What is terrorism?

TA s 1970-2015

This figure shows a total of 156.772 terrorist incidents wordwide during the period 1970-2015 (Source: START, Global Terrorism Database). Remarkable – but probably not a coincident – is the significant increase in yearly incidents starting around 2011.

In one of my previous articles, I observed that a significant increase in the number of global terrorist attacks can be observed, starting around 2011.

2011 is also the year when according to my analysis the current – first global – war cycle (1945-….) reached its tipping point, when typically (as was the case during the four preceding war cycles the System (Europe) produced during the period 1495-1945), a connectivity effect starts increasingly inhibiting the release of tensions in the System by means of non-systemic wars.

Instead of being released, tensions and unsolved issues accumulate in the System and push the System toward criticality, which then – as a matter of time – results in a systemic war.

Once the tipping point is reached, until a systemic war is produced – the regime I refer to as the high-connectivity regime – the unreleased tensions result in increasingly volatile social and political dynamics, radicalisation, and fragmentation. It could well be – a question I will discuss in a next article – that the significant increase in the number of terrorist attacks starting around 2011 also is related to the increasing tension levels during the high-connectivity regime of the current war cycle.

In this article, I make some observations regarding ‘terrorism’. What is terrorism?

It is an (initial) effort to better understand this phenomenon.

Although a myriad of (often confusing) definitions of terrorism already exists, I will introduce a somewhat other perspective.

I consider terrorism and terrorism attacks a ‘fighting method’. In several respects terrorism differs from other fighting methods. Terrorist attacks aim to accomplish ‘political’ – not military – objectives. Terrorist attacks are (more) strategic in nature. Terrorists can be considered outsiders of the social system, who challenge the fundamental order for political, ideological or religious reasons.

Terrorists try to destabilise the ‘established’ order – the society – by causing fear through the (apparently) random use of violence. Security can no longer be taken for granted, is the message.

Discrediting and de-legitimising the government by exposing its impotence and incompetence to ensure the citizens security are also important objectives. Ensuring the citizens security is the most important priority of the state and its government. The state’s monopoly on violence – the most essential part of the social contract – assumes that the state is able to ensure the security of its citizens. If the state’s credibility to achieve this is undermined, its legitimacy and existence will eventually been questioned.

Mass media exposure and traction on social media  also are important (political) ‘objectives’ of terrorist organisations. Publicity is instrumental for terrorist organisations in spreading and magnifying fear, sending their ‘message’ and in exposing the government’s incompetence.

CNN – and other news networks – in fact eagerly serve terrorist organisations: Terrorist attacks are breaking news; breaking news serves the business model of news agencies, but also the aims of terrorist organisations.

Terrorism qualifies as an indirect strategic approach.

Terrorist organisations try to set in motion a self-reinforcing social dynamic (positive feedback mechanism) that reinforces destabilisation. The idea is to turn a society against itself: Increasing fear and increasing impotence (perceived or not) force a government to take increasingly desperate measures that increasingly damage the social fabric of society; its values, key functions and processes. As I mentioned, the media and now also social media, are essential components of such a destructive self-reinforcing dynamic.

Self reinforcing destabilization PNGA causal loop diagram of a process of self-reinforcing destabilisation; the dream of every terrorist. Five variables play an important role in this positive feedback mechanism: See figure. Two reinforcing sub cycles can be identified.


Contrary to a regular soldier – who serves a particular state’s interests – a terrorist is so to say not a ‘certified’ fighter – ‘deployer of violence and destruction’ – who justifiably acts in accordance with the ‘legitimate’ rules and objectives that are determined by the state he represents. Terrorists are illegal fighters, because of the objectives they fight for (destruction of the social system) and the methods they employ.

