Terrorist Target Selection: Why Would They Come Here?

On January 7, 2015, the world was stunned again by the video images of yet another sensational terrorist attack. The incident, which occurred in Paris, France, started when three masked gunmen launched a commando-style assault on the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper. In an attack lasting less than 10 minutes, the terrorists systematically killed 12 people including the newspaper editor, two noted cartoonists, and two French policemen. Following the incident, the international terrorist group, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the attack and stated that it attacked Charlie Hebdo because the weekly tabloid had published a number of offensive cartoons against Islam.1 The Charlie Hebdo newspaper headquarters was not a random terrorist target; it was specifically chosen for a calculated, definitive purpose. But the troubling question is this: As a singular target, could the Charlie Hebdo attack perhaps been anticipated and mitigated? And if so, could such mitigation perhaps have prevented or at least lessoned the carnage from the unprecedented ISIS terrorist attacks that were to follow the Charlie Hebdo incident in Paris 11 months later?2There is no question that terrorists are criminals. Terrorism is classified as a criminal act and is specifically defined as such by the articles of the Geneva Conventions.3 However, terrorists are not ordinary criminals. Unlike other criminals, they are not motivated by greed, urges, or deviant behavior. They are driven by a cause or belief and are convinced that their criminal acts are completely justified. They view themselves as soldiers and act accordingly. While they are still criminals, they are criminals with calculating, military mind-sets, and they retain the initiative to strike any target, anywhere, at any time. Terrorist actors, both international and domestic, from large groups to lone wolves, adhere to a measured operational framework. They rarely carry out random, capricious attacks without any discernable degree of premeditation. They plan their operations meticulously and will put a great deal of time and effort into developing highly detailed plans before carrying them out. When laying the groundwork for a violent act, terrorist decision makers will follow a preliminary sequence of thorough activities, referred to in this article as the Terrorist Decision Cycle.