Small Wars Journal

The Asymmetrical Warfare Tactic of Flash Mobs

Thu, 07/11/2013 - 5:56pm

The Benghazi attack of Sept. 11th, 2012 arguably demonstrates an evolution in modern asymmetric warfare strategy: Insurgents organized a spontaneous flash-mob to increase their offensive capability. Libya is a war-ravaged nation, and is suffering from heavily armed militants who hide in the fog of transition. An insurgency with militia affiliations utilized an American produced anti-Islamic satirical movie, which is protected by First Amendment, to inspire an anti-American flash mob that besieged the American consulate in Benghazi. The militants used this asymmetrical tactic to overwhelm the consulate’s security forces. In this overwhelmed state the terrorist had a high-offensive capacity with a high level of intent and the consulate’s infrastructure and personnel were vulnerable to the terrorist will.

On Sunday August 26th, 2012, Ambassador Stevens traveled from Tripoli to Benghazi to give the ceremonial address at the re-opening of the American consulate, in Libya's second largest city. He ended his speech[1] by welcoming the citizens “to visit America”. He pointed to the consulate and said “there's the door!.” On September 11th, sixteen days later, Stevens left Tripoli again for Benghazi. At 8:30[2] that night he was meeting with a Turkish ambassador. Approximately an hour later, after the Turkish ambassador departed the consulate, an unknown amount of angry Muslims surrounded the compound in protest against an anti-Islamic Youtube video, which few had seen. The spontaneous flash mob appeared to be another riot outside of a western diplomatic post. From nearby Cairo to Pakistan, Mali and Indonesia western embassies were experiencing violent riots, because of this video. At first glance, this echoed past global - Islamic violent reactions to the expression of free speech. The Danish publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad[3] that led to widespread protest in 2006 and assaults on Danish embassies around the world. The Koran burning by the preacher Terry Jones[4] in 2011 that left United Nations (UN) staff murdered in Northern Afghanistan. The desecration of the Koran by American soldiers[5] in Afghanistan in the spring of 2012 that left scores dead, including US military personnel and UN staff. Radical Islamic groups worldwide have rioted and burned America's and its allies' infrastructure and demanded jihad justice on the slandering culprits. The jihadest groups that demand justice and inspire the violent reactions have used the created chaos to mask their operational intentions and to carry out their anti-American objectives. After the angry riot surrounded the Benghazi compound, Department of State (DoS) diplomatic security agents in a remote location using security cameras, observed[6] heavily armed men in the mob breaching the consulate perimeter, and then heard gunfire and saw explosions. The armed men infiltrated the consulate, and assaulted it with rocket-propelled grenades and other small arms. The consulate that Stevens tasked with expanding “English-language[7]” learning and university-level opportunities for Libyans,” fostering “relationships between” Americans and Libyans and developing “civil society … and trade” was burned to ground.

The assault was planned and coordinated by the Ansar al – Sharia militia, which controls large swaths of territory in Libya, including Benghazi, and is an aL-Qaeda affiliate, as reported by the serving CIA Director Gen. Petraeus in a Senate hearing[8]. Aguably, the Sharia militia overcame its asymmetry of low-level offensive capability by inspiring Benghazi’s unemployed disenfranchised citizens to surround the consulate’s perimeter and riot. This overwhelmed the consulate’s high- level of defensive capability.

The militants then used the strategic advantage to assassinate Ambassador Stevens, an American intelligence officer and two American personnel security specialist and remove the State Department’s direct influence from Benghazi.

In the power struggle for Libya the DoS supports the transition government not the militias, which has created a dangerous and asymmetrical conflict. This conflict has the framework of a civil war.  The multiple militias and the transition government are competing for the human terrain and ruling legitimacy. As witnessed in other nations, such as Iraq and Yemen, which are transitioning from under a dictator the conflict to fill the power-vacuum revolves around the population. This attack demonstrates that the Sharia militia group has the intent to destroy American infrastructure and to kill its citizens. They have the capacity to do so when they can use anti-Islamic satire to justify violence and create chaos to camouflage their actions. With the fusion of an operational capacity and a proven intent the tactic of insurgents inciting reactionary riots to provide cover for their operations could persist in Libya and spread globally.


