April 7, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Homogenization of Terror

• The targets of homogenized terrorism are tragically similar; schools and commercial centers are the preferred choice as they are soft targets with hard impacts

• While terrorism overall has become uniform—with killing no longer a means to an end but the end itself—the ways to counter it remain local and difficult to scale

• As terrorists act out of global motivation instead of affiliation to any one group, they remain physically located in communities that, individually, need to build resilience and effective counterterrorism programs suited for the community.


The horrific attack on a university in Garissa, Kenya by al-Shabab that left 148 students murdered last week took place three and a half-months after an attack on another school by a completely unaffiliated group in Peshawar, Pakistan, that killed 145 people, of whom 132 were students. The groups were different but the goals and targets were the same. Such is the new homogenized terrorism, in which local grievances have been pushed aside by a global terror ideology. There is no pan-global terror conspiracy; that would actually be less dangerous as it would mean there was a single node to attack or disrupt. The reality is far more troubling, as groups that have little-to-no-connection are linked by a unifying motivation to kill civilians.

The age of terrorist demands, which began to wane in 2001 with the 9/11 attacks, has ended. In Garissa as in Peshawar, the point was to kill young people seeking education in a location that was poorly defended. The new terror spectacular is a low-tech, high-impact attack, and it is proving irresistible to terrorist groups, cells, and individuals across the globe.

A hallmark of homogenized terrorism is not only a lack of boundaries or off-limit targeting but also a drive to emulate and then one-up the last attack in terms of savagery. There is a chain that runs through the 2004 Beslan elementary school attack that left 385 people dead and through Peshawar and now Garissa. The attackers didn’t create a hostage situation in order to create a platform from which they could broadcast their demands. The demands of groups from the Taliban, the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Chechen rebels, Boko Haram, or al-Shabab have become eclipsed by their pointless demonstration of violence.

Unfortunately, this trend extends down to the individual level, with the on-going Boston Marathon bombing trial highlighting the danger of inspiration over affiliation. While Syria, Iraq, Libya, and now Yemen try to battle full-blown terror insurgencies, communities in the West battle the wolf-pack threat inspired not by local grievances but by global trends. From Norway to France, stable countries are experiencing an increase of unstable actors driven to act in the name of groups they know nothing about.

The fight in eastern Kenya has nothing to do with the western areas of Pakistan, and yet the targeting and killing is not just similar but identical. Both the Taliban and al-Shabab embrace the ideology of bin Ladinism, as do the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra. These groups began as localized insurgencies but have morphed into a homogenized terrorist movement that cares less about local impact than global influence.


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