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A good tactic used on a poor target has little effect.

The Field Manual on Guerrilla Warfare identifies four “important factors related to the target which influence its final selection,”10 later expanded to six with the CARVER matrix.13 These criteria are meant specifically for targets to be disrupted or destroyed, not necessarily when choosing potential targets for intelligence gathering or further investigation. The six criteria are as follows:

Criticality. How important is this target to the enemy and to enemy operations? “A target is critical when its destruction or damage will exercise a significant influence upon the enemy’s ability to conduct or support operations. Such targets as bridges, tunnels, ravines, and mountain passes are critical to lines of communication; engines, ties, and POL [petroleum, oil, and lubricant] stores are critical to transportation. Each target is considered in relationship to other elements of the target system.” Resistance movements (and the military) look for bottlenecks when selecting a target. And they make sure to think in big picture terms, rather than just in terms of a specific individual target. What target(s) can be disrupted or destroyed to cause maximum damage to the entire enemy system? Multiple concurrent surprise attacks are ideal for resistance movements, and can cause cascading failures.

Accessibility. How easy is it to get near the target? “Accessibility is measured by the ability of the attacker to infiltrate into the target area. In studying a target for accessibility, security controls around the target area, location of the target, and means of infiltration are considered.” It’s important to make a clear distinction between accessibility and vulnerability. For a resister in Occupied France, a well-guarded fuel depot might be explosively vulnerable, but not very accessible. For resisters in German-occupied Warsaw, the heavy wall surrounding the Warsaw Ghetto might be easily accessible, but not very vulnerable unless they carried powerful explosives. Good intelligence and reconnaissance are key to identifying and bypassing obstacles to access.

Recuperability. How much effort would it take to rebuild or replace the target? “Recuperability is the enemy’s ability to restore a damaged facility to normal operating capacity. It is affected by the enemy capability to repair and replace damaged portions of the target.” Specialized installations, hard-to-find parts, or people with special unique skills are difficult to replace. Targets with very common or mass-produced and stockpiled components would be poorer targets in terms of recuperability. Undermining enemy recuperability can be done with good planning and multiple attacks: SOE saboteurs were trained to target the same important parts on every machine. If they were to sabotage all of the locomotives in a stockyard, they would blow up the same part on each train, thus preventing the engineers from cannibalizing parts from other trains to make a working one.

Vulnerability. How tough is the target? “Vulnerability is a target’s susceptibility to attack by means available to [resistance] forces. Vulnerability is influenced by the nature of the target, i.e., type, size, disposition and composition.” In military terminology, a “soft target” is one that is relatively vulnerable, while a “hard target” is well defended or fortified. A soft target could be a sensitive electrical component, a flammable storage shed, or a person. A hard target might be a roadway, a concrete bunker, or a military installation. Hard targets require more capacity or armament to disable. A battle tank might have lower vulnerability when faced with a resister armed with a Molotov cocktail, but high vulnerability against someone armed with a rocket-propelled grenade.

Effect. Will a successful attack increase the chances of achieving larger goals? What consequences might result, intended and unintended? An attack on a pipeline might result in an oil spill, with collateral damage to life in the immediate vicinity. Escalation of sabotage might result in increased surveillance and repression of the general populace.

Recognizability. How difficult is it to identify the target during the operation, under different conditions of daylight, weather, and season? A brightly lit facility adjacent to a road is easy to locate, even at night, but it may be difficult to pick out a particular oil derrick owned by a particular company amidst acres of wells, or a specific CEO in a crowd of businesspeople.

From this perspective the ideal target would be highly critical (such that damage would cause cascading systems failures), highly vulnerable, very accessible and easy to identify, difficult and time-consuming to repair or replace, and unlikely to cause undesirable side effects. The poorest target would be of low importance for enemy operations but with high risk of negative side effects, hardened, inaccessible and hard to find, and easily replaced. You’ll note that there’s no category for “symbolic value” to the enemy, because the writers of the manual weren’t interested in symbolic targets. They consistently emphasize that successful operations will undermine the morale of the adversary, while increasing morale of the resisters and their supporters. The point is to carry out decisively effective action with the knowledge that such action will have emotional benefits for your side, not to carry out operations that seem emotionally appealing in the hopes that those choices will lead to effective action.

