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Global AlertThe Rationality of Modern Islamist Terrorism and the Challenge to the Liberal Democratic World$

Boaz Ganor

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780231172127

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231172127.001.0001

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Understanding the Rationale behind Different Types of Terrorist Attacks

Understanding the Rationale behind Different Types of Terrorist Attacks

(p.133) 9 Understanding the Rationale behind Different Types of Terrorist Attacks
Global Alert

Boaz Ganor

Columbia University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter demonstrates the rationale behind terrorism by explicating why and under what circumstances a terrorist organization may choose to use a given tactic, since terrorist organizations are varied and highly adaptive by nature. As such, it is imperative for counter-terrorism databases to maintain up-to-date information on the principal means of conducting terrorism, in order to stop these before they happen. The chapter discusses the more conventional types of terrorist attacks in detail—most especially suicide attacks, as their frequency has been on the rise in recent years, although they are sometimes indistinguishable from other forms of attack due to their generally violent nature. Aside from distinguishing the conventional forms of terrorism, it is also important to assess the likelihood of the more unconventional methods of attack (such as chemical warfare), by once again returning to the cost-benefit analyses informing the assessments on rationale discussed in previous chapters.

Keywords:   counter-terrorism, suicide attacks, methods of attack, cost-benefit analyses, terrorist attacks

Different types of terrorist attacks are the result of a variety of individual and collective considerations. Understanding the rationale, cost-benefit analysis, and decision-making process used by terrorists and their organizations in choosing what type of attack to perpetrate will contribute to the formulation of more-effective counter-terrorism strategies and policies.

Conventional Terrorist Attacks

The dynamic nature of terrorism, the broad variety of terrorist organizations with unique characteristics, the varied types of terrorist attacks that these organizations carry out, and the different circumstances in which they carry them out all indicate the very complex nature of modern terrorism. It is therefore not surprising that it is a challenge to identify and understand terrorists’ decision-making processes. Even when we succeed in understanding the rationale behind a decision to conduct a given terrorist attack, we must remember that the priorities of the organization that perpetrated the attack, the factors that influenced that organization, and the constraints that it faced (p.134) will change in the future. Consequently, the effort to understand the rationale of terrorist organizations must be ceaseless, continuous, and ever fresh. It also requires that we distinguish among the various types of terrorist attacks, and understand their relative advantages and disadvantages for terrorist organizations. The following sections discuss the most prevalent types of attacks.

“Cold Weapons,” Sabotage, and Arson

These kinds of attacks are the most “primitive,” involving a cold weapon such as a knife, axe, or other sharp or blunt object, which is used to cause bodily injury or property damage. This category also includes attacks such as arson and sabotage, which are designed to damage a country’s critical infrastructure, destroy its natural resources, cripple its economy, or disrupt its society. Such attacks usually achieve their intention of instilling apprehension in the targeted population. They may be initiated by a terrorist organization, or more commonly, they may be initiated and perpetrated by a “lone gunman”—an individual who has been exposed to incitement, desires revenge, or has other motives. An example of this type of attack occurred in the late 1980s, during the first Palestinian intifada, when arson was used to decimate the forested land flanking the Jerusalem–Tel Aviv highway.

Time-Delay or Remotely Activated Explosive Devices

Bombing attacks are often favored by modern terrorist organizations. They involve the use of requisition or improvised explosive materials to severely damage or destroy a target, cause a large number of casualties, and amplify fear and anxiety. A terrorist organization may purchase standard explosives on the black (criminal) market, receive them from its state sponsor, or steal them from the military or civilian arsenals of an enemy or an uninvolved nation. In recent years, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have become all but ubiquitous, in part because they can easily be produced by terrorists who have undergone special training or who have access to professional bomb-making literature or even to the “cookbooks” available on (jihadist) Internet sites. IEDs are usually made using pharmaceutical chemicals or (p.135) agricultural fertilizers that can be purchased without restriction or difficulty. Even if such substances are sensitive or dangerous, their preparation is simple and does not require extensive professional knowledge or a sophisticated workstation or laboratory. Terrorists often choose to add nails, screws, metal ball bearings, or nuts and bolts to their IEDs so as to increase the lethality of the explosion. Wristwatches, timers, and alarm clocks can all be used to create a time-delay mechanism, which will cause the IED to explode at the precise time and place predetermined by the terrorist. Similarly, remote-control detonators such as mobile phones enable terrorists to accurately time an explosion to coincide with opportunity—a throng of people, the presence of a certain person, the moment the device is detected—and to prevent the intended victims from escaping harm.

