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Terrorism & Counterterrorism Emerging trends in terrorism
Sep 6, 2002 – By Zafar Nawaz Jaspal

Mr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal is a security analyst based in Islamabad. He holds a Master's Degree in Political Science and M.Phil in International Relations. He is currently a Ph.D candidate at the Department of International Relations Quaid-e-Azam University Islamabad.


This article maintains the prevalent argument that the terrorists' patterns have fundamentally changed since the last quarter of the twentieth century. According to this argument, new trends are different from old trends along at least three related dimensions- Fewer incidents, greater casualties; the growth of religious terrorism; and Nuclear, Biological, Chemical terrorism. The emerging new trends, despite the infusion of sophistication seem to portend increase in lethality and ruthlessness in death and destruction.


Terrorism is not a recent phenomenon. It is older than the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome. Its early roots are in acts of assassination, regicide, and tyrannicide. And early examples include the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B. C., The Zealots-Sicarii- a Jewish sect, during the first century A. D., the Assassins, or Ismailis-Nizari during eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Thugs in India, 19th century European Anarchists and Social revolutionaries, Ku Klux Klan in the United States, etc.[1] Despite that terrorism is an old phenomena, the term terrorism has neither a precise definition, nor one which is widely acceptable.[2] Terrorism's trends, however, are not static and have been changing with the passage of time. In the present age, we are experiencing alarming change in these trends. New adversaries, new motivations and new rationales, which have emerged in recent years, can couple with today's increased opportunities and capabilities to launch terrorism on a trajectory towards higher levels of lethality, mass destruction and mass killing, and to challenge the conventional knowledge about it.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington have not only intensified the debate about new emerging trends in the international terrorism, but also added a new dimension in the operative tactics of the terrorists. Since, more than a century, the terrorists have been using two basic weapons: the gun and bomb. On September 11, the terrorists destroyed their targets by using commercial airlines. Letters contaminated with the lethal anthrax bacteria, followed it. The threat from bioterrorism is not a curiosity but a grim reality. Hijacked aircraft and powdered anthrax caused a remarkable shift in terms of overall terrorists' assault strategy and future threats in general. Another significant development is, that in the past terrorism was practiced by a collection of individuals belonging to an identifiable organization that had a clear command and control apparatus and well defined set of political, social, or economic objectives. They generally issued communiqués taking credit for terrorist act and explaining determinants of their actions. But no one has claimed the responsibility of September 11 terrorist attacks.

Motivations, targeting, strategy, tactics and logistics, continue to evolve, in keeping with efforts on the part of terrorists to meet the challenges and to penetrate into the foolproof security arrangements to accomplish their objectives. The September 11 terrorists act specified that they be well schooled in handling aircrafts and using them as weapons and explosives equipment. They know the value of the internet, fax machines, cellular telephones and encryption. They have already been taking advantage of legal and widely available strong encryption software that makes their communications invulnerable to surveillance. How invulnerable? John Keegan, the British analyst, quotes William Crowell, former deputy director of the largest US intelligence agency, the National Security Agency: "If all the personal computers in the world were put to work on a single (strong encrypted) message, it would still take an estimated 12 million times the age of the universe to break a single message." [3]

Increasingly sophisticated and willing travelers, the terrorists have access to excellent false documentation and international contacts, and can blend easily into a local emigre community, where they can plan and execute attacks without being readily identified. Aftermath, human casualties and infrastructure destruction in New York and Washington substantiate the increasing lethality, high casualty, indiscriminate targeting, of terrorist attacks.

