There needs to be more curiosity about terrorism. We see an explosion, bombing or attack that kills innocent civilians, it leads to a frenzy of updates from social media, announcements from the police, live news from mainstream media covering witnesses, police, public outcry, government reaction and terrorists claiming responsibility.

It is exactly the kind of exposure that achieves their goals – to spread fear. US expert on terrorism Brian Jenkins in 1975 once remarked “terrorists want a lot of people watching, and not a lot of people dead”. However, in the terrorism of modern times, he revised this quote in a 2006 publication entitled "The New Age of Terrorism" to write: "Many of today's terrorist want a lot of people watching and a lot of people dead."

The target of a terrorist attack is rarely the main target; use of force is not its goal. The threat of terrorism needs to be taken seriously, and to do that, we need to understand their motivation, operation and desires. Degrading terrorists as simply “losers” as US President Donald Trump said at NATO in May 2017 is not enough.

I am not in a position eradicate terrorism, but I am in a position to write about terrorism. This therefore is my contribution to combating terrorism: understanding terrorism.

Definition of terrorism:

Before I list some of the active terrorist groups today, I would firstly like to give a definition on what terrorism is.

Unfortunately, there is a lack of agreement internationally on its definition. Even scholars, experts and politicians cannot come to a consensus.

The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan during his tenure called upon all member states at the UN General Assembly to adopt the common definition of terrorism as: “any action constitutes terrorism if it is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a Government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.” The definition was not adopted.

The failure of a clear definition is mainly down to interpretation: what one person may see as a terrorist could be the other's freedom fighter.

Having a clear definition of terrorism is important. Among many reasons, a definition enhances international co-operation and data sharing, and it avoids any invitation to abuse people in the name of terrorism (for example to silence opposition or suppress protests).

One of the leading scholars in terrorism is Alex Schmid, who gave an academic consensus definition on terrorism (based on 73 academic journal definitions) as: "terrorism is a politically motivated tactic involving the threat or use of force or violence in which the pursuit of publicity plays a significant role"

Alex continues to write that this definition omits: any reference to perpetrators or victims, any reference to fear or terror, any motive or goal beyond "political", any reference to targeting of non-combatants, and any reference to the criminal or moral nature of the tactics.

I would also like to bring your attention to the intergovernmental organisation Financial Action Task Force’s definition of a terrorist act, which is almost word for word as the one proposed by Kofi Annan: “(a terrorist act is) intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities in a situation of armed conflict, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a Government or an international organisation to do or to abstain from doing any act.” 

The Israeli academic Ariel Merari in her work "Terrorism as a strategy of insurgency" wrote about the problem of definition:

"There is no way on earth by which the United States can logically prove that the Libyan-sponsored attack on the Rome and Vienna airports in 1985 was an act of terrorism, if some of the basic assumptions and semantics necessary for the definition of terrorism are not universally accepted. The United States assertion is certainly consistent with its own definition of terrorism, but Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi may still maintain that the term 'terrorism' should be reserved for acts such as the US punitive raid on Libya (April 1986), and that the Rome and Vienna attacks are more properly described as actions of revolutionary violence, armed struggle, or fighting for freedom."

What about guerilla warfare? Is that the same as terrorism? Another leading scholar on terrorism, Boaz Ganor in his work "Terrorism: No prohibition without definition" writes: "the aims of terrorism and guerrilla warfare may well be identical, but they are distinguished from each other by the means used - or more precisely, by the targets of their operations. The guerrilla fighter's targets are military ones, while the terrorist deliberately targets civilians." 

Alex Schmid in his work Terrorism: The Definitional Problem cites the work of Ariel Merari that shows a table of three modes of violent struggle: conventional warfare, guerrilla warfare and terrorism. Each have a different distinct set of characteristics. I have put the diagram of a few of them below:



Terrorist groups in focus: Da'esh and Al-Qaeda.

1. Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (“ISIL” “ISIS” or “Da'esh”)

Who says they are terrorists?

United Nations Security Council Resolution 2253 (2015)"unequivocal condemnation of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Da’esh)...for ongoing and multiple criminal terrorist acts aimed at causing the deaths of innocent civilians and other victims."

The resolution has imposed sanction measures on the group which are: an assets freeze, travel ban and arms embargo.

Brief history:

May 2010: Abu Bakr al-Bahgdadi announced as the leader of Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), an affiliate of Al-Qaeda.

April 2013: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced a break away from Al-Qaeda and formation of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, ISIS, Daesh) as it expanded into Syria.