Suicide Attacks

Suicide attacks give their perpetrator—and the organization that sends or “sponsors” him—absolute control over the timing and location of an attack. They usually cause extensive casualties, and always heighten fear and anxiety among the civilian public. (An elaboration of the rationale behind suicide attacks is provided below.)

Shooting Attacks and “Killing Journeys”

Ambushes and shootings at military and civilian installations are also commonly used by terrorists. In a shooting attack, one or more terrorists armed with firepower such as machine guns, rifles, pistols, and grenades intercept a predetermined or random target and open fire on it. Pre-planned shooting attacks—ambushes—are based on intelligence about the movements and tactics of the enemy’s military and police patrols and convoys. Terrorists may also choose to attack a sensitive military or civilian facility, catching the enemy off guard and increasing the public’s panic when the police or military are unable to respond appropriately. The most daring of this type of attack is the “killing journey,” during which terrorists arrive at a targeted location or densely populated area and, using multiple weapons (p.136) and ammunition, open fire indiscriminately with the intention of causing as many casualties as possible until they are stopped by bystanders or security forces. Often the terrorists themselves are killed during the attack. One variant of this type of attack has been used by Palestinian terrorists, who have employed “cold” heavy machinery—cars, trucks, bulldozers—to plow into cars on the road and crowds of people on sidewalks and at bus stops, killing as many civilians as possible until they are stopped. Several terrorism databases wrongly refer to this type of attack as a suicide attack, because the perpetrator often dies during the attack.

Rocket, Missile, and Artillery Fire into Enemy Territory

This type of attack has become the tactic of choice when a terrorist organization finds it difficult to penetrate a chosen target location because the enemy’s defensive measures have proven effective. An organization can fire rockets and mortars only if it has the operational capability to do so and has purchased, manufactured, or received from a sponsor the necessary weapons and ammunition. High-trajectory weapons may be fired from a territory bordering the target location, from an enemy state territory, from an area under the control of a terrorist organization, or from a poorly governed area or an ungoverned “no-man’s-land.” Surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles positioned near an airfield may also be used in this type of attack to shoot down military or civilian aircraft during takeoff and landing.

Hostage-Taking and Kidnapping

This classic form of terrorist attack has been used by terrorist organizations in buildings and vehicles, on airplanes and ships. Terrorists usually kidnap people with the intention of negotiating for their release in exchange for ransom, the release of compatriots or other terrorists from prison, or the implementation of territorial or political demands. Hostages may be random hapless civilians or soldiers, or deliberately targeted politicians, diplomats, journalists, wealthy entrepreneurs, or public figures.1 It is interesting (p.137) to note changes in this type of attack over time, owing to the complexity of hostage-taking and its very high risk and poor chances of success; this is illustrated by the case of Israel. Whereas in the past, terrorists would hijack an airplane or take hostages within Israel, today they tend to kidnap a victim or victims and transfer them to an unknown location, making it extremely difficult for Israel’s security forces to free the victims in a military operation. Protracted negotiations then ensue, during which the terrorists can make extensive demands without risking their own exposure. In recent years, Islamic jihadist terrorist organizations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other conflict areas have increasingly used kidnappings that culminated in the brutal decapitation of the victim, broadcast through the media and the Internet. No matter the target or the end result, kidnapping and hostage-taking are meant to reveal the enemy’s weakness, and increase the dread among the targeted population to an almost unbearable level.

