Two years before the September 11 attacks against the United States in 2001, the pre-eminent historian of terrorism, Walter Laqueur, noted that a ‘revolution’ in the character of terrorism was taking place. Rather than the vicious yet calculated application of violence that everyone had become familiar with, the world was now confronted with terrorists whose aim was ‘to liquidate all satanic forces [and destroy] all life on earth’.
Terrorism, according to Laqueur, had become catastrophic. Not only would the ‘new terrorists’ have no inhibitions about using nuclear weapons, their aim was to construct ‘earthquake machines’ and launch ‘artificial meteors with which to bombard the earth’. None of Laqueur’s more outlandish predictions have come true.
Nevertheless, Laqueur was not the only expert who sensed that the nature of terrorism was changing. During the 1990s, many of the groups which had kept governments busy during the 1970s and 1980s had decided to abandon violence. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) recognised Israel and renounced the use of terrorism. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Northern Ireland called a permanent ceasefire and entered government. And in April 1998, even the German Red Army Faction (RAF) finally declared its campaign to be over, announcing that ‘the urban guerrilla in the form of the RAF is now history’.
At the same time, new and more dangerous forms of terrorism appeared to be on the rise. In early 1993, a group of Islamist extremists led by Ramzi Yousef launched the first attack on the World Trade Center in New York, aiming to kill thousands. Two years later, a Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo, attempted to hasten the apocalypse by contaminating the Tokyo underground with the nerve gas Sarin. Just one month later, an American right-wing extremist, Timothy McVeigh, set off a large truck bomb in Oklahoma City which killed 168 people.
Though undoubtedly shocking in their scale and execution, the September 11 attacks merely confirmed this trend. The trouble was that none of the (self-styled) experts could provide a coherent explanation for what was happening. What exactly did the ‘new terrorism’ consist of? Where did it come from? And how should it be fought? With the notable exception of the American scholar Bruce Hoffman, who traced some of the key developments with great insight and precision, the idea of ‘new terrorism’ was often used as a slogan which signalled that things were different from the past but provided no real explanation of how and why things had changed.
In my new book Old and New Terrorism I am trying to shed light on some of the questions which many experts have failed to answer. My investigation begins with a look at the three areas in which terrorism has changed.
First, terrorist groups have become more diffuse. Traditionally, many terrorist groups adopted hierarchical systems of organisation with clear lines of command and control. Even groups like the IRA and the Basque group ETA, which had decided in favour of a supposedly more flexible ‘cell’ system, were fully integrated into the chain of command. In the IRA’s case, for example, access to explosives was controlled by the group’s regional commanders, thus making sure that none of the cells could carry out a bombing without the leadership’s knowledge and approval.
By contrast, the structures of the ‘new terrorism’ are far more difficult to grasp. They are often described as networks rather than as organisations, because formal hierarchies have been replaced with personal relationships. What matters is not someone’s formal rank but whom they know and what connections they can facilitate. Although truly ‘leaderless resistance’ continues to be quite rare, the difficulty in tracing terrorist attacks such as Al Qaeda’s bombings in Madrid and London to any conventional ‘leadership’ illustrates quite how messy and confused terrorist group structures have become in recent years.
Another novelty lies in how terrorist organisations are increasingly transnational in orientation, not only reaching across borders but creating an entirely new kind of social space. For the ‘old’, territorially based groups such as ETA and the IRA, everything related back to the struggle in their homeland, even when they went abroad in order to buy weapons, train, or raise money.
Al Qaeda, on the other hand, can be described as truly ‘de-territorialised’. When studying Al Qaeda members, the French scholar Olivier Roy found that – typically – ‘the country where their family comes from, the country of residence and radicalisation, and the country of action’ are all different. Furthermore, the group’s ‘centre of gravity’ has constantly shifted – often across continents – depending on where members and their leaders believe victory is most likely.
The second significant difference between ‘old’ and ‘new’ is the rise of religiously motivated terrorism. The ideologies of terrorist groups are often mistakenly thought of as existing in a space completely separate from the (non-violent) political mainstream. In reality, terrorists’ political ideas always reflect a given society’s radical ideological currents, with the obvious difference that terrorists are pursuing their (radical) ends through violent means.
It should come as no surprise, then, that – in the 1960s and 1970s – when most of the radical social and political movements were either Marxist or nationalist, these ideologies were also dominant among the terrorist groups of the time. Indeed, almost all of the ‘old’ European terrorists were one or the other – often, in fact, they were both.
In the 1980s and 1990s, however, religious issues gradually found their way back into the mainstream political discourse. Many scholars detected a ‘religious revival’ – manifestations of which could be found on all continents and in all religions. As with Marxism and nationalism in earlier decades, the rise of radical religiously inspired political movements came to be reflected in a number of religiously oriented terrorist groups. This included militant Christian anti-abortionists in the United States, Jewish extremists in the West Bank, the Buddhist inspired cult Aum Shinrikyo, and various groups in the Muslim world ranging from Hezbollah and Hamas to Al Qaeda.
