Thoughts on "New" Terrorism

After the end of the Cold War, along with the emergence of the Contemporary Security and Human Security agenda, the discourse on the effects of globalization on the nature of warfare and irregular warfare (e.g. terrorism) has acquired much prominence. Within this context some scholars adopted the word “new” as a way of characterizing what they perceived as the result of the impact of globalization – and the post-Cold War international order – on wars and terrorism for example; thus, theses such as “New Wars” or “New Terrorism”.

Focusing on terrorism, it is true that it went through certain changes during the course of history; however, the word “new” is too absolute to describe these changes. There is not a clear distinction between “old” and “new” terrorism. There are only a few new characteristics that gradually emerged due to globalization and evolution dynamics, which do not constitute fundamental changes and could be simply attributed to evolution.

Even though there is little consensus on what is terrorism, if we were to make a general assessment we could say that terrorism is a tactic undertaken by non-state groups which use it to bring about political and/or social change, by creating fear through the use or the threat of use of violence towards governments, social groups, populations or individuals. The “new terrorism” thesis, particularly Peter Neumann, suggests that there have been fundamental changes to the way terrorist groups are structured, the way they operate, their aims and methods.[1] In what follows we – very – briefly address the three levels of terrorism at which Neumann suggests changes have taken place.

Structure, Aims, Methods

STRUCTURE: Specifically Peter Neumann – as well as Mary Kaldor, albeit in a different context[2] – argues that the structure of “new terrorist groups” has no longer a hierarchical character and that it is not anymore based on a specific geographical focal point as the “old” terrorist groups. Although this is a rather good point, it does not mean that it is “new”. It has not emerged overnight and it is not something that terrorists suddenly decided to adopt. Rather, it is a natural development and it should have been expected the fact that new technologies would come in handy to terrorists as they have for the rest of the world. Therefore this is not evidence of “new terrorism” but of how terrorists have adapted to the technological developments of their time. At the same time such a development does not suggest a change in the nature of terrorism but an evolution in how it is undertaken.

AIMS:  In terms of the terrorist aims, there is also an acclaimed change: that nowadays terrorists are driven from religion whereas “old” terrorists used to be driven by ideology (e.g. Marxism) or nationalism; in other words they had political aims. However, the terrorist religion-based declarations are not merely religious but political as well. After all, even Pan-Islamism, from which political Islam and Islamic fundamentalism stems, has its roots in nationalism and anti-imperialism and it is thus political. Furthermore religious terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda, have made it clear that one of their aims is for the American/Western presence to be withdrawn from their territories. In addition, as well as in the structure of the terrorist groups, there can also be identified an evolutionary element in the terrorist aims: while in the 60’s Marxism and nationalism were the most prominent driving forces of terrorist groups, starting from the 70’s there has been a rise in political-Islam. After the end of the colonial era and the Cold War, when the prominence of nationalism and political ideologies gradually faded out, more room was created for Islamic fundamentalism to become more important. It is therefore clear that on the one hand the distinction between religious and political aims is not clear, and thus not valid, and on the other that the “new terrorism” thesis lacks historical perspective.[3]

METHODS: Through a similar lens we can see the argument regarding the methods of “new” terrorism which contrary to the assassinations, bombings, kidnappings, and hijackings of “old” terrorism, they are allegedly more violent while they purposely target masses of non-combatant civilians. From that perspective, whereas for “old” terrorism the political message behind the terrorist act was more important, for “new” terrorism the damage of the act itself is the most important thing. Nonetheless, the degree of violence is indeed very subjective and cannot be measured; at the same time, civilian targeting or casualties are not something new – although they may existed in different degrees – and violence has always been brutal. Even if we were to accept the subjective argument that today terrorist violence is more brutal, such a reality would still not mean that the nature of terrorism has changed; it would still be an evolved way/means of pursuing the terrorist goals.


The conflict between a terrorist group and another actor, either state or non-state, remains political. The most easily noticeable “changes” are those that have to do with how terrorism is undertaken. These changes though are no more radical than the changes, for example, in the conventional military forces with the use of technology. From that perspective what seems to be “new” is in reality the realization of evolution and the utilization of it. Thus, if terrorism is seen from a historical perspective, it becomes clear that there is nothing “new” about it and that there is not such a thing as “new terrorism”, since most of its “new” characteristics are primarily products of the evolution and the inevitable globalization, but not products of a fundamental change.

[1] Neumann, P., Old & New Terrorism, Polity Press, 2009, p.14-49.
[2] Kaldor, M., New & Old Wars, Polity Press, 2006.

[3] The same argument has been made about the “new wars” thesis by Newman, E., “The ‘New Wars’ Debate: A Historical Perspective Is Needed”, Security Dialogue, Volume 35, Number 2, 2004, pp.173-189. See also Kalyvas, S., “’New’ And ‘Old’ Civil Wars: A Valid Distinction?”, World Politics, Volume 54, Number 1, October 2001, pp. 99-118.

Zenonas Tziarras, “Thoughts on “New” Terrorism, The GW Post, 31/10/2011.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s