Personal Initiative Versus Organized Terrorist Attacks

In addition to distinguishing among different types of terrorist attack, it is also useful to classify attacks according to how they are planned—that is, whether an attack is “organized terrorism” or a “personal initiative.”2 In “organized terrorism,” a terrorist organization is involved in the instigation, planning, or perpetration of a terrorist attack. In contrast, personal initiatives are attacks committed by “lone wolf” terrorists, individuals who are not necessarily affiliated with any organization or network, who plot and execute an attack on their own. Usually, such individuals are motivated by a desire for personal or collective vengeance for events that they perceive as unjust. Lone wolf attackers are also often exposed to incitement via the Internet and the media, or through personal contact with religious clerics or teachers, ideologues, or friends or family with extreme views. Incitement may also be promulgated by a terrorist organization that encourages its adherents and supporters to commit attacks as a means of identifying with (p.138) it and its goals, as a symbol of protest, or as revenge. However, this is usually the extent of organizational “involvement” in a personal terrorism initiative.

Personal initiative attacks, which are perforce smaller in scale than organized terrorism, usually involve the use of cold weapons such as knives, axes, bricks, and stones; arson; vandalism; vehicular killing; or a shooting rampage with whatever hot weapons a lone wolf can acquire (grenades or guns). However limited in scope, a lone wolf attack is usually difficult to foil, as it is almost always devised in the mind of the attacker and planned in a vacuum. Rarely will a lone wolf share his concrete plans even with those closest to him.3 In contrast, multiple people are involved when a terrorist organization initiates and plans a terrorist attack. At least in theory, this allows state security services more opportunities to gather intelligence on the terrorist organization and intercept its planned attacks. As state security services almost never have advance warning of a personal initiative attack, the burden of foiling such an attack falls entirely on a country’s routine, well-trained professional security personnel, who can provide a quick and effective response at the scene of the attack and minimize damage and casualties. Thus, although it is difficult to prevent personal initiatives, it is important to remember that the lone wolf is often untrained and lacks expertise, leading him to react less quickly or efficiently to complications in the field or failure of his operational plan. This can sometimes give security forces an advantage, such as the opportunity to overpower him.

Sometimes a small group of acquaintances—family members, peers, or members of a local network—which has no affiliation with any specific terrorist organization undergoes radicalization as a group, or individually, and at a certain point in time decides to conduct a terrorist attack. Such “local independent attacks” are planned, prepared, and conducted without the involvement of a terrorist organization; they are therefore similar in nature to personal initiative attacks.

In “organized terrorism,” in contrast, a terrorist organization is involved in any or all of the following: initiating the attack, collecting intelligence about the target, recruiting, training the attackers, acquiring or manufacturing the weapons to be used, and perpetrating the attack (fig. 9.1). Following is an elaboration of the planning and perpetration of an organized terrorist attack.


Understanding the Rationale behind Different Types of Terrorist Attacks

Figure 9.1 Stages in the preparation and execution of a terrorist attack

Initiating an Attack

Even in a hierarchical terrorist organization with a relatively clear chain of command, the way attacks are initiated and launched is dynamic, responding to fluctuating circumstances. As a rule, any of three groups of people in a hierarchical terrorist organization may initiate and authorize a terrorist attack: the leadership—that is, the heads of the organization; mid-level commanders, including the heads of the organization’s regional and special operational units; and terrorists in the field, who are members of the organization’s cells. A terrorist attack may be initiated “from the top down”—by a directive from the leadership to mid-level commanders to field operatives—or it may be initiated “from the bottom up,” originating with a request from field operatives or mid-level commanders, and authorized by the organization’s leadership.

(p.140) Gathering Intelligence

Operational intelligence gathering has three purposes: to learn the weaknesses of the enemy state and find its “soft underbelly”; to establish and maintain a pool of potential targets of attack; and to obtain concrete, upto-date operational information about a chosen target. A terrorist organization usually gathers intelligence about potential targets, often as part of its ongoing activity and not just as something attended to immediately before a planned attack. However, ongoing (basic) intelligence collection becomes more focused, tactical, and operational as the terrorist organization prepares for a specific attack. Intelligence gathering thus begins long before an attack is initiated, and continues until the attack has been successfully carried out.

Recruiting Perpetrators

Once the decision has been made to launch an attack, a perpetrator or perpetrators are selected from the organization’s pool of members or recruited from its base of support. Members of the organization may already be part of a terrorist cell (whether active or a sleeper cell), or they may have been serving the organization in an administrative or other non-operational capacity. Sometimes, a member of the organization or one of its supporters may volunteer for the mission. Conversely, he might be recruited by a relative or friend who is affiliated with the organization, or identified by a religious teacher or spiritual leader as having outstanding dedication and zeal. These individuals are then approached directly by the organization’s recruiter, who offers them an opportunity to participate in the planned attack.

