The Increased Violence in New Terrorism: What Is Going On

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Table of contents

  1. Discussing the Increased Violence in New Terrorism
  2. New Terrorist Organizational Structure
  3. Conclusion

The 1990s recalls a series of extremist acts that ushered a new and more violent form of terrorism. Propelled by religious motivations, decentralized organization, and technological advancement, the new terrorism distinguished itself from old terrorism with its inclination to indiscriminate killing and mass casualties. Rapoport’s terrorism evolution theory revealed historical patterns and transformative stages that narrated the vicious transformation of terrorism from its anarchist theme to its religious wave. Instigated by apocalyptic beliefs and firm adherence to divine scriptures, martyrs became vehicles of destruction to an era driven by primarily by religious cause. Globalization afforded many terrorist groups to operate transnationally in a decentralized manner and network organization. This scheme transforms terrorists into flexible, adaptive, and resilient entities due to fewer command structures, its multicellular function, its independence from state sponsorship, and the chaotic role of amateur terrorists. The advancement of modern communication systems became strategic assets that eased coordination and anonymity of attacks while increasing availability and access to the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) demonstrated the terrorist intent to cause widespread damage. The terrorist groups’ waning public, leadership, and state reliance lifted previous restrictions which now enables them to execute more severe and punishing attacks. Lastly, this study presented current and relevant historical cases that included the 1995 Tokyo underground attack, Hamas and al Qaeda campaigns, the 09/11 terror, and other examples which accentuated the destructive transformation of radical extremist in modern terrorism.

The meaning of the term terrorism has been highly debated due to the lack of consensus among field experts. Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines it as the “systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.” Bruce Hoffman favors the Department of Defense’s extensive description of terrorism as “the unlawful use of violence or threat of violence, often motivated by religious, political, or other ideological beliefs, to instill fear and coerce governments or societies in pursuit of goals”. Spencer highlights Weinberg, Pedahzur, and Hirsch-Hoefler's analysis of 73 terrorism definitions from 55 research publications. Collaboratively, they interpreted terrorism as a “politically motivated tactic involving the threat or use of force or violence in which the pursuit of publicity plays a significant role”. Regardless of the terrorism terminology one might accept, it is evident that violence is always at the core of its conceptualization. According to Hoffman, from the hundreds of terrorism definitions in use, 83.5% contain elements of violence in its context. For this discourse, the definition of violence is stretched from the traditional use of physical force to harm or cause damage and is expanded with its derivative terms such as brutality, lethality, acts of terror, mass casualties, and other elements conducive to violence. This violent aspect is further demonstrated by the distinct periods of terrorism.

To comprehend the intense characteristics of modern terrorism it is important to understand its historical patterns and transformative stages. David Rapoport’s well-known Four-Wave pattern theory outlines this complex evolution. His study chronologically examines unique phases of terrorism that inevitably fashioned its new and more vicious dimensions. The first wave, known as the anarchist movement, is comprised of small groups with a clear agenda of overthrowing the established political system. Their methods avoided civilians and targeted mainly government figures and institutions. This early years of terrorism indoctrinated the necessity of violence to successfully incite public support. The second wave is characterized by anti-colonial sentiments that fiercely fought to free themselves from foreign occupations. Under ethno-nationalist movements emerged new strategies that put less emphasis on killing political leaders and instead, targets law enforcement officials. Overwhelmed by the enemy’s military power, terrorists resulted in guerrilla warfare that is unregulated by the laws of war. Terrorists of this era were labeled freedom fighters, whose acts of terror are excused by their virtues means for independence. As symbols of liberty, they would gain foreign state backing and limit the impact to the general populous to evade backlash. The next wave internationalized terrorism over Leftist ideologies or Marxist terrorism that exploited violence to provoke the public revolutions. Terrorists’ strengthen their ties with state sponsorship and expanded their targets, becoming indiscriminate with increased civilian victims.

They aim to maximize publicity by leveraging technology to carry out their attacks which saw increase frequency of suicide bombing, kidnapping, and hijacking .

The fusion of religious elements with the already violent characteristics of the past made terrorist groups more dangerous. With themes of martyrdom, Islamic superiority, and religiously justified acts, terrorists became highly lethal with their random and mass killings, their continued abduction, and hijacking, and by reverting to basic schemes of decapitation, shootings, and bombings. Propelled by globalization and modern communication, the fourth wave operated internationally and virtually which enabled them to easily spread their ideologies across the world. As observed from the different phases of terrorism there exist distinctive features between old and new terrorism, which is critical when substantiating its violent ascension. With the new generation learning from the old, terrorists would become more intelligent, resilient, and violent.

