Cyber Security and Emerging Threats Daniel Woodburn Defense Development Diplomatic Relations Peace & Conflict Studies Security Uncategorized

Terrorism: ineffectual but popular nevertheless

If we are to accept that terrorism is primarily aimed at extracting concessions out of an enemy, be it with immediate effect or in the long term, then terrorism does not work often enough to warrant its continued use. Yet instances such as 9/11 (which, succeeded in destroying the status quo in the Middle East) and the misleading case of the Madrid train bombings are sufficient kindling to fuel the fire. Even if the success rate was as low as 1%, there is the possibility that terrorism might work. Besides, merely being seen to do something in the face of the oppressor would constitute a small victory, for in this age of mass media the world’s attention is a powerful tool.


The cases in which terrorism has succeeded are isolated, sparse and contrary to the general rule of resolve-hardening in the face of acts of atrocity. However in theory, the flaw lies with insufficient application of force; after all, everything has a breaking point. It therefore isn’t unreasonable to assume that terrorist groups are constantly looking for new ways to inflict maximal damage.

Religious terrorism implies a relative, if not total lack of moral inhibitions. If you truly believe that what you are doing is at your chosen deity’s behest, then you have every reason to slaughter civilians. In fact, insofar as religion often transcends a conventional understanding of logic and the science of reasoning, it entails a lack of the two. The backlashes that ensued from attacks the calibre of the 7/7 London bombings, the 9/11 attacks or the 1972 Olympics massacre may point towards terrorist tactics bearing less and less fruit the more brutal the attacks are.  However, when the reward is the promise of the afterlife or the mere knowledge that one is resisting the oppressor, the possibilities for destruction become endless.

It is not altogether fanciful to conceive of terrorist groups attempting to get hold of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Indeed, the Japanese cult group Aum Shinrikyo’s use of nerve gas in the Tokyo subway systemin 1995 is a case in point. Furthermore, Al-Qaeda has been universally recognised as having manifested a degree of intent and experimentation as regards the acquisition of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

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Popular American shows such as 24 would have us believe that terrorist groups would not hesitate to deploy WMDs (be they chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear in nature (CBRN)). They are depicted as having the seemingly abundant capability to do so and would succeed were it not for the phenomenal counter-terrorist efforts of individuals like Jack Bauer. Though it is safe to say that such shows are rather divorced from reality, the anthrax attacks following 9/11 speak volumes for the willingness to employ bioweapons, which are just a short leap from WMDs.

It is worth mentioning that although chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons are all grouped together in the same category, only one of the four types has ever been deployed to a devastating effect: the nuclear bomb. The highly limited casualty count of Aum Shinrikyo’s attack on the Tokyo subway system demonstrated just how difficult it is to get the dispersal system right so as to maximise casualties in the case of bioweapons (although eight dead and hundreds injured is by no means a negligible toll). WMDs which fall into the bioweapons category have the potential to wreak havoc and large numbers of casualties, but unlocking that potential is the tricky part.

Casualties are therefore always likely to be limited in the case of chemical, biological or radiological weapons, whereas nuclear weapons would be a fool-proof way of inflicting a monumental amount of human and infrastructural damage on a state. If deployed against a sufficiently weak-willed opponent in conjunction with a list of realistic demands, few states’ populations would experience a hardening of resolve. Instead, the state’s government, were it a democratic one, would yield to popular pressure and proceed to negotiate with the terrorists, if not give in to their demands altogether.

In light of the shift in trends from old to new terrorism, and the fact that this has been accompanied by a decrease in moral, political and practical restraints in terrorist activities, the risk of WMDs being used as opposed to more conventional, low-yield bombs is only kept in check by the relative difficulty of acquiring such weapons. Even then, some bioweapons are quite easy to manufacture in one’s own garage. Furthermore, nuclear weapons are becoming ever simpler to assemble, although even a dumbed-down version of a nuclear bomb would require serious amounts of expertise, not to mention weapons-grade uranium.

More importantly though, considering how terrorism has stolen the limelight in the past decade and a half and now occupies a major place in democracies’ considerations of foreign policy, terrorism is undoubtedly on the rise rather than being a short-lived fad. The emergence of IS and the response Western democracies have felt compelled to inflict upon it in an attempt to eradicate it goes to show that although terrorism rarely achieves political concessions, it is often successful insofar as it creates fear. With heightened levels of security ensuing from the possibility of IS fighters returning to their respective countries and carrying out terrorist attacks, it is fair to assume that we are not going to be seeing the last of terrorism any time soon. Nor is it likely to stop evolving in its inventiveness as regards methods and scales of destruction.

Daniel Woodburn
Daniel Woodburn recently completed his Bachelor of Arts in War Studies at King’s College London in the UK. As a result of the wide scope provided by the course, his primary areas of interest have been honed to international development, conflict resolution, state building and security studies with a penchant towards the Middle East and Africa. Having finished his studies at undergraduate level he is now looking to acquire an array of experience relevant to his fields of interest with a view to following up on his Bachelor degree with a Master’s.