Notes on the Future of Terrorism

Daniel Benjamin
Daniel Benjamin
Daniel Benjamin Former Brookings Expert

December 1, 2006

Of the countless prophecies, analyses and clichés spawned by the events of September 11, 2001, few have been spread as widely or accepted as uncritically as the expression, “Everything has changed.” In fact, a great deal did not change, including many of the fundamental patterns of behavior among nations. The one thing that did change dramatically, of course, was terrorism.

This tactic, which involves the use of violence against noncombatants in order to advance a program that is typically political, has, depending on your perspective, either been around forever or perhaps since gunpowder became widely used or perhaps since the invention of dynamite. For roughly a century and a half, the practice of terror has shown remarkable continuities. Weaponry was virtually always the bullet or the bomb, and so assassinations, massacres, hostage-taking, hijackings, and bombings accounted for the overwhelming majority of attacks. Terrorists have historically been conservative about their trade: they did not want to try things that might not work, so they have stuck to the tried and true, sacrificing potential greater effects to reliability. That is not to say there have been no innovations: suicide bombings, which have been used to great effect first by such disparate actors as the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka and the Lebanese Shiites in the early 1980s have now been taken up by Sunni Muslims—the transmission appears to have occurred through the Palestinians, who were impressed by the accomplishments of Hezbollah. But by and large the tools had remained the same.

As had the general scale of violence. Terrorist violence is notoriously difficult to gauge in terms of volume—the number of events can fluctuate significantly over time, and the problem of distinguishing terrorism from insurgency makes matters even more trying. But the size of the individual attack varied relatively little: attacks that claimed 10 or more lives were unusual; those that claimed 100 or more, exceptionally rare—one of the reasons such events as the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland and the destruction in 1989 of UTA 772 became such causes celebre. There was a reason for scale of terror: the practice was in its essence about leveraging small acts of violence to significant political effect—hence the famous expression that terrorism was about a few people dead and a lot of people watching. As a result, and because of the conservatism of tactics and the infrequency of large-scale attacks, terrorism was a third-order security concern, even if it was a first-order matter for television broadcasters and newspaper editors. As has often been noted, for the average individual, bee sting and lightening strikes were more likely to kill you.

Today, as long as one is not living in Iraq, the actuarial tables do not show much of change regarding the likelihood of dying in a terrorist act— even factoring in 9/11. But terrorism—or at least some terrorism, and the kind that afflicts us most directly—has changed, and 9/11 was the pivot. That attack, and other conspiracies that either sought comparable levels of bloodshed, such as the Heathrow conspiracy uncovered in the summer of 2006, demonstrated a desire to kill on the grand scale. In contrast to the large majority of terrorist groups, jihadists have demonstrated an interest in weapons of mass destruction going back as far as the period in the early 1990s during which al-Qaeda was headquartered in Sudan. The aspiration to use such weapons—and after 9/11, no one should doubt that they would use them—indicates that these militants see violence in a different way than most others. For them, the violence is not a means of forcing an opponent into negotiations and incremental concessions but a sanctified activity that aims at massive change. To a degree not true of most other terrorists, the violence is also an end in itself.

What is the future of radical Islamist violence—what is the trajectory or this cause, which is at once archaizing and arch-modern? There are many imponderables here, and many issues are keenly disputed among scholars. Most agree that the West would have faced a significant challenge from jihadist violence no matter how it reacted after 9/11. Osama bin Laden’s demonstrated ability to match deeds to words and inflict real damage on the United States gave the world’s most dramatic recruiting effort a powerful effectiveness. Al-Qaeda was sharply set back by the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and that might have been the point of inflection in its fortunes—a downturn accelerated by the impressive string of intelligence operations against the group and its allies. The performance of the alliance of intelligence services cooperating around the world has been the unsung success of what the Bush administration has termed the Global War on Terror.