In the current international scenario, terrorists are increasingly likely to be motivated by campaigns of ethnic nationalism or religious extremism. Often the two go hand in hand. The United States' declaration that Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda organization as a prime suspect specified the growth of religious terrorism. Notably, militants of all faiths have an involvement in terrorist violence. Christian religious groups, such as the Aryan Nations, are active in North America, and are becoming more closely associated with the Militia Movement. Similarly, the Jewish Defense League maintains her presence in North America. In Israel and the Occupied Territories, the combination of nationalism and religious fervor manifests itself in acts of Jewish terrorism.[4]

One of the first uses of a Chemical nerve agent in a terrorist attack, by the Aum Shinri Kyo cult in Tokyo in 1995, has been widely viewed as the crossing of a threshold. This theory reinforced by evidence uncovered recently to the effect that non-state actors- sub national groups or terrorists' organizations are interested in Nuclear, Chemical and Biological (NBC) weaponry. Recent, anthrax, a small sample of what can be called the terrorism of substances- biological and chemical incidents strengthened the fear that in future terrorist acts NBC would be used. Hence, it is perceived that for higher casualty rate and attracting more attention the terrorists', certainly, utilize NBC weapons in their future activities.

Fewer incidents, greater casualties

Traditional terrorists organizations were contented to kill small numbers, rather than embark on grandiose operations causing large-scale human and physical destruction. The recent terrorists acts record indicates that the terrorists' attacks have been causing greater casualties and infrastructure damage. Figures collected by the US Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) show that during the 1970s there were a total of 8,114 terrorist incidents worldwide, which resulted in 4,978 deaths and 6,902 injured. During the 1980s there were 31,426 incidents, resulting in 70,859 deaths and 47,849 injured. The RAND-St Andrews, joint-university, database of international terrorist incidents, which has been in operation since 1968, records 2,536 incidents in the 1970s, resulting in 1975 deaths, and records 3,658 incidents in the 1980s, resulting in 4,077 deaths. During the 1980s the number of international terrorist incidents was about 50 per cent more than in the 1970s, and twice as many people were killed.[5] During the 1990s, however, the number of international terrorist incidents actually began to fall. A record 484 incidents occurred in 1991, which fell to 343 in 1992, then to 360 in 1993, to 353 in 1994 and finally to 278 in 1995. Yet as these figures fell, a greater percentage of incidents were resulting in fatalities or deaths and injuries continued to increase.[6]

On August 7, 1998 a huge car bomb was detonated in the car park of the American embassy in the heart of Nairobi, Kenya. Adjacent offices and banks were full of workers and the streets were full of cars, buses and shoppers. Hundreds of office workers had been drawn to their windows by the sound of an exploding grenade, and were then injured by a second bomb. Almost simultaneously, another bomb exploded in Dar-es-Salaam, capital of neighboring Tanzania. It was reported that the bombing in Kenya killed 201 and 5.500 people were injured, whilst the bomb in Tanzania killed 11.[7] More than the 6,347 people lost in the collapsed twin towers of the World Trade Center, in the September 11, 2001 terrorists attacks.[8] These figures relate only to international terrorism, but the evidence in respect of domestic terrorism is more problematic. Whilst there are some indications that domestic terrorism is also following this trend, particularly in Algeria and Sri Lanka. Thus, these facts indicate that casualty levels are increasing at a faster rate than the number of incidents, and therefore that individual incidents are becoming more lethal. The significant of these incidents lay not only in the level of casualties that it caused, but also in the willingness of the terrorists to inflict large numbers of indiscriminate casualties. For example, both Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam explosions killed African Muslims working in the embassies and people from more than 88 nations were killed in World Trade Center.

Why terrorism's lethality has been increasing? A number of reasons account for terrorism's increased lethality. According to Bruce Hoffman reasons behind terrorism's increasing lethality are the following:

1. The terrorists desire to obtain more and serious attention. Therefore, they consider bloody action as a viable strategy to attract the media and decision makers.

2. The terrorists have profited from past experience and have become more skilled at killing. The nefarious alliance between terrorist organizations and the rogue states have increased the lethality in the terrorists' acts.[9] The rogue states provide them the small, more sophisticated, and deadlier weapons.

3. The active role played by states in supporting and sponsoring terrorism. This support has enhanced the striking power and capabilities of ordinary terrorist organizations, transforming some groups into entities more akin to elite commando units than the stereotypical Molotov-cocktail wielding or crude pipe-bomb manufacturing anarchist or radical leftist.

