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Chuck Norris Tactics: The 70s-80s Revolution in Counterterrorism Tactics and Operations

As campy is it is (especially in light of Chuck Norris’ general canon), the trailer linked above represents one of decision-makers’ worst national security nightmares during the 1960s to the early 1980s: a hijacking and hostages scenario. What UCLA’s David Rapaport calls the “New Left Wave” of paramilitary terrorism featured a number of groups, ranging from highly competent state-supported terrorists with military training and tactical skill to disjointed student radicals playing Che with pipe bombs and poorly written “radical manifestos.” Many groups were somewhat in between. It is sometimes difficult to recognize it in today’s threat environment, but the state’s tactical and operational response to the New Left Wave’s tactical challenge is one of the great success stories in national security policy.
      There were essentially three paramilitary terrorist tactical scenarios: the spree killing (like the 1972 Lod Airport Massacre), the high-profile ground hostage situation (the 1972 Munich games), and the airplane hijacking (which was merely an airborne variant of the ground hijacking). Unlike today’s terrorists, the New Left Wave (and some elements of Rapaport’s Anti-Colonial Wave) did not generally want to die and tended to disdain ostentatious displays of brutality. They were prepared to die, certainly, and also relied (like previous terrorists) on massacre and targeted killings. But their desire to be seen as legitimate (Yasir Arafat’s grandstanding in front of the UN being a prominent example) acted as something of a constraint. State backing also constrained them to a degree that al-Qaeda or other Salafist groups would never accept today.
      So the New Left terrorists aimed to use calculated amounts of force to create extended situations that would draw politicians into the “terrorist trap,” a protracted and humiliating media-rich hostage situation that would allow them to extract policy concessions or gain more attention or legitimacy to their cause from international well-wishers. A well-played incident could also drive more recruits to their cause and demonstrate more viability to a state backer. For the more radical groups, a paramilitary massacre served the same function that the Mumbai incident did today in attempting to weaken the will of an adversary policymaker.
      From a tactical perspective, the aspiring terrorist trying to create a protracted situation must be able to use a combination of human shields (hostages), early warning (vigorous patrolling, watching the TV for clues of a police assault), fortification (various kinds of booby traps and barriers), firepower (infantry weaponry), deception/information operations, and trickery (outwitting the on-site incident commander, the negotiator, and their superiors) to prolong the situation as long as possible and exit to a friendly territory. The risks were high, as terrorists usually do not survive armed assaults by police or military special units. They are either all killed in the takeover or summarily executed afterwards. And if the terrorist survived the commando assault, he or she faced a lifetime in jail.
      Terrorists were able to succeed because of the state’s tactical and operational deficits. On the tactical side, specialized police and military units that could handle a delicate and complex hostage situation were far and few between. What was more common was for line units to be employed in that role without specialized training. The results were usually bloody. Even successes like the end of the 1979 Mecca Takeover were far more gory than they had to be. Operationally, incident command as well as the linkage between the tactical employment of police and military on the ground and the national security decisionmaking at the top was faulty as well. To boot, passive security could have prevented many hijackings and hostage scenarios.
      Airline hijackings presented an operational challenge of an entirely different magnitude. Because foreign flights had weaker security and a closer distance to “safe” territory, terrorists would commandeer a plane, land it and protract the situation, and then fly it to a Soviet-backed state once they had extracted value out of the tactical situation. Local police and military units usually were not up to the challenge of the situation. The “Entebbe” scenario was the worst of all, as Western forces would have to deploy directly into hostile territory to raid the plane. Nevertheless, airplane hijackings–with the exception of 9/11–were pretty much a thing of the past by the late 80s, and paramilitary attacks and hostage incidents as a whole disappeared from the developed world. Why?
      Passive security, such as better on-site security and international law enforcement cooperation helped dramatically raise the costs of hijacking and hostage incidents. Beginning in the 1970s, specialized law enforcement and military units also developed that were capable of handling complex hostage scenarios (for a complete account, see Tailon’s monograph on tactical units). These adaptive units were capable not only of domestic counterterrorist response but international deployment very far afield–which enabled them to handle incidents that locals could not. Counterterrorism units also benefited from international cooperation in forward basing, on-site advice and collaboration, and a collaborative doctrinal and training environment that allowed American, German, Israeli, French, and other tactical pioneers to benefit from each others’ bitter experiences. While Entebbe stands out as a “magic bullet” operation, a better example of a resolved tactical situation was the German GSG-9’s wildly successful 1977 Mogadishu operation against the Red Army Faction hijackers aboard Lufthansa Flight 181.
      Operational incident command also improved, as agencies such as the FBI developed doctrine and TTPs for the overall visualization and command of hostage incidents. This is especially true in regards to forward-deployed counterterrorism missions. The logistical and planning inherent in the resolution of an Entebbe-type situation is nothing short of breathtaking, and it required near-perfect operational coordination to carry out. We shouldn’t go so far as to say that military and police forces have it down to a science, but it is indisputable that a doctrinal and functional evolution did occur. Today’s popular culture (the fanciful Delta Force as well as Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six novels) reflects a public expectation of tactical and operational competence that audiences in the aftermath of the Munich Olympics disaster would have derided as pure fantasy.
      This tactical evolution, however, probably doesn’t extend beyond terrorist hostage incidents. The state’s advantage over terrorists is the ability to employ all of its power in a focused manner (police and military counterterrorism units) on a vastly weaker force in a way that negates the terrorists’ asymmetric advantages. Although this is vastly more difficult in a foreign setting (Mogadishu) than domestically, a friendly host nation operating environment goes a long way towards making Mogadishu-like missions possible. Foreign missions against “rogue states” holding hostages still pose extremely difficult problems. The failures of Operation Eagle Claw (1980), the Son Tay Raid (1970), and the Mayaguez Incident (1975) are all instructive. For a good sense of these problems, CT Kamp’s Air and Space Power Journal article on Eagle Claw is a must-read.
      A foreign hostage rescue operation in a denied environment against a hostile conventional state force involves the suppression of enemy conventional and irregular forces (land and air defenses), sterling intelligence, a strong (as per McRaven’s principles of special operations) seizure of initial relative advantage from the enemy, high demands on training and rehearsals, sound joint operational command, extremely good deception and information operations, very painstaking logistical planning concerning entry and extraction, and cooperation with neighboring states. This is something of an oversimplification, but it would take a book to go through all of the complex factors in planning for this type of mission. The enemy’s ability to frustrate complex plans is also greatly improved, as are the potentials for the plan to break down over a single point of failure. Entebbe, was, in many respects, a fluke that is unlikely to be repeated again. Despite the immense advances in counterterrorism tactics and operations as well as the overall growth in special operations in the West, foreign hostage rescue operations in denied environments against rogue states are likely to remain the “final frontier” for operatives and planners.