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IEDs: Insurgent Tactics and Videos

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Ben Venzke
CEO, IntelCenter
Monday, October 1, 2007; 1:00 PM

IntelCenter CEO Ben Venzke, co-author of " The al-Qaeda Threat: An Analytical Guide to al-Qaeda's Tactics & Targets," was online Monday, Oct. 1 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss insurgent groups' tactics, including their use of handheld video cameras to chronicle IED attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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'Without the Video, It's Just an Attack' (washingtonpost.com, Oct. 1)

The transcript follows.

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Ben Venzke: Hi, happy to take a crack at whatever questions on jihadi tactics and video material you've got.

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San Antonio: It seems odd that there have been only two or three jihadi attempts to carry out IED attacks in the U.S. in the past eight years, and those were unsuccessful and mostly amateurish. Why do you think the enemy hasn't put more effort into terrorizing the American populace using these simple and effective devices?

Ben Venzke: Many within the counterterrorism community in the U.S., including myself, have been asking this question for years. The difficulty in terms of making a suicide bombers belt and executing a basic attack is so low that it's a capability you never can deny. In terms of cost, technical ability, target availability and materials needed, it's unfortunately extremely easy to do if you have the will to do so.

In terms of core al-Qaeda, much of the thinking goes along the lines that when they do something in the U.S. it will need to attempt to equal or exceed Sept. 11. This may be the driving factor as to why they haven't done this type of attack here, but it doesn't not explain why other smaller groups who have no bar set for them haven't. The simple answer is that there is no good answer, and unfortunately just because it hasn't happened in many years doesn't mean it can't tomorrow. Time will tell. We just need to be ready to handle it.

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Castle Rock, Colo.: I thought whenever there was an Internet site used by the terrorist, the source of the site had an Internet Protocol Address (IP Address), and with that address you could trace the Internet provider and the location of the site.

Ben Venzke: There are many things you can do to try and track stuff on the Internet, but there are just as many things that you can do to hide or obscure stuff, and the jihadist groups have proven very good at evolving their online tradecraft to allow them to release a relentless flow of material without being traced. It's a constant back and forth.

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Munich, Germany: Are explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) used only by Shiite Iraqis with Iranian help, or have they been utilized by Sunnis in Afghanistan or Iraq?

Ben Venzke: There are a wide variety of types of IEDs being used among all the groups in Iraq, and this constantly is changing as their R&D arms work on newly developed techniques and methods for building IEDs. They also pay close attention to what other groups are doing and can take lessons learned either through a direct exchange or simply by observing what the other group is doing that works. We are aware of at least one highly sophisticated instructional video from the jihadists that teaches the viewer to build an IED expressly designed to penetrate armored vehicles. The video shows 3D animation of each part of the device, its assembly, how to employ it and how the internal mechanism works when detonated.

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Winnipeg, Canada: Wouldn't a more reasonable explanation of the lack of successful suicide bombers in the U.S. be that the Sept. 11 attacks succeeded only because of monumental incompetence at all levels of government? While future attacks are still possible, hasn't increased vigilance since 2001 made it less likely?

Ben Venzke: While increased vigilance and security measures certainly have improved the security situation in the U.S., there is unfortunately no way you can stop a previously unknown individual with a few hundred dollars or less from going to a hardware store and procuring the necessary parts to build a suicide bombers belt and then walking into a crowded mall or park or anywhere else where large groups of people are gathered. Unfortunately the best you can hope for with a successful counterterrorism strategy is to reduce the frequency and scale of attacks, and then recognize that they still will occur and be prepared to mitigate the impact when it happens. We're getting a lot better in the U.S., but only in relative terms when you consider how far off the mark we were, and unfortunately there is no such thing as perfect security to stop all attacks. The Israeli experience with suicide bombers has proven this time and time again.

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Wilmington, N.C.: What percentage of all attacks on U.S. forces are perpetrated by "al-Qaeda in Iraq"? What percentage of U.S. casualties? How is the perpetrator determined?

