Isaac Kfir, Advisory Board, International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law and Adjunct Professor, Charles Sturt University
In his April 2021 testimony, Mike Burgess the Director-General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization emphasized that the threat of a terrorist attack in the next 12 months remains probable. In his appearance before Senate Estimates, Burgess also pointed out that terrorist organizations are always changing their tactics and strategies so that they do not become vulnerable.
There are many obstacles that counterterrorism officials face in dealing with the threat. First, when it comes to data there is either a lack of data or too much raw data to properly analyze. Secondly, the emergence of lone actors has added an extra layer of complexity to the issue, complicating a previously predictive process. There are also issues of complacency, lack of access to terrorists’ inner thinking and a failure to think outside the box when it comes to counterterrorism policies.
In the 1970s and 80s, preeminent terrorism scholar Professor Martha Crenshaw explored the concept of revolutionary terrorism, the causes of terrorism, and how terrorism declines. This work led her to also examine why terrorists innovate, which she defined as ‘new patterns of behavior’. Crenshaw identified three types of terrorist innovation: strategic, organizational, and tactical. The first refers to changes in the strategic thinking and outlooks of groups, organizational innovations refer to internal changes within a group, whereas tactical innovations involve the adoption of new equipment or tools. In her study, Crenshaw did not develop matrixes to assess changes or identify specific events or reasons as to why terrorist groups innovate.
The Role of Technology
Adam Dolnik, Professor of Terrorism Studies at the University of Wollongong, sought to address this gap in his 2015 study. He discovered that terrorist groups are incrementalists and not revolutionary — they opt to adapt technology according to their strategic, organizational, and tactical goals. Crenshaw’s and Dolnik’s landmark research did not factor in the role of a lone actors carrying out terrorist attacks, nor the role that networks and franchises have come to play in the terrorist landscape. They did, however, recognize the role of technology — viewing it not only as a revolutionary tool but also as something used by extremists to supplement conventional tactics. This is why scholars such as Dolnik, and later Gary Ackerman, concluded that while terrorist groups may be innovative in how they apply technology, their thinking and actions are limited in scope, lacking what some would describe as ‘malevolent creativity’.
Fourth-wave terrorist groups are driven by religion, making them more receptive toward mass-casualty attacks as they seek revolutionary change. These groups — unlike anarchists, anti-colonialist, or the New Left — are cosmic warriors embracing catastrophic Messianism that calls for a decisive battle between ‘good and evil’. Cosmic warriors see the world through a rigid lens of the damned (unenlightened) and the saved (enlightened), rejecting any compromise as it would mean ‘accepting the devil and rejecting salvation’. These types seek mass destruction because they believe it will bring forth the believed salvation.
Technology has become a crucial factor when studying cosmic warriors and how they innovate. It carries the potential for the Armageddon that they want, and technology gives them the specific capability to explore new weapons, tools, ideas and spread the ‘word’ without ever leaving their bedroom. For example, right-wing Norwegian terrorist, Andres Breivik, was able to send his 1,500-page compendium to over 8,000 people through the internet before he embarked on his terrorist attacks. Doing something like this before the emergence of the internet was difficult. For example, in 1978, American terrorist Ted Kaczynski, who later became known as the ‘Unabomber’, had to send his ‘manifesto’ to traditional print publications, and it was entirely up to them whether or not to publish the document.
Access to Information and Training
Technology has certainly made the transfer of knowledge easier, and terrorists can more easily learn and copy other broadcasted attacks. While Brenton Tarrant — the Australian terrorist who shot dead 51 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand — was the first to livestream a terrorist attack, he was not the first to livestream an atrocity. In 2015, Vester Lee Flanagan, an American, shot and killed Alison Parker and Adam Ward during a live news broadcast. Before shooting himself, Flanagan, who was a disgruntled worker, uploaded a video of the incident and sent a 23-page document explaining his actions. Several months later, , a Frenchman who claimed allegiance to ISIS, brutally stabbed two French police officers. Abdalla filmed the attack and later posted it on Facebook. While there is no evidence that Abballa was aware of Flanagan’s broadcasted attack, but since 2015, there have been several cases of individuals (Mohamed Merah, Mehdi Nemmouche, Amedy Coulibaly, Elliot Rodger) filming their terrorist attacks. Abballa , a Frenchman who claimed allegiance to ISIS, brutally stabbed two French police officers. Abdalla filmed the attack and later posted it on Facebook. While there is no evidence that Abballa was aware of Flanagan’s broadcasted attack, there have been several cases, since 2015, of individuals (Mohamed Merah, Mehdi Nemmouche, Amedy Coulibaly, Elliot Rodger) filming their terrorist attacks.
Technology has also enabled individuals to train. During his trial, Breivik admitted to using Call of Duty: Modern Warfare as a “training” tool. He also noted that video games presented various tasks and challenges to players that help prepare them for a real-life attack. On his part, Tarrant admitted to playing Fortnite and Spyro the Dragon.
Over the past few years, terrorist organizations have evolved. Effective counterterrorism measures have led to the emergence of franchises and lone actors who are less bound by a rigid organizational structure — which is arguably beneficial to their franchisors who may prefer that they operate as semi-autonomous or autonomous — allowing them to experiment with new tactics and tools. In his compendium, Breivik explained he had chosen to be a lone actor because he calculated that getting help from others to build an IED would increase the likelihood of discovery. This emphasizes his savviness and commitment to carry out his attacks, as he looked for ways to train, avoid detection and desensitize.
Breivik’s case epitomizes why extremists look to innovate as they recognize that if they are to carry out their acts of violence, they not only need to prepare themselves, but they also must find ways to avoid detection. The access that technology gave Breivik, coupled with the nature of his attack, is arguably why he has been hailed as a hero by Russian far-right extremists, Brenton Tarrant, Christopher Hassan, David Sonboly, and others.
When thinking about counterterrorism it is important to remember that while the 9/11 Commission recognized that many errors took place prior to the attack, it also emphasized that one of the major shortcomings was a ‘failure of imagination’. It pointed out that intelligence and security agencies were linear, convergent thinkers who struggled to think divergently and, therefore, missed important connections.
To properly tackle the threat, counterterrorism policies must evolve and explore malevolent creativity. If we are to continue to stay ahead of violent extremists, we must address our cognitive biases and understand that extremists are constantly searching for new ways to carry out their agendas. Although we are facing a hiatus in terms of mass casualty attacks, there is a new generation of terrorists waiting to make a name for themselves.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.