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Trends and developments in terrorism and counterterrorism

In this video Prof.dr. Bakker explores the trends and developments in the field of terorrism and counterterrorism.
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Hello. In the previous video, we explained the importance of monitoring developments and analyzing trends in terrorism and counterterrorism. In this video, we will discuss what elements of terrorism to look at and how we can do this. We focus on key aspects of the ever-changing nature of terrorism that needs to be monitored and analyzed. We look at facts and figures of terrorism, ideology, the perpetrators and their modus operandi, and the impact of terrorism. Finally, we discuss trends and developments in counterterrorism.
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Of course, it is important to monitor and analyze what is happening, the facts and figures regarding terrorism. This enables us to see developments and possibly discover trends in the growth of the phenomenon, in terms of attacks and victims and the lethality of attacks. When mapping these attacks, we can discover shifts in the geographical patterns and discover new hotspots. When discussing the lethality of terrorism in week 3, we already noticed that there is no clear pattern regarding both the frequency of attacks and their lethality. When discussing the map of terrorism in week 1 and week 3, we noticed that most attacks take place in the Middle East and South Asia.
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However, in recent years we have seen an increase of terrorist attacks in Sub-Saharan Africa, which might be an important trend to monitor and analyze. Well, in order to do so, we need data and data series. As scholars, we need, of course, open-source databases, that include information about attacks, casualties, perpetrators, modus operandi, and locations. One such database that we have frequently mentioned during this course is the global terrorism database. This database has been of great help to monitor and analyze trends in terrorism.
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A second important aspect of the phenomenon of terrorism is the ideology of terrorist groups and individuals. Terrorism is aimed at achieving political goals that are derived from certain political ideas and worldviews. Monitoring and analyzing why and how these ideologies change over time could help us understand what new groups or splinter groups we need to worry about or understand possible changes in target selection by terrorist groups. It is especially important to monitor debates within certain ideological communities about the acceptance, usefulness, or legitimacy of the use of violence. Many scholars have, for instance, looked at the ideological discussions on the concept of violent Jihad within and between Jihadist groups.
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Others have studied how debates within a number of left-wing and separatist groups have resulted in refraining from the use of violence. Today, there are worries that ideological developments within right-wing extremist groups lead to more support for the idea that terrorist attacks can provoke societal changes. Think of the accelerationist mentioned in the previous video.
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What are developments with regard to the perpetrators of terrorist attacks? Are the characteristics of today’s terrorists the same as in the past? And what can we expect in the future? Understanding possible changes in these characteristics is important if you want to know what persons or what groups prevention policies should aim at and what individuals and groups in society should be closely monitored. An important change in the past decade has been the rise of lone-actors that took some authorities by surprise. The same holds for the background of foreign fighters from the West, especially the fact that so many women joined the violent jihad in Syria and Iraq. There are no clear patterns regarding changes in the background of perpetrators of terrorism.
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The only constant element is that the majority of them are in their teens or early 20s, when they join a terrorist group or link up to a terrorist movement. Some things might change though and need to be monitored and analyzed. For instance, whether or not terrorists seem to suffer more often from mental health issues than they did in the past, and seems to be the case with regard to lone-actor terrorists, according to some studies.
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A very important aspect of terrorism, to those that have to protect society from attacks, are the modus operandi of terrorists. The weapons and ways they use violence and the targets they choose. Many scholars, think of David Rapoport, have looked into the question, ‘how these modus operandi have changed over time’. He and others observed that terrorists use the newest technologies available of their time. The so-called Islamic State is a good example of a group that has managed to use the latest technological means, such as social media and the use of drones.
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Monitoring and analyzing developments in the modus operandi of terrorists helps us to either take measures to make some of these means less easily available to terrorists or to take the right countermeasures. Think of the policies of many social media companies to prevent or deny the use of their services to terrorists and extremist groups, or technological tools to spot and jam drones. A better understanding and forecasting of target selection of terrorist groups will help to determine what locations or individuals should receive additional protection and the best ways to protect them.
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A final key aspect of the phenomenon of terrorism that needs to be monitored and analyzed, is its impact on societies. That impact has differed in time, and differs between regions and target groups. Monitoring and understanding the development and differences in the impact is important. If you want to improve ways to limit that impact. It might also give us insight what changes in societies make us stronger or weaker against terrorist attacks. Think of how many societies around the globe have become what Ulrich Beck called ‘a risk society’ that seems to be more vulnerable to insecurity, including to the threat of terrorism.
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Helpful instruments to monitor and analyze changes in the impact of terrorism are longitudinal studies of public opinion relating to these things that worry people. Think of the Eurobarometer or the Gallup polls that have asked about these worries and terrorism for several decades. Understanding possible patterns might help us to understand these worries and to improve, for instance, crisis communication in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, or to increase the resilience of societies against terrorism.
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Developments and trends relating to terrorism will also influence the forms and manifestations of counterterrorism. They will influence the importance and role of certain CT actors. For instance, if terrorist groups are increasingly involved in civil wars, such was the case in Syria and Iraq, military actors might become more important. Trends and developments in terrorism also have an impact on policy instruments. Some become more relevant, others obsolete, and there might be a need for new measures. Think of social media companies that are increasingly asked to remove inciting content from their platforms. A good example of a new actor and a new measure because of the adoption of new technologies by terrorist groups.
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Not only changes in technology, but also changes in society have an impact on counterterrorism. Hardening of societies and overreactions by politicians after terrorist attacks might lead to changes in CT strategies. For instance, a shift from a focus on prevention to a focus on repression. This could lead to an increased use of emergency laws and other extraordinary measures and less attention for social programs to prevent radicalization or long-term policies to gain trust from certain communities.
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Needless to say, changes in counterterrorism will also have an impact on societies, and it is good to analyze them. Are these changes making us safer and at what cost? Evaluation studies are important to give insight in how and to what extent CT policies contribute to less terrorism and to proportionality of these policies, with regard to the economic costs involved, or the infringement on civil liberties and human rights. Monitoring and analyzing trends and developments in counterterrorism is needed to know when CT policies move in a direction that does not make us safer. Think of budget cuts to CT actors in times of perceived quietness on the terrorism front or the opposite.
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Overreactions after a series of terrorist attacks leading to harsh and repressive CT policies that could lead to more polarization, more radicalization, and in the end, to more terrorism. Finally, it’s also good to monitor and analyze less ad-hoc and less spectacular changes in CT policies. To see if there is perhaps a slippery slope, where CT policies are gradually leading to a situation in which we try to protect our freedom and security by selling out a lot of our freedom to gain only little additional security. Many human rights activists are worried about such a possible trend.
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What have we learned? In this video, we discussed what aspects of terrorism to monitor and analyze. We focused on key elements of the ever-changing nature of this phenomenon. We looked at facts and figures of terrorism, ideology, perpetrators and their modus operandi, and the impact of terrorism. Similar to terrorism, counterterrorism policies also change over time, and it is important to monitor and analyze these changes in order to be able to critically reflect on their effectiveness and possible negative side effects. Evaluation studies might help us to do so. This brings us to the next video, where we will discuss some of the un- and under-researched topics in relation to terrorism and counterterrorism studies. Evaluation of CT policies being one of them.

Let’s discuss!

Forecasting terrorism is difficult. Sometimes this is because of the fact that people are experts in their field and find it hard to reflect, may have their own blind spots. They might need a fresh pair of eyes to discover them.

What do you see as a worrisome trend and development regarding:

  1. ideology
  2. perpetrators
  3. modus operandi
  4. impact on society?

Please share your views and help us!

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Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Comparing Theory and Practice

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