Nature of 21st Century Terrorism

by Adam W.G. Green, MSyl, M.ISRM, CSMP

The events of September the 11th, 2001 initiated a significant change in international terrorism and defined a new threat to global security of a magnitude that had not been considered since the end of the Cold War. The collapse of the World Trade Centre in New York demonstrated the exposure of cities to terrorist attacks. Two and a half years later, on the 11th of March 2004, bombs were detonated on packed commuter trains in Madrid, killing 191 people and injuring over 1,500, extending an amplified sense of urban vulnerability to cities around Europe. This was reinforced by the London bombings in July 2005, which again targeted ordinary city dwellers going about their daily lives on public transport.

In the years after 2001, al-Qaeda and its affiliates would attack notable landmarks on a global scale. Many, if not most, of the attacks had links back to Pakistan. The July 7th, 2005, attacks in London, were carried out by British jihadists who were trained in Pakistan and connected to al-Qaeda. Their martyrdom videos were played on al-Qaeda’s propaganda tapes with Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri, providing commentary, Zawahiri was the mastermind behind the 9/11 attack in New York, and was later killed in 2022 by a US drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan.

On the 22nd of December 2001 , Richard Reid ‘’The Shoe Bomber’’ boarded American Airlines Flight 63 between Paris and Miami, wearing shoes packed with explosives, which he unsuccessfully tried to detonate. Passengers subdued him on the plane, which landed at Logan International Airport in Boston. He was arrested, charged, and imprisoned. The 2004 Madrid train bombings were a series of coordinated, simultaneous bombings against the train system of Madrid, Spain, on the morning of the 11th of March 2004, three days before Spain’s general elections. The bombings were the deadliest terrorist attack carried out in the history of Spain and the deadliest in Europe since 1988. The official investigation by the Spanish judiciary found that the attacks were directed by al-Qaeda, allegedly as a reaction to Spain’s involvement in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

Disaster was averted in August 2006 when al-Qaeda’s most elaborate and deadly plot since 9/11 was thwarted by MI5 and MI6. More than a dozen British citizens of Pakistani origin were trained by al Qaeda to mix deadly explosives together on aircraft en-route from Heathrow to a half a dozen airports in Canada and the United States, blowing them up simultaneously over the north Atlantic Ocean. The plot was intended to mark the fifth anniversary of 9/11, leading to the collapse of the global airline business and the global economy. This triggered a huge overhaul of the aviation industry, and today, the security measures which we see in place, are due to this foiled attack.

The London bombings proved beyond a doubt the extent to which international networks operate across international borders with cities serving both as hubs for the articulation of international terror networks as well as targets of terrorism . Whilst past military intervention in Afghanistan may have destroyed the material component of the training organisation, the intellectual capacity remains as strong as ever, despite many key figures now either deceased or incarcerated.

The Mumbai, India attacks in 2008, witnessed ten attackers mount a complex operation that unfolded over sixty hours. The terrorists were heavily armed, each carrying AK-47s and multiple rounds of ammunition, as well as improvised explosive devices. The attackers were divided into four teams, one targeted Mumbai’s main train station, and then a hospital. A second team targeted a Jewish residential complex. The third team stormed the Oberoi Hotel, while the fourth team attacked the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. All attackers killed indiscriminately. Indian commandos ultimately brought down all ten attackers, but not until they had killed 164 people. The Mumbai attacks required, “precise planning, detailed reconnaissance and thorough preparation, both physical and mental. It relied on surprise, creating confusion and overwhelming the ability of the authorities to respond.

Terror returned to America on Christmas day in 2009. A Nigerian jihadist tried to blow up an airliner en-route to Detroit from Amsterdam as it descended over Ontario. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate plastic explosives hidden in his underwear, Abdulmutallab spent about 20 minutes in the toilet as the flight approached Detroit, then covered himself with a blanket after returning to his seat. Other passengers heard popping noises and smelled a foul odour, some saw flames on Abdulmutallab’s trouser leg and the wall of the plane. The device was a six-inch packet containing the explosive powder PETN, sewn into his underwear (fig. 2). Abdulmutallab was arrested after the incident and turned over to the FBI pending further investigation. Abdulmutallab told authorities he had been directed by al-Qaeda, and that he had obtained the device in Yemen.

