How real is the threat of terrorism?

Terrorists are strategic actors who craft highly rational and carefully designed plans to achieve their goals.

The terrorist attacks in March carried out by the Islamic State (IS) in Belgium brought about an enormously emotional response. Mainstream media went into overdrive covering the Brussels attack in a breathless attempt to broadcast the outbreak of violence, while politicians kept butting heads over what to do next. At the same time, many pundits took to the stage saber-rattling against IS in Syria and Iraq, while others argued that a massive military intervention would be detrimental and would just enhance the outreach of the so-called caliphate.

However, notwithstanding the paranoid reactions of many, a thorough assessment of the threat posed by IS to the West is far from conclusive. Especially in this moment of fear and knee-jerk reactions, a sober and balanced breakdown of the IS phenomenon is needed.

New Kind of War

The first issue that needs addressing is: Who are the people that carried out such the attack on Brussels, and what is their strategy?

In order to tackle these questions, terrorism as a phenomenon needs to be framed within a historical context that takes into account the widespread change which occurred after the Cold War.

The Cold War saw a dramatic decrease in the number of violent interstate conflicts. At the same time, the postmodern era witnessed a dispersal of control over organized violence to many forms of non-state actors that could hardly be held accountable for their actions. Indeed, while modern wars were fought by formally organized, hierarchical armed forces between nations, postmodern wars are fought by a disparate range of forces across and within states’ borders without a formal declaration of war.

In addition, while once military forces counted on state-based production and a state-run process of bureaucratization, nowadays the main actors of conflict rely on global, informal networks or private production for drawing material sustenance. Drug-smuggling, human-trafficking, hostage-taking for ransom, money-laundering, plunder and theft take place on a daily basis in the war-making economy.

This new form of unleashing war is the result of globalization. With its advancement in the field of information technology, communication and transportation, globalization has resulted in the loss of sovereignty by the state, and it has worked as a facilitator and motivator for the increasing power of non-state actors—corporations, ideological movements, environmental and human rights organizations, and terrorist networks and organized crime syndicates.

As a result, these new types of conflict perpetrated by non-state actors are labeled with different names, but it is widely known as hybrid or asymmetric warfare. This kind of war-making deviates from the norm. It is defined as a military strategy in which combatants employ a multilayered mix of military and non-military tactics in order to affect a counterbalancing force exploiting vulnerabilities to negate the superior conventional strength of adversaries. These actors know very well how to use their strengths such as mobility, organization and relative anonymity or stealth against the weaknesses of a more powerful adversary.

Here is where IS becomes particularly relevant. Despite the fact that many commentators depict IS as a collection of irrational and fanatical “actors,” the endorsement of asymmetric tactics—such suicide terrorism—is far from a new military instrument and, moreover, has a strategy and logic of its own.

Several scholars have dealt with this issue using scientific methods—quantification, game-theory, cost-benefit analysis, focus on human capital and environment—and have asserted that terrorism can be understood in classic Clausewitzian terms. In pursuing their interests, terrorists are rational utility maximizers. This means they are strategic actors who undertake highly rational and carefully designed plans to achieve political and secular goals—such as control over resources and territory—despite the fact that they look and operate much differently than a conventional state adversary.

Cyberspace as Realm of War

As Carl Von Clausewitz asserted, war always reflects the era in which it occurs. Nowadays, asymmetric warfare and its own unique politico-cultural form of organized violence are a byproduct of modernity.

Along with integrating a combination of capabilities, such as conventional and non-conventional weaponry use (mostly low-tech and hand-made), terrorists exploit cyberspace as a realm of war. Think about the thousands of Twitter accounts related to IS around the world that have been used to camouflage the instigators and perpetrators of attacks—so as to sow seeds of confusion and provoke doubt in the minds of the public and in those charged with counterterrorism.

Irregular actors, such IS, exploit information both as propaganda and as an instrument to reduce or eliminate the technological advantage of modern states. While democracies are well-equipped to fight conventional actors, modern states have to resort to specific strategies of emergency and exception against these hybrid actors—including extensive mass surveillance, targeted assassinations, invalidation of habeas corpus—that, to many, contradict the very principles of democracy.

Thus, hybrid actors are able to level off their asymmetry of forces, for instance, playing on the sensitivity of public opinion of a democratic state to its own casualties or to the attrition of fighting without calling off security concerns and freedoms (of movement, speech and so on). In the long run, the recourse to non-democratic practices by modern states to fight terrorism is detrimental to the core values of democracies.


Since the end of Cold War, ideological conflicts have diminished accordingly. However, ideology still holds a powerful appeal, especially in some Muslim communities. The rise of fundamentalist ideologies in Middle Eastern countries must be attributed mainly to domestic factors such as high youth unemployment, a downbeat perception of future economic opportunities, oppressive leaderships and corruption.

In addition, as far as external factors are concerned, the breakdown of colonial borders imposed at the end of the First World War following the Afghanistan and Iraq wars disrupted the balance of power among nations, sects and tribes, and led to the current situation of instability.

With the attacks in Paris and Brussels, IS aimed to steal the spotlight. As previously outlined, it considers information warfare as a key point to its own strategy.

In the backdrop, another external factor is the clash for regional dominance between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In order to counter the rise of Tehran, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab powers have covertly supported the ascension of jihadist groups as proxies for their own interests.

