• R. Z.

Terrorism and counter-terrorism

Updated: Nov 23, 2020


Europe as well as the rest of the world is facing a growing surge of violent extremism and radical Islamic terrorism. This paper is designed to give you a better understanding of terrorism and what can be done to mitigate, prevent, and protect against this emerging threat.

Global security issue

Terrorism has been around for over 200 years; it is a complex and disputed term. There are over a hundred definitions of terrorism, but no generally and internationally accepted one. Terrorism means differently at a different time and in different languages. Modern-age terrorism can be best described as a tool, instrument, and mechanism for attaining ideological goals; it's the intentional, illegal, and irregular violence carried out by non-state actors (individuals/groups) against random innocent civilians, the government, military, and police for political, religious, racial, economic, and social purposes.

Terrorism is all about fear, coercion, and intimidation.

Terrorism is a global current security challenge that has caused death to over 10,000 people, impacting global security, economy, stability, organizations, governments, and people. Most present-day terrorist attacks have taken place in South Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and the Philippines), the Middle East (Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Israel, and Turkey), and Africa (Nigeria, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique). However, this phenomenon has been spilled over into other regions, such as the Sahel (Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso) and Europe.

Disagreements and inconsistency related to terrorism are many. Different governments and organizations interpret terrorism differently to fit their own needs. For example, some countries are opposed to connecting terrorism with an illegal and unjustified invasion (state terrorism) since they would mark their military ops as terrorism. Likewise, if a country uses terrorism as a tactic (i.e., unconventional warfare) against its citizens (e.g., rebels) or against another country (e.g., in a conflict) or supports non-state actors (e.g., financing, arming) engaged in terrorism, the country is designated the state-sponsor of terrorism (aka state-sponsored terrorism). Further, oppressive regimes fight opposition by labeling any anti-government act as terrorism, using terrorism charges, arrests, and convictions against the political opponents. Thus, all of these cause political disputes and pejorative connotations of terrorism.

One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.

Although terrorism has neither religion nor country, everyone sees terrorism and terrorists differently, and it depends on where you are from. For example, the former leader of the PLO (The Palestinian Liberation Organization), Yasser Arafat is viewed as a terrorist by some but is also a Nobel Peace Prize Winner. Likewise, the PKK (The Kurdish Workers' Party) is considered a terrorist organization by the Turkish government, but it is also highly regarded by Kurds. Hezbollah is a political party in Lebanon, but it's labeled as a terrorist group by some countries such as the EU, the USA, and Israel.

So, there are many controversies and legal, technical, and practical challenges for cross-border counter-terrorism efforts.

Terrorism trends, types, and concept

Terrorism can take many forms based on different ideologies such as religiously-inspired, ethnic-nationalist, and separatist terrorism. Terrorists come from every walk of life and have different political backgrounds (such as radical Islamists, far-rightists, extreme leftists, and national separatists); they have different agendas, motives, doctrines, and modus operandi, applying different practice, tools, tactics, and techniques (such as suicide bombings, assassinations, and kidnappings), and attacking different targets (like the head of states, politicians, governmental institutions, military, police, foreigners, high-ranking individuals, and ordinary citizens, among others). Also, terrorists can operate domestically, regionally, or internationally.

The meaning and doctrine of terrorism have changed over the years, as well as people's views on it. If we look throughout history, several types of terrorism are.

  • The Anarchists in the 19th/20th century (revolutionary movement, groups/individuals fighting against monarchies, assassinating the head of states), active in Europe and the USA, such as Narodnaya Volya (the people's will) operating in Russia (known for killing a Russian tsar);

  • The Anti-Colonists at the beginning of the 20th century (irredentist and ethnonational separatist movement, groups/individuals fighting for independence against colonial powers, applying hit-and-run tactics), like the IRA (The Irish Republican Army) and the Algerian FLN (The Front de Liberation Nationale);

  • The Leftists in the mid-twentieth century (groups/individuals fighting for communism, separatism, and against capitalism, employing urban guerrilla warfare tactics, taking hostages, and hijackings), such as Black September (known for kidnapping of Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich 1972) and the ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna—Basque Fatherland and Liberty);