4. The overall increase during the past 15 years of terrorism motivated by a religious imperative encapsulates the confluence of new adversaries, motivations, and tactics affecting terrorist patterns today.

5. The means of terrorism has become accessible to anyone who contains a grievance, an agenda, a purpose. These means and methods can be easily obtained at bookstores, from mail-order publishers, on CD-ROM, or over the Internet. Relying on commercially obtainable bomb-making manuals and operational guidebooks, even the amateur terrorist can be just as deadly and destructive-and even more difficult to track and anti-than his professional counterpart.

6. While on the one hand terrorism is attracting amateurs, on the other hand the sophistication and operational competence of the professional terrorists are increasing. These professionals are becoming demonstrably more adept in their tradecraft of death and destruction; more formidable in their capacity for tactical modification and innovation in their methods of attack; and more able to operate for sustained periods while avoiding detection, interception, or capture.

7. The terrorists today tend to claim credit for their attacks less frequently.[10]

The growth of religious terrorism

The religion is fast becoming the prime motivation for terrorist acts.[11] The late twentieth century saw a resurgence of holy terror* The kind practiced by the Zealots-Sicarii, the Assassins, and the Thugs. This involves all of the world's major religions, from Christian right-wing white supremacists, radical Jews, militant Sikhs, and Islamic fundamentalists, and has been manifested all around the world: from Europe, North America, the South Asian subcontinent, Northeast Asia, to the Middle East. Of these groups, those that have been most responsible for this trend are Islamic fundamentalists; Jewish extremists; millenarian religious cults and Christian orientated right-wing groups, notably in the USA.[12] While analyzing religious terrorism Bruce Hoffman argued, "religious terrorists have engaged in moral lethal attacks primarily because they perceive violence to be a sacramental act, or divine duty, executed in direct response to some theological demand or imperative."[13]

Some of the most significant terrorists acts of recent years have had some religious element present. These include:

> The 1993 bombing of New York City's World Trade Center by Islamic radicals who deliberately attempted to topple one of the twin towers onto the other;

> The series of 13 near-simultaneous car and truck bombings that shook Bombay, India, in February 1993, killing 400 persons and injuring more than 1000 others, in reprisal for the destruction of an Islamic shrine in that country;

> The December 1994 hijacking of an Air France passenger jet by Islamic terrorists belonging to the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the attendant foiled plot to blow up themselves, the aircraft, and the 283 passengers on board precisely when the plane was over Paris, thus causing the flaming wreckage to plunge into the crowded city below;

> The March 1995 sarin nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, perpetrated by an apocalyptic Japanese religious cult (Aum Shinrikyo) that killed a dozen persons and wounded 3796 others; reportedly the group also planned to carry out identical attacks in the United States;

> The bombing of an Oklahoma City federal office building in April 1995, where 168 persons perished, by two Christian Patriots seeking to foment a nationwide race revolution;

> The wave of bombings unleashed in France by the Algerian GIA between July and October 1995, of metro trains, outdoor markets cafes, schools, and popular tourist spots, that killed eight persons and wounded more than 180 others;

> The assassination in November 1995 of Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin by a religious Jewish extremist and its attendant significance as the purported first step in a campaign of mass murder designed to disrupt the peace process;

> The Hamas suicide bombers who turned the tide of Israel's national elections with a string of bloody attacks that killed 60 persons between February and March 1996;

> The Egyptian Islamic militants who carried out a brutal machinegun and hand-grenade attack on a group of Western tourists outside their Cairo hotel in April 1996 that killed 18;

> The June 1996 truck bombing of a U.S. Air Force barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where 19 persons perished, by religious militants opposed to the reigning al-Saud regime;

> The unrelenting bloodletting by Islamic extremists in Algeria itself that has claimed the lives of more than an estimated 75,000 persons there since 1992;

> The massacre in November 1997 of 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians by terrorists belonging to the Gamat al-Islamiya (Islamic Group) at the Temple of Queen Hatshe put in Luxor, Egypt; and

> The bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998 that killed 212-257 and injured some 5000-5500 others;[14]

> On March 20,2000 thirty-five Sikhs were killed by Indian Army in Chatti pura, and in Indian Held Kashmir;

> On September 11, 2001 the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington by hijacked commercial aircrafts; and

> Recently (last week of October 2001), more than 25 Muslims murdered by the Hindu extremists in Mali Gahun, Maharashtra (India).

