Does al-Qaeda represent a new kind of threat, one that is without equal? That is what most in the media and many so-called experts in the field of terrorism seem to portray. They give this ‘new’ threat all kinds of names: religious extremism, Islamic terrorism, Salafi Jihadism, radical Islam, among others. The nature of the threat, although still not well understood, has led people both in academia and government to frame it under misguided assumptions.

This paper will use the term ‘new terrorism’ to refer to the Global Jihadist Movement, GJM, and not religious-inspired terrorism in general, since this movement is the one referred to by most people in academia, the media, and government circles, when referring to ‘new terrorism’. The GJM is defined as “…al-Qaeda and the universe of jihadist groups that are associated with or inspired by al-Qaeda… distinguished from traditional or local jihad in that it targets the United States and its allies across the globe and pursues broad geopolitical aims” (Rabasa et al, 2006: 1). So if referring to ‘new terrorism’ as the GJM, ‘old terrorism’ will allude to previous types of predominant terrorist movements, or traditional terrorism, based on Rapoport’s first three waves of his wave typology: anarchist, nationalist, and left-wing terrorism (2004). Of course, the existence of a ‘new terrorism’ does not mean other types of terrorism have ceased to exist, only that they are not prevalent anymore.

So the key question is whether this ‘new terrorism’ is actually new? To answer this, one must first ask the following: What characteristics of ‘new terrorism’ are considered new? Is al-Qaeda, the main representation of the GJM, part of ‘new terrorism’? Addressing this will allow to assess whether academia can still make use of past scholarship on terrorism. This paper argues that even with the rise of the so-called ‘new terrorism’, scholarship on terrorism from the last decades is still useful because 1) the ‘new terrorism’ is not exactly a new kind of terrorism, since it shares some characteristics with ‘old terrorism’, and 2) it needs to be studied in conjunction with ‘old terrorism’ in order to fully understand it.

This paper will first discuss the term ‘new terrorism’ and the main assumptions behind it, making appropriate comparisons with traditional terrorism, and focusing on three aspects: its goals, methods, and organization. Then, it will analyze al-Qaeda’s relation to the so-called ‘new terrorism’, looking at how well the latter’s held assumptions fit to describe the former, and showing the practical use of past literature on terrorism for the study of the ‘new terrorism’.

‘New terrorism’

A closer look at the ‘new terrorism’ will reveal just how difficult it is to define, just like the word ‘terrorism’ itself is. Next are some of the common assumptions behind that term.

The objectives of ‘new terrorism’ are said to have an international dimension, like targeting the US, its Western allies, and all Islamic secular states (Howard in Nia, 2010; Rapoport, 2004). This is unlike ‘old terrorism’, which “…had internal or regional dimensions [and] less negative impact on the international community” (Barzegar, 2005: 114). Goals are also supposed to be more extreme. Some argue that its main goal is to kill in large numbers, becoming an end in itself (Benjamin and Simon in Crenshaw, 2011), with a “… lack of clear and concrete political goals” (Nia, 2010: 36). Another related aspect is the possibility of obtaining Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and the willingness of ‘new terrorists’ to use them (Morgan, 2004; Laqueur in Crenshaw, 2000). A less extreme position is held by Crenshaw, who points to the “…stated goal of Bin Laden of expelling American military forces from Muslim territories…” when arguing that the aims of ‘new terrorism’ are less radical in practice than in rhetoric (2011: 57). This idea points more to continuity with traditional forms of terrorism.

Regarding religion, it is widely considered to be the reason behind these terrorists’ actions. Hoffman states “…the religious imperative for terrorism is the most important defining characteristic of terrorist activity today” (2006: 82). More specifically, Rapoport claims “Islam is at the heart of the [fourth] wave… with Islamic groups having conducted the most significant, deadly and profoundly international attacks” (2004: 61). Religion is also supposed to morally justify indiscriminate violence, as well make it a necessary deed for reaching their goals (Morgan, 2004). Traditional terrorism, in contrast, did not have a strong religious motivation. Instead, it was driven mainly by politics, specifically ideologies such as ethno-nationalism (Hoffman, 2006), as well as left-wing extremism and anarchism (Rapoport, 2004). Authors like Holmes, though, argue that political and historical explanations are more fitting for explaining ‘new terrorism’, pointing to Bin Laden’s decision to target the ‘far enemy’, the US, after failing to overthrow the ‘near enemy’, or pro-Western regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia (in Crenshaw, 2011: 58). Arguments like this put religion more as a pretext than a real motive.