  • Narco-Terrorism during the 80s (drug traffickers or groups supporting drug trafficking to fund their operations against the government, using assassinations, hijackings, and bombings), such as Pablo Escobar in Colombia, Shining Path in Peru, Colombian FARC, and Taliban in Afghanistan;

  • Religious Terrorism (religiously-inspired terrorism, groups/individuals using assassinations, kidnappings, and suicide bombings) from the 80s now on, involving radical Islamists, extreme Christians, sectarian Jewes, and fanatical Sects (e.g., the Aum Shinrikyo and the attack on the Tokyo subway by sarin gas). Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and the Islamic State (IS, ISIS, ISIL) are associated with this new wave of terrorism.

Terrorism has shifted from positive connotations more towards negative associations over time.

Modern-era terrorism contains the following core elements.

  • Doctrine: all terrorist organizations adopt and follow an ideology based on their specific set of beliefs; for example, Jihadi Salafism;

  • Tactic: terrorism is a tactic employed by non-state actors to achieve their particular agendas; it doesn't respect the rules of war (killing non-combatants); it's the unconventional warfare that differs from conflicts between states (conventional warfare);

  • Motive & Goal: every terrorist wants to achieve something and has a reason why s/he is fighting for; for example, the goal of ETA is gaining independence for the Basque Country;

  • Campaign: terrorism is never a single attack; terrorist organizations are persistent in pursuing their ideologies and never stop until fulfilling their purposes or until are defeated; for example, Boko Haram has been waging its violent campaign in Nigeria, Chad, and Cameroon since 2009;

  • No boundaries: terrorism can occur anywhere; there are no neutral countries;

  • Perpetrators: committers of terror attacks can act alone (lone-wolf terrorists) or in a group;

  • Violence: using force and physical violence is an essential element of every terror attack. Terrorists apply different tools, tactics, and techniques to achieve this, ranging from armed assaults to WMD/CBRN (Weapons of Mass Destruction/Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear);

  • Intimidation: the aim of terrorists is many afraid, not many dead, and they succeed in this with minimal resources;

  • Drawing attention: direct victims are not the only target of terrorism. For example, perpetrators of the 9/11 attack wanted to attract attention to their organization, to coerce the U.S. government, and to intimidate other people; so, the ultimate targets of this attack weren't randomly selected casualties but the living people who were watching the news on this horrific attack and the U.S. government.

Terrorists are focused on targets and audiences, not on victims.

Terrorism, guerilla, and insurgency

These three terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Although terrorism, guerilla, and insurgency employ the same tactics (guerilla warfare, bombings, shootings, assassinations, and kidnappings) and techniques (weapons, blending into population/environments, and usually no uniforms/insignia), they differ. Terrorism is at the lowest level, then guerilla and insurgency.


  • Terrorists are the smallest in number

  • They don't seize and hold any territory

  • They don't have the capability to engage in force-on-force attacks

  • They don't function as armed units

  • They attack undefended targets


  • Guerillas are larger in number than terrorists

  • They are better armed and trained

  • They control the territory (have training camps and bases) and population

  • They have the capability to engage in force-on-force attacks

  • They can function as armed units

  • They are able to attack defended targets


  • Insurgents are the largest in number and more powerful than guerillas

  • They can mobilize thousands/tens of thousands of people

Some groups have started as terrorist organizations and grown stronger as guerillas and insurgents over the years, e.g., Hezbollah. In fact, many of today's active terrorist organizations can be classified as guerillas (e.g., FARC) and insurgents.


