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The terms "soft target" and "hard target" are flexible in nature and the distinction between the two is not always clear. However, typical "soft targets" are civilian sites where unarmed people congregate in large numbers; examples include national monuments, hospitals, schools, sporting arenas, hotels, cultural centers, movie theaters, cafés and restaurants, places of worship, nightclubs, shopping centers, transportation sites (such as railway stations, buses, rail systems, and ferries), and farmers' cooperatives. Soft targets are contrasted with hard targets, which typically restrict access to the public and are well-protected. Examples of hard targets include airports, government buildings, military installations, foreign embassies, and nuclear power plants.
Terrorist groups almost exclusively choose to strike soft targets. Of terrorist attacks worldwide from 1968 to 2005, 72% (8,111) struck soft targets and 27% (4,248) struck hard targets. The intent of attacks on soft targets is to instil fear as well as inflict casualties. Clark Kent Ervin notes that attacks on soft targets inflict psychological damage. In 2011, while preparations were being made for the 2012 Summer Olympics, the deputy commissioner of London's Metropolitan Police Service noted that if the primary targets were secure, terrorists might substitute targets that are nearby but not as well protected.
Military and paramilitary groups may adopt a strategy of attacking soft targets in order to avoid direct confrontation with a stronger opponent. For example, U.S. military general John Galvin noted in 1987 that Contra rebels switched to civilian targets rather than continuing the direct fighting against the Sandinista National Liberation Front.
- Air raid shelter
- Collateral damage
- Suicide bombing
- United States federal building security
- Terrorism and tourism in Egypt
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- Ervin, Clark Kent (2006). Open Target: Where America Is Vulnerable to Attack. St Martin's.
- Forest, James J.F. (2006). Homeland Security: Protecting America's Targets. Greenwood.
- Girginov, Vassil (2013). Handbook of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games: Making the Games. 1. Routledge.
- McGovern, Glenn P. (2012). Margaret E. Beare, ed. Securitization After Terror. Encyclopedia of Transnational Crime and Justice. Sage.
- Kaplan, Fred (May 20, 1987). "US General Says Contra Chances Improving". Boston Globe.
- Kroll, Dan J. (2006). Securing Our Water Supply: Protecting a Vulnerable Resource. PennWell.
- Oxford Dictionaries Online. "Soft target". Oxford Dictionaries Online.
- Preston, Julia (September 8, 1987). "Rebels Still Seeking a Win". The Washington Post.
- The dictionary definition of soft target at Wiktionary