The importance of modern information and technology available to support activities of terrorist networks cannot be underestimated. Access to global communications and data encryption, has enabled the degree of operational complexity and coordination exhibited during the 9/11 attacks. Terrorist groups and their global networks have successfully infiltrated most Western democracies, raising concern over the presence of operational cells, close to potential terrorist targets. The 9/11 attackers emerged after years of preparation in Europe, and other western countries, utilising civil infrastructure, and easily accessible resources to support their activities and goals , such as attending US flight schools to become skilful enough to carry out the attack on 9/11.

On 7th January 2015, two French Muslim terrorists and brothers, forced their way into the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris killing multiple people and injuring others (see assignment 5). The gunmen identified themselves as belonging to the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which later took responsibility for the attack. On the 13th of November 2015, a series of further coordinated attacks took place in Paris. Three suicide bombers struck outside the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, during an international football match, after failing to gain entry to the stadium. Another group of attackers then fired on crowded cafés and restaurants in Paris, with one of them also detonating an explosive device. A third group carried out another mass shooting and took hostages at the Bataclan theatre.

On the 28th of June 2016 at Atatürk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey gunmen armed with automatic weapons and explosive belts staged a simultaneous attack at Terminal 2. Turkish officials said the attackers were acting on behalf of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and had come to Turkey from ISIL controlled Syria. On the evening of the 14th of July 2016, a 19-tonne cargo truck was deliberately driven into crowds of people on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, resulting in the deaths of 86 people. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack and proved that lone-wolf targeted attacks are likely, using easily accessible, everyday instruments, such as vehicles, with very little sophistication and skill required.

Closer to home, within the UAE, on January the 17th, 2022, drones struck three oil refuelling vehicles in an oil refinery for the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. A Houthi military spokesman said the group fired drones and five ballistic missiles in the attack. The UAE stated that several missiles and drones were intercepted. A drone attack simultaneously set an extension of the Abu Dhabi International Airport on fire. A deadly drone attack in the heart of the UAE’s capital thrust the Middle East into uncharted waters .

The use of UAV’s (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) in terrorist attacks have increased significantly in the past ten years, notably closer to home, within Saudi Arabia, and the within the wider Arabian Peninsula. In 2022, a Saudi Aramco oil depot west of Jeddah was targeted by Houthi drones, this in-turn caused major concerns for the years Formula 1, to be hosted in Jeddah the same year. Due to the popularity of drones, within the civilian market has driven technological improvements. Improvements extend to sizes, form factors, energy storage, techniques for propulsion, sensors, and the ability to utilize and integrate advanced computer capabilities. Collectively, these improvements have increased the range, lifting capacity and overall capabilities of drones, making them both more lethal and more difficult to counter.

Readily accessible drones, often used by professional photographers and used within the film industry have been adapted for attack purposes in the past, in 2018 the President on Venezuela survived a failed assassination attempt when two small drones carrying explosives detonated. The drones used were like the DJI M600, used by professional media outlets, and can carry up to 13 pounds, and are easily accessible within the civilian market.

The ability of a small group and, or a motivated, skilled individual to conduct multiple simultaneous attacks, at a relatively low cost and with significant standoff distance, will lead to the use of drones as a primary tactic of future terrorist attacks. The advantage is with the adversary, risk vs reward; expensive counter systems for drones can be defeated with the addition or removal of specific onboard systems or a change in modality , especially when operators can pilot drones from a substantial distance without coming to harm.

Terrorists have already begun to experiment with the use of civilian drones in their attacks, it would only take one very high-profile attack, at a high-profile event, or high-profile person, for all terrorist groups to exploit this technology to its maximum affect.