We live in the digital age; our dependency on the Internet and new technologies, makes us susceptible to cyber-attacks; technology is advancing continuously as well as adversaries looking for a way to exploit our vulnerabilities. Cyber-terrorism is a new way of terrorism and is evolving very fast. Cyber-terrorism is used interchangeably with cyber-crime since both cyber-terrorists and cyber-criminals use cyber-attacks at the expense of citizens, organizations, and governments; however, the difference is in their motives. Cyber-criminals commit cyber-attacks for their personal gain (e.g., to steal money/information). Whereas, cyber-terrorists carry out cyber-crime to inflict more serious harm such as using computers for conducting physical attacks on computer-controlled targets (e.g., critical infrastructures: networks, energy, and defense). Also, emerging technology and the internet enable terrorist organizations to mobilize resources for their cause in many ways such as follows.

  • Securing finances (stealing money, through fundraising, and money laundering);

  • Gathering valuable intel on potential targets;

  • Purchasing weapons and other equipment;

  • Communication and recruitment;

  • Promotion of their ideologies to the world’s population.

Counter-Terrorism Challenges

In most of the countries worldwide, security forces are able to neutralize quickly perpetrators of terrorist attacks; however, the enduring challenge for combating terrorism still remains how to stop an attack before it occurs. In the recent terrorist attack in Vienna, Austria, the attacker was known to the police as he had been sentenced to 22 months for trying to join the Islamic State in Syria; upon his release from jail, the attacker tried to buy weapons and ammunition in neighboring Slovakia of which the Austrian police were informed by their counterparts in Slovakia; unfortunately, Austrian agencies failed to prevent the attack in which several people had been killed and injured.

According to intelligence, there are tens of thousands of ISIS supporters in Europe of which many of them have entered Europe in recent, ongoing, and uncontrolled migration. In the recent terrorist incident in Nice, France, the attacker traveled from Tunisia—a country that has produced most ISIS fighters—to conduct the attack that left three people dead. It also worries the fact that many Europeans had joined the Islamic State back then (when it had had a caliphate). Although the Middle East was the most dominant source of ISIS fighters, about a fifth of all foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria came from Western Europe (Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, France, Austria, Netherlands, Finland, Norway, United Kingdom, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, Spain, and Italy); hence, these countries are at the highest risk of terrorism.

It is not enough just to put potential terrorists on the list but to have them under constant watch. A legal mechanism should be revamped so that the criminal justice system can be used as a counter-terrorism tool when dealing with extremists (e.g., establishing an international court against terrorism).

The role of Media

Media, politicians, public figures, and Social Media are very important in spreading fear and panic. The news of the latest terrorist attack in Mozambique was splashed in headlines across all mainstream media, some words used in readings were the following: cruel, diabolical, massacre, beheading, slaughter, and chopping, etc. So, how people feel when reading these headlines; frightened? Yes, for sure; but, that is exactly what terrorists want. They also want publicity. Thus, media reporting on terrorist attacks should be in accordance with counter-terrorism best practices such as follows.

  • Media coverage shouldn't reveal too much information about a terrorist incident;

  • The report should be realistic and avoid strong words that spread fear and cause panic;

  • The media shouldn't release ongoing counter-terrorism operations in the live program;

  • The media shouldn't publish photos/videos of the crime scene;

  • The media shouldn't interview terrorists.

The Internet

The use of social media is widespread nowadays. In the event of a terror attack, people post pictures, videos, and information on the internet, making things harder and dangerous for investigations. Footage of victims being shot in the recent attack in Vienna, Austria, has circulated on Twitter despite the police calls for stopping sharing photos.

Terrorist messages will continue to circulate the internet even after the creators of those messages are arrested or killed. The internet facilitates the promotion of radicalism and extremism. It is almost impossible to single out which angry young man with an internet connection and a weapon (knife/pistol/rifle) is capable of terrorism. Therefore, more should be done on this matter (e.g., tightening controls on social media and the internet), and legislation on this issue is urgently needed.

No one can recognize a terrorist.

Government response

Terrorists want us to respond irrationally and emotionally to a terrorist attack so that they can coerce and intimidate society and governments. Terrorism can't be ended by employing military means only. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, we got the war on terror; however, it hasn't stopped terrorism. Contrary, terrorism has been on the rise since then. Al-Qaeda is defeated, but it has been replaced by the Islamic State. And now, when ISIS is defeated, it still continues to inflict harm on many citizens and governments worldwide. ISIS has lost its territories in the Middle East (so-called caliphate) and leadership; however, ISIS doctrine still exists in people who identify themselves with this ideology. Attackers associated with ISIS have conducted sporadic, simple, and lone-wolf attacks in Europe recently, using different methodologies and limited resources.

