By Scott Srewart
- Terrorists have employed arson in several recent incidents, and it is likely to be used even more in the future.
- Arson attacks are far easier to conduct than bombing attacks, and the materials required to start a fire are cheap and readily available.
- Given the increasing global trend of right-wing violence, a surge in environmental activism and the persistent jihadist threat, an increase in the use of arson as a terrorist tool is anticipated.
Palestinian militants launched a barrage of balloons carrying incendiary devices that set alight crop fields and grasslands in southern Israel on May 22. Just one of the devices destroyed 12 acres of wheat in Kibbutz Alumim, about 2 miles southeast of the Gaza Strip. The attack followed reports that Hamas and the Israeli government had reached a six-month cease-fire agreement, in which Hamas had pledged to halt airborne arson attacks using kites and balloons.
On May 12, arson heavily damaged the Diyanet Mosque in New Haven, Connecticut, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. In another recent attack on a house of worship, two attempts were made May 18 to set fire to the Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel synagogue in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. The remains of several Molotov cocktails were found outside the building. Motives for these arsons have yet to be determined.
Also on May 18, photos appeared on Twitter of a cellphone-based remotely activated initiator for incendiary devices that the Islamic State has been using in arson attacks against the crop fields of farmers who ignored the group’s ransom demands. The Islamic State has torched farms in Iraq’s Salahuddin, Diyala, Arbil and Kirkuk governorates. The Islamic State has also claimed credit for arson attacks against crop fields in Syria’s Hasaka, Deir el-Zour and Raqqa provinces.
The May 23 edition of the Islamic State’s al-Naba weekly news publication contained an article that took claim for the arsons in Iraq and Syria and inciting followers to “roll up their sleeves” and use arson as a weapon. The author of the article added that there are plenty of agricultural fields, orchards, houses and “economic infrastructure” for them to target in Iraq and Syria.
Advantages of Arson
One of the main advantages of using fire as a weapon is its ready availability. A friend who is a retired Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives arson investigator used to say that the most accomplished financially motivated arsonists don’t bring anything with them to a target other than a lighter. They work to make the fire look as if it were an accident caused by an understandable source such as a candle next to a curtain, a kitchen appliance or an overloaded electrical outlet. Because of this, they attempt to use existing fuel sources instead of bringing in accelerants, which are a sure indication of an arson. Any indication of malicious intent is likely to interfere with the insurance payout most financially motivated arsonists seek.
Of course, terrorists want the opposite: Far from hiding that arson caused the fire, they want their actions to be blatant. Terrorism is the propaganda of the deed, and a person conducting an arson with a terrorist motive is doing so specifically to generate fear and terror, not just to cause physical damage and make some money. Because of this, even an attack that does not cause significant damage can be considered a success as long as it causes fear and generates media attention. But also because of this, people conducting a terrorist arson can be far more overt and obvious in their techniques than financially motivated arsonists. The same holds true for a person conducting an arson because the target ignored an extortion demand. They can use very simple and obvious tactics such as employing jerrycans of gasoline, Molotov cocktails or even an incendiary compound such as thermite in their attacks.
Does this mean we will see Cindy calling for the banning of all Bic lighters?