Violence is an indispensable trait of terrorism. Yet, for ‘new terrorism’ violence is purportedly used more and with fewer restraints; to some extent it sees violence and terror as an end in itself rather than a tactic to achieve political ends, like ‘old terrorism’ does (Patterson, Kretzmann, and Smith in Nia, 2010: 41). It is also said to be more indiscriminate in terms of selecting targets, not differentiating between civilian or military targets, men, women or children, or if they are considered apostates (Nia, 2010). Also, as mentioned before, ‘new terrorists’ are presumed to have more intent to use WMD, given they had the capability, while ‘old terrorists’ are thought to “…have engaged in highly selective and mostly discriminating acts of violence” (Hoffman in Lesser et al, 1999). A RAND study credits the increased lethality of the last years to this ‘new terrorism’ (Lesser et al, 2006: 10). In general, ‘new terrorists’ are supposedly more willing to use more extreme methods than ‘old terrorists’.

Finally, most academics agree that ‘new terrorism’ differs considerably in structure with ‘old terrorism’. ‘New terrorism’ is more decentralized, with a ‘flat’ network instead of a hierarchical structure, with somewhat autonomous, or even independent subparts, and with a transnational scope (Lesser in Crenshaw, 2011: 62). Meanwhile, ‘old terrorism’ is organized in a centralized, top-down manner. Hoffman described the structure as “…collections of individuals belonging to an organization with a well-defined command and control apparatus” (in Crenshaw, 2011: 62). However some argue that this characteristic is also present in ‘old terrorism’. According to Crenshaw (2011), much of the anarchist terrorism was a local phenomenon and not strictly hierarchical, claiming that “…nineteenth century anarchists formed a transnational conspiracy, linking activists in Russia, Germany, Switzerland, France, Spain, Italy, and the United States” (Crenshaw, 2011: 63). Nevertheless, it is argued that decentralized networks are the main organizational feature of ‘new terrorism’.

Labeling al-Qaeda

Considering al-Qaeda’s leading role nowadays regarding terrorism, this section will analyze al-Qaeda in reference to what academics have called ‘new terrorism’, considering its goals, methods, and organization.

On its goals, al-Qaeda’s has a unique feature: it has a truly transnational agenda, ever since declaring war against the West and its allies. Rabasa et al defines al-Qaeda’s ideology as “…profoundly internationalist, attempting to contextualize local conflicts as part of a broader global struggle against apostasy” (2006: 9). It started with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, followed by the US intervention in Kuwait and its permanent stationing of military troops in Saudi Arabia, which put the jihad against the West as the primary goal of the GJM (Kepel and Milelli, 2008). There is also a link between the networked structure of al-Qaeda and its transnational nature as a product of the information age, which has allowed it to expand beyond national boundaries (Lesser et al, 1999). Al-Qaeda’s international agenda is what distinguishes it from any other form of terrorism. This difference is crucial if one is to consider the usual comparisons made between ‘old’ terrorists like Hamas or Hezbollah, two groups with Islamist ideology but mainly focused on local conflicts, and ‘new’ terrorists like al-Qaeda, with the common mistake of framing all Islamist groups under the same typology.