For stopping terrorism, it isn't just enough to neutralize the head of a terrorist organization and its members; a country shouldn't fight terrorism as a tactic but terrorism as an indoctrination. Governments should eradicate the root cause of terrorism—prevent the making of terrorists: financing, recruitment, training, and radicalization (deradicalization).

Business continuity

Businesses should design and implement measures to build business resilience and to minimize the detrimental effect of terrorism. Companies should review their security policy and emergency strategy. Does your crisis management include contingency planning for negative sudden events like terrorist attacks? A company can train its employees in terrorism awareness and preparedness so that they can identify and survive the incident. Also, an organization can reduce the security and financial risk by assigning adequate protective measures; if a company's business involves operations in terrorist-prone regions, the company should hire professionals to manage the risk.

Personal security

From the perspective of ordinary citizens, how they can protect themselves, and what they can do in the event of a terrorist attack. Gun supporters advocate arming law-abiding citizens (especially in Europe and the US); however, this option isn't quite viable; it is mostly backed up by people who are proficient in handling weapons (e.g., ex-military/police). From their standpoint and experience, this sounds logical. For these people, using weapons isn't a problem (they are trained and prepared both physically and mentally). However, not all people are skilled at arms; if the government arms unskilled individuals, it will put them in greater danger (and society, too); but this could be addressed if the government provides some sort of firearm training to civilians, right? However, this isn't a feasible nor cost-effective solution. Imagine how much it would cost your country to train all people in weapons handling. Ok, this also can be sorted out if citizens cover their training costs, but not all people are able/willing to do so. So, it's not that simple.

Besides, using firearms isn't just about knowing how to open fire, it is more about knowing when to shoot or not to and to be prepared to use a gun in critical moments. So, firing into a static target is easy, but exchanging fire with a person(s) who wants to kill you (terrorists) is a whole different level that requires specific experience and training similar to the military and police. Nevertheless, not all people are capable of sustaining/taking this kind of training (psychologically, physically, and medically). Anyway, I am not against civilian firearm training; weapon skills along with unarmed combat are useful for self-defense nowadays. However, terrorism is a serious and complex issue and can't be solved by just arming the entire nation. Also, I'm not against arming the people; I'm for it to some extent. You can have guns at your home to defend your property and family against criminals, but walking around with guns (be armed at work, when taking your kids to school, going out, etc.) can do more harm than good.

The best way of securing personal security and safety is adequate security measures implemented by the government and aided/supported by private security companies. It is very unlikely that terrorists attack people's homes; more likely, they aim at critical infrastructures. So, the presence of security forces should be increased on the streets, around important buildings (government institutions), and at crowded places (shopping malls, religious buildings, schools, and business centers).

Final thoughts

The negative impact of terrorism is huge; it is a constant threat not just against personal safety and security but to the global economy, society, and politics. The global counter-terrorism strategy shouldn't be based on political agendas but a collaborative approach and a coordinated response. With the right intelligence, security services can avoid fundamental mistakes. For achieving international collaboration, we must fully share valuable intelligence and generally agree on what terrorism is, whom we are fighting, what makes a terrorist group, and what organizations should be on the list of designated terrorist groups.

Society must show that terrorism isn't a rewarding endeavor nor an effective instrument for achieving ideological goals. Governments must make it harder for terrorists to impact communities. We don't just need to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks but to decrease fear and increase resilience to terrorism so to ensure the effect of terrorism is minimal.

If you, your clients, or your organization are looking for professional security services to ensure personal security and safety, the protection of your assets, and an undisturbed and successful business in this challenging and dangerous time, get in touch with Nemesis Protection Global at contact@nemesisprotection.com.

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