Basic Tactic

Assaults with small arms including automatic weapons, grenades or hand held explosives is one of the basic tactics employed by terrorists. During the 1970s armed attacks were the most frequently adopted terror acts until the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE) successful and prolific usage of explosives in the 1980s led many other groups to follow suit. Even with their success, the LTTE never gave up armed attacks and continued to use them in conjunction with Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and suicide bombers. The proliferation of the Russian Kalashnikov (AK 47) automatic rifle during the Soviet Union’s Afghan invasion, led to flooding of arms markets with assault rifles, which also coincided with growth of terror culture across the World.  Video (above):2013 A man was killed in a violent attack in the south-east London area of Woolwich. Police arrived at the scene and shot the two assailants, who according to eyewitness accounts had a firearm. Eyewitness accounts, including from some who took to Twitter to report the incident, suggest that two attackers drove into the man and then get out of the car to hack him with a machete. The two men then allegedly dragged his body into the middle of John Wilson Street before asking bystanders to photograph and film them. Photo (below): Security forces in Dagestan 2011 (Source: Jamestown Foundation Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 194)

Dagestan Armed Attacks

Maxium Psychological Value

Darfur RebelsIn terms of impact on target audience, an armed assault has maximum psychological value. A masked rebel spraying bullets faces his victims who are invariably unarmed, innocent civilians, and the ultimate aim of local anarchy or chaos is achieved by terrorists at low cost of casualties and limited scope for counter terror response unless the group attempts to over reach in converting this into a mass casualty incident, such as at Beslan, Russia school massacre in September 2004 and complex armed assault carried out in Mumbai, India on 26 November 2008.

Photo Darfur Rebels. (Source:

Most Prominent Incidents

Global Terrorism Data Base with inputs from January 1990 through December 2010 has recorded 25,997 incidents of armed assaults, averaging 3-4 incidents per day globally. Some of the most prominent incidents include:

  • The Black September strike against the Israeli Olympic team in Munich in 1972
  • Siege of the Headquarters of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in Vienna in December 1975
  • Attacks by Abu Nidal on airports in Vienna and Rome in December 1985
  • Attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001
  • Chechen attack in a school in Beslan in North Ossetia in September 2004
  • The famed strike on a series of targets in Mumbai in India on 26 November 2008
  • Attack on the General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi by the Taliban on October 10, 2009 and on the Pakistan Naval Base at Mehran in Karachi on May 22, 2011 in the aftermath of killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan on May 2, 2011.

The aim of armed assaults are Multifaceted:

  • to take hostages;
  • to create mayhem;
  • to cause a large number of  casualties with a view to terrorise;
  • to force counter terrorist retaliation and cause collateral fatalities;
  • to gain publicity; or
  • as a political message.

Some attacks by terrorists in South Asia in the past have even aimed at provoking a war between India and Pakistan. Thus given the multifarious purposes that armed assaults serve, there is innate preference for this form of strikes by terrorist groups.

Remained a Popular Method

Al Shabab 2001 The Future of Global JihadEven as the world of terror switched to more lethal forms of violence to include suicide terrorism, truck and vehicle bombings, IEDs and usually non-lethal instruments as 9/11 hijacked aircraft which were crashed on the World Trade Tower in New York, armed attacks have remained popular. Local groups in particular, such as the Lashkar e Jhangvi in Pakistan, continue to use armed assualts as their main tactic. At the global terrorism level the “Lone Ranger,” such as Fort Hood assailant Major Nidal, fostered by international terrorist organisations as Al Qaeda, has become increasingly popular among terrrists who exploit easy penetration of liberal societies to create temporary anarchy. These may not be classic terrorists who are members of an armed group but are individuals who are ideologically motivated to target a section of society they perceive to be unjust and are willing to use the most venal form of violence against innocents. Given continued significance of armed assaults as terrorist tactics, this chapter will attempt to provide a descriptive analytical perspective of the nuances.  

Photo: The Future of Islamic Jihad, Al Shabab 2011.

Video: 2012 A witness describes the deadly shooting at the Aurora, Colorado movie theater that occurred during the premiering of "The Dark Knight Rises." At least 12 people have been reported dead and 38 injured from the shooting spree. Witnesses from the premiere shooting say chaos followed what appeared to be tear gas and loud "banging" during an intense scene in "The Dark Knight Rises." Law enforcement have identified the suspect in the Dark Knight Rises premiere massacre as James Holmes, 24, of Aurora, Colorado.

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About the Contributor

Rahul Bhonsle

Rahul K Bhonsle is an Indian army veteran with over three decades of counter insurgency and counter terrorism experience in India and abroad. He is presently Director of Sasia, a...