June 2014: Daesh’s leader al-Baghdadi announced a world caliphate and to take over/target the west as interpreted in an audio recording: “the land is for the Muslims. All Muslims…conquer Rome and own the world, if Allah wills.”

What do they believe?

  • Salafi Jihadism, a political and religious ideology that physical war is to be waged against unbelievers.
  • Salafism is a conservative form of Sunni Islam which desires to return to traditional ways known as “Salaf”

What do they want?

  • To create a caliphate in Muslim majority countries of the Levant region, and then to rule the world.
  • Levant region – a historical geographic term that covers most parts of the eastern Mediterranean.
  • Caliphate - a leader (the caliph) who is believed to be descendant from the Prophet Muhammad.

What do Daesh want us to do?

In Dr. Alastair Reed’s publication in the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism he outlines three potential responses that Daesh wants to provoke:

  • Draw western allies into another war in a foreign land, which ultimately could do more for Daesh’s cause.
  • Tighten counter-terrorism laws, which disproportionately affect the Muslim community, feeding into the narrative of the west persecuting Muslims and therefore drive further radicalisation of Muslims.
  • Inflict through Da'esh's actions a hardened right wing narrative for the west, and not specifically to the Muslim population, to divide people and not allow people to unite against the threat, therefore descending into greater conflict.

Operations and funding:

Use of social media to attract support and instil fear as stated in a United Nations Security Council report: “ISIL has used its online publications to reach potential foreign terrorist fighters and social media to directly engage individuals, encouraging them to join its ranks.”

Funded mainly by oil sales. Supplementary income comes from kidnapping, donations and extortion.

2. Al-Qaeda aka Al-Qaida

When we talk about Al-Qaeda what are we talking about? The director of the Centre for Terrorism and Counterterrorism at Leiden University Edwin Bakker expresses the difficulty of this question - is it its core in Pakistan and Afghanistan, its closest affiliates in Iraq and the Maghreb, or its wider network of ideologically linked associates?

Who says they are terrorists?

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1989 (2011) - reaffirmed previous related resolutions on an assets freeze, travel ban and arms embargo affecting all entities associated with Al-Qaida: "reiterating its unequivocal condemnation of Al-Qaida and other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with it, for ongoing and multiple criminal terrorist acts aimed at causing the deaths of innocent civilians and other victims, destruction of property and greatly undermining stability."

INTERPOL - the international criminal police organisation cooperate in informing law enforcement agencies worldwide the sanctions regime set by the United Nations Security Council known as “INTERPOL-UNSC Special Notices”

What do they want?

In a speech in June 2005 the then deputy leader of Al-Qaeda (who is now leader of Al-Qaeda) Ayman Al-Zawahiri stated their aims to be:

  • Implementation of Sharia law
  • Freedom of Islamic lands
  • A Muslim nation’s freedom to run its own affairs

What do they believe?

Salafi Jihadism, a political and religious ideology that physical war is to be waged against unbelievers.

Salafism is a conservative form of Sunni Islam which desires to return to traditional ways known as “Salaf”

Brief history:

With the US occupied by the Iranian Hostage Crisis amidst the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan: “The Administration’s vitality was sapped, and the Soviet Union took advantage of America’s weakness to win strategic advantage for itself…In late 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to support its shaky Marxist government.” Source: US Department of State

1979-1989 Soviet-Afghan War – A complex war that deserves its own article, this war is important in the development of Al-Qaeda. The war was fought between the Soviet Union and the Islamic insurgency group the Mujahideen.

“The Afghan Islamist extremists found a rallying call for their cause, as young Muslims from around the world came to Afghanistan to volunteer in what was being called a "holy war," or jihad, against the invading Soviets…Osama bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam created a "Bureau of Services," which helped channel recruits for the jihad into Afghanistan. With Saudi Arabia and the United States pouring in billions of dollars worth of secret assistance to rebels in Afghanistan, the jihad against the Soviets was constantly gaining momentum. When the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in early 1989, bin Laden and Azzam decided that their new organization should not dissolve. They established what they called a base (al Qaeda) as a potential general headquarters for future jihad.” Source

After an almost 10 year war, Soviet Union forces withdrew. “the Soviets left a shattered country in which the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist group, seized control, later providing Osama bin Laden with a training base from which to launch terrorist operations worldwide.” Source: US Department of State

So how did Al-Qaeda end up attacking the United States and its allies, if the Mujahideen was fighting the Soviets? This can be looked at by the Gulf War of August 1990.

The Iraq invasion of Kuwait in 1990 had triggered a response from the US and allies backed by UNSC Resolution 678, which led to the Gulf War.