[2] Harnden, T. “Death of U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens revealed” The Daily Mail October 9th, 2012 accessed November 28th, 2012

[3] Anderson, J. “Cartoons of Prophet met with outrage” Washington Post January 31st, 2006 accessed November 16th, 2012

[4] Najafizada, E. Nordland, R. “Afghans avenge Florida Koran Burning, Killing 12” New York Times April 1st, 2011 accessed December 1st, 2012

[5] Sieff, K. “In Kabul, Afghan police sympathize with protesters angry over Koran burning” February 23rd, 2012 accessed Dec 2nd, 2012

[6] Gordon, M. “Official tells panel a request for Libya was denied” New York Times October 10th, 2012 accessed December 4th, 2012


[8] Schmitt, E “Petraeus syas U.S. tried to avoid tipping off terrorists after Libya attack” November 16th, 2012 accessed November 20th, 2012




Sun, 07/14/2013 - 7:17pm

In reply to by J.Foxwell

And... thank you for reading.


Sun, 07/14/2013 - 7:16pm

In reply to by davidbfpo

We disagree on the analysis of the origins of the attack but it appears that we agree on that the fact that the insurgents “exploited” the angry mob as force-multiplier and successfully used their “basic capabilities” of small-arms to destroy the consulate and murder Americans? This attack demonstrates the viability of the flash-mob tactic as a tool of asymmetrical warfare.
You are right that mob violence is not new. What is new is the strategic marriage between the mob tactic and globally digital-connectivity. The world has and will become more wirelessly connected via social media and instant communications. This connectivity has increased the capability of would-be terrorist to overcome their offensive-technological deficits with combustible mobs of angry humans. We need to be aware of the fact that America’s enemies have capability to create riots “spontaneously”, hide amongst the chaos and carryout their objectives once their target is overwhelmed.

Bill M.

Fri, 07/12/2013 - 3:06pm

In reply to by davidbfpo

We'll see what Jeremiah responds with, but definitely agree our adversaries (to include state actors) have leveraged the use of mobs for at the least the past two hundred years (if not longer). He also implies he is assuming the militia organized this flash mob intentionally to facilitate their attack when he writes, "Arguably, the Sharia militia overcame its asymmetry of low-level offensive capability by inspiring Benghazi’s unemployed disenfranchised citizens to surround the consulate’s perimeter and riot." IMO he makes way too much noise about asymmetry. Got it, but it isn't novel and it isn't more dangerous when compared to a symmetrical threat.

Even if his facts are suspect, I think his underlying argument is still valid with the advent of social media actors can organize "flash" mobs rapidly (I believe flash means something?). In theory an actor can plan an attack or other action, and wait for an event globally or locally that they can exploit with social media and potentially create a flash mob to support to unwittingly support their attack. It is definitely worth considering, and also worth considering the second order effects if security forces end up killing flash mob members who are not part of the adversary group. I think in this case we should debate the underlying argument, not focus on the individual points in the article.


Fri, 07/12/2013 - 12:39pm

Jeremiah, For Americans the attack on the Benghazi Consulate was a defeat and one expects not a few other nation's diplomats wondered about their safety too. What I don't follow is your opening line: 'The Benghazi attack of Sept. 11th, 2012 arguably demonstrates an evolution in modern asymmetric warfare strategy: Insurgents organized a spontaneous flash-mob to increase their offensive capability'. An opportunity arose, from largely external events, although the allegations of local, covert US activity surely had an impact. The attackers exploited that and their basic capabilities were enough to succeed. Have we not seen mobs attack diplomatic and other state-owned premises before? Yes, not just in the current Muslim world, two examples large and small in China: the Boxer Rebellion in China and in 1967 two attacks on the British Embassy.


Mon, 07/15/2013 - 8:04pm

In reply to by J.Foxwell

The tech exists to mitigate that risk, already offered by commercial enterprises such as Digital Stakeout. LE is still beginning to understand that we can use SM to our advantage in more ways than community outreach.


Sun, 07/14/2013 - 5:47pm

In reply to by JohnBertetto

Thank you for reading. I whole-hardheadedly agree with that flash-mobs in urban America is a "chief and growing concern for law enforcement." As social media becomes even more ingrained in our society with better wireless capabilities the threat could become more effective and persistent. What do you think can be done to mitigate the risk?


Thu, 07/11/2013 - 10:57pm

Sadly, it's a terribly effective tactic in urban America too. Flash mobs in city centers can be coordinated events where large groups of individuals organize, typically through social media, in disparate locations and converge upon a single location or they can be "spontaneous" events when several smaller groups run into each other in a location and converge. We've seen flash mobs simply disrupt or bring all activity in an area to a standstill (ped and vehicular traffic) by walking into the street en masse; storming into stores as groups, scooping armfuls of product off shelves and racks, and running out the doors; and overwhelming pedestrian traffic and stealing everything they can off the persons overwhelmed by force or threat of force. It remains a chief and growing concern for law enforcement.