Planning the Attack

The planning of an attack involves identifying a target, choosing a means of reaching the target and a modus operandi, selecting manpower and weaponry, establishing a chain of command and communication, and planning an escape route.

(p.141) Obtaining Weaponry and Operational Equipment

As a matter of course, terrorist organizations constantly strive to increase their arsenals. Terrorist organizations acquire weaponry and equipment in various ways. State support of an organization usually includes an abundant supply of weapons and ammunition. Often these weapons were “pre-owned,” and were used by the state’s security forces before becoming obsolete.4 A terrorist organization may (also) purchase necessary operational equipment on the open market or the black market, depending on whether what it needs is legal, or available, in its area of operation. Terrorist organizations also steal weapons, notably from an enemy’s military forces. Lastly, a terrorist organization may manufacture its weapons—especially improvised explosive devices but also rockets—using raw materials such as fertilizer, chemicals, and household solvents available on the open market.5 Specific terrorist attacks might require a terrorist organization to acquire additional operational equipment, such as vehicles, apartments that can be used as safe houses for perpetrators, mobile telephones, and counterfeit documents such as identification cards, passports, and work permits.

Training the Perpetrators

Terrorist organizations maintain an extensive system of training that they employ to keep their members ready to act at any time. Many of the members of a terrorist organization will undergo some basic military training, including survival techniques, self-defense maneuvers, and instruction in firing a weapon. Some of them might receive specialized training in air and naval activity, preparing and detonating explosives, aerial defense, and intelligence as well. Operatives are also taught to withstand the rigors and pressures of interrogation by the enemy state’s security forces; they may also receive psychological training and spiritual guidance designed to reinforce their determination to fulfill their duty, even in the face of severe risks to their personal safety.

(p.142) Perpetrating the Attack

After the designated perpetrators of an attack have been trained and equipped, they make their way to the target. Sometimes they are escorted or accompanied by collaborators, who secure the route and are charged with extracting them in case of a complication or failure. In most types of attack, the attack concludes when the perpetrators have escaped and arrived at a safe house or base.

These are the stages a hierarchal terrorist organization follows in executing a terrorist attack. Naturally, they are modified to accommodate circumstances and constraints. If an urgent need arises to perpetrate an attack, an organization may shorten or skip some aspects of preparation. It is thus possible that perpetrators will be sent to launch an attack without proper planning, training, or appropriate weapons.

Organized terrorist attacks may be either direct or indirect. In the former, the organization is involved in all stages of the attack, from initiation to execution, and the attack will be perpetrated by a member of the organization. In the latter, the organization may initiate or even prepare the attack, but the terrorists who carry it out will be unaffiliated with the organization, belonging either to a proxy organization or to a local terrorist network with loose connections to the primary organization. It is worth noting that, to date, suicide attacks generally have been organized attacks, initiated and planned by a terrorist organization. In fact, while a personally initiated, lone wolf attack may be suicidal—that is, the attacker may know that he is liable to be killed in the attack—it does not qualify as a suicide attack. This uniquely devastating form of attack is the topic of the next section.

The Rationale Behind the Suicide Attack

Suicide attacks are not a new phenomenon, but they are a growing one.6 During the past two decades, the number of suicide attacks has skyrocketed.7 The first modern suicide attacks were perpetrated in the 1980s in (p.143) Lebanon, beginning with an attack by the Iraqi Islamic Dawa Party against the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut in 1981 and continuing with suicide attacks by Hezbollah against Western targets in Beirut in 1983. The phenomenon then spread to Sri Lanka in 1987, with an attack by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) against a Sri Lanka Army camp. Since that time, the number of successful—and foiled—suicide attacks has increased exponentially, affecting India, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel, Kenya, Lebanon, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States, Yemen, and other countries.

Why has suicide bombing become so prevalent? Because it is the ultimate “smart bomb,” a vehicle for radical ideology with an easily exported, easily imitated modus operandi whose expense is minimal but whose impact is profound. To truly understand the rationale behind this type of attack and formulate effective tools to counter it, we must first distinguish it from the other types of terrorist attacks reviewed thus far.