In the book ‘Anatomy of Terror’, Ali Soufan explains how Al Qaeda applies such an approach in its effort to establish a caliphate, a theocratic state: “The coldblooded strategy behind terrorist attacks on fellow Muslims in the Middle East is to create zones “within the Muslim world so lawless and chaotic that the authority of the state would collapse. Al Qaeda could then rush in to fill the vacuum left by governmental failure, providing the people with much-needed services like education, water and electricity and ruling in accordance with its version of Islam.

A fragile state obviously is an easier target for terrorists to destabilise: Its legitimacy is probably already in doubt, it does a poor job in serving its citizens, and it is consequently easier to present a more attractive alternative.

In above figure 156.772 terrorist incidents are projected that occurred during the period 1970-2015 worldwide. Not all these incidents qualify as terrorist incidents, as defined by me in this article.

The data base the figure is based on also includes for example terrorist attacks (that meet the criteria of START/GTD) that are in fact closely linked to the deployment of organised violence by insurgents and (more) regular military forces. The question is how ‘strategic’ these attacks actually are, and what their (political) impact (still) is. The impact of a comparatively ‘limited’ suicide attack in a still stable European country is much larger and more political and strategic in its consequences, than a similar attack in for example Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria where terrorist attacks – violence – has become endemic, and terrorist already have achieved chaos. The actual impact of a terrorist attack in Europe is regional sometimes even global, in Iraq much more local. These two types of terrorist attacks in fact serve different objectives.

David Galula  – a French military officer who was influential in developing the theory and practice of counterinsurgency warfare based on his experiences in Algeria – makes a distinction between ‘blind terrorism’ and ‘selective terrorism’.

“Blind terrorism. ….is to get publicity for the movement and its cause, and by focusing attention on it, to attract latent supporters. This is done by random terrorism, bombings…. Conducted in a spectacular a fashion as possible, by concentrated, coordinated and synchronised waves. Few man are needed for this sort of operation. Selective terrorism …. quickly follows the first. The aim is to isolate the counter insurgency from the message, to involve the population in the struggle, and to obtain as a minimum its passive complicity. … by killing ….”.

The more tactical terrorist attacks in for example Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria serve a different purpose: To undermine the efforts of the counter insurgency force (the US and NATO, in for example Afghanistan), from establishing an effective and legitimate new government. The terrorists (the Taliban in for example Afghanistan) aim to continuously discredit the counter insurgency force by the local population: Terrorist try to show that the counter insurgency force will never be successful in ensuring the population’s security (the basic requirement for an effective government), that the population will pay a price for cooperation with the counter insurgency force, and are thus forced to – at least passively – support the insurgents (in Afghanistan the Taliban, in Syria ISIS, etc.).

If terrorist attacks achieve the desired effect – self-reinforced destabilisation – a more or less ‘standard’ process could unfold: Terrorist attacks evolve into an insurgency and eventually in a more regular approach to war fighting. Such a process requires that the terrorist organisation also evolves from a collection of individuals into an increasingly organised and disciplined fighting force.

At the same time, the (terrorist) organisation must organise public services to acquire a certain minimal level of legitimacy with the population. Because the infra structure is mostly destroyed in the process, and significant ‘foreign’ support is not always likely, the new ‘government’ – the terrorists –  must employ harsh methods to enforce control and a certain level of stability.

So far, some general observations regarding terrorism.

In a next article, I will elaborate further on terrorism, including its ‘connection’ to the developmental stage of the war cycle.

An interesting question is for example, why a significant number of terrorist incidents in Western Europe during the period 1970-1998 – 16.020 in total – did not have the destabilising effect, the current still ‘limited’ number of terrorist incidents now have on Europe social and political dynamics. The current conditions of the System – including Europa – are favourable to initiate a self-reinforcing destabilising dynamic, it seems.

Terrorist incidents western europe 1970-2015

This figure shows the terrorist incidents in Western Europe during the period 1970-2015; 16.020 incidents are included in this figure. These incidents are also included in above figure (showing terrorist incidents world wide). (Source: START, Global Terrorism Database).