot running people over and shooting from their windows.  They also try to keep the the police at bay for as long as possible.  Most mall security guards don’t even carry weapons so they won’t be much of a match. 
    Once the SWAT team[s] arrives, they’ll have to fight the van drivers and eventually the men inside.  If all 35-40 men are willing to die, this fire fight could last for hours, if not days?  Eventually the terrorists would be killed but not after killing hundreds of people, if not thousands?  Overall it would take no more than 50 people to conduct this whole operation.  The toughest part would be getting the 40 shooters in country, and to the staging area without being compromised.

  14. historyguy99 Says:


    All too scary and possible.  In reflection of 9/11…it was a horrific attack that ended when the buildings fell, eliminating most of the bodies and evidence in a dust cloud of debris. Soon conspiracy nuts were converging to discount what happened, using the lack of physical evidence as one of their talking points.
    An attack such as what you describe would raise the spectre of revenge and hatred for the perpetrators to a level exceeding 9/11. The images of thousands of bodies being carried out and the evidence of the bloody mayhem left for all to view, would probably elicit a demand for a response that would dwarf Afghanistan and Iraq. The resultant "New Patriot Act" would seal the borders tighter that "Dicks Hatband" and lead to Orwellian security measures. Given our current distaste for nation building, the host nation of the purps would probably get the "return to the stone age" treatment, via air power. Unfortunatly this would usher in a new round of revenge.
    The real challenge will be for our leadership to be able to slide down this political razor blade without getting cut.