First and foremost, a suicide attack is by definition an attack that is dependent on the death of the attacker.8 The suicide attack is unique among terrorist attacks because the terrorist who is to perpetrate it is fully aware that if he does not kill himself, the planned attack will not be completed. He cannot both fulfill his mission and stay alive. This distinction is extremely important, as various other types of attack can mistakenly be identified as belonging in this special category. For example, a terrorist often sets out knowing that there is a good chance he will be killed in the course of his attack. Nevertheless, and in spite of imminent danger, as long as it is possible for an attack to succeed without its perpetrator being forced to kill himself during the course of it, it should not be considered a “suicide attack.” Another example of a terrorist attack that does not qualify as a suicide attack, even though the death of the perpetrator is almost certain, is that provided by the unwitting carrier of a bomb pre-set to explode. In a suicide attack, the carrier is not fooled; rather, he is fully aware that he is committing an attack that will cause his own death.9

Thus, as noted, a suicide attack is one in which the terrorist perpetrator knows that the attack will not be executed if he is not killed in the process. This distinction is crucial, because of the psychological state of the (p.144) terrorist who is about to perpetrate the attack: “tunnel vision.”10 During the last few minutes before activating his bomb, the terrorist knows he has no other option. Either he detonates the explosives, killing himself and taking as many other people with him as possible, or he refrains from doing so, remains alive—and no one will be killed. He cannot partially fulfill his mission, and he cannot clutch at the hope of staying alive after carrying it out. Understanding the suicide attacker’s unique psychological state, his tunnel vision as he embarks on his mission, is essential to devising the right tactics and methods for identifying and neutralizing him in the final moments before he detonates himself.

The phenomenon of the suicide attack has attracted the attention of many scholars, who have written countless articles and books about it.11 Surprisingly, these scholars’ quantitative research and conclusions have differed because they have used differing definitions of the term “suicide attack.” Scholars also disagree as to the reasons for the increase in suicide attacks in recent decades, and they differ in their assessments of the grievances that motivate suicide attackers. Some argue that political considerations explain this phenomenon: Robert Pape, for example, claims that foreign occupation drives suicide attacks.12 Ariel Merari points out that peer pressure is what induces an individual to commit himself to perpetrating a suicide attack,13 while Mia Bloom explains that the phenomenon’s origin lies in the public support and consent that it garners.14

As this sample of unrelated explanations may hint, it is extremely difficult for Westerners to comprehend and rationalize how a person can volunteer, or accept an offer, to become a suicide attacker. What drives someone to kill himself, inflicting death and destruction, terrorizing others? As indicated elsewhere (see chapter 7), the Western tendency is to offer explanations that mirror Western thinking. In other words, the suicide terrorist must surely be in despair, feeling frustrated and hopeless. Only someone who has nothing to lose would commit such atrocity. Perhaps his or her situation is so dire that we can understand the desperate act. But are these really plausible explanations of suicide terrorism? Unfortunately, they are not sufficient. Rather, such explanations are founded in misconceptions, which reveal the West’s failure to fully understand the rationale of the suicide attacker or (p.145) his cost-benefit calculations.15 Before analyzing the personal considerations of the suicide attacker, a brief discussion of the benefit calculus of terrorist organizations that employ suicide attacks is in order.16

From the perspective of the terrorist organization, the most important benefit of suicide terrorism is the perpetrator’s ability to control the time and location of his attack. This characteristic of the suicide attack guarantees the result of numerous casualties, more than are produced by “regular” bombing attacks that are detonated by a timer or remote control. As an outcome, the lethality of the suicide attack rivets the attention of the media more than other terrorist attacks.