An additional criterion not discussed above would be destructivity. How damaging is the existence of the target to people and other living creatures? A natural gas–burning power plant might be more valuable based on the six criteria, but a coal-fired power plant could be more destructive, making it a higher priority from a practical and symbolic perspective.

It’s rare to find a perfect target. It’s more likely that choosing among targets will require certain trade-offs. A remote enemy installation might be more vulnerable, but it could also be more difficult to access and possibly less important to the adversary. Larger, more critical installations are often better guarded and less vulnerable. Target decisions have to be made in the context of the larger strategy, taking into account tactics and organizational capability.

One of the reasons that the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) has had limited decisive success so far is that its targets have had low criticality and high recuperability. New suburban subdivisions are certainly crimes against ecology, but partially constructed homes are not very important to those in power, and they are relatively replaceable. The effect is primarily symbolic, and it’s hard to find a case in which a construction project has actually been given up because of ELF activity—although many have certainly been made more expensive.

Most often, it seems that resistance targets in North America are chosen on the basis of vulnerability and accessibility, rather than on criticality. It’s easy to walk up to a Walmart window and smash it in the middle of the night or to destroy a Foot Locker storefront during a protest march. Aggressive symbolic attacks do get attention, and if a person’s main indicator of success is a furor on the 10:00 pm news, then igniting the local Burger King is likely to achieve that. But making a decisive impact on systems of power and their basis of support is more difficult to measure. If those in power are clever, they’ll downplay the really damaging actions to make themselves seem invulnerable, but scream bloody murder over a smashed window in order to whip up public opinion. And isn’t that what often happens on the news? If a biotech office is smashed and not a single person injured, the corporate journalists and pundits start pontificating about “violence” and “terrorism.” But if a dozen US soldiers are blown up by insurgents in Iraq, the White House press secretary will calmly repeat over and over that “America” is winning and that these incidents are only minor setbacks.

The Black Liberation Army (BLA) is an example of a group that chose targets in alignment with its goals. The BLA formed as an offshoot (or, some would argue, as a parallel development) of the Black Panther Party. The BLA was not interested in symbolic targets, but in directly targeting those who oppressed people of color. Writes historian Dan Berger: “The BLA’s Program included three components: retaliation against police violence in Black communities; elimination of drugs and drug dealers from Black communities; and helping captured BLA members escape from prison.”11 The BLA essentially believed that aboveground black organizing was doomed because of violent COINTELPRO-style tactics, and that the BPP had become a reformist organization. They argued that “the character of reformism is based on unprincipled class collaboration with our enemy.”12 In part because of their direct personal experience of violent repression at the hands of the state, they did not hesitate to kill white police officers in retaliation for attacks on the black community.

The IRA was also ruthless in their target selection, though they had limited choices in terms of attacking their occupiers. By the time WWII rolled around, resisters in Europe had a wide variety of potential and critical targets for sabotage, such as rail and telegraph lines, and further industrialization has only increased the number of critical mechanical targets, but a century ago, Ireland was hardly mechanized at all. That is why Michael Collins correctly identified British intelligence agents as the most critical and least recuperable targets available. Furthermore, his networks of spies and assassins made those agents—already soft targets—highly accessible. They were a perfect match for all six target selection criteria.

It’s worth noting that these six criteria are not just applicable to targets that are going to be destroyed. The same criteria are used to select “pressure points” on which to exert political force for any strategy of resistance, even one that is explicitly nonviolent. Effective strikes or acts of civil disobedience can exert more political force by disrupting more critical and vulnerable targets—the more accessible, the better.