  15. Seerov Says:

    There are other variations as well.  Instead of the 50 man company attacking the mall on "Black Friday," imagine 25 two man teams attacking 25 elementary schools in 25 different states?  Or what about 100 two man teams attacking targets in The US, Europe, Israel, and Russia all at the same time?  I refer to this as the "Global Tet Offensive."  Strategically, these attacks would accomplish very little, but psychologically,  this modern "Tet offensive" could be similar to the first?
    Of course, each region features different challenges for the terrorists.  The US can be easily infiltrated through both borders; especially the Mexican border. The biggest challenge in America would be operating without causing suspicion.  America doesn’t have a large Muslim population, so buying firearms, doing recon, doing rehearsals, and conducting other planning operations, could prove to be difficult?
      There are very large population clusters of Muslims in most Western European countries, so no one would look too out of place conducting recon, or other missions during the planning stage. The biggest challenge in Europe would be finding the assault rifles. 
    At first, Israel seems to be the easiest place to pull off a "spree" terrorism mission?  But after contemplating it, Israel may be the most difficult instead?  I’ve never been to Israel, but I feel confident that most people over there are probably ready for violence at all times?  Someone told me that school children are taught to recognize the behavior of a potential suicide bomber?  The whole country is designed to protect the Jewish people, and most importantly, there is very little attention given to the mental illness known as political correctness.
    Russia is probably the easiest place for such an attack?  Its borders are too long and complex to keep sealed.  Weapons are easy to find, and its multi-ethnic, so in most large urban areas, Muslims wouldn’t stand out too much.  However, like Israel, Russians don’t have much use for political correctness (or civil liberties).  So when a team is out conducting recon, and the local police or security services catch on, the recon team may find itself getting beat with rubber hoses before the attack even occurs.  As the KGB officer in "Spies Like Us" said: "We hav a vays of making you talk."  
    So how do we defend ourselves against such attacks?  I won’t attempt to answer this for Europe, Russia, or Israel, but I will make some suggestions for the US.  I will concentrate on physical security and let others answer questions relating to civil liberties, intelligence, policy, and the borders.
    First, all public building need to have an armed guard.  Some people may not like the idea of having armed guards at elementary schools, or preK’s, but if I were a parent, I would demand it.  This guard doesn’t need to be a traditional security guard with a k-mart badge and all.  One idea I’ve been thinking about is having a maintenance person, cross trained in security.  So he would fix and clean things around the school, but would be strapped in a concealed manner.  If ever a problem goes down at the school, he would be the first line of defense before the police get there. These type of positions would be ideal for veterans coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan.  These crossed trained types would work in places that don’t traditionally have security (ie: pre-K, elementary schools, churches, workout facilities, parks).  These places will also have to transition from having easy open access, to needing a card to get in.
    Next, places like high schools, malls, big box stores, amusement parks and universities would need to upgrade their security.  Most malls , amusement parks, and big box stores have unarmed security guards.  These establishments will need to dish out a little more for armed security, as these places offer the most opportunities for mass killings.  Most large universities have their own police forces.  These police forces need to be trained in small unit tactics and MOUT(ie. reflexive shooting, clearing a building, stun grenades).  High schools need some of this as well. 
    Last I’m going to make a few comments on communities.  Every neighborhood, or spatially organized polity should at least put a little time in thinking about community security. In the 1950’s people organized "civil air patrols" and other civil defense groups.  IMO, this concept would be even more useful today.  Every community should have some sort of watch organization, where the people volunteer to do patrols and look out for each other.  Communities should also think about what they can do in the case of a large attack or natural disaster.  I happen to live a neighborhood of about 750 houses with an elementary school.  I’ve suggested to the neighborhood community organization that we at least have a meeting on what to do in an emergency.  I suggested having a list of senior citizens that may need help if the power goes down or in case of a blizzard.  She said it was "a great idea" and never got back to me.  If a community does start something like this, they need to be careful that it doesn’t turn into a "Muslim watch organization" or vigilante outfit. 
    The people who man these security positions need to be more than just janitors who get certified and shoot a pistol twice a year.  We need a group of professionals who are dedicated to a career in security and emergency management.  The most logical place to find these people would be veterans.  I’m talking about the SNCO who retired after 20 years as well as the man or women who did 4 years and got out.  Even more valuable would be combat-arms people with combat experience.  These security professionals would study this trade similar to other trades-people, like welders, plumbers, or carpenters.  I’d like to see the community colleges offer a "Security and emergency management studies" degree.  This two year degree would cover industrial security, criminal justice, homeland security, emergency management procedures, pistol shooting, first aid, security planning, the social sciences, statistics, accounting, and other management topics.  These people would attend conferences, and develop literature on security. 
    This kind of career would probably appeal to a lot of people getting out of the military.  I know a lot of guys who paid into the GI bill, but aren’t really interested in any traditional course of study.  I know guys with 3 tours in Iraq under their belt who now take orders from a 22 year old "manager" while working "loss prevention" at "Best Buy."  These guys with 3 tours have valuable skills, that need to channeled in a positive direction.  This cadre of security professionals will make up the core of private sector security apparatus that will pay dividends for years to come.  These security professionals will change the security profession for the better.  As anyone who’s read John Robb probably knows, the demand for private security in the next 20 years is only going to increase.   When an emergency comes up in a school, or mall, or public park, these people will handle the situation.  I can’t think of a more appropriate group of people to help evolve the private security sector than veterans of the US military. 


  16. Terrorist Attack on India - Notes « PurpleSlog Says:

    […] coverage from an Indian New Network (via Fox) and blog coverage (especially Shlok and also Zen’s […]

  17. fester Says:

    Seerov — my fear is a combiniation of your two scenarios — a large scale initial assault aimed at prolonged disruption and high casualties, much like the Mumbai assaults followed up by small teams operating independently off of mission orders and minimal external support. The mission orders would be to cause chaos randomly over the course of a couple of weeks/months, so one team might decide to car bomb a football bowl game, another could hit a night club with a spree killing, another a couple of weeks later blow up a few pipelines and powerlines into a major city etc. Segregate the planning side of the big operation (keep those shooters ignorant) and then the small one to eight man cells from each other and the op-sec is pretty tight.

    That is how I would run an op if I was an evil mastermind.

  18. Seerov Says:

    Fester,  how do we defend against such attacks?

Switch to our mobile site