In fact, the term “suicide attack” is misleading, especially in reference to Islamist-jihadist suicide terrorism. The perpetrator of a suicide attack is not considered to have committed suicide, as suicide is forbidden by Islam.17 Instead, the suicide attacker is seen as a shahid, a martyr who has fallen in the process of fulfilling the religious commandment to wage jihad, holy war.18 In Arabic, his act is called istishhad (martyrdom).19

With this in mind, it is necessary to calculate the benefits and sacrifices of the shahid from his (or her) perspective; the inevitable conclusion will be that, in the eye of the beholder (the shahid), committing a suicide attack is a rational decision whose benefits outweigh its costs. As noted, a shahid’s decision to martyr himself—like any other decision to take part in a terrorist attack—is influenced simultaneously by three considerations: political grievances (in the case of Islamist-jihadist martyrs, religious-political grievances); societal consequences; and personal considerations. These three factors are synergistically bound to create a rational platform for three types of benefits: benefits to self-image, benefits to family and peers, and the personal rewards of heaven.20

As events of the past decade have shown, the phenomenon of suicide attacks has grown to endanger the safety of the world. Consequently, an urgent need exists to find new means of thwarting these attacks, limiting their effect and narrowing their scope. Particularly harrowing is the thought that suicide attacks may one day be combined with the use of unconventional means of terrorism: chemical, biological, radioactive, and nuclear (CBRN).21

(p.146) The Rationale Behind Unconventional Terrorism

According to a 2011 survey conducted by the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, 68 percent of 120 counter-terrorism experts interviewed thought it was likely that a large-scale chemical, biological, or radiological terrorist attack would occur somewhere in the world within five years.22 It seems that this alarming assessment is a result of the dangerous processes occurring in the Arab world in recent years: As part of the so-called Arab Spring, traditional regimes are being toppled and replaced by Islamist regimes. In most cases, this regime change is accompanied by a crisis of governance, and the appearance of ungoverned enclaves that serve as a breeding ground for local and global Islamist terrorists. In addition, during the anarchic period attendant to some of these revolutions, terrorists have taken over the armories and weapons caches of deposed state armies. In some states (especially Syria), fear has arisen lest Islamist terrorists gain control of stores of chemical and biological weapons. The involvement of different terrorist organizations in the civil war in Syria (on the one hand Hezbollah, which under Iranian command is fighting alongside the Assad regime, and on the other hand local and global Jihadi terrorist organizations such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra), fighting in proximity to large chemical and biological weapons plants and warehouses, raises the concerns that terrorists may gain access to these dangerous weapons. Nevertheless, even without this kind of breakthrough, terrorists might produce unconventional hazardous material themselves or get it from a sponsoring state.

Assessing the likelihood of unconventional terrorism first requires assessing the likelihood that certain terrorist organizations will adopt this modus operandi, in light of their operational capabilities (that is, their ability to obtain and deploy unconventional materials) and their motives for doing so—based, of course, on their own idiosyncratic cost-benefit analysis. The first question to be asked, then, in estimating the probability that a terrorist organization will deploy CBRN weapons, is why an organization might choose to do so. The following are among the possible reasons: acquiescence (p.147) to the request of a sponsor state; a desire to escalate the struggle; emulation of, or competition with, other organizations; access to unconventional substances; fulfillment of a divine decree.

If a terrorist organization is motivated to use unconventional terrorism, what is the likelihood that it will actually do so? In order to determine the probability of the occurrence of an unconventional terrorist attack, we need to classify unconventional attacks. Customarily, unconventional attacks have been differentiated according to the substance used to perpetrate them: chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear. However, it is also useful to classify unconventional attacks by their intended result, distinguishing between “limited” and “unlimited” unconventional attacks. This distinction may be dependent on the size of the area the attack will affect, or the damage and number of casualties it is likely to inflict.

A limited unconventional terrorist attack is one that has limited consequences. It is confined to a specific territory and may be expected to cause hundreds or even a few thousands of casualties. In contrast, an unlimited unconventional attack is one that is not confined to any facility or territory. Such a terrorist attack is likely to be far more lethal than a limited unconventional terrorist attack, and certainly more than a conventional terrorist attack; it may be expected to cause tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of casualties.

