Security issue: Destruction by fanatics

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Bomb damage to the building housing of the Office of the Prime Minister and Ministry of Justice and the Police after the bombing there in Norway in 2011

Destruction by fanatics is the crime of purposely causing damage in order to make a statement or to influence the public opinion. This threat is exerted out of wilful action by either terrorists or criminal activists.


The target of fanatics (terrorists or criminal activists) can be either persons, objects, or both. This category of security issue focusses on the threat directed towards objects. When directed at people, it falls under the category of mass killing.

The motives for destructing objects by fanatics can mostly be found in the amount of attention that this yields. This motive gives a very good clue of what might be potential targets for fanatics: not only should its destruction yield a fair amount of attention, but it should be the kind of attention that would help the fanatics' cause as well. Some fanatics, depending on their faction, do not shun mass reactions of disapproval, even originating from within their own ranks or supporters. We see this in the 11 September 2001 attack on the New York Trade Center. Although this generated almost uniformly negative responses in the western world, and most Islamic countries, the attack was received with joy by the responsible faction (al-Qaeda) and their supporters.

Another motive for attacking objects is as a force multiplier for an attack on people. This can be used on urban objects if:

  • the object can be potentially harmful to humans (such as chemical plants, oil/gas refineries and storages, nuclear plants, etcetera)
  • the object provides an essential service to the well-being of humans and belongs to the critical infrastructure. In this case, its failure can bring harm to the people.

If either of these conditions is true, one should be aware that in the eyes of fanatics seeking mass killing, it could be perceived as an attractive object and appropriate measures could be in order.

Contributing circumstances

Known circumstances to influence the likelihood or effect of robbery are presented in the table below:

Contributing Circumstance Influence Description
Presence of attractive objects. Increases attractiveness Studies have shown that some objects are more attractive for fanatics than others[1]. These various objects can be classified into categories of equal attractiveness. For the assessment of the attractiveness of a location, Securban determines the highest category that has objects that are also present on the location under investigation.
Presence of objects with symbolic value. Increases attractiveness For an attack to have the desired effect (in the eyes of terrorists), it needs to be associated with their 'cause'. Objects which can be associated to their ideological beliefs will assure the 'right' message will be carried. One should realise that what constitutes an ideologically attractive object should be assessed from the viewpoint of the fanatic.
Presence of prominent objects. Increases attractiveness For an attack to have the desired effect (in the eyes of terrorists), it needs to attract wide attention. Damage to prominent objects will do this and this makes these objects more attractive to fanatics.
Location with symbolic value. Increases attractiveness For an attack to have the desired effect (in the eyes of terrorists), it needs to be associated with their 'cause'. Objects situated on a location that has an association to their ideological beliefs will further assure the 'right' message will be carried. As an example, a mosque carries some ideological value, but if this mosque is located in Jerusalem or even on the temple mount, its ideological value increases multifold.
Presence of safety threats that could be misused. Increases attractiveness Sometimes, an object is used as a force multiplier for an attack directed at people. This can be used on urban objects if:
  • the object can be potentially harmful to humans (such as chemical plants, oil/gas refineries and storages, nuclear plants, etcetera)
  • the object provides an essential service to the well-being of humans and belongs to the critical infrastructure. In this case, its failure can bring harm to the people.

The presence of such an object in the vicinity of large groups of people can raise the attractiveness and attainability for an attack by fanatics and therefore increase the risk.

Lack of surveillance and attention. Decreases risk of detection. A low level of surveillance or attention, decreases the risk of detection (particularly in the preparation phase of an attack) for a perpetrator and thereby increases the attractiveness.
Long reaction times or inadequate action of intervention force. Decreases likelihood of apprehension Untimely or inappropriate reactions to violence lead to a perception of little control, which will increase perceived risk for the public and decrease perceived risk for the perpetrators.


The remaining lower part of the World Trade Center in New York City

The impact of destruction by fanatics can range from fairly minor to very severe. Though, for the persons involved the act is invariably traumatic.

The example of the September 2001 attacks are well-known, but one should realise that many more incidents and varieties of destruction by fanatics exist. One of these varieties is destruction of property (private or public) associated with nature. Fanatics target these objets motivated by preserving the ecosystem. This is known as Eco-terrorism. These activities range from sabotage, to arson and even the firing of rockets[2].

A list of current organisations designated as terrorist in nature, can be found on the Wikipedia page List of designated terrorist organizations.

In order to assess the attractiveness of any urban object for destruction by fanatics, one should compare the motives and prevailing attack methods of each of these terrorist groups with the properties of the object at hand. Over time motives and methods could change, yet the object will not (interim alterations left aside). The urban planner should rather plan its measures for generic types of terrorist organisations.

Social impacts

Known social impacts of destruction by fanatics include changing citizens perception of (in)security. This usually happens in a way that has an effect on the gap between "felt" and "factual" security, since individuals tend to make - correct or incorrect - reasoning on societal security as a whole based on immediate environmental clues. Destruction by fanatics challenges people and society as a whole to question their way of life by negatively or positively reaffirming it.

Economic impact

Destruction by fanatics leads to considerable costs in both a direct (primary) and a indirect (secondary) way[3]. Direct costs of destruction by fanatics come in the form of:

  • Preventive costs in anticipation of destruction by fanatics (e.g. security measures, insurance);
  • Material and immaterial costs as a consequence of destruction by fanatics (e.g. physical damage, repairs, medical costs, mental harm); and
  • Responsive costs to destruction by fanatics (e.g. the costs of detection and prevention, prosecution, support trial, etc.).

