April 20, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Trend Lines of Terrorism

• There are five trend lines that are shaping and defining modern terrorism, with profound near and long-term consequences

• Current counterterrorism (CT) strategies are focused on network disruption; trend lines show that terrorism is moving away from networks to chaotic nodes of actors and influencers

• The costs of conducting ‘spectacular’ terror attacks continue to fall while the costs of reacting to and recovering from these attacks continue to rise, requiring an evolution in how governments and societies respond to attacks

• The apparent massacre of Ethiopian Christians in Libya is an example of the trend line of groups embracing public savagery as a goal in itself.


Modern terrorism is evolving at a rate that requires a greater evolution in counterterrorism (CT) strategies. There are five trend lines defining modern terrorism, each feeding off of the others and creating serious challenges to governments and societies threatened by a rise in violent extremism.

The New Terror Spectacular

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the CT focus was on averting another ‘spectacular,’ a term al-Qaeda used to describe the attacks. Likewise, al-Qaeda focused on conducting another spectacular attack. The absence of another similar-sized attack in the past 14 years is a significant CT accomplishment but one that is less and less relevant in today’s and tomorrow’s environment.

As seen in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, then again in Sydney in late 2014 and in the January 2015 Paris attacks, terrorists have created a new definition for the terror spectacular and they’ve done it by focusing on the reaction and overreaction to an attack. These attacks are low-scale and low-tech with huge impacts. Major world cities have been shut down not by a besieging army but by two or three people armed with firearms and homemade explosives. The fear and publicity generated by these attacks is enormous and is irresistible for terrorist groups and their violent supporters. There will be more of these attacks in the future simply because they present no downside for the extremists who conduct them. Al-Qaeda was afraid of a failed attack; today’s terrorists are not, as even failed attacks generate fear and overreaction.

Motivation and Inspiration over Affiliation

The individuals conducting the new terror spectaculars have no connection to one another outside of one important unifying thread: bin Ladinism. The spread of bin Ladin’s violent ideology is one of the most serious threats to global stability. Modern terrorism is now defined less by affiliation and more by common motivation and inspiration. In the Paris attack, the affiliation of the attackers was split between al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State; the groups might be in conflict but the ideology is shared.

The lack of a clear command-and-control network behind these new attacks frustrates global CT efforts, as it is impossible to use link analysis on inspiration. Fortunately, recent attackers have for the most part been ‘known wolves’ of terror, of whom the respective police and intelligence services were aware. Extremists tend to move in extremist circles and the increase in surveillance and data mining needs to be matched with an increase in analysis and risk assessment.

Crowdsourcing Propaganda and External Attacks

The first two trend lines are enabled and enhanced by the third, in which terrorist groups such as the Islamic State use social media to amplify and exaggerate their capabilities while exhorting unknown supporters to act in their name. The relentless messaging has no downside for these groups; it costs nothing and even a tweet can generate massive reactions. The group's messaging strategy is akin to that of spam; massive outreach garners just a few positive results, but more than enough to justify the effort.

These groups don’t know who is acting externally in their name, nor do they care. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda appeal to those who follow their ideology to strike out wherever they are and however they can, resulting in the low-scale high-impact attacks by individuals acting on motivation over affiliation. The messaging success of the Islamic State is in part due to ‘the wisdom of the crowd’: the group gave up control over the exact wording of its message and turned every supporter with a smart phone into a ministry of propaganda. While the group lets social media supporters push its message, it retains an official media office that produces polished cinematic videos celebrating brutality and savagery.

Focus on Internal Territorial Conquests

The persistent conflicts of the Middle East and other regions have created a vacuum of weak governments and battered societies. The Islamic State and others are intent on seizing and holding territory. In a break from the past, these groups see themselves as legitimate states or caliphates, and spend a great deal of effort creating chaos and then exploiting it in a self-sustaining cycle of misery.

Once a group has a population under its control, it begins to ensure its long-term survival by indoctrinating the next generation with its ideology of hate and violence. This ‘harvesting of children’ is deliberate and tragically effective, and will likely be the most lasting damage done by these groups. Even if the Islamic State was pushed out of Mosul and Raqqa, it will survive in the hearts of some of the thousands of children subjected to its brutality and savagery.

An Embrace of Public Savagery

The apparent massacre of dozens of Ethiopian Christians by a group proclaiming to be a Libyan affiliate of the Islamic State is only the latest in a trend of highly-stylized public savagery. The Islamic State has produced some of the most shocking acts of violence ever filmed, and has done so with cinematic flair. From mass beheadings of prisoners to the immolation of a captive Jordanian pilot, the group has sought to continually top itself in terms of public brutality and savagery.

During the height of the Iraq war, al-Qaeda leadership cautioned Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of the Islamic State—against public brutality, warning that it would backfire and erode public support for the group. The Islamic State doesn’t care about public support; it wants to create sustained public terror. It is not worried that the violence and brutality will obscure its message, as its message is brutality and violence. Its videos are staged and filmed with attention to detail, and are designed to incite supporters and enrage opponents.


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