US and coalition forces were placed in neighbouring Saudi Arabia (at Saudi Arabia’s request) to protect the state from Iraqi intervention, named Operation Desert Shield.

Osama Bin Laden was angered by the US’s presence in Saudi Arabia. He believed foreign troops should not be close to Islamic holy sites (Mecca and Medina), and used this to justify Al-Qaeda’s attack on September 11th, 2001 on the World Trade Center in New York.

After Bin Laden’s anger at Saudi Arabia’s agreement of allowing foreign troops, Bin Laden was expelled from Saudi Arabia and setup operations from Sudan in the 1990’s. Al-Qaeda then located to Afghanistan and joined with the Taliban to declare a holy war against US forces.


Illegal drugs trade, charities, mosques, gold and diamond sales and smuggling, kidnapping.

More information


https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/jul/13/history.alqaida - A timeline of the events of Al-Qaeda after 1988 to 2008 can be found here. 

Brief Overview of other terrorist groups / individuals:

-Taliban - UN Security Council Resolution 1267 (1999) – Imposed sanctions on the Taliban (limited air embargo and assets freeze): "Strongly condemning the continuing use of Afghan territory, especially areas controlled by the Taliban, for the sheltering and training of terrorists and planning of terrorist acts." 

Emerged in the late 1990’s with an interpretation of Sharia law to restore peace and security. Carried out punishments for offenders, such as public executions and amputations. They have an organised structure:

  • The Emir is the authority of the Taliban, controlling political, military and religious affairs.
  • A leadership council of 18 members lead the overall strategy of the Taliban.
  • The Deputies are military operational commanders.
  • The Haqqani network are a guerrilla insurgent group who follow the command of the Deputies.

-Aum Shinrikyo - Japanese terrorist group in the 1990’s. Tokyo subway attack in 1995. Killed 11-13. Believe a mix of Hinduism, Buddhism, and fanatical about the end of the world.

 -“Mad bomber” George Metesky – planted bombs in and around New York City for 16 years 1940-1956 as retaliation from the way he was treated after an accident at work. One of the first instances of profiling. Planted 33 bombs, 22 exploded. Injured 15.

 -Red Army Faction - German left wing terrorist group in 1970's. Founding members Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader, Horst Mahler, Gudrun Ensslin. Involved in bank robberies, assassinations, kidnappings and bombings. They considered the conservative media as biased, after Nazi Germany ended they were unhappy government positions were going to ex-Nazi’s.

-Al-Shabaab - Somalia based, pledge allegiance to Al-Qaeda. Attacks in Uganda and Kenya. Funded by piracy, kidnapping, revenue for other terrorist groups.

-Boko Haram meaning “western education is sin”. Based north east Nigeria. Kidnappings, killing of women and children, bombing churches. Finance from sale of goods, business profits, donations, arms smuggling. Tough issue: separating legitimate and illegitimate charitable donations.

-Hamas. Founded in the 1980’s wants to liberate Palestine from Israeli occupation. Sunni islam with military wing. Based in the Gaza strip. Funded by charity donations and foreign supporters in Jordan, UK, US, Germany, France and other countries.

-Hezbollah meaning “Party of God”. Against American and Israeli imperialism. Shia theology developed by Ayatollah Khomeini. Funded by business groups, private persons.


Organisations combating terrorism and other information

Financial Action Task Force (FATF): Established in 1989 examine measures to combat money laundering and terrorist financing. 37 members of FATF. Three main methods by which criminal/terrorist organisations move money to disguise its origins:

  • Through financial system
  • Physical movement of money
  • Physical movement of goods through trade

Europol: EU’s law enforcement ageny HQ in The Hague to fight against international crime and terrorism.

Interpol: Intergovernmental organisation headquartered in Lyon, France. Police organisation with 190 member countries. One of the priorities is fight and prevent transnational crimes such as counter-terrorism.

Global Terrorism Index – Australian think tank "Institute for Economics and Peace", patterns in terrorism since 2000 data from Global Terrorism Database.

Global Terrorism Database - Open source database of terrorist events 1970-Present. Information from reports of credible media sources.

