The newest terrorism: Why terrorism is getting riskier

Armed police stand guard at Manchester Arena after reports of an explosion at the venue during an Ariana Grande gig in Manchester, England, 22 May 2017 (Peter Byrne/PA via AP)

The latest attacks in London and Manchester in 2017, like the attacks in Orlando, Florida, and St. Cloud, Minnesota, in 2016, epitomize the newest terrorism: intent to kill as many people as possible, as frequently as possible, horrifically, intimately, suicidally, with the most accessible weapons, in the most accessible public spaces.

In the 1990s, a few scholars looked back at the surge in mostly secular political ideological and separatist terrorism since the 1960s, which they termed “old terrorism,” and identified the rise of what they categorized as “new terrorism,” characterized mainly by increased lethality and religious motivations. Religious terrorists — relative to secular terrorists — tend to focus on killing as many infidels as possible rather than to discriminate among political targets. Unfortunately, these foresighted scholars were largely ignored until the shock of the attacks on 9/11/2001.

Now, more than 20 years since new terrorism was identified, I and my colleagues W. James Stewart and Aarefah Mosavi have analyzed what we have termed the “newest terrorism.” This year, we finished our analysis of 46 years of terrorist behavior for a forthcoming book (to be published in October, entitled Countering New(est) Terrorism), to produce the first large-n (big data) differentiation of new/religious and old/secular-political terrorism.

To be clear, the term “new terrorism” is used essentially to mean religious terrorism — not terrorism within a particularly recent period. The term “new terrorism” was invented to acknowledge an emerging wave in the 1990s, and this wave is still relevant. Terrorism is increasingly, predominately religious, whereas prior terrorism was predominately secular-political.

The newest terrorism is differentiated because the technologies, opportunities, and ideologies have changed since the 1990s, when new terrorism was identified. The newest terrorists exploit social media, for instance; they aim their attacks on public spaces instead of official sites; they emphasize frequency of attack ahead of maximizing the lethality of each attack; and they seek to kill as intimately and horrifically as possible, rather than most effectively.

How did we prove these trends? We extended the Global Terrorism Database — a federally sponsored, freely available dataset that covers both international and domestic terrorist events. It includes more than 150,000 incidents from more than 200 countries and territories, for the years from 1970 through 2016. We extended the database by differentiating the perpetrators as either religious or secular terrorists, for each of more than 10,000 hostage crises for each of the years from 1970 through 2016 — giving roughly 500,000 data points, and for more than 100,000 terrorist events from 2004 through 2016 — giving roughly 5 million data points.

Additionally, we examined the most recent cases; we read the newest terrorist doctrines; we interviewed officials; and we put students and officials through simulations to see how terrorists would respond to official procedures.

We proved that the newest terrorists are increasingly risky, and this trend will continue for many years. Terrorism is very infrequent compared to other crimes and natural disasters, but the risk of terrorism is greater, because of the colossal socio-economic costs. Thus, the fashionable observation that other crimes kill more people ignores terrorism’s wider harms, not least the terror itself.

Terrorism is very infrequent compared to other crimes, conflicts, and natural events, but the risk of terrorism has been increasing over the long term — most acutely in the last couple decades. Risk is usually calculated as a combination (product) of frequency and returns (otherwise known as effects, outcomes, etc.). In the age of new terrorism, both the frequency of terrorist events and the negative returns of these events were increasing, meaning that the risk was increasing by both of the dimensions of risk.

The new terrorists (such as al-Qaeda) are riskier than old terrorists: new terrorists attack more frequently, and they kill more people on average per attack, and in aggregate, even in countries (such as the US) where most terrorists and terrorist events are not religious. The newest terrorists (such as the Islamic State) are riskiest because they attack most frequently, even though they do not kill as many people per attack, and they maximize other harms — including the terror.

While the new terrorists prioritized spectacular lethality in long-planned hijackings or bombings of mass transit or hotels, the “newest” terrorists encourage more frequent active violence, hostage-takings, and kidnappings. They seek to kill in the most horrifying ways. They distribute acts of violence widely in time and space. They do not just wait for an infrequent spectacular attack like 9/11.

That means the aggregate lethality and other harms are increasing, even though the average lethality per attack is decreasing.

In the early 2000s, the attack frequency remained steady — around 1,000 per year globally, although with increased lethality per average attack, until a dramatic rise in risk from 2005 onwards. In the decade from 2005, terrorism increased by more than 15 times in frequency and more than nine times in lethality, to around 40,000 total deaths in 2015.

Other indicators align in the wrong direction: Just within Western Europe and the US, the frequency of religious attacks, the lethality of these attacks, the count of religious terrorists at home, the count of citizens travelling to join terrorist groups abroad, and the count of citizens materially supporting terrorist groups abroad have been increasing practically every year in that same decade.

The characteristics of religious terrorism become trends among terrorists in general, as secular terrorists shift to the latest technologies, methods and even intents. For instance, on 1 February 2013 a Marxist Kurdish separatist group carried out its first suicide bombing — on the US Embassy in Turkey.

