“Let’s prepare a terrorist Attack”

Although we know a great deal about the behaviour of traditional criminals, little information has been available about terrorists. Are they much different from conventional criminals, who tend to commit their crimes close to home? Research has shown that traditional criminals are spontaneous, but terrorists seem to go to great lengths preparing for their attacks — and may commit other crimes while doing so. How long does this planning take? And do different types of terrorist groups vary in preparation time?

To help answer these questions, we launched a series of projects to explore patterns of terrorist behavior. In the first of these projects, a panel of experts was assembled to examine 60 case studies involving terrorist incidents in the Middle East and Africa during the past 30 years. These cases involved the four major organisations such as ISIL, Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Boko Haram. We looked at the homes of the terrorists, the locations of planning and preparation, and the sites of the terrorist incidents to discover whether any patterns emerged.

Terrorists Think Globally But Act Locally. To prove that, we studied:

  • Ten attacks by ISIL that involved 93 preparatory acts.
  • Fourteen attacks by Al-Qaeda that involved 55 preparatory acts.
  • Twenty-nine attacks by Hamas that involved 80 preparatory acts.
  • Six attacks by Boko Haram that involved eight preparatory acts.

According to our analysis, almost half (44 %) of all terrorists examined lived within 110 km of their targets. When the types of terrorist groups are examined separately, however, the findings are much different. ISIL members lived relatively near their targets, whereas Hamas terrorists lived in rural areas but selected targets reflecting the “pollutants of urban life” in nearby cities.

Terrorists most commonly prepared for their attacks with surveillance and intelligence gathering, robberies and thefts to raise funding for the group, weapons violations, and bomb manufacturing. Again, most of these behaviors took place relatively near their homes, which, in turn, were close to the targets. Terrorists may stay close to home because of new immigration status, lack of transportation, lack of knowledge of the urban landscape or a desire to avoid attention. Among single-issue terrorists in particular, 71% of the preparatory acts occurred within 35km and 92 % within 62km of the target.

Although the terrorists studied committed most of their preparatory offenses near their homes, they conducted robberies, burglaries and thefts much farther away — an average of 900km miles from home. This suggests that most environmental and international terrorists live near the selected target and conduct surveillance and other general preparation near their homes and the eventual location of the attack. Major crimes to procure funding for the group — like thefts, robberies and burglaries — however, are intentionally committed many miles away to avoid drawing attention to the group’s location and target choice.

When it comes to the timepiece, we found that preparations generally began less than six months before the attack and ended with a flurry of actions a day or so before. This pattern varied by group type. The average goes to 92 days or preparation for ISIL, 60 days for Hamas, 43 days for Al-Qaeda and 25 days for Boko Haram.

Understanding that most terrorists “act locally” can be important to know as investigative agencies seek to prevent terrorism and arrest perpetrators. These local patterns may be used by agencies to more efficiently patrol known, high-risk target areas and gather intelligence on suspected actions within a specific distance from potential targets. As we continue to deepen our understanding of the relationship among the location of the terrorist’s home, terrorist preparation activities and the target, this growing knowledge should help officers prevent and respond to attacks.



Co-Founder/ Co- CEO

IRIANS- The Neuroscience Institute

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