Does Contemporary International Terrorism Criminology Essay

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Over the past few decades, the study of terrorism appears to have gained a great deal of thought and a substantial intellectual interest. However, despite the avalanche of academic work on terrorism for more than four decades, the quest for an unassailable definition is a 'tenacious conceptual confusion' that mires the field (Silke 2004:4). Most researchers on terrorism have grappled with the parameters that can aid a working definition of terrorism devoid of biased political judgment. The lacuna in developing a consensual definition of terrorism is a big conundrum that has undermined credible research and the quest of building a cohesive integrated theory and a collective body of knowledge of terrorism as a complex and interdisciplinary social and behavioral phenomenon. While the debate over a working definition for terrorism offers no hopeful prognosis, a new wave of debate has deepened controversy in the field, the debate over the concept of 'New Terrorism'. The main thesis of the new debate is built around the fact that the actors, actions, motivations, tactics and lethality of the previous forms of terrorism differ when compared to the contemporary international terrorism.

However, for any optimistic assessment to be achieve in tackling issues surrounding the concept of 'Old and New Terrorism' which is the subject of analysis in this essay, there is a need to adopt an academic definition of terrorism that distinguish the act of terror from other act of political violence. [1] In defining terrorism, most scholars employ certain criteria as a yardstick in their definition, criteria such as the actors (non-state actors), target (civilians and non-combatants), goal (political, religious or ideological motives), and method (use of lethal weapon and violent attack). [2] Based on these criteria, this essay will adopt the concise definition of terrorism provided by the US Department of State, Bruce Hoffman and Peter Neumann. The US Department of State defines terrorism as" premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience" (Sinai 2007:33). According to Bruce Hoffman, terrorism is "the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change (Hoffman 2006:43). Drawing on the work of T.P Thornton, Peter Neumann defines terrorism as "the deliberate creation of fear, usually through the use (or threat of use) of symbolic acts of violence, to influence the political behavior of a target group (Neumann 2009:8).

Terrorism is an established act of political violence that has existed for eons. Technological revolution and globalization have contributed to the proliferation of terrorism. The changing global environment requires paradigmatic shift in understanding the changing nature of terrorism and new assumptions to the modalities of terrorism. This is the main thesis of the debate on 'New Terrorism'. [3] What is new about the new terrorism? What are its features and to what extent does it differ from what has been classified as conventional forms of terrorism? By employing the three variables of Peter Neumann (Structure, Aim and Method) [4] in constructing the features of previous forms of terrorism and contemporary international terrorism, this essay will provide a critical analysis of the debate in asserting whether or not the previous forms of terrorism differ from the contemporary international terrorism.


The struggle for National Self-determination, Independence and Revolution against the capitalist system driven by Ethno/Nationalist and Marxist ideologies from the late 1960s is usually referred to as the take-off period of conventional terrorism. However, terrorism is an historical phenomenon whose origin could be traced to the emergence of the first century Jewish Zealots also known as Sicarii and the eleventh century Isma'ili sect known as the Assassins (Lacquer 1999:10).

Contemporary International Terrorism refers to terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country (Sinai 2007:33). Though the idea of 'New Terrorism' predated 9/11 attack, however, it is quite difficult to ascertain the period of transition from old to new terrorism. There seems to be a consensus among the scholars that the end of Cold War and three major events marked the evolution of contemporary international terrorism; the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre by Ramzi Yousef, 1995 Aum Shinrikyo Nerve Gas Sarin Attack on a Tokyo subway, and 1995 Timothy McVeigh bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma city (Copeland 2001:12; Spencer 2006:9).


The conventional terrorist movements [5] were organized in a well-defined hierarchical structure with distributive authorities. They had a clear command, control and communication system. Neumann argued that the hierarchical structure was later transformed into cell system for secrecy and the preservation of the group's hierarchy (Neumann 2009:18). The theater of operation of the terrorists was geared towards a particular territory. The politics of Cold War also serves as a catalyst for states to sponsor conventional terrorist groups as a means of 'proxy warfare' to weaken their adversary (Spencer 2006:8). [6] While the conventional terrorist groups employed a vertical system of command and control, the contemporary terrorist groups utilize a horizontal system of cooperation and coordination (Field 2009:198; Kurtulus 2011:478). The advent of information revolution is an impetus to the structural configuration of contemporary terrorist groups into sprawling multi-organizational networks with high degree of flexibility, less command-driven leadership and operational reach. John Arquila explains how information revolution raises the prospect of 'Net war' which involves the use of network forms of organization and related doctrines, strategies, and technologies attuned to the information age (Arquila et al 1999:48). [7] The internet and other cutting-edge communication technologies have been exploited as a media to disseminate terrorist ideology and training (Cronin 2002:19). The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime in a draft article explains how internet is used in contemporary terrorism for six sometimes overlapping activities: propaganda (including recruitment, radicalization and incitement to terrorism); financing; training; planning (including through secret communication and open-source information); execution; and cyber-attacks (United Nations 2012:3). State-sponsor terrorism has declined in the aftermath of Cold War but several terrorist groups still benefit from indirect support and logistics from states that belief in their cause.


Marxist and Nationalist ideologies both of which are secular are the dominant ideologies that motivated conventional terrorism. These ideologies had a common orientation towards 'anti-imperialism' (Neumann 2009:23). [8] Conventional terrorist groups had realistic and pragmatic political objectives. Religious terrorism emerged as the fourth wave of terrorism with the resurgence of religiously inspired political movements with amorphous religious and millenarian aims (Rapoport 2004:46). [9] Matthew Morgan pointed out the new trend of a culture of religious violence, fanaticism and extremism that motivate terrorism perpetrated by the radical Islamists, radical cult groups and right-wing Christian militants (Morgan 2004:31). Mark Juergensmeyer explains three dangerous elements of religious terrorism; They perceive their objective as a defense of basic identity and dignity; losing the struggle would be unthinkable; and the struggle is in deadlock and cannot be won in real time or in real terms (Morgan 2004:34). These combined elements parade the lethality of religious terrorism as incorrigible owing to the absolutionist doctrines and the belief to establish a new social order governed by the worldview of the groups, making the prospect for negotiation a delusion.


