What is the most significant terrorist tactic of the 21st century so far?

Following on from our discussion last week about the most significant counter-terrorist trend, here we discuss terrorist tactics. There have been many significant tactics used by terrorists in the Global War on Terror. Of course, hijacking planes and using them as a weapon at the outset of GWOT was a massive change from hijacking for money or a political platform. As it has progressed, improvised explosive devices, car bombs, suicide attacks, gaining and holding territory, cyber-crime/hacking and multi-site ‘rampage’ style attacks have all been used by terrorist groups. All of these have been significant changes, and show terrorist groups as both innovative and dangerous in the face of massively more powerful state-actor adversaries. Unfortunately, all of this makes the job of securing populations by state-actors all the more difficult.

Here’s what we discussed at out reading group, followed by some individual thoughts.


  • Technology is neutral (much in the same way that counterinsurgency doctrine suggests ‘The Jungle is Neutral’). It has, however, been repurposed by terrorist groups for nefarious means. Thus, it would seem wrong to try to re-forge technology to be the tool of states – learning how to adapt to it and find ways of preventing adversaries from carrying out terrorist or cyber-crime activities would be a better approach.
  • Approaching cyber-terrorism with a repressive approach may work in the short-term, but in the long-term people always tire of authoritarianism and overthrown such leaders. Furthermore, use of repression or oppression to deal with adversaries puts terrorists on the same side as campaigners for civil rights, leading to tyrannical groups of innocent people as adversaries.
  • The democratisational ability of technology has de-centralised some power, particularly prevalent in this discussion is violent power, from states to individuals. The ability for the stereotypical teenage bot in his bedroom hacking a major corporation or piece of national infrastructure is evidence of this. However, de-centralised power has also created democratised promotional platforms upon which extremists can use as a soap box to feed their messages to impressionable people.
  • This democratised and de-centralised power allows for networks to expand and diversify. The use of the internet soap box allows messages to be accessed by whoever can find them, or can have the message pushed to them – with present day social media, this is far easier than in was in the past. In terms of diversification, the expansion of network into the realm of criminality expose terrorism to organised crime as markets for resources such as weapons and explosives. A question here is what other markets or services become available to terrorists as such networks expand.

The most overt terrorist tactic of the 21st century so far is certainly the suicide bomber – so much so that the bomber is synonymous with both the terrorist and the subsequent ‘war on terror’.
However, beyond the suicide bomber I would suggest that the most significant tactic of the 21st century so far is the computer hacker or cyber warrior. Such is the subtlety and subterfuge with which the cyber warrior wages war we struggle to even know what group the hacker belongs to or whose cause he or she is fighting for. Even as I write this now, there are news items published today suggesting the recent WannaCry ransomware attacks may be attributable to North Korea. But even then, do we know that for sure, and even if we did, what could or should we do about it?
There are also of course suggestions that the American presidential election may have been influenced by cyber warriors, either fighting for themselves or for larger groups. Whichever the case, I suggest the potential impact of attacks such as these actually goes far beyond the direct physical impact of the suicide bomber, and will prove to be our greatest challenge in the coming years.
Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


I’ve recently been thinking about the efficacy of networked command structures. As terrorists do not need to match militaries and law enforcement who have strict command structures, they have the ability to go outside of this traditional model, and function as networks, rather than hierarchies. This arrangement enables most members of a terrorist group to remain hidden and still move forward with their plans, even if one of their number is arrested/captured/killed. Thus, why the rapid operational tempo used by JSOC and other special forces during house raids to try and eliminate networks of terrorist groups rapidly in order to eliminate an entire network, rather than just capturing one or two members at a time. During the Iraq War, special forces would raid terrorist houses, and use the information gleaned to find more targets, raid that house, and then do the same until they brought down terrorist networks. The speed required for this meant that special forces were often raiding 10 properties per night at the height of their campaign.
Furthermore, networking allows for (semi-)autonomous groups to function under a leadership, without strong communication links. This means that there is less chance of plots being found, as less communication will be happening between attackers and known terrorist leaders. Thus, resulting in the need for intelligence services to resort to mass surveillance to find terrorist plotters amongst the crowds of the general public.
Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University.


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8 thoughts on “What is the most significant terrorist tactic of the 21st century so far?

  1. Surely that’s the whole ‘war is politics by other means’ (Clausewitz) // ‘politics is war by other means’ (Foucault and others) thing? I would say, yes, non-violent action can also be a form of warfare. ‘Hearts and minds’ strategies are in effect ‘non violent’ but still a form of warfare and are used for specifically political means / to support a specific military strategy. Also, don’t forget the Cold War was a ‘war’ in every sense of the word, despite the lack of open hostilities and body count.

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  2. Surely that’s the whole ‘war is politics by other means’ (Clausewitz) // ‘politics is war by other means’ (Foucault and others) thing? As such I would say, yes, non-violent action can also be a form of warfare.

    A few examples: ‘Hearts and minds’ strategies are in effect ‘non violent’ but still a form of warfare and are used for specifically political means / to support a specific military strategy. Also, don’t forget the Cold War was a ‘war’ in every sense of the word, despite the lack of open hostilities and body count.

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  3. It’s a really interesting concept. It fits in with the blurring of war and peace like we’ve previously in relation to drone strikes. Maybe we should start thinking of war and peace as being on a continuum, rather than separate categories? This would create issues for the application of the law of armed conflict.this continuum idea works for non-international armed conflict (non-state actor v state, or non-state actor v non-state actor), which comes into existence based on the intensity of violence and the level of organisation of the non-state actor. But, it doesn’t work with international armed conflict (state v state), which comes into existence from the first shot fired, even if nobody dies and the violence stays low-level. Lots to think about!

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    1. I can see where you’re coming from, but war as suspended peace doesn’t quite work if the battlespace is geographically removed from one of the groups fighting it. Despite the UK being at war in Syria, we are at peace at home – they’re happening simultaneously. Also, peace as suspended war doesn’t work as there needs to be a war that is in suspension (The Korean War technically is, I guess!). I think it might work better as being viewed as a matrix with one consideration being along a continuum of violence from peace to war – with different rules coming into play depending upon the level of violence. But the existence of war (and application of the relevant rules) being geographically distinguished from areas simultaneously at peace.

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  4. There’s a question then of different types of war. You say the UK is at peace at home, but I wonder by what terms we define that peace. Sure we don’t have invaders at our doorstep, but there remains (in my mind at least) an ongoing “war” of sorts framed in terms of the terror is threat and the geographical proximity of our distant wars (in Syria etc) that could at any time become wars at home. Have you read Paul Virilio’s Pure War btw?

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    1. I’ve not read Pure War, but will check it out.

      In terms of defining peace, it relates to a conversation I had this morning. What we essentially have in the UK in relation to terrorism is a series of temporary states of negative peace, negative peace being the absence of war (it being temporary whilst there are no terrorist attacks happening). As opposed to positive peace which is a more equitable society which has the absence of violence of all forms (including structural), and constructive systems for conflict resolution. If we had a positive peace in the UK, we would be able to deal with the grievances that potential terrorists have before they decide to become violent terrorists.

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