Nuclear, Biological, Chemical (NBC) terrorism

Nuclear, Biological and Chemical weapons are inherently terrifying. They evoke moral dread and visceral revulsion out of proportion to their lethality. In recent years terrorists have been acquiring crude chemical and biological agents, and some have plotted or threatened to use them. In January 1999, the then US President Bill Clinton, stated that the US would be subject to a terrorist attack involving Chemical or Biological weapons within the next few years.[15] However, the recent years terrorists record indicates that the possibility of using Biological and Chemical weapons is more than the Nuclear weapons. The reason being the technological problems associated with the nuclear weapons manufacturing. Consequently, the United States Department of Defense is leading a federal effort to train the first responders in 120 American cities to be prepared to act in case of a domestic terrorist incident involving NBC agents.[16]

At the same time, one cannot rule out the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons in totality, in future terrorists' acts, because of the established fact, i.e. state sponsored terrorism. Paul Wilkinson argued that, "many terrorists movements are directly encouraged, sponsored and aided by regimes in order to weaken or subvert rival states."[17] It follows from this intimacy of these connections that the pro-terrorists states assist the terrorists' organizations by providing nuclear radioactive material. Moreover, the emergence of a black market in nuclear materials makes clear that the risk of nuclear terrorism is growing. For example, three seizers of plutonium and one of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in Germany took place during the summer of 1993, showing the emergence of a black market in nuclear materials being smuggled out of the former Soviet Union.[18] How much HEU is needed to make a nuclear bomb? A research team at the University of California found that three kilograms would be sufficient. By means of computer modeling of a simple fission weapon design, they found a nuclear a nuclear yield equivalent to more than 100 tons of high explosives could be achieved with only one kilograms of HEU and a yield of half that of the Hiroshima bomb with five kilograms.[19]

Why could terrorists decide to use the NBC? As discussed earlier that terrorists motivations are changing. A new breed of terrorists- including ad hoc groups motivated by religious conviction or revenge, violent right-wing extremists, and apocalyptic and millenarian cults, appears more likely than the terrorists of the past to commit acts of extreme violence. The overriding religious belief in Armageddon establishes a strong motive for some cults to use the NBC weapons. Jessica Stern argued:

"Religiously motivated terrorists might decide to use weapons of mass destruction, particularly biological agents, in the belief that they were emulating God. The fifth plague with which God punishes the Pharaoh in the story of the Israelites' Exodus from Egypt is murrain, a group of cattle diseases that includes anthrax. In I Samuel 5: 9, God turns against the Philistines with a very great destruction, killing them with a pestilence that produces Emerods in secret parts...Some terrorists might feel they were following God's example by employing these agents."[20]

The NBC weapons are intrinsically indiscriminate, and suit to terrorists' strategy to inflict large numbers of indiscriminate casualties. The usages of these weapons not only multitudinously increase the lethality of the terrorists' acts, but the government of a country attacked with such weapons would have difficulty in controlling panic. Because chemical and biological weapons are silent killers, an attack could occur at any time without warning.

