10 Key Takeaways about Terrorism


  • Terrorism is not exclusively a modern phenomenon, but has existed in human history since at least the first century AD.  A wide range of groups, including religious, right wing, left wing, and ethnic separatists, have resorted to the use of terrorism to meet political goals.
  • One reason that groups choose terrorist tactics is the cost effectiveness.  The 9/11 attack only cost about $500,000 for Al Qaeda to carry out, but the aftermath of the attack resulted in an estimated $3.3 trillion cost for the United States.[1]
  • In a terrorist attack, the violence is a means to an end.  The attacks are designed to provoke fear throughout a target population that is larger than the individuals actually harmed.  Targets are often chosen for the psychological effects they will invoke.
  • There is no single terrorist profile.  Terrorist attacks have been committed by men and women of all major races, religions and political beliefs.  Also, terrorists tend to be rational, psychopaths make bad terrorists.
  • Terrorism is an ineffective tactic.  Most terrorist groups last less than a year, and research has found that terrorist groups who target civilians to achieve political goals almost always fail, and are much less successful than guerilla groups that attack military targets.[2]
  • Individuals engage and disengage with terrorism for a wide range of personal reasons.  There is no one path to, or away, from terrorism, but it can be inspired by things like personal loyalty as much as sincere political or religious beliefs.
  • Some terrorist groups have expressed interest in acquiring a weapon of mass destruction. However acquiring and using these weapons are difficult and risky.  Traditional weapons have proven to be effective and cheap, and the use of a WMD has the potential to alienate potential supporters and result in massive government retaliation against the terrorist group.
  • No matter how robust our counter-terrorism efforts are, we are unlikely to be able to eradicate terrorism completely.  Our response to terrorism should be proportional to the threat, and should be carried out in a legitimate manner that protects civil liberties and follows the rule of law.
  • In devising an effective counter-terrorism strategy, the United States should use a whole government approach.  This approach can draw from different aspects of national power such as diplomacy, intelligence, military, economic, financial, information, and legal resources.
  • Terrorist groups are increasingly using the internet to recruit do it yourself terrorists.  This is an effective strategy because it means that terrorist groups like Al Qaeda don’t have to invest in things like training camps and are able to reach a wider audience.  However, this means that the core group has less control, and many DIY terrorists are amateurs who are unable to carry out large scale attacks.



[1] Shan Carter and Amanda Cox, “One 9/11 Tally:$3.3 Trillion,” The New York Times, September 8, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/09/08/us/sept-11-reckoning/cost-graphic.html?_r=0

[2] Max Abrahms, “The Political Effectiveness of Terrorism Revisited,” Comparative Political

Studies Vol. 45, No. 3 (February 2012), p. 370-373.

About Leon Whyte

I'm a recent graduate of the Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy. My interests include Pacific Asia and Security. I am looking for related opportunities.
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