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Exploring factors in successful vs. unsuccessful terrorist assassinations

Weapon type, fatalities and proximity to target are all major factors in distinguishing successful from unsuccessful terrorist assassinations, according to ​new research by former START Terrorism Research Award (TRA) recipient Marissa Mandala and START researcher Joshua D. Freilich.

Using environmental criminology and situational crime prevention (SCP) methodologies, the researchers analyzed a random sample of 100 successful and 100 unsuccessful assassination incidents between 2005 and 2014 from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD). Results showed that successful assassinations are associated with several SCP measures including weapon type, fatalities, terrorist proximity to target, and attack and target locations. The researchers concluded that the use of environmental criminology and SCP can be effective in informing counterterrorism approaches by helping to identify the opportunities that exist during successful assassination events.

The article, “Disrupting Terrorist Assassinations Through Situational Crime Prevention,” expanded upon previous research by Ronald Clarke and Graeme Newman in their 2006 book “Outsmarting the Terrorists.” In it, they present techniques of SCP that can be applied to terrorism as well as acronyms for assessing target vulnerability and terrorist weapon selection.

Mandala and Freilich analyzed a number of variables provided by the GTD in addition to new variables that corresponded with their hypotheses. These variables include:  whether security responded to terrorists during the attack; whether a sticky bomb was used; whether the target was inside or outside when attacked; whether the target was at work or engaging in work activities when attacked; whether the target was inside a motor vehicle during the attack; whether the target was traveling in a motorcade; whether others (i.e., witnesses, body guards), other than the target, were present at the scene of the attack; and whether the terrorists were in close proximity (i.e., point-blank range) to the target when they attacked.

Using these variables in combination with GTD data, the researchers found that security responsiveness is a crucial part of preventing assassinations. The simple presence of security personnel did not have a significant effect but their ability to take action in an attack scenario did. The researchers emphasized the importance of security training with these findings, stating that personnel must be trained to recognize and respond to attack situations.

According to additional analysis, terrorists are more likely to select firearms in assassinations because of simplicity and accessibility. These conclusions suggest that firearm regulations, as well as metal detectors at entry and exit points could be key factors in SCP.

Mandala and Freilich also found that a target either inside a building or inside a motor vehicle is less likely to be attacked than a target outside. The research suggests that this may be because of increased control of the target’s environment indoors. 

Assassination attempts are also proven to be more successful when multiple fatalities occur during the attack and when the target is in close proximity to the attacker.  

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