The NBC weapons' components and know-how are available in the black market. Importantly, unlike nuclear weapons, the materials and tools required to create biological warfare agents are easily accessible and cheap, which is why this kind of weapon is often referred to as the poor man's nuclear bomb. A state of the art biological laboratory could be built and made operational with as little as $10,000 worth off-the-shelf equipment and could be housed in a small room.[21] In addition, hundreds of tons of nuclear material, the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons, are stored at vulnerable sites throughout the former Soviet Union, guarded only by underpaid, hungry, and disheartened people. At least eight thefts of materials (weapons-usable) that could be used to make nuclear weapons have been confirmed.[22] Significantly, there are many cases of theft of medical isotopes and other sources of radiation. These incidents are often overlooked because radioisotopes cannot be used to make detonable nuclear bombs. But terrorists could use them to draw attention to their cause, to wreak havoc, and to terrorize civilians. Notably, many religious cults are capable of purchasing or funding the research and development of NBC weapons, because of great wealth that they acquire from their membership. The rogue states also possess these weapons. The terrorists might be able to acquire chemical and biological agents from rogue states favorable to their cause.[23]

It is undeniable that the theoretical knowledge required to develop NBC weapons is readily available, and that given time, skilled individuals can engineer that knowledge `into a weapon. Hence, the terrorists' organizations are capable to acquire the different types of NBC weapons from different sources. The fundamental issue in assessing this trend is whether these groups are capable in using these weapons, accurately. Analysts have consensus that it's easy to use chemicals and biological agents to poison agricultural commodities, infect livestock, or gas passengers on trains or planes. Some of them consider that nuclear weapons are extremely difficult to manufacture. However, distinction must be drawn between the kind of military weapons, which states strive to develop and the rougher types of devices which terrorists would be satisfied with. A Physics PhD student could design a crude nuclear device, and the terrorists' requirement is the radiological bombs, in which radioactive materials are packed around a conventional bomb and an incendiary material. With this type of weapon the explosion leads to a fireball, shooting the radioactive material up into the air, which than falls back to earth, scattering over a wide area. The primary purpose of such weapons is to spread radioactive contamination rather than cause casualties through blast effects.[24]

There are number of organizations, which had revealed interests in these deadly agents. For example, Christian Patriots had shown interests in biological weapons. Biological weapons have the potential to be as deadly as nuclear bombs. For instance, 100 kilograms of anthrax could kill up to 3 million people if dispersed under optimal conditions.[25] Survivalists and white Supremacists were implicated in three separate cases involving biological agents in 1995. In March two members of the Minnesota Patriots Council were arrested for producing ricin with which to assassinate a deputy US marshal who had served papers on one of them for tax violations. In May, just six weeks after the Aum Shinrikiyo incident, Larry Wayne Harris, former member of neo-Nazi organizations, bought three vials of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes bubonic plague, which killed nearly a quarter of Europe's population in the mid-fourteen century. In December a Survivalist was arrested for trying to carry 130 grams of ricin across the border into Canada.[26] However, from known conspiracies it appears that no terrorist group has even attempted to develop a nuclear explosive device, and there have been only a few cases of groups attempting to purchase a nuclear device. Instead, the use of radioactive materials of contamination, either through a contamination bomb or otherwise, has been the preferred option for nuclear terrorism. But what few incidents have occurred, have mainly been in the 1990s. Therefore, it is too early to conclude the role of nuclear weapons in the NBC terrorism.


Throughout the history, Terrorism flourishes on a fear psychosis. By manipulating fear in a special way, terrorists have always been able to effect human behavior in a fashion disproportionate in their effort. The September 2001, terrorists' attacks were a powerful indicator that at least some groups are willing to perpetrate acts of unconstraint violence and indiscriminate mass killing. In 1990s, a growing number of incidents broaden the perceptions of the potential threat that radical religious cults can pose to society as a whole. In addition, a major trend has been the terrorists' acquisition of increasingly sophisticated and lethal weapons, like the NBC weapons. The emerging trends are mainly the products of the technological advancements and spread. Hence, these trends are leading to a new era of indiscriminate violence, more dangerous and deadly than in the past.


1. Jessica Stern, The Ultimate Terrorists (London: Harvard University Press, 2000) pp. 15-17. See also Louis Rene Beres, Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Colorado: Westview Press, 1979) p. 8.