We identified sixteen drivers:

1. The terrorist ideologies are getting more extreme, which is associated with more murderousness, more willingness to die, and more intransigence. Their objectives and intents are increasingly irreconcilable (such as overturning the constitution in favor of religious law, or converting everybody to one religion).

2. Religious terrorists are more resistant to compromise or reconciliation. For instance, over 46 years of data, religious terrorist hostage-takings end in the release of the hostages only 31% of the time, whereas secular terrorist hostage-takings end in the release of the hostages 51% of the time.

3. Religious terrorists are more willing to kill. For instance, twice as many people die during religious terrorist hostage-takings than secular terrorist hostage-takings, and less than half as many hostages are released by religious terrorists than secular terrorists.

4. Religious terrorists are more willing to die, which helps them to take the risks to themselves to maximize the risks to their targets; more than twice as many religious terrorists die per hostage-taking event than secular terrorists die. Moreover, almost all the explicit suicidal events are religious terrorist events.

5. Religious terrorists are more capable fighters. Religious terrorists tend to kill more people, even though they deploy fewer hostage-takers per event and per hostage.

6. The newest terrorists are competing with each other to raise lethality and horror, so they mix weapons and methods in their attacks. The newest terrorists prefer hostage-takings, kidnappings, and active violence in order to maximize human harm, rather than the secular drop-off bombings and other forms of material sabotage in which human harm was usually unintended or indirect, or the new terrorist attempts to maximize lethality in rare attacks that were years in the planning. Increasingly, hostage-takings, kidnappings, and active violence are used by terrorists as means to lengthen the terror before the final killings, such as the followers of the Islamic State in Bangladesh, who took hostages just to release film of themselves killing 21 of them.

7. The newest terrorists are most interested in chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons, in pursuit of increased lethality or horror. For instance, from 2014 through 2016, IS used chemical weapons at least 52 times in Iraq and Syria (mostly chlorine and sulfur mustard agents).

8. The newest terrorists are encouraging more use of uncontrolled weapons, such as knives and automobiles, rather than more lethal weapons that would draw official attention or would take longer to acquire. All the London attackers of 2017 have used automobiles and knives.

9. The newest terrorists are more informed about the official side’s policies, tactics, techniques, and procedures. For instance, terrorists routinely use the internet and email to distribute official manuals on negotiating in order to advise terrorists on how to defeat official negotiators.

10. They have access to better surveillance technologies, such as for mapping targets.

11. Materially, they have more access to information and communication technologies that enable them to communicate easier with potential suppliers of weapons, information, or other capacities. For instance, in July 2016, in Munich, Germany, a German-Iranian man (Ali Sonboly), aged 18 years, with no official links to terrorism, acquired a pistol and ammunition illegally on the so-called “dark net” — a form of internet accessible only with special software, with which he shot nine people to death, and injured 35 others, before shooting himself.

12. The newest terrorists use open borders, cheaper easier travel, and information and communication technologies to communicate amongst themselves with less official interference and material cost — even with remote controllers in other countries. For instance, the Manchester bomber traveled regularly to Libya for conferences with extremists and eventually terrorists from the Islamic State.

13. Terrorists have used information and communication technologies to communicate with the public directly, such as during hostage-takings and kidnappings, bypassing official attempts to control the negotiations.

14. Terrorists make use of these technologies to bypass the official side or to signal to the official side without the official side’s control, thereby maximizing the terror when officials would prefer to manage public reaction, or confusing the officials who are trying to respond. For instance, in June 2016, over more than three hours, Omar Mateen killed 49 people in a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, during which he contacted the emergency telephone number (911) at least three times via his cellular telephone, stating his allegiance to ISIL, claiming falsely to have placed explosives in a vehicle outside and on his own person as deterrents to any police intervention, and threatening more attacks. Separately, still early in the crisis, he completed three calls (totaling 28 minutes) on his telephone with FBI crisis negotiators.

15. Terrorists have even used these technologies to attract targets to the site of the attack. For instance, in July 2016 Ali Sonboly, who started his killing spree outside a MacDonald’s restaurant in Munich, Germany, had posted social media messages promising free food at the restaurant.

16. Increasing urbanization, population size generally, and social mobility provide readier targets, such as in theaters and shopping malls. Whereas new terrorists targeted mass transit and hotels, theoretically in pursuit of higher lethality and socio-economic disruption, we found that the newest terrorists choose more open targets, such as theaters, shopping malls, and markets, theoretically in pursuit of higher terror and social harm. Secular terrorists choose more politically useful or symbolic targets, such as government buildings or military barracks.

Our findings suggest that terrorism will get much worse before it gets better. All these drivers are pointing in the wrong direction, especially the religious ideologies, access to weaponizable materials, ease of communications, and the accessibility of targets, which are moving in the wrong direction with practically no further room for control. This makes terrorism easier and counterterrorism harder for many years yet.