The Future of Terrorism

by Neal A. Pollard, Co-Director, Terrorism Research Center

Possibly, we will see a relative decline, perhaps even extinction, of what we traditionally considered “ideological” terrorism: namely, the phenomenon that brought terrorism to the global stage via hijackings and bombings beginning around 1968, perpetrated by such groups as Red Army Faction, Red Brigades, Japanese Red Army, etc. The end of the Cold War has resulted in the drying of the well of support for anti-Democratic/anti-Capitalist, Marxist-based ideologically motivated political terrorists. Although there are a few of these ideologically motivated groups still active (particularly in Peru), the world will see these groups become extinct one by one, though possibly not without each one perpetrating one last paroxysm of violence before they disappear.

At the end of the Cold War, ideological terrorism lost its support and raison d’etre, however, the “depolarization” of the world has allowed several ethno-religious conflicts, some centuries old, to manifest themselves in terrorism, insurgency, regional instability, and civil war. Ethno-religious terrorism will not die away, and could respond to several future stimuli. Examples of these stimuli include: an increasing US presence in the Middle East and Pacific Rim, Western development of the Caspian oil reserves, and flourishing Western technological development (and attendant cultural exposure) in the Middle East and Pacific Rim. Former Soviet Republics (especially Transcaucasus) might grow less stable as outside influences increase (economic, political and technological/media), Russia’s ability to suppress insurgency lessens, economic conditions in those republics decline, and political power becomes a commodity for corruption and organized crime. As stability weakens in Central Asia, and Islamic fundamentalism gains political power the result of “protest votes” in governments from Turkey to Indonesia but especially in Central Asia, relations among countries in the region could become more strained.

However, I believe relative to the above two other forms of terrorism (ethno-religious and ideological), single-issue terrorism will rise disproportionately, especially with US domestic terrorism, including groups oriented around or against technology (e.g. neo-Luddites). In the post-print age, groups, even nationalities, will organize themselves without geographic constraints, bringing diaspora together and uniting issue-oriented groups and religions through the course of globalization, which will paint clearer pictures of who and what has the ability to affect and influence masses of people. This, coupled with the general evolution of state sovereignty (in which many super- and sub-state organizations, including corporations, could challenge the state-centered international system), will likely drive terrorism and guerrilla warfare into being more broadly rejectionist: attacking more than just the general legitimacy of states, but also Non-Governmental Organizations, Multi-National Corporations, etc. Furthermore, access to weapons and methods of increasing lethality, or methods targeting digital information systems that attract wildly disproportionate effects and publicity, will allow terrorists to be “non-affiliated” with larger, better financed subversive organizations or state sponsors. This could result in terrorist cells that are smaller, even familial, and thus harder to infiltrate, track, or counter. Terrorism will be increasingly networked, with smaller and more self-sufficient cells, and will globally integrate parallel to digital global integration, and will permeate geographic boundaries and state sovereignties just as easily.

Also, keyed in with the rise in single-issue terrorism will be the rise in “true” guerrilla movements within the US: that is, movements that seek the destruction of the US government, rather than movements that seek to influence government, a particular policy or population. This also includes movements that are geographically centered, rather than cellular and sparse, operating in rural areas rather than urban centers.

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