The Evolution of Terrorism, What to Expect Next

Paul Pillar is a Professor at Georgetown University, he retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community.

Question: The recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai involved a well coordinated, sustained and indiscriminate murder of civilians over a period of several days. Do these attacks represent a change in the way terrorist attacks are being carried out and what is the political objective of such attacks?

Pillar: There has been a change over the last quarter century or so from most terrorism being designed to achieve specific identifiable and presumably achievable political objectives. Much of this terrorism would involve something like the taking of a hostage or the high-jacking of an aircraft after which demands are made. Most often demands like a release of comrades from prison.  Over the more recent couple of decades, we have seen more of the terrorism that has taken the form of going out and causing destruction and killing people straightaway rather than making demands.  All terrorism has some kind of political objective, but what we have seen more of in recent years has been the more diffuse objectives. Such as the kind that drives bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization, which are very general and not satisfiable through concessions that any government can make. The attack in Mumbai clearly falls in this latter category. As for the presumed political objectives of that specific attack, we will presumably find out more as investigations proceed and the interrogation of the one detained attacker leads to conclusions. But it would appear to be mainly to ferment discord and conflict between India and Pakistan and derail the rapprochement between those two governments that has taken place over the past few years.

Question: So it appears that terrorism has evolved from a setting where a weak actor is trying to achieve a certain political objective through hostage taking or assassinations to the more indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians. What is the cause of this transformation?

Pillar: The transformation has occurred partly because of change in larger international political circumstances. For example, some of the old style terrorism was designed more for objectives that could be considered national liberation or self-determination objectives, the kind of things that have been involved in a lot of Palestinian terrorism as well as terrorism in say Northern Irish groups. With most of those objectives having already been achieved, not in the case of say Palestine, but in the case of say various former African colonies that are now independent.  The decolonization has made that all irrelevant.

The type of less measured terrorism that we are facing today, which we identify with groups like Al Qaeda, has arisen and become stronger over the last couple decades for several reasons. One such reason is the political development or lack of political development in Middle Eastern countries. They have made this particular brand of extremism seem in many eyes as the only vehicle for accomplishing political change. It also is related to globalization and the increased impact that the United States and other western countries have had on the Muslim world, in particular much to the resentment of many residents of that world.  So it’s larger developments, changes in the international political structure and expansion of globalization throughout the world that explains this trend in terrorism. 

Question: Because governments possess limited resources, what should they focus on in order to prevent such attacks from occurring in the future: increase the physical security of likely targets in order to deter attacks, improve intelligence gathering capabilities, or use soft power to improve the political climate and defuse the grievances cited by terrorist organizations?  

Pillar: Well, the correct answer is all of the above and some others as well, such as using diplomatic measures to gain additional cooperation from governments in fighting terrorism.  Occasionally using military force where it’s appropriate. As well as using the capabilities of law enforcement organizations to investigate and prosecute terrorist crimes. I would hesitate to place any kind of ordering of importance on the three that you mentioned or the others, because you have to do all in coordination with one another. But I would make some further comments on the particular ones that you mentioned.  Physical defensive measures to protect something from attack are certainly essential but they always have an inherently limited effect in that you are only protecting whatever is in a particular location or a facility that you are protecting.  Where as other measures that may undercut the sources of support and the roots of terrorism or terrorist groups can attack the problem as it might be manifested in any kind of attack, against any sort of target. So the last of the three that you mentioned, using soft power to improve the political climate can have a very widespread favorable effect, even though it’s very difficult to measure. And finally with regard to intelligence, I would simply note that although much emphasis traditionally gets placed on this, there will always be inherent difficulties in uncovering the next terrorist attack or next terrorist plot, and we would be foolish to rely too much on the idea that intelligence will provide us enough warning to prevent that next attack. 

Question: Has the war on terror changed the network structure and operating habits of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations? How is the command structure of terrorist organizations and networks today different from that of terrorist organizations 20 to 40 years ago? 

Pillar: Generally, today we are facing a more decentralized and more diffused threat. Not just between now and 20 or 30 years ago, but even between now and the time of 9/11, when the particular group that accomplished that attack was very cohesive and centrally organized and directly controlled by bin Laden and Zawahiri. Today, thanks in large part to a lot of the counter terrorist measures taken, including the intervention in Afghanistan, that is much less the case. Bin Laden and Zawahiri, wherever they are hiding out, near the Pakistani/Afghanistan border presumably, are doing much less in the way of directing or controlling terrorist operations and more in the way of trying to inspire other people to initiate operations. They have become more what in a sense bin Laden had in mind all along for Al Qaeda, meaning “the base” in Arabic, which was to be only the base for inspiration for what other people would do and not something that would centrally direct everything. So the threat has become more diffused and more decentralized with regard to the radical Sunni Islamists, and when you take into account all of the other varieties of terrorism that we still need to be worrying about today, everything from Shia Islamists to the likes of Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka or other groups of an entirely different nature elsewhere, then it’s very diffused indeed.

Question: What exactly does that mean regarding the type of attacks we will be facing in the future?

Pillar: In general, there would be less potential for an attack on the scale of 9/11, but more potential for being hit from different directions. I am often asked for example, ‘what kind of attack would I expect here in the United States,’ the next thing that we have to worry about.  My answer to that is perhaps an attack having some similarity to the Mumbai attacks, in the sense that individuals with rifles are going around in the city and shooting people, but not necessarily as well organized or as large scale as that.  Even just smaller numbers of ill trained people armed with firearms and explosives doing as much damage as they can in an urban center or a transportation system before they themselves are killed, would cause a lot of havoc and a lot of fear. This can be accomplished without a large and cohesive organization, but with a very small number of people who are motivated for any possible reason and don’t have to be very well trained or organized.

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