Conventional terrorism was based on professional terrorist tactics, discriminate violence, and selective targeting with little interest in innovative tactics and non-conventional weapons (Copeland 2001:12). Indiscriminate violence was also benign from the ethical standpoint and could affect the legitimacy of the conventional terrorist groups. The cogent argument of the proponents of 'New Terrorism' is the increase in lethality and availability of non-conventional weapons, unprotected fissile materials as well as Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) materials employed for terrorist attacks. [10] Terrorists now have relatively easy access to a range of sophisticated, off-the-shelf weapons technology that can be readily adapted to their operational needs as a result of diffusion of scientific skills and dual-use technologies (Hoffman 1999:31; Rose 1999:132). Contemporary terrorist attacks involves indiscriminate violence [11] and rising trend of amateur terrorists who acquire internet-based information to develop the necessary skills and operational tactics of carrying out individual attacks without affiliation to any terrorist group. [12] The danger inherent in the rising trend of amateur terrorists in the view of Hoffman is the possibility of carrying out attacks with few constraints in the absence of a central command authority (Hoffman 1999:21).


Do the features of the two trends of terrorism explain continuity or change in our understanding of terrorism? The critics of new terrorism [13] accept the recent developments in terrorism; however, they challenge the lack of systematic analysis of the empirical data and a satisfactory theoretical framework to support the paradigmatic shift in terrorism (Crenshaw 2007:5; Burnett and Whyte 2005:3). They also argued that the features of new terrorism are not new in the real sense rather they are grounded in an evolving historical context. Indeed, many of the supposedly 'new' developments, such as religious motivation, global objectives, indiscriminate violence and even an interest in nuclear, biological or chemical weapons can in fact be observed in 'traditional' terrorist groups (Field 2009:200).

The rise of religious fundamentalism should not be considered as a new trend in terrorism rather it is a resurgence of an ideology that motivated terrorism prior to the evolution of secular Marxist and nationalist ideologies (Copeland 2001:20; Field 2009:201). Religion has always been used in the early phase of terrorism as a powerful justification for political violence. It resurgence should therefore not be considered as change but rather as continuity. Some scholars argued that although the actions of Islamist terrorist groups are religiously motivated, they still portray certain political agenda (Tucker 2001:6; Duyvesteyn 2004:445; Spencer 2006:15).

The organizational structure of terrorism was also criticized on the basis that network form of organization predated contemporary terrorism and conventional terrorism should not be conceived as limited to a particular territory (Tucker 2001:3; Duyvesteyn 2004:444). [14] However, what they fail to explain is the extent to which information revolution is being employed for contemporary terrorist-related activities. [15] Neumann argued that regardless of how extensive the international linkages of conventional terrorist groups, their activities were always geared towards strengthening rather than shifting the centre of gravity (Neumann 2009:18). The situation is different for contemporary terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda whose global agenda has de-territorialized its membership, its targets and theater of operation.

Violent terrorist attack (both in its discriminate and indiscriminate form) they argued is employed as a rational-strategic tool by the conventional and contemporary terrorists. However, one could argue over how contemporary violent attack has been adopted as an end in itself rather than a means in the conventional period. The means-end VS end in itself explains the distinction between the two trends of terrorism.

Critics of new terrorism also counter the technological threshold and the threat of weapon of mass destruction as a new phenomenon. They argued that 60 incidents out of a total of 8,000 from 1968-2002 involved the attempt or use of WMD. [16] They also argued that contemporary terrorism still largely employ conventional weapons the only exception involving CBRN materials are; the 1995 Nerve gas sarin attack in Tokyo and the Anthrax letters in US after 9/11 (Duyvesteyn 2004:448). The argument on the hand is not the availability of CBRN materials rather the constraints which prevented the use of WMD are eroding and the secret coalition between terrorist groups and rogue states provides the terrorists easy access to sophisticated weapons and CBRN materials for terrorist attack (Hoffman 1999:14 Gearson 2002:18).

In order to buttress their criticism of new terrorism, critics argued that the concept of new terrorism has an inherent political motive and it is a US problem frame and a desire of policymakers, bureaucrats, institutions and the policy community to generate incentives, funding and budgetary priorities in designing counter-terrorism programs (Copeland 2001:24 Field 2009:205). Based on the argument of the critics, Kurtulus argued that the criticism of new terrorism is unwarranted on several counts;

The adoption of a simplistic notion of new inappropriate for understanding social change.

Adoption of non-representative categories which make it impossible to differentiate the characteristics features of new terrorism from those of the old

Straw man version of the debate on new terrorism by associating it with counter-terrorism rhetoric, material incentives and institutional agendas.


Debates between the proponents and critics of new terrorism are premised upon the need to create a distinctive mark between the previous forms of terrorism and contemporary international terrorism. However, for the purpose of framing effective and holistic contemporary counter-terrorism strategy to cope with the growing threat of terrorism, there is substantial evidence which shows the need to recognize the ubiquitous threat which requires ubiquitous response for contemporary terrorism. Although, both forms of terrorism might share similar traits in religious motivation which could be considered as continuity, however, the organization of terrorist movements and the approach adopted in terrorist attack has change drastically especially with the advent of information technology. Conventional counter-terrorism strategy is however obsolete in tackling the contemporary threat and for effective strategy we need to strike out the distinction between conventional and contemporary international terrorism.