In figure 9.2, four columns show the “traditional” classification of unconventional attacks by substance; these overlap with two rows that indicate whether the attack is limited or unlimited, creating a matrix of six cubes. As the figure indicates, the majority of chemical attacks will be limited in scope, as they are usually confined to a targeted facility or area. In contrast, biological attacks are usually “unlimited” in scope, primarily because biological agents are contagious and, with few exceptions (e.g., anthrax), cannot be confined to a given facility or area. Similarly, nuclear attacks should always be regarded as “unlimited” because of the large number of casualties and extensive damage they inflict, and because of their ecological ramifications. Radiological attacks, such as those perpetrated using a so-called dirty bomb carrying both conventional explosives and radiological material, are (p.148)

Understanding the Rationale behind Different Types of Terrorist Attacks

Figure 9.2 Unconventional terrorism. Source: Boaz Ganor, “The Feasibility of Post Modern Terrorism” in Boaz Ganor, ed., Post Modern Terrorism (Herzliya, Israel: Institute for Counter-Terrorism, Herzliya Projects Publishing House, 2005), 20.

always “limited” in scope, as they pose a danger to the immediate vicinity of the explosion.

This classification based on scope (location and casualties) suggests that the decision to execute a limited or an unlimited unconventional terrorist attack will be spurred by two different rationales. It may be said that the rationale behind a limited unconventional attack—still a form of “modern” terrorism—is based on the indirect strategy of measuring success by the ability to terrify the targeted community, inducing that community to pressure its decision makers to make political concessions. In contrast, the rationale behind the decision to launch an unlimited unconventional attack—a form of “postmodern” terrorism—lies in the terrorists’ calculation of the costs and benefits of their ability to directly alter reality.

The conceptual foundations of these two categories of attack therefore differ: While limited unconventional terrorism is designed to serve as leverage, as a means of using intimidation to change political reality, unlimited unconventional terrorism strives to change political reality itself, de facto. Although the unlimited attack may also have a severe psychological impact on public morale, the grave and prolonged damage it causes to the area and (p.149) the community under attack will in any case directly and immediately affect reality.

Using this classification to understand the rational cost-benefit calculations of terrorist organizations that are considering the use of unconventional attacks can also go a long way toward resolving the dispute regarding the likelihood that such attacks will be perpetrated in the foreseeable future. More precisely, limited unconventional terrorist attacks are within the spectrum of modern terrorism strategy without necessarily changing “the rules of the game” and therefore within the rationale of many terrorist organizations. On the other hand, the perpetration of unlimited unconventional attacks necessitates completely rethinking the terrorist organization’s operational strategy and requires terrorist organizations to change their mind-set to encompass a whole new realm of postmodern terrorism strategy. The proposed classification suggests therefore that the perpetration of a limited unconventional terrorist attack (especially chemical terrorist attacks) is much more likely than the perpetration of an unlimited unconventional attack.

This chapter has reviewed the principal types of terrorist attack perpetrated by individuals and groups, according to the rational considerations relevant to each. Although many terrorist attacks are planned and executed on the basis of patterns and stages, it is nevertheless crucial to understand the rationale behind them, in order to stop them before they happen.


(1.) For example, in 1996, the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement attacked the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Peru during a party. The international diplomats attending the event were held hostage at the ambassador’s residence for 126 days.

(2.) Boaz Ganor, The Counter-Terrorism Puzzle: A Guide for Decision Makers (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2005), 79.

(3.) Sometimes those close to the lone wolf attacker become aware, in retrospect, that prior to the attack he had exhibited changes in his behavior that were indicative of his slow radicalization. Had these changes been observed and understood, they might have served as a warning of what was to come.

