Terrorism: the state of play

It has now been over a year since Osama bin Laden’s death, not a bad time to assess the status of terrorist activity around the world. [i]  Where do things stand at the end of 2012?

In much of the western world terrorism, as we have come to understand it, has largely passed from the scene.  The exceptions are various far right groups and lone wolves intent on attacking Muslims and their institutions located in Europe and America: the obvious cases are the National Socialist Underground’s murders in Germany and Anders Breivik’s killing spree in Norway.  Jews and Jewish institutions have been targeted by Salafist/jihadi in France especially.  But the kinds of mass casualty assaults associated with 9/11, Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005 seem to have ended. Planned attacks of this type have been disrupted by the security services involved and by the would-be perpetrators own ineptitude.  Attacks on the ‘Far Enemy’ have abated, at a minimum, or come to an end completely.

The various Marxist-inspired groups in Latin America plus Europe and the U.S. have virtually disappeared, although the economic recession in Europe may bring about the revival of some (e.g. in Greece).  In Colombia and Spain the People’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) and Basque Homeland and Liberty (ETA) have entered negotiations with Bogota and Madrid aimed at bringing their insurgencies to an end.

This leaves us with Al Qaeda and its various affiliates and tributaries.  It is clear by now that the group’s decapitation, i.e. the killing of bin Laden, did not bring about its demise – as accurately predicted by such analysts as Jena Jordan and Bruce Hoffman.[ii]  The same may be said about the earlier killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. As elsewhere, in the Middle East, North and Sub-Saharan al Qaeda continues to be highly active.  The Arab Spring, the ongoing rebellion in Syria and religious conflict in Nigeria have proven to be a godsend, excuse the expression.  The same may be said about inter-tribal and inter-clan rivalries in Mali, and a few other places.

In Algeria, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere al Qaeda-linked groups seek to exploit the turmoil wrought by newly formed and highly vulnerable democracies or popular insurgencies by inserting themselves into the conflicts.  In effect, these jihadist groups have sought to piggy-back (excuse the expression again) on Sunni mass movements of discontent already underway.

It may very well be a temporary development but it is certainly worth noting that terrorist attacks against Israel and Israeli targets have declined following the construction of the wall separating Israel’s 1967 border (more or less) from the occupied territories.

South and Southeast Asia presents us with a mixed picture.  In Sri Lanka the government in Colombo managed to repress the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) some years ago. In the Philippines the government in Manila reached a peace agreement in 2012 with the Moro National Liberation Front. Muslim secessionists continue to wage an insurgency in Southern Thailand using a mix guerrilla warfare and terrorist tactics. Terrorist schemes to create a caliphate out of Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the southern Philippines have fallen by the wayside, as the schemers have been arrested or killed. On the other hand, it would be hard to ignore the fact that jihadists in Pakistan and Afghanistan persist in launching terrorist attacks both against domestic targets and cross-border ones against India.

Finally, there is the matter of ‘cyber-terrorism’, in other words using the Internet to disrupt the infrastructure of the western democracies, the United States especially. The fears expressed by analysts and policy-makers may be fully justified.  But most definitions of the contested concept of  ‘terrorism’ stress the use or threat of violence against civilian targets with the aim of affecting some wider audience(s).  Some may regard this observation as a pedantic quibble, but unless we are willing to stretch what is already an essentially contested concept still wider it would make sense to produce a different label for is by all odds a growing threat.


[i]  These comments are based on Leonard Weinberg, The End of Terrorism?  (London: Routledge, 2011)

[ii] Jena Jordan, “ When Heads Role: The Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation” Security Studies  18:4 (2009) pp. 710-755; Bruce Hoffman, “Bin Laden’s killing and its effects on Al Qaeda” CTC Sentinel  (May 2011) pp. 1-2

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