How terrorist trends develop


[STRATFOR Editor’s Note: In a slight departure from our regular analyses, we are publishing this anecdotal piece written by Stratfor VP of Tactical Analysis, Scott Stewart, who was a special agent with the US State Department for 10 years and involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations.]

DEVELOPMENTS in terrorism are driven by numerous factors. Some drivers, such as ideology and politics, are inherent to terrorism. However, there are other elements to consider, such as technology and counterterrorism tactics, which force terrorists to adapt their techniques to stay one step ahead of the authorities.

During the past two weeks, I have had the opportunity to speak to audiences in Ottawa, Canada and Washington, DC, about developments in terrorism that will affect the security of governments, companies and nongovernmental organizations in the next few years. Some of those trends, such as the competition between the Islamic State and al Qaeda, the emergence of true cyberterrorism, the progression of the grassroots threat from lone assailants to larger cells and the advent of the “online university of terrorism” will undoubtedly be familiar themes to Stratfor readers, as I have used my writing over the past few months to help flesh out my thinking in this area.

But what I’d like to do here is give readers a bit of an inside look at the factors I am thinking about when I forecast terrorist trends.

One of the most obvious drivers of terrorism is ideology. Terrorism is always ideologically driven, and ideological developments can have a dramatic impact not only on the decision to employ terrorism but also on the types of attacks conducted and the types of targets selected. For example, the emergence of the Islamic State’s strain of jihadism in Yemen over the past year has led to a number of mosque bombings — attacks that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula would not conduct under its operational guidelines. In Nigeria, the leaders of the Islamic State’s Wilayat al Sudan al Gharbi, the group formerly known as Boko Haram, have decided that it is permissible to use women and girls in suicide bombing attacks, and they have used over 50 female suicide bombers in 2015 alone. Ideology is also at the heart of the competition between al Qaeda and the Islamic State as the two rivals struggle to become the religious pole of the global jihadist movement.

Political developments and government policy are also important drivers of terrorism and can work to either increase or decrease the terrorist threat. By definition, terrorism is violence conducted against civilians for political ends, so terrorism is inherently a political phenomenon. This is well reflected in the propaganda issued by militant groups and leaders as they criticize the conduct of some governments, whether it be for not fully implementing Sharia or for supporting other objectionable regimes. Osama bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa declaring war against the United States, in which he criticized both the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia and US support for the Saudi government, is a great example. Political developments following the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011 have also had a tremendous impact on the terrorist threat in countries such as Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria. Some political developments, such as the peace process in El Salvador, have in turn served to reduce terrorism.

Counterterrorism efforts can also significantly affect terrorism trends; organizations that practice terrorism often encounter military, law enforcement, economic and diplomatic efforts to weaken and destroy them. Indeed, counterterrorism efforts affect every facet of terrorism, from financing and recruitment to attacks. Security efforts can force terrorist groups to change their target sets when some types of targets become much more difficult to attack — for example, the shift from attacking embassies to attacking transnational hotels or the move toward armed assaults instead of bombings. In addition, counterterrorism efforts have changed the way in which terrorist attacks are planned and executed in hostile territory such as the West. For example, since 2009, jihadist groups have shifted from attacks directed by a hierarchical organization toward a leaderless resistance model in which supporters are encouraged to think globally and act locally. Counterterrorism efforts also affect the way militant organizations communicate and conduct financial and logistical activity.

Media coverage has been an important driver of terrorist attacks since the dawn of the modern age of terrorism. Events such as the Munich Olympics attack and the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 were made to be television terrorism spectaculars. The masterminds behind terrorist attacks frequently incorporate considerations about media coverage into their planning, and in many attacks overseas groups send their own cameramen to record the attacks so the footage can be used in propaganda videos later. The Islamic State’s elaborately staged execution videos are prime examples of violence choreographed for media consumption.

Technology is another powerful factor in terrorism. I could probably write an entire series of articles on technology as a terrorism driver, because it affects every step of the terrorist attack cycle, from planning through exploitation. The Internet permits planners to shorten the amount of time they spend conducting surveillance because they can view so much information about potential targets online, such as photos and overhead imagery, merely with the click of a mouse. Planners and attackers can also use a host of encryption technologies when communicating.

Technology has also greatly affected the manner in which attacks are conducted. For example, the miniaturization of electronic components has permitted bombmakers to design a wide variety of triggering devices, from barometric switches and sophisticated timers to many different types of remote-controlled, command-detonated systems.

Each of these factors can work alone, but most often they work in concert. For example, the trends we have been watching with grassroots jihadists are influenced not only by the ideological dynamics of the competition between al Qaeda and the Islamic State but also by political processes in the European Union and the Middle East and by various governments’ counterterrorism efforts. These drivers provide the impetus for terrorists to act, but they also constrain terrorists’ actions.



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  1. Good review that national security and defense and police officials should read and have in mind. Even ordinary policemen and soldiers should read this. Unfortunately not many soldiers and policemen have the intellectual level to understand an analysis.

  2. Mariano Patalinjug on

    Yonkers, New York
    02 December 2015

    This STRATFOR ANALYSIS, “How terrorist trends develop,” by Scott Steward in The Manila Times of December 2nd, illumines how terrorist cliques or organizations work and what basically drives them to barbaric acts of terrorism.

    I only wish to add to this Analysis what makes it quite easy for terrorists to sacrifice their lives without any thought for themselves and their families. Their religion makes it clear to them that if they die in obedience to their religion’s mandate to kill “infidels,” they are sure to make it to “paradise” where they will get a “bonus” in terms of the services of a harem of 72 virgins.