(4.) Following Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, reports surfaced that Iran and Syria had transferred arms to Hezbollah. For example, it was reported that Iran had deployed a Zelzal-2 (heavy artillery rocket) to Hezbollah in 2002, that Syria had provided Hezbollah (p.200) with 1970s-era Soviet-manufactured BM-27 220 mm rockets in 2002, and that Hezbollah was sent Iranian-made Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 rockets—a transaction referred to by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah himself in October 2002. See Gary Gambill, “Hezbollah’s Strategic Rocket Arsenal,” Middle East Intelligence Bulletin 4, no. 11 (2002), accessed June 29, 2009, http://www.meib.org/articles/0211_l2.htm. Similarly, Libya provided weapons to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) beginning in 1972–1973, subsequent to a meeting between its government and Joe Cahill, then the IRA’s chief of staff. However, on March 28, 1973, Cahill was arrested aboard a ship carrying five tons of ammunition. See J. Bowyer Bell, The Secret Army: The IRA (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1997), 398. The weapons stockpile consisted of “250 Russian made rifles, 240 other guns, anti-tank mines and other explosives. It is estimated that three shipments of weapons of similar size and makeup did get through to the IRA during the same time period.” See Peter Taylor, Provos: The IRA and Sinn Féin (London: Bloomsbury, 1997), 156. In a second incident, in 1986–1987, the Libyan government sent the IRA five shipments of weapons—sufficient to supply at least two infantry battalions. Henry McDonald, “Gaddafi Sued by 160 Victims of the IRA,” Observer, April 23, 2006, accessed July 1, 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2006/apr/23/uk.northernireland. Weapons found in the shipments included RPGs, HMGs, SAMs, AK-47 Kalashnikovs, and Semtex plastic explosives. See Brendan O’Brien, The Long War: The IRA and Sinn Féin (Dublin: O’Brien Press, 1999).

(5.) Handbooks, manuals, and instructions for making bombs and other weapons are widely available in print and on Internet forums and websites. Technical documents, some of which are produced by self-proclaimed Islamic groups, include instructions for preparing explosives or mixing household chemicals to make bombs. The Anarchist Cookbook and the Al-Qaeda Terrorist Training Manual are examples. See http://publicintelligence.net/u-s-government-translation-of-islamic-terrorist-explosive-manual/ and http://www.licensed4fun.com/anarchist1.htm, accessed December 12, 2012. Qassam rockets, for example, which have been used extensively by the terrorist organization Hamas, are constructed from common materials such as sugar and ubiquitous fertilizers like potassium nitrate and urea nitrate. Also, ammonium nitrate fertilizer, black powder, gasoline, sodium chlo-rate, and sugar and matchstick tips can all be used to create improvised explosive devices, as described in The Anarchist Cookbook and the Al-Qaeda Terrorist Training Manual, for example.

(9.) In 1986, Irish citizen Anne-Marie Murphy was intercepted by Israeli security guards at Heathrow Airport as she was about to board an El Al flight to Tel Aviv. Unbeknownst to her, she was carrying 1.5 kilograms of explosives in her luggage. The explosives had been (p.201) placed in her bag by her fiancé, Jordanian citizen Nezar Hindawi. At the time, Murphy was five months pregnant with Hindawi’s child; she thought she was flying to meet his family.

(10.) Aaron T. Beck, “Prisoners of Hate,” Behavior Research and Therapy 40, no. 3 (2002): 209–216.

(11.) One of the first of these was written by the author of the current work: Boaz Ganor et al., Countering Suicide Terrorism (Herzliya, Israel: International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, 2000).

(12.) Robert Pape, “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” American Political Science Review 97, no. 3 (2003): 343–361.

(13.) Ariel Merari, Driven to Death: Psychological and Social Aspects of Suicide Terrorism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

(14.) Mia Bloom, Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

(15.) Many books and monographs have been written on the topic. See, for example, Ganor et al., Countering Suicide Terrorism; Ganor, “Rationality of the Islamic Radical Suicide Attack Phenomenon”; and Bruce Hoffman, “The Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” The Atlantic, June 2003.

(16.) This analysis is particularly important, because suicide attacks are always an organized phenomenon. Without the initiation, planning, training, and preparations provided by a terrorist organization, suicide terrorism would most likely not have become as prevalent as it has in recent decades.

(17.) Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 159–160.

(18.) Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 83.

(19.) The Arabic word for suicide, in the sense of killing oneself (as prohibited in Quran 6:151 and 17:33, for example), is intahara.

(20.) For more information on the benefits of suicide attacks, see Ganor, “The Rationality of the Islamic Radical Suicide Attack Phenomenon.”

(21.) Boaz Ganor, “The Feasibility of Post-Modern Terrorism,” in Boaz Ganor, ed., Post-Modern Terrorism: Trends, Scenarios, and Future Threats, 19–34 (Herzliya: Projects Publishing House, 2005).

(22.) Boaz Ganor, “Trends in Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism” (survey presented at the 11th International Conference: World Summit on Counter-Terrorism, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, Herzliya, Israel, September 2011).