In fact, Hoffman showed that, whereas in the late 1960s, not a single terrorist group anywhere in the world could be described as religiously inspired, the share of religiously motivated groups had risen to nearly a third by the mid-1990s.
Finally, terrorism has become more violent. Needless to say, even ‘old’ terrorists often killed civilians, and – occasionally – their operations were aimed at producing large numbers of casualties. But killing people, especially civilians, was secondary to the communicative effects that could be achieved through a particular act of violence. In the mid-1970s, the American analyst Brian Jenkins coined the well-known expression that ‘terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead’. In the era of the ‘new terrorism’, the two considerations – violence and symbolic value – seem to have merged, with mass-casualty attacks against civilian populations being routine and intentional rather than ‘mistakes’ or ‘exceptions’ to be blamed on splinter groups or renegade elements.
There are plenty of statistics that bear out the rise of mass-casualty terrorism in no uncertain terms. Analysts may argue about exactly how steep the rise has been, but there appears to be a consensus that – however one manipulates the source data – the trend towards more mass-casualty attacks is consistent, significant and well-supported. For example, in the IRA’s thirty year campaign, there were just seven incidents in which the group killed ten or more people. By contrast, Al Qaeda has an average of 16 fatalities per attack, with 9/11 alone killing more people than the IRA had killed in three decades.
It seems clear, therefore, that the ‘new terrorism’ hypothesis – even if sometimes exaggerated and misused – is not entirely without substance. In my view, many of the changes can be attributed to – and indeed are an expression of – globalisation and late modernity. Cheap travel and the information revolution, for example, have made it possible for terrorist groups to establish diffuse networks, spanning continents and allowing for an unparalleled degree of flexibility and operational reach. No doubt, the same dynamics have also contributed to different mindsets and identities that have permitted terrorists to expand into transnational space.
Furthermore, it is the dialectics of globalisation and late modernity that need to be considered and understood. While providing immense benefits for an increasingly cosmopolitan elite, they have produced political paradigms that revolve around particularist forms of ethnic and religious identity, which reject the universal, secular and liberal aspirations that late modernity and globalisation are meant to promote. Religiously motivated terrorism is one of the results.
As far as the increasingly violent nature of terrorist violence is concerned, media saturation and desensitisation – prompting terrorists to engage in ever more vicious acts of violence in order to get through to their ‘audience’ – undoubtedly play a role. At the same time, the rise of particularist ideologies, which increasingly define entire populations as ‘infidels’ or ‘others’, remove the ideological constraints that would have prevented terrorists from employing violence against civilians.
Of course, it is important to maintain a sense of perspective. The transformation from ‘old’ to ‘new’ has neither been uniform nor has it been universal. Not all terrorist groups have suddenly turned into mass-casualty producing transnational networks. Some may have gone all the way, while others have partly transformed, picking and choosing from the menu of new options. This reflects the needs and strategies of particular terrorist organisations, and it also mirrors the peculiar ways in which the processes of late modernity and globalisation have unfolded. In my view, the consequences of ‘new terrorism’ are best understood not as a question of either or (‘new’ versus ‘old’) but, rather, in terms of degree (‘newer’ versus ‘older’).
The impression – frequently conveyed in the period immediately following the September 11 attacks – that the threat is unprecedented and that nothing can be learned from previous experiences is entirely untrue, therefore. Many of the long-established principles of counter-terrorism remain valid. Regardless of whether governments are dealing with ‘old’ or ‘new’, the aim must be to prevent terrorist attacks whilst maintaining legitimacy in the eyes of the population. In doing so, governments need to ‘harden’ potential targets; develop good intelligence in order to disrupt terrorist structures; bring to bear the full force of the law whilst acting within the law; address legitimate grievances where they can be addressed; and, not least, convey a sense of calm and determination when communicating with the public.
What’s new is the need for government structures to become more flexible and adaptive, mimicking – as far as possible – the terrorists’ network structures by pooling information across agencies and doing away with some of the hierarchies that impede lateral thinking. Counter-terrorism also needs to become more international, building trust and cooperation between governments across borders and continents, which poses enormous challenges, especially when those governments are serial human rights abusers. Governments must engage in the kinds of virtual spaces – especially the internet – in which young people are being radicalised and recruited; and they need to find new ways of promoting messages that counteract and/or soften the particularist discourse put forward by violent extremists.
The risk of catastrophic or apocalyptic terrorism remains. This risk, however, is not new nor is it very substantial. Walter Laqueur’s idea of terrorists operating earthquake machines is science fiction, and will remain just that. This is not to trivialise the danger or, more importantly, its potential consequences. Policy-makers are right, for example, in taking every measure possible to avert terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction. But there is nothing to suggest that apocalyptic terrorism constitutes a ‘trend’ based on anything we have seen or observed in the past few decades. The new terrorism is more lethal and in many ways more dangerous than its predecessor. But, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports about the end of the world have been greatly exaggerated.