Ben Venzke: At the beginning of the year the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which is essentially al-Qaeda in Iraq, was claiming about 880-1,400 attacks a month. This is by far the highest of any group operating in Iraq. In February ISI claimed more than 888 attacks as of April 6, 2007. The most-claimed targets for this period were tied between Iraqi police and coalition forces at 22 percent. Coalition forces does not include when U.S. forces specifically were identified in the claim. Seven percent of the claims identified U.S. Forces as the target. The second highest most claimed target was the Iraqi National Guard at 15 percent. Coming in at third were attacks claimed against the al-Mahdi Army at 10 percent followed by the Badr Corps at 8 percent. The biggest increase was against Kurdish targets which climbed from 1 percent in January to 5 percent in February.

In a number of cases we've found that the groups actually are targeting Iraqi forces and the al-Mahdi Army and Badr Corps more frequently than U.S. forces.

As for how the perpetrator is determined, it relies on a wide variety of techniques and intel, including the groups' own claims. Sometimes it's a simple question to answer and other times not so much.

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Vienna, Va.: Mr. Venzke: Regarding the first poster's comment and your reply concerning lack of IED attacks in the U.S. -- if you look at IED attacks as a guerilla maneuver, it seems to me that the reason it hasn't happened here is that there is no cover for such individuals here in the U.S. To be more specific, "guerilla" forces depend on a chaotic political and military situation, and on being in "friendly" territory, where they have the capability to quickly melt back into the countryside. It reminds me of the Confederate guerilla bands that operated in occupied Southern territory during the Civil War. Thanks.

Ben Venzke: Large jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and some others operating in Iraq and elsewhere operate in two very different realms, which require different skill sets and many other qualities designed to address the practical needs of their area. One is insurgent/rebel type operations in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Chechnya and more. The other is terrorist type operations in London, Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Spain and elsewhere. Same group, but two different operational arms that are not mutually exclusive. While the climate in the U.S. would not support an insurgency-type level of campaign, the environment does not prove an insurmountable obstacle for terrorist type operations.

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Philadelphia: It seems that IEDs commonly use old artillery shells or other types of ammunition that is left around. Would it be a good idea for the coalition to run an ammo-exchange day where Iraqis could turn in shells and ammo -- or sites where they are located -- for cold hard cash? The more you turn in the more money you get. If the unemployment is as high as it is, wouldn't this help reduce some of the ammunition available for insurgents?

Ben Venzke: Yes, they often do; the problem is sheer numbers -- there is just an incredible amount of this stuff laying around in Iraq that has already been snatched up by jihadist groups and put into storage. In addition, groups like IAI and others have recognized the fact that some of this material eventually will run out and have pushed their R&D arms to develop devices for which there always will be a readily available source of materials.

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Seattle: How does one prepare for emerging tactics and the like, especially on the front lines, such as guarding the Green Zone? I can't see U.S. forces practicing security drills there, and we're rotating troops so fast that I can't see much time for training when the troops aren't there, either...

Ben Venzke: First and most importantly collecting intelligence on attempted and executed attacks and then passing that back through the line is critical. If you have trained and experienced observers on that front line they are going to be some of the first people to notice changes in tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) of the jihadists. The whole trick is in making sure that knowledge gets shared. In addition intelligence can develop indicators as to TTP evolutions. We also can learn a lot from observing the videos released by jihadist groups. Years ago all we would know of an attack is what was left afterwards and any witness accounts; now for the first time ever we have video of the jihadists preparing for the attack, training for it and executing it. All of this goes a long way to prep our troops as long as we are able to get it in front of them and make sure the intel is being shared among the frontline operators.

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Nashville, Tenn.: Are the terrorists using visual effects studios like DreamWorks to make their videos? It's hard to believe that a $40 EFP can destroy a $6 million dollar Abrams M1A1 tank, except "in the movies."

Ben Venzke: They do use a lot of visual effects and graphics, but these more often than not simply are utilized to add impact to what they're showing versus actually trying to deceive the viewer. If there is deception it is most likely to come in the form of an edit or use of the camera angle to makes an attack look the most devastating, and the absence of any kind of aftermath footage that would allow you to see if the vehicle really is destroyed or not.

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Ben Venzke: Thanks for all the questions. Sorry I wasn't able to get to all of them. We've hit that time. Bye.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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