Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Manchester: The newest terrorism, and the future of terrorism

By Bruce Newsome

The suicide bombing of a concert in Manchester, England, is indicative of the latest trends in terrorism — trends that have emerged as recently as the last few years, and will continue in the wrong direction for years to come.

The tragedy illustrates the new normal in terrorist motivations and behaviors; unfortunately, you would not necessarily know that from the typical reactive platitudes, which suppress the evidence-based approach that is so desperately needed in studies of terrorism.

In the 1990s, a few scholars identified the rise of what they categorized as “ new terrorism ,” characterized mainly by increased lethality and religious motivations (religious terrorists — relative to secular terrorists — tend to focus on killing as many infidels as possible rather than to discriminate among political targets). Unfortunately, these foresighted scholars were largely ignored until the shock of the attacks on 9/11/2001.

Now, more than 20 years since new terrorism was identified, I and my colleagues W. James Stewart and Aarefah Mosavi have found what we have termed the "newest terrorism." This year, we finished our analysis of 45 years of terrorist behavior for a forthcoming book (to be published in January 2018, entitled Countering New(est) Terrorism ), to produce the first large-n (big dataset) differentiation of new/religious and old/secular terrorism. (We extended the federally sponsored Global Terrorism Database by differentiating the perpetrators as either new or old terrorists, for each of more than hostage crises for each of the years from 1970 through 2016 — giving more than 500,000 data points, and for more than 100,000 terrorist events from 2004 through 2016 — giving roughly 5 million data points.) We examined the most recent cases; we read the newest terrorist doctrines; we interviewed officials; and we put students and officials through simulations to see how terrorists would respond to official procedures.

We proved that the newest terrorists are increasingly risky. Terrorist attacks are increasingly frequent and deadly, partly because they are targeting mass social events around uncontrolled spaces: in Manchester, the attack was perpetrated at the main exit from a concert, at the time when concert-goers were exiting after the concert ended, without the perpetrator needing to gain entry to the concert.

The newest terrorists are competing not just to raise lethality rates but to raise the horror of killing — the attack in Manchester has garnered acute revulsion because most of the victims were female children and parents, of which at least 22 have been killed, and at least 64 injured. The explosive device was packed with nails, and the perpetrator walked into the crowd at proximate range to maximize the deaths and injuries.

The newest terrorists proliferate the skills and awareness needed to make the powerful explosive device used in Manchester, using uncontrolled materials such as hydrogen peroxide, electrical components, and nails. Where followers cannot access the skills or materials to improvise such an explosive weapon, the newest terrorists urge use of readier uncontrolled weapons — knives, automobiles, hammers, axes, acids and combinations thereof.

The newest terrorists are dramatically more ideological, murderous, and suicidal; they are generally less reconcilable, less trusting of official negotiators, less likely to release detainees, and more likely to kill; they are more informed about the official side’s policies, tactics, techniques, and procedures; they make use of new information and communication technologies to communicate with suppliers, controllers, surveyors, the public, and officials; they are more capable fighters — they kill more people even though they deploy fewer fighters per hostage; and they make use of free-er societies to access easier targets.

These facts suggest that terrorism will get much worse before it gets better — the motivations, the availability of weaponizable materials, the ease of communications and the massing of targets are moving in the wrong direction.

Unfortunately, reactive, uninformed commentary tends to ignore the facts in favor of pleasing platitudes: these started on the day after in Britain, which I happened to be visiting, with pretenses that everybody in Manchester is united against terrorism (yet the perpetrator — Salman Abedi — was born in Manchester, as were at least a dozen previous Jihadi terrorists).

Discussions of perpetrators tend to assume that terrorists are:

  • Crazy (no: they have no greater incidence of clinical psychological problems than the general population, even though neighbors and journalists love to report on the perpetrator's supposed abnormalities ex post facto)
  • Unpredictable (no, while terrorists have no abnormal incidence of psychological problems, they tend to escalate to terrorism through predictable anti-social behaviors, but, while these behaviors can be profiled, Western norms resist profiling or punishing these behaviors)
  • Poor and marginalized (no, they tend to come from more affluent backgrounds than their peers — and this perpetrator had a relatively privileged upbringing)
  • Uneducated (no, they tend to be better educated than their peers — and this perpetrator had received higher education locally)
  • Homegrown (no, second-generation immigrants, refugee/asylum seekers, and converts account for almost all Jihadi terrorists in the west — and this perpetrator was born from parents permitted into Britain on asylum from the regime of Muammar Gaddafi)
  • Victimized (no, they tend to choose criminal and anti-social lifestyles over legitimate opportunities)
  • Insulated (no, they tend to be well-traveled and well-informed — and this perpetrator had traveled annually to Libya — the country of his parents' birth, most recently within days of the attack)
  • Have nothing to do with religion (most terrorists claim to represent Islam, and the proportion is increasing).
  • Then there are the fictional reassurances that vigils go beyond memorializing and bonding communities to persuade terrorists that they cannot win (in fact, terrorists congratulate themselves for interrupting so many lives), that the world is getting more peaceful (in fact, all forms of conflict except major war are getting more frequent and deadly, and more conflicts are manifesting as terrorism), and that current counterterrorism strategies are working (yes, we have more programs for "countering violent extremism" — but these started in the 1990s, tend to select the least contentious extremists, and tend to be mediated by self-appointed community leaders who are closer to the extremists than the rest of us).

    Until conventional commentary pays more attention to the facts, even when displeasing, no problem can be solved — another reason to expect more terrorism risk before it gets better.