Four pillars of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy:

  1. Addressing the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism
  2. Preventing and combating terrorism
  3. Building states’ capacity and strengthening the role of the UN
  4. Ensuring human rights and the rule of law

Five stages of terrorist financing

  1. Collection – (receipt of deposits such as charities) small value, mainly cash based into an account.
  2. Aggregation – move to holding account, to build to a larger balance
  3. Transmission to parent body – typically that is then sent cross-border to parent body who receive funds and go about using it to maintain and sustain operations of terrorist entity
  4. Dissemination to cell – send the money out to terrorist cells
  5. Use – use them for logistics, buy goods and arms they need

Sources of funding:

  • Honey exports to Yemen
    • (Bin laden’s father born in Yemen) Honey is Yemen’s 9th biggest export accounting for $12 million (with dairy and eggs) 0.62% of overall exports.
    • Funds Al-Qaeda. Honey shops in Yemen who export it ship contraband (money, weapons, drugs). “The smell and consistency of honey makes it easy to hide weapons and drugs in shipments, inspectors don’t want to inspect a messy product.” US administration official in 2001.
    • Honey business provides legitimate revenue for Al-Qaeda.
  • Charcoal exports to UAE
  • Used cars from USA to Benin
    • From 2007 to 2013 operation to fund Hezbollah by selling used cars from USA to Benin.
    • US Department of State list Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation.
    • Part of a wider network of financing.

US Patriot Act 2001: followed after 9/11. To improve the mechanisms for adverting, identifying and prosecuting money laundering and the financing of terrorism. Intensifies reporting requirements, introduces penalties for failing to stop money laundering, promoting information sharing and extended due diligence checks.

UK framework for combating terrorism is influenced by UN, FATF, EU and local jurisdiction measures from the US. UK Terrorism Act 2000 – raising and receiving funds for the purpose of terrorism, using funds for terrorism, facilitate in laundering of terrorist property and money, and those working in regulated financial sector- the offence of tipping off.

UK Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001 – seizure of terrorist cash anywhere in the UK, monitoring and freezing of funds.


Questions on Terrorism

The below is an extract of my notes from studying terrorism. Special thanks and credit goes to Edwin Bakker, the director of the Centre for Terrorism and Counterterrorism at Leiden University.

Are terrorists successful? This has to be split up into two questions:

Does terrorism create attention and cause fear? Yes. The media are good at that. The Boston bomber made headlines in a Fijian newspaper, even though no Fijians were involved. From 1981 to 1986 terrorism on TV/news stories appeared more than poverty, unemployment and crime combined.

Do terrorists achieve their political goals? No. Max Abrahams paper entitled “why terrorism does not work” – groups accomplished policy objectives only 7% of the time. Success depends on target selection: those who select civilian targets as opposed to military targets fail to achieve policy objectives.

Paul Wilkinson: terrorists rarely achieve goals. Brian Jenkins: terrorist groups have yet to achieve objectives. Succeed tactically but no success against goals.

Al Qaeda failed to achieve their goals, which are: overthrow Islamic regimes, expulsion of foreigners in Muslim countries, kill Jews, Americans, and others: “infidels”. But Al-Qaeda did drag the US and allies in costly war.

Are terrorists crazy? No. They are difficult to understand – especially suicide attacks: “how can someone do that? They must be crazy!” Understanding is a subjective concept. Rational approach – terrorists are not crazy, its rational behaviour, they kill to achieve something. Social psychological approach - terrorists are not crazy, they are psychologically normal, mentally unstable people are security risk for the terrorist organisation themselves. Louise Richardson: there is no particular terrorist personality, the notion terrorists are crazy is not consistent with evidence.

Are all terrorists poor? No. But some public figures say yes- Archbishop Desmond Tutu: can never win a war against terror as long as there is poverty. US Secretary of State Colin Powell: Yes poverty is one of the root causes of terrorism. The academic evidence suggests otherwise:

No: some terrorists are poor, but no poorer than others who aren’t terrorists.

No: some terrorists are well funded – Osama Bin Laden (wealthy Saudi family), Umar Farqood Abdulmutallab (Christmas day bomber) tried to blow up a plane going to Detroit is from a wealthy family from Nigeria. Anders Breivik – upper middle class (killed 77 people in Norway 2011). Ulrike Meinhof (founding member of Red Army Faction) was a prominent respected journalist.

No: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq and Nigeria most often hit by terrorism – but not the poorest countries in the world by the World Bank. Only Afghanistan in lowest half but there are other countries lower than it.

No: James Piazza: poverty related factors cannot be linked to higher terrorism.

No: Malecova, Krueger – any connection between poverty and terrorism is indirect, complicated and weak.

Are terrorists anti-western? No. Need to look at this question in two parts: Are targets anti-western? No. Most victims of terrorism are not in the west, it's mainly in Muslim countries: Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Afghanistan. Overwhelming majority of victims are Muslims. United States National Counter-terrorism Center: 74% of all deaths are from Syria, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. Are the slogans and rhetoric anti-western? Yes. Al Qaeda and Da'esh calls for terrorist actions against the west. Rhetoric is anti western, but victims are mainly Muslims.