XXI Century Challenges (II): Trends In Terrorism


Since 2000, the world has witnessed a change of trends in terrorism. Although the core principles on which terrorism is based have not shifted, there has been a remodelling of patterns, such as geographic activity, methods of attack, organisations involved, as well as the national economic and political context. Over the last 15 years, a new concept has also developed called fourth-generation warfare (4GW). XXI century conflicts appear to be characterised by a blurring of the lines between war and politics, and combatants and civilians. In recent years, private citizens have been targeted by acts of terrorism or armed conflict at a higher rate than in any previous conflict.

Global Terrorism Index (GTI) 2015, which comprises the last 15 years of terrorist activity, argues that terrorist activity is highly concentrated. For example, 57% of all attacks and 78% of all deaths occurred in only five countries: Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria. Interestingly, during the last 15 years, 3 of the aforementioned countries have been targeted by foreign intervention. At the same time, 2 groups are responsible for half of the deaths from terrorism: Boko Haram and ISIL. A key point in the change of paradigm regarding terrorism is that most deadly terrorist groups are also responsible for deaths that are not categorised as terrorism. The clearest example of this is ISIL, a group that controls a large geographical area, and encounters regular military fights with state armies and other groups. For instance, ISIL was involved in at least 20,000 battlefield deaths with other state and non-state combatants, in comparison to the 6,000+ terrorist related deaths that are attributed to the group. Western media has constantly portrayed ISIL as a terrorist organisation, but reducing ISIL to a terrorist organisation might be an underestimation of this group and its development. A more accurate analysis would define ISIL as an insurgent group that uses terrorism as one of their tactics, but it is not their only strategy. Thus, counterterrorist tactics alone may not be the most effective strategy against ISIL.

Contrary to how it may seem, the majority of deaths from terrorism do not occur in the West. At the same time, the striking prevalence of lone wolf attacks in the West is remarkable. To be clear, lone wolf terrorists are individuals or a small number of individuals who commit attacks in support of a group, movement, or ideology without material assistance or orders from the specific group itself. The most common terrorist tactics are hijackings, kidnappings, and suicide bombings. Chiefly, the report suggests that 80% of deaths in the West (the report does not include the attacks in Paris) from lone wolf attacks are attributed to a mixture of right wing extremists, nationalists, antigovernment elements, or other types of political extremism and supremacism. However, the 2011 Norway attacks were carried out by the ultranationalist far-right militant and xenophobic, Anders Behring Breivik.

Therefore, over the last 15 years, Islamic fundamentalism was not the primary driver of lone wolf attacks. Nevertheless, its propaganda is what has caused a major impact in Western societies. For instance, ISIL propaganda and the narrative of inevitable war brings the concept of fourth-generation warfare with a series of new elements to the scene. The main element is the use of international terrorism that is linked to insurgency and guerrilla tactics. The groups lack hierarchy and are decentralised, which brings about the complexity of security when the actors have a non-national or transnational base. Additionally, the terrorists of XXI century use information technology and media manipulation to create a highly sophisticated psychological warfare. These new paradigms are bringing about the delicate equilibrium between liberty and security. Measures that attempt to go against civil rights for the sake of security represent a dangerous policy that hits the core values of democratic societies.

As previously mentioned, terrorism has captivated attention worldwide, and while causes of terrorism are widely known, there is no official policy to neutralise terrorists. This gives the impression that actions are taken against terrorists, but not terrorism. As such, it is important to discuss what the causes of terrorism are. The dominant conclusions in the political science sphere is that low levels of political and economic development seem to be the elements that propagates international terrorism. The statistical analysis carried out by the GTI has identified political violence committed by the state, and the existence of a broader armed conflict as main factors related to terrorist activity. The correlation between these factors is reported to be so strong that less than 0.6% of all terrorist attacks have occurred in countries without any ongoing conflict or any form of political terror. Therefore, the lack of respect for human rights, peaceful measures, dialogue, and international organisations correlates with terrorism.

For instance, the case of Egypt is paradigmatic. Since the coup d’etat against the democratically elected government of The Muslim Brotherhood, many Muslims have joined groups that use terrorism as they are not being allowed to engage with or in democracy. The coup has not been criticised by most Western countries, even though it has killed around 2,500 political opponents, and last November the new dictator, Al-Sisi visited London on an official trip. Contradictorily, the UK government hailed democracy during the Arab Spring in the country. This approach can lead to distrust about whether some Western governments prioritise economic or geopolitical interests over human rights and democracy. In the case of ISIL, the group rose up after the collapse of the Iraqi regime and its institutions. These situations are widely recognised, and they are, mainly, a consequence of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere. The public opinion must fully acknowledge the complexity of these elements in order not to favour the generation of narratives that fuel extremist ideas, particularly those that favour groups, such as ISIL or Boko Haram. This is due to the fact that the narratives that describe a clash of civilisations or crusades, may, notably increase the risk of international terrorism.


The Organization for World Peace