Discussing the Increased Violence in New Terrorism

Most experts agree that extremist acts in the 1990s fundamentally shaped the global terrorism patterns into a violent gradient. According to Copeland, these “new terrorist attacks exhibit greater lethality; a higher percentage of attacks in the 1990s resulted in one or more fatalities than any previous decade”. Based on Tucker’s statistical analysis, the surge in terrorism casualties is visible through data from 1995-1999, where 0.17% of the global terrorist activities accounted for 67% of all casualties in this date range. Described as “new terrorism,” this latest paradigm delivered different aims, structures, actors, strategies, and numerous other variables that distinguish the new from the old forms of terrorism. Among these plethoras of distinctive elements, the rise of religious ideologies, decentralized organization, and adaptation to technology stands out as driving factors for rationalizing the terrorists' increased use of violence.

The growth of religious base terrorism is attributed to the insecurities manifested by modernization that believe to threaten their ideologies. The increasing influence of secular and western culture that is perceived to overtake their sacred lifestyle and the government’s failure to properly react was confronted with radical responses. Such grievances and efforts to preserve the purity of their religion resulted in a climate of excessive violence. Undeniably, the act of violence through religious fanaticism is a prominent trait of new terrorism that is on the rise. In 1980, a mere 3% from 64 terrorist groups affiliated themselves with religion. Fifteen years later, this number magnified to 40% as 25 out of 58 terrorist organizations are classified as religious. Similarly, Morgan claimed that religiously affiliated terrorist has multiplied six times in 1992 compared to the 1980s. Hoffman stated that terrorism derived from religion has implicated 60% of terrorist-related deaths while only committing 25% of the overall terrorist activities. Such extreme progression, instigated by apocalyptic purviews and strict interpretations of their holy doctrine would make this era of terrorism almost indistinguishable from its past.

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The violence behind religiously motivated terrorists as Spencer echoed Hoffman, is “a sacramental act or divine duty executed in direct response to some theological demand or imperative and justified by scripture”. Under these circumstances, their violence is rationalized and becomes an imperative mode in promoting their fundamentalist beliefs.

Grounded mostly by Islamic traditions, propagated by clerical leaders, and instructed by their sacred text, terrorists of this type seek to cleanse the world of non-believers and impurities imposed by westernization as a proclamation of the supremacy of their religion. Morgan pointed out that the reasoning for this violent Islamic perspective is that they “cannot conceive of either coexistence or political compromised”. Furthermore, Simon and Benjamin expressed the Jihadists Armageddon principle to wipe out the world from impurities and restore the ideal Muslim order. This explains their wide-range of adversaries and vindicates their mass killings. The traditional secular aims that pursued public approval and restricted their activities are voided by principles that seek to appease and fulfill God’s directions. Left unchecked, this set of terrorists proceeded with nearly no boundaries, engaging in treacherous and more intricate acts because they are less threaten of being alienated from their sympathizers. It is from this deep-rooted idealism that many terrorists are preconditioned to sacrifice their lives for religious sake.

There is a direct correlation between the increased religious intensified attacks and suicide bombings. From 25 identified terrorist groups conducting suicide attacks in 2015, 96% of them are linked with the Islamic faith. Under the Islamic belief, acts of martyrdom are venerated and given heroic status for the advancement of religious cause. The Qur’an states that the Holy warrior's self-sacrifice for Allah will guarantee entrance to highest of heavens, received forgiveness for their sins, and are showered by an abundance of gifts. These eternal rewards are incentives for recruitment and would obligate the martyrs to perform suicide terrorism. As more bought into these ideals, these types of attacks increased worldwide. Hoffman presented that from all the suicide acts since 1968, 78% of them occurred from 2001 to 2005. Visibly these extreme ideals are in line with the increased bloodshed that characterized modern terrorism and validated by incidents of mass casualties in the 1990s.

The indiscriminate killing influence by religion is widely represented in the modern terrorism era. The Japanese doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo, behind the 1995 subway Tokyo sarin attack that injured almost 6000 individuals believed that the world with its corruptions will come to an end and only their constituents will survive. Similarly, Timothy McVeigh, a member of a Christian Patriot crusade, slain 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bombing. The organization's racial and anti-Semitic beliefs aimed for genocide to reinstate its religion's immaculate beginnings. Like any other Islamic extremists, Hamas uses religion to justify its violence, specifically their struggle to liberate their Muslim entitled land of Palestine culminated to their notorious use of suicide terror. In his fatwa or ruling of Islamic law, Osama bin Laden conveys that by the scriptures every Muslim must kill Americans and all it represents. Those who disobey will be punished and be labeled as defectors of the faith. As history dictates, these religious statements transformed into religious acts exemplified by the September 11. With religion dictating the terrorist course of action and no clear political agenda implies the deteriorating reliance on hierarchical governance. Accordingly, these religious and fanatical traits of modern terrorism would usher new and different structures in the group’s organization.