Terrorist events and violent crime not only lead to material and immaterial costs for those who have become victimised, but also forces local and national authorities to spend billions on the prevention of terrorism and the detection, prosecution and punishment of terrorists (the primary economic impact of terrorism).

In addition to the primary economic impacts, terrorism and violent crime cause the disruption of economic entities which have not been direct targets of the attack (the secondary economic impact of terrorism)[4].

In theory, security measures can prevent destruction by fanatics, but not without costs. Access control or screening, for example, is costly and there is always the risk of a geographical shift towards places with relatively less security measures in place. With the help of economic tools such as social cost-benefit analysis it is possible to overview the costs and future benefits of security measures in order to decide which types of measures are best suited for a specific situation.

The roots of terrorism can be found in unfavourable conditions such as relative economic deprivation (manifested in poverty, income inequality, etc.), socio-economic change (fostered by the process of for example modernisation) and economic and political integration[5]. Crime is closely related to poverty, social exclusion, wage and income inequality, cultural and family background, level of education and other economic and social factors[6].

Mobility impact

Mobility effects of destruction by fanatics can be seperated into the direct effect of the destruction and the effects of preventive measures (airport checks, etc.).

Since destruction by fanatics has a rare frequency of occuring, the direct effect is of less important than the effects of preventive measures. An example of a direct mobility effect is when the destruction involves the mobility system, such as with train or metro bombings. The destruction then paralyzes the normal functioning of the mobility system.

Preventive mobility measures for destruction by fanatics deal with controlling who enters a certain area or building, by controlling the accessibility and access and egress, or by making it harder to reach the desired object to destroy, such as with bollards. Aditionally, suspicious driver/travelling behaviour can be detected from camera or police surveillance, for example to detect a suspicious person at the airport.

Airport checks are meant to prevent hijackers from boarding a plane, and explosives to be placed in a plane. Both could cause destruction of the plane, ground objects, and loss of life. One of the mobility effects of airport checks is that travel times (from home to boarding the airplane) are increased. As the time of the security checks (due to different lengths of the waiting in queues) are ususally unknown before starting the trip, estimated travel time with heavy airport checks is less reliabe. Both effects (longer travel time and lower travel time reliability) imply that people should allow for longer travel time. This leads to higher (economic) costs, since time represents a certain value (Value of Time [1]).

Safety impact

Massive destruction of infrastructure can lead to dangerous situations and safety hazards. It can negate the functions of objects, such as providing shelter, lighting or ensuring sanitary conditions. Also, the destruction itself can generate dangerous situations by for instance broken glass, loose paving or collapse of structures.


  • Target hardening can be done by making it harder to take weapons of mass destruction to a vulnerable location, e.g. by separating traffic flows so car bombs cannot come close to attractive or vulnerable objects, reducing the effect of the weapon.For support on construction methods and materials that mitigate explosion effects and structural collapse one can use the VITRUV VITRUV logo.png Plan level tools and Detail level tools. With the Detail level tool one can also assess secondary costs for mobility impacts, for example if a street or rails is destroyed.
  • Access control, combined with directing traffic flows can be used to assure all traffic entering and exiting a location passes at certain, predestined points. This allows for all traffic to be monitored (Surveillance) or even screened (see below).
  • Directing traffic flows in its own can be used to separate possible threats from potential targets. By directing car traffic from vulnerable locations, the risk from attacks by car (such as car bombs or ramming by car) can substantially be reduced[7].
  • Surveillance can help to detect suspicious activities, like cars parked at prohibited locations or groups of people monitoring the situation (in a preparation phase of the attack).
  • Intervention forces can be used to act when suspicious activities have been detected. These intervention forces range from normal guards, who can investigate the seriousness of reports made by the public to bomb squads.
  • Screening can be used to test a flow of traffic for suspicious signs. This can include metal detectors, trained personnel looking for people carrying suspicious luggage, random car searches, etcetera. The gravity of the measures taken should always be in balance with the threat and the nature of the location.

Footnotes and references

  1. Collombon, T.J.A., How the strive for external security will influence the form of our cities, A Guideline for designing a ‘safe’ urban area in environmentally responsible way, Tim Collombon 0531549 Version 1.0 – February 18th 2005
  2. see: wikipedia:Eco-terrorism#Examples of tactics
  3. Primary economic impact (or direct effects) are generally defined as the initial, immediate economic output generated by a specific cause (in this case a criminal offence). Secondary economic impact (or indirect effects) are generated each time a subsequent transaction is made, for example, the impact of crime on the real estate value in the neighbourhood.
  4. Schneider, F., T. Brück and D. Meierrieks (2009): The Economics of Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism: A Survey.
  5. Schneider, F., T. Brück, and Karaisl, M. (2008): A survey of the Economics of Security. Economics of Security Working Paper 1.
  6. Buananno, P. (2003): The Socio-economic Determinants of Crime. A Review of the Literature. Working Paper Series, No.63. University of Milan.
  7. CPNI, Integrated Security. A Public Realm Design Guide for Hostile Vehicle Mitigation, Version 1, 2011