To make matters worse, the 2010-11 Arab Spring uprisings that swept across the region further exacerbated tensions that resulted in civil and sectarian insurgencies in Syria, Libya and Yemen, and in the ascension of IS.

Such a group was able to flourish within a political vacuum. Along with proving itself as a well-armed and disciplined force in comparison to many others in the region, IS demonstrated a great adroitness in becoming a quasi-state. The Islamic State is not a mere collection of psychopaths, but a religious group with carefully considered beliefs that holds a complex top-down structure of power built on a propagation of violence and the exploitation of a transnational criminal network.

The Islamic State is highly effective at exploiting social media for information warfare. Notwithstanding the airstrike campaign aimed at degrading and destroying it, the group pursues an articulated and well-built social media campaign in order to recruit new militants and counter Western media.

Related to this last point, IS also draws in Muslims who grew up in large and poorly-integrated immigrant communities—in the gloomy suburbs of a Western megalopolis with narrowness of future economic opportunities. These “new terrorists” are mostly individuals who are increasingly disengaged from traditional structures of power and detached from wider society, and who could find a way of life through new forms of sophisticated recruitment campaigns and social media imbued with extreme religious expressions.

These self-recruited individuals—the so-called lone wolves—are drawn to the idea of joining the battle that is just a click away. They are not supported or financed by larger organizations, and their tactics mostly consist of low-tech attacks on soft targets.

Concerns have also increased over the potential return of foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq to their home countries in Europe or the United States who could potentially participate in or support terrorist attacks from within. However, over the last decade, most terrorist attacks have occurred in ten countries—notably in the Middle East. The perception of the enemy within has been blown out of proportion by the media and the internet, which has provided terrorists with new capabilities to reach across time and space and “spectacularize” their attacks, creating vulnerability in a state-based system where control of information equals power.


Many have contended that the main goal of the Islamic State is political: to revive the caliphate and reunite the Muslim umma (community) around it. Leading scholars explain that an organization chooses terrorism by making a rational calculation of the costs and benefits in order to promote values and preferences. In doing so, IS would have renewed tactics such beheadings, crucifixions and slavery, as well as attacks at the core of the Western world, in order to usher in a world without infidels.

Many others maintain that, as IS-held territory in Iraq and Syria is shrinking, the group has gone global in a desperate attempt to instill fear and anxiety and, ultimately, disarticulate society among the target population. This would be central to what IS aims to achieve since, after all, it is an immediate goal of most terrorist groups to cause terror.

In order to tackle these questions, terrorism as a phenomenon needs to be framed within a historical context that takes into account the widespread change which occurred after the Cold War.

With the attacks in Paris and Brussels, IS aimed to steal the spotlight. As previously outlined, it considers information warfare as a key point to its own strategy. The group seems to have understood well how the control of massive flows of information became a form of power and exploits it accordingly. Therefore, in one of the most delicate moments in European Union (EU) history—the ongoing refugees crisis, a potential Brexit looming—the Islamic State seized the moment to further its narrative of civilizational war between Islam and the West.

The narrative, in turn, is further heightened by some far-right European leaders. IS has been able to deal a blow to the already-fragile architecture of the EU, which is now more fragmented than ever before—the Schengen agreement is now called into question, and steps bucking the trend of democratic properties are under way in several European states.

As long as dissatisfaction and grievances pile up in the Middle East, due to domestic and external factors—such as stagnant economies, political corruption and a lack of opportunities for youth, along with the failures to stabilize both Afghanistan and Iraq, a final solution for the burning issue of Palestine, and a real end to wars in Syria and Iraq—groups like IS could flourish, and ideological and religious wars are likely to be a major feature of future conflicts.

Military solutions are not the only way out. For that matter, following the path of targeted killing with the use of drones could stir up extremism and political tensions within fragile states with weak governments, unless the conditions in which terrorism proliferates are addressed properly.

Thus, to better tackle this issue—alongside intelligence measures, sharing information and greater cooperation among security services, law enforcement and the so-called homeland security strategy—a real manner of effectively engaging with youth in the ostracized Muslim suburbs in Europe and beyond is a vital component of any future strategic approach for stemming terrorism. Arab countries, as well as the EU and the US, should focus on dissatisfaction and mistrust that ease the recruitment of prospective terrorists and make efforts to create better life conditions.

The threat posed by terrorist groups should not be overrated. At this point, the narrative carried by the mainstream plays along with this misrepresentation. As previously pointed out, mainstream media and information technologies hype up the terrorist threat, which plays into the hands of groups like the Islamic State.

To put it simply, we are more likely to be killed in a car accident or by gunfire in the US than by a terrorist attack. The media, then, should play their role in properly assessing the threat of terrorism—and so too should politicians. Without plunging into hysteria and calling for more government intervention into citizens’ lives, they should remember that the danger of terrorism is relatively small. Politicians should clarify that the likelihood of such attacks is not zero, but that absolute security is not possible.

A sober assessment of the terrorism phenomenon is necessary but also essential in order not to fall into the trap of a “culture clash” that IS and some far-right politicians stir up. The main step toward conceptualizing responses to and understanding terrorism is essential to navigating the complexity of the multifaceted world we are living in.

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