New Terrorist Organizational Structure

With globalization, affordable flights, and previously less secured international travels, the old terrorism that was confined to a specific geographical area has crossed borders and operated in a transnational setting without an identifiable central operating area. Similar to military strategies, Al Qaeda exemplifies how their camps are segregated where recruitment sites, training facilities, and leadership headquarters are rarely on the same location. This ease in mobility and increased in scope formed a networked structure that created regional surrogates around the world. The new terrorisms amorphous nodes marshaled greater freedom and autonomy when making tactical decisions. The nodes can consist of a single individual like Ramzi Yousef who orchestrated the 1993 World Trade Center bombing or it may encompass small factions like the Christian Patriot movement that influenced McVeigh in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

A network approach transforms terrorists into flexible, adaptive, and resilient entities because a branch can respond independently, easily relay information to others, and continue the mission even if some of their camps are compromised. Such self-regulation empowers the groups to engage in more activities, develop new strategies, and increase their membership. Whereas the old terrorism had 400-500 members, modern terrorist like al Qaeda is reported to have 4000-5000 personnel. Logically, the larger the constituents the higher capacity for destruction. In this system, personal relationships among terrorist members displace established command structures as terrorists functioned base on shared knowledge and common drives.

The changing international landscape had forced many terrorist groups to become decentralized, operating in a flatter and networked organizational arrangements compared to their traditional vertical and hierarchical structures. A typical hierarchical design has a principal leader that directs instructions to its members and has ultimate decision making power. Appearing headless or multi-headed, terrorists are liberated from the restrictions of single command frameworks that potentially inhibited them from executing more severe and indiscriminate attacks. The new terrorist does not necessitate the regulation of a leader since their uniformed ideals guide their engagements which often involves “irrational expression of violence”. Hopes for peaceful negotiations dwindled as the diffused terrorists lack a particular public representative, leaving violent disturbance as their only option. Furthermore, the absence of formalized control made terrorists difficult to counteract as they become unpredictable with their violence. Overall, Hamilton & Gray describe the increase decentralization resulted in a higher frequency of attacks although lower in fatality rate. The 2004 Madrid train bombing and the 2005 attacks in London showed how diffused terrorism targeted regular citizens with less coordination compared to previous years. The liable factions of the two bombings claimed to have a loose connection to al Qaeda that yielded a successful campaign despite little preparation, minimal organizational backing, and the lack of supervision.

The internalization of terrorism had also deteriorated their reliance on state sponsorship. Like with the eroding need for public support or leaderless order, the diminishing need for state backing would also remove the restrictions levied by the sponsoring country and consequently offered less reason to limit violence. Trends of self-sufficiency enable terrorists to fundraise through criminal activities like kidnapping, drug trafficking, and robberies. These acts, regardless of how small, contribute to the total rise of modern terrorism rampage. For example, the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka have severed their state dependency and found success in the drug business. The decline of state powers and command oversight paved the way to part-time amateurs to enter the terrorism scene.

Members of these new breeds are informally trained that are often self-taught using the internet. Due to their self-governing characteristics, new amateur terrorists are unpredictable with their surprise and erratic activities, which makes them difficult to trace and monitor especially because they dissolve after each attack. For what has been a prevailing reason, these amateur organizations have no clear association with a terrorist group or state patronage that could restrict them from causing extreme violence. Spencer and Tucker would lead us to believe that these amateurs terrorist conforms to the apparent violent trend of new terrorism. Additionally, the depth of knowledge and competency of these networked amateurs is embodied by their exploitation of technological advancement. 


Terrorism has evolved through numerous stages in history. At the heart of each period are escalated violence that continuously progresses to this modern day. Many scholars assert that the years leading up to 09/11 terrors represented “new terrorism” that is far more devastating than the old. Major terrorist attacks leading to the new millennium signifies a significant shift in terrorism threat that intends to inflict at a grander scale. This 1990s conceptualization of “New Terrorism” is distinctively more violent from “Old Terrorism” due to its predominantly religious motivations, its decentralized organization network, and its increased access to modern technology. At the forefront of this change is the prominence of religion with mainly Islamic principles that justifies their indiscriminate violence as a sacred duty. The decentralization of terrorist groups removed many constraints of their attacks as they operated globally and detached from state controls. Finally, technological advancement in communication and more lethal weaponry have become gateways for terrorists to propagate increased violence. An examination of the concept of terrorism provides a foundation for understanding their amplified aggression.

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