The Islamic State, Boko Haram and other jihadis seem to be on the rise. How lethal could the threats be?
In order to understand modern terrorism and how it might mutate in the near future, it is useful to begin with a document written in 1869 by a Russian anarchist named Sergey Nachayev. Titled “The Revolutionary Catechism,” this brief manifesto, which has been called “the first modern terrorist text,” illuminates the mental and moral universe inhabited by the terrorist, a universe characterized by a profound nihilism.
“The revolutionary is a doomed man,” writes Nachayev. “He has no personal interests, no business affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property, and no name … The revolutionary knows that in the very depths of his being, not only in words but also in deeds, he has broken all the bonds which tie him to the social order and the civilized world… Night and day he must have but one thought, one aim: merciless destruction. Striving cold-bloodedly and indefatigably toward this end, he must be prepared to destroy himself and to destroy with his own hands everything that stands in the path of the revolution.”
Nachayev’s cause was the destruction of the Russian crown and aristocratic system, but every campaign that employs violence rests on a core cadre of people committed to nihilistic terror for its own sake. That has been true for all modern terrorist movements, not just those with a Muslim provenance, from Peru’s Shining Path to Italy’s Red Brigades and the Provisional Irish Republican Army. It was true of the Irgun, the Jewish terrorist organization that operated in Palestine between 1931 and 1947, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Hindu nationalists behind India’s “Saffron Terror,” as well as Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge. And it is most certainly true for contemporary Islamist terror organizations like al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Hamas and the so-called Islamic State (ISIL).
Nachayev’s “Catechism” suggests several important preliminary points about the future of 21st Century terrorism. First, terror is more than merely a tactic. It is greater even than strategy, which military theorists define as the “planning, coordination, and general direction of military operations to meet overall political and military objectives.” On a personal level, terror – or destruction, as Nachayev termed it – is a primal expression of anger and resentment. The terrorist may act in concert with others, but as an individual he acts out of deeply personal psychological motives. His acts may be objectively irrational – suicide bombing, for instance – but subjectively they amount to a rational and even moral choice.
Second, terrorism is a highly adaptive strategy. Detached from all conventional notions of morality, the terrorist is free to innovate and experiment. The decentralized nature of terrorist organizations allows individuals or individual cells the freedom to choose targets, weapons and timing without approval from a traditional command structure. And when a terror organization captures the financial, military and equivalent assets of a nation-state – as happened in Afghanistan prior to September 11, 2001, and as appears to be happening now in eastern Syria and northern Iraq – its adaptive capacity increases significantly.
The difficulty of forecasting the future ways and means of terror organizations is illustrated in the unfortunate example of a report titled “55 Trends Now Shaping the Future of Terrorism,” prepared by Proteus USA, a government think tank sponsored by the National Intelligence University, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the U.S. Army War College. The first “trend” highlighted by the report, released in February 2008, was “The economy of the developed world is on path to grow for at least the next five years.” Of course, the developed world’s economy was a smoking ruin by the end of 2008. Similar “trends,” usually in the form of anodyne bromides, are sprinkled throughout the rest of the document.
Perhaps the best predictive tool at the disposal of policymakers is a rational understanding of both the capabilities of terror organizations and our own vulnerabilities. The bloodthirstiness of an organization like ISIS ought to be a given, considering the very nature of terrorism. But while ritual beheading, rape, slavery, torture and indiscriminate murder are shocking, they hold little predictive value. What counts is whether a terror group has the capacity to strike, and how that capacity matches up with our own weaknesses. A threat to destroy a US Navy carrier battle group, for instance, probably isn’t credible. But a threat to infiltrate hundreds of battle-hardened jihadists back into their Western home countries in order to conduct “lone wolf” attacks might be.
In many ways, the astonishing success of ISIS on the ground has sent policymakers and experts back to the drawing board. In a press conference this week, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called ISIS an “imminent threat” to American interests and warned that it "poses a threat greater than 9/11. ISIL is as sophisticated and well funded as any group we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology with a sophisticated strategic and tactical military prowess and they’re tremendously well funded. This is way beyond anything we have seen. We must prepare for everything. Get ready.”
Similarly, America’s top-ranked military officer says the surging Islamic State group has an "apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision" in the Middle East and cannot be defeated unless the United States and a coalition of partners confront it head-on in Syria.
"They can be contained, not in perpetuity," Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a news conference.
On the other hand, Norman McCulloch, Jr., former US Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the US State Department, says claims that ISIS is a direct threat to the United States are unproven. “It’s a long-term concern,” said McCulloch, “but at the moment, there is no proven record of out-of-area activities, no demonstrated ability to carry out attacks. And if I had to say who the next attack was going to be carried out by, it wouldn’t be ISIS.”
So, what Western vulnerabilities are terrorists likely to exploit in the future? Public infrastructure remains a major concern, especially the American electrical grid and particularly nuclear power plants like the Pacific Gas & Electric facility in San Jose, CA, that came under attack by snipers last year. According to Stephen Flynn of the Center for International Security and Cooperation, ports remain a major concern. “Despite the efforts that have been put in place with regards to containerized cargo,” says Flynn “you name the contraband and it’s still flowing through this system, whether it’s knock-off products on the low end; to movements of large sums of cash; to narcotics still; to every form of weapon short of nuclear weapons.”
Cyber terrorism also looms large, particularly as it relates to aviation, banking, energy, government, and other critical sectors. To date, attacks have been directed at the West by state or state-sponsored groups, notably the Chinese and Russians, but Islamist recruitment in Western nations could eventually yield jihadists with the skills to move groups like ISIS into cyber terrorism in a major way.
Water systems, which are widely distributed and rarely hardened, are especially vulnerable to terrorist attacks using chemical or biological weapons. But even simply incapacitating water distribution in cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix or Las Vegas would have devastating effects on the national economy and could directly threaten thousands of lives.
ISIS predicts that its black flag will one day fly over the London Bridge, the White House and the Vatican. Those are silly claims, even considering recent patterns of Muslim immigration into Western countries. Such victories would have to be won on conventional battlefields, where the West—and especially the United States—has an overwhelming advantage. Much more serious is the prospect that embedded terrorists could launch relatively isolated attacks that do enormous damage to life or property. In that sense, September 11 will likely remain the model for future terrorist attacks in the West for the foreseeable future.
Mark Gordon is a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 30 years and they have two adult children.