What Makes Today’s Terrorists Tick?
"The only way to achieve results," a Japanese leftwing terrorist explained in 1972, "is to shock the world right down to its socks." More than four decades later, with the beheading of three Americans in a matter of months, there can be little doubt that the Islamic State (IS) has indeed achieved that result.
Heinous and repugnant as videos of beheadings are, it is important to recognize that IS is not simply engaged in mindless acts of barbarity. Rather, these deeds are the product of strategic choices consciously made by the group to further its aims and consolidate the gains it has already made.
To defeat terrorists one has to understand what drives IS and other groups to use deliberately shocking violence.
To defeat terrorists one has to understand what drives IS and other groups to use deliberately shocking violence. So, here are the seven rules one needs to keep in mind to expose the underlying logic of IS's strategy when the latest of its depredations occur. Such understandings can help us avoid falling into the trap that is their deliberately choreographed battle plan.
1. Understand that terrorism is intended to instil fear within, and thereby intimidate, a wider target audience beyond the immediate victim of the act. This can include a rival local ethnic or religious groups, specific governments, or a larger range of groups comprising the greater international opinion. Through the publicity generated by their violence, terrorists seek to obtain the leverage, influence, and power they would otherwise lack to affect political change on a local, regional, and even international scale.
2. Terrorists are trying to convey a message. All terrorists everywhere have one fundamental trait in common: none commit actions randomly or senselessly; each wants maximum publicity to be generated by its actions and, moreover, uses intimidation and subjection to attain its objectives. For them, success is equated with impact and self-gratification; thus, it is measured in terms of publicity generated and attention received—the only tangible or empirical means by which to gauge their success and track their progress.
3. Terrorists don't think of themselves as terrorists. They see themselves as perpetually cast on the defensive—forced to take up arms to protect their faith and their kin. "You see . . . [we have] lower numbers, meagre equipment, and a weaker voice," IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-'Adnani tellingly intoned in response to the commencement of U.S. air attacks in September. "But [our] strength can never be subdued . . . . In the end, [we] will triumph and be victorious."
4. Terrorism is a provocation strategy. Its perpetrators are looking to make its targets overreact and reveal themselves as the monster the terrorists have always insisted them to be. "O crusaders, you have realized the threat of the Islamic State," Adnani's aforementioned response to the U.S. intervention proclaimed, "but you have not become aware of the cure because there is no cure. If you fight, [we only] become stronger and tougher."
5. Terrorism is theatre. It's a perverted form of show business, reliant on media—both social and traditional broadcast media—the same way fire relies on oxygen. Only by spreading the terror and outrage can the terrorists gain the maximum potential leverage that they need to effect fundamental political change.
6. While terrorism and religion share a long history, stretching back two millennia or more, it is only recently that religious terrorist movements have become so central to our concerns of both domestic and international security. Although the modern advent of religious terrorism has not been confined exclusively to Iran—much less to the Middle East, Islam, or IS and al-Qaeda (AQ) alone—it is this re-ignition of the age-old struggle between Sunni and Shi'a, and Arab and Persian, that has today turned Syria and Iraq into a cockpit of unrestrained sectarian bloodletting.
7. Religious terrorist groups know no limits. They commit more intense acts of violence than secular terrorist groups, precisely because of their otherworldly focus and fanaticism, which makes older terrorists like Carlos the Jackal seem unambitious by comparison. For the religious terrorist, violence is first and foremost a sacramental act or divine duty executed in direct response to some theological demand or imperative. Such terrorism thus assumes a transcendental dimension, and its perpetrators are therefore unconstrained by the political, moral, or practical constraints that often affect other terrorists.
It used to be said that terrorists want a lot of people listening and a lot of people watching, but not a lot of people dead. Today, in the age of IS and AQ, terrorists now patently want it both ways.
It used to be said that terrorists want a lot of people listening and a lot of people watching, but not a lot of people dead. Today, in the age of IS and AQ, terrorists now patently want it both ways. How we blunt terrorism's growth and prevent its escalation will thus depend on how we react and effectively marshal our efforts to counter this menace. Better horizon scanning to identify emerging groups and threats, focusing our attention on the seam zones of lawless border areas and ungoverned spaces that provide these groups with sanctuary and sustenance will be critical, as will be means to address the radicalizing and recruiting power of new social media.
But all these initiatives will be for naught without an understanding of the modern terrorist mindset and the inner logic that animates it. Defeating IS will require patience, resilience, and perseverance in an environment where guile often counts as much as firepower.