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A "soft target" is a person, thing, or location that is easily accessible to the general public and relatively unprotected, making it vulnerable to military or terrorist attack.  By contrast, a target that is not accessible to the general public or heavily defended is referred to as a "hard target".
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, diplomatic missions, and power stations.
Terrorist groups more often 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 instill 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.
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- Kroll, Dan J. (2006). Securing Our Water Supply: Protecting a Vulnerable Resource. PennWell.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
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- Preston, Julia (September 8, 1987). "Rebels Still Seeking a Win". The Washington Post.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- The dictionary definition of soft target at Wiktionary