2. The term terrorism first came into use at the time of the "Reign of Terror" in France during the Revolution; it was employed in connection with the intimidating practice of the government in power from 1789 to 1794. As pointed out in the Study prepared by the UN Secretariat for the Sixth Committee, this meaning of terrorism has undergone major evolution so that it "now seems to be mainly applied to actions by individual or group of individuals." Roda Mushkat, "Technical Impediments on the way to a Universal Definition of International Terrorism", in Verinder Grover, ed. Encyclopedia of International Terrorism, Vol. 1 (New Delhi: Deep & Deep Publications PVT. LTD, 2002) pp. 14, 15.

3. George F. Will, "The Next Threat: Weapons of Mass Disruption", Newsweek (October 29, 2001) p. 17.

4. 'Trends in terrorism', Report 2000/2001,

5. Nadine Gurr and Benjamin Cole, The New Face Of Terrorism Threats from Weapons of Mass Destruction (London: I. B. Tauris Publishers, 2000) pp. 22, 23.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid. pp. 27,28.

8. Sally Jenkins, "The Quest for 6,347 Identities", Washington Post (September 27, 2001) http://www.washintonpost. Com/ac2/wp-dyn/A32203-2001Sep26?language=printer.

9. In its 1997 review of global terrorism patterns, the U.S. State Department designated seven countries as terrorism sponsors: Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. With the exception of the Sudan, which was added in 1993, each of these countries has remained on the list of terrorism patron-states for more than a decade.

10. Bruce Hoffman, "Terrorism Trends and Prospects", in Ian O. Lesser, Bruce Hoffman, John Arquilla, David F. Ronfeldt, Michele Zanini, Brian Michael Jenkins, Countering the New Terrorism,

11. In 1968 none of the 11 identifiable international terrorist groups could be classified as 'religious.' In 1980 the first modern religious terrorist groups emerged following the Iranian revolution, but comprised only two of the 64 active terrorist groups. By 1992 that number had risen to 11, comprising a quarter of all the terrorist groups that carried out attacks in those years. By 1994, the trend had accelerated, and 16 (or one-third) of the 49 identifiable groups could be classified as religious in character or motivation. In 1995 that number had risen again to 25 out of 58 known active terrorist groups, or 42 per cent. The linkage between this trend and the trend towards increasing lethality in terrorist attacks is evident from the fact that although religious terrorists committed only 25 per cent of the recorded international terrorist incidents in 1995, they were responsible for 58 per cent of the fatalities and carried out all of the attacks in 1995 where there were more than eighty fatalities.

12. Nadine Gurr and Benjamin Cole, Op. cit, pp.28, 29.

13. Ibid. p. 30.

14. Bruce Hoffman, "Terrorism Trends and Prospects", Op. cit.

15. Nadine Gurr and Benjamin Cole, Op. cit. p. 2.

16. L. R. Reddy, BIO-Terrorism (New Delhi: Efficient Offset Printers, 2002) p. 6.

17. Paul Wilkinson, "Terrorism: International Dimensions" in William Gutteridge, The New Terrorism (London: Mansell Publishing Limited, 1986) p.29.

18. These seizures were relatively small compared to the seizures of HEU that were also reported to have taken place: one involving six pounds in St. Petersburg in March 1994; 4.5 pounds in Lithuania in 1992, three kilograms in Czech Republic in 1994 etc. K. Bhushan and G. Katyal, Nuclear Biological and Chemical Warfare (New Delhi: A.P.H. Publishing Corporation, 2002) p 137.

19. Ibid.

20. Jessica Stern, Op. cit. pp. 70,71.

21. M. G. Chitkara and Girdhari Sharma, International Terrorism (New Delhi: A.P.H. Publishing Corporation, 2002) p. 89.

22. The Russian officials have repeatedly denied that any smuggling case involved weapon-grade nuclear material, which, according to the strict definition, is uranium enriched to more than 90 percent U-235 or plutonium with less than 7 percent Pu-240. Ibid. p. 97.

23. The United States department lists Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Syria as the states possessing chemical and biological weapons and supporters of terrorism.

24. Nadine Gurr and Benjamin Cole, Op. cit. pp 44, 45.

25. Ibid. pp. 3-4.

26. Ibid. pp 7-8.

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