Other characteristics of al-Qaeda’s goals do not fit easily the commonly held definitions of ‘new terrorism’. For example, some argue that its goals are actually more pragmatic than suggested by many authors, pointing to bin Laden’s aim of driving US forces out of Muslim lands as an example of this. Also, the religious dimension seems somewhat overemphasized, leading some to ignore important aspects of al-Qaeda’s motivations. Its propaganda “…provides the rationale for action and stamps mobilization for political ends with spectacular violence, through the use of religious, historical, or even nationalist arguments” (Kepel and Milelli, 2008: 3). Al-Qaeda’s public discourse, although often tainted with religious remarks, makes constant reference to a wider struggle involving historical and nationalist grievances, like the West’s colonialism of the Middle East or the Israeli-Palestine issue. Still, some authors emphasize al-Qaeda’s millenarian, radical, and violent nature when talking of a ‘new terrorism’ (Burke, 2007). Both these contrasting views show how traditional frameworks about terrorist motivations are still useful for analyzing this ‘new terrorism’.

The use of extreme violence is one of al-Qaeda’s main characteristics. As Rabasa et al put it, “Violence is al-Qaeda’s raison d’être… [It] attracts adherents by means of its violent anti-Western agenda…” (2006: 3). Unlike ‘old terrorists’, which have used violence in a calculated way while some have even moved into mainstream politics, al-Qaeda has displayed more violence and lethality. One reason is that it believes that tactic is the best way to maintain its visibility in the world stage. As Hoffman puts it, “Violence will continue to be key to ensuring its continued presence as an international force” (2003: 437). Yet, it can be said that al-Qaeda does not use total indiscriminate violence. A letter from Bin Laden’s second in command is critical of indiscriminate terrorism against Shia Muslims in Iraq, saying this would undermine popular support (Crenshaw, 2011: 61). This extreme sectarian violence could be counterproductive to their cause, since one of their goals is to unite the Muslim world against the West. A number of authors point to examples of ‘old terrorism’ where considerable indiscriminate violence was used, arguing that not only ‘new terrorists’ can engage in this type of violence (Crenshaw, 2011; Tucker, 2001). A comprehensive study of terrorist violence would therefore entail analyzing past and present terrorist activities and their use of violent tactics.

Since its inception in the late 1980’s, al-Qaeda’s unique organizational characteristics have evolved. Before 9/11, al-Qaeda had a top-down structure and was mostly a centralized organization (Hoffman, 2006; Crenshaw, 2011). After Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in 1996, al-Qaeda was able to build “…a strong solid terrorist enterprise with a strong degree of organizational coherence” (Rabasa et al, 2006: 28). From this point on, the organization was able to build a network with a core base in Afghanistan and other smaller networks around the world. After the US invaded Afghanistan, al-Qaeda lost its operational center, as well as an important part of its core leadership (Rabasa et al, 2006: 31). This change in structure resulted as a process of adaptation to the effects of the so-called ‘War on Terrorism’. Another important point to consider is the link between al-Qaeda’s power as an ideology and its structure. Hoffman claims “The main challenge for al-Qaeda…will be to promote and ensure its durability as an ideology and concept” (2003: 437). It is this decentralized structure, spread across the globe and aided by the media and information technologies like the Internet, which has led to the expansion and survival of al-Qaeda’s ideology. By looking at al-Qaeda’s evolving structure, one can see how past literature on the organizational characteristics of terrorism can be applied to current studies of ‘new terrorism’.


It is a mistake to label today’s terrorism as ‘new’, the main reason being it gives the idea that past lessons do not apply anymore. Since ‘new terrorism’ shares characteristics with ‘old terrorism’, it is valuable to pay attention to similarities between both, as well to examine how the threat has evolved.

As previously discussed, current literature on ‘new terrorism’ addresses certain key points. Yet it is difficult to demonstrate that ‘new terrorism’ is unlike anything seen before. Evidence on how ‘new terrorism’ is more lethal, for example, shows how attacks like 9/11, with very high casualties, skew data and do not allow for a proper assessment of terrorism’s consequences. Likewise, the literature generally ignores past terrorist acts, like airplane hijackings in which hundreds of people died, and their high lethality and use of indiscriminate violence.

The best way to empirically study ‘new terrorism’ is to compare and contrast different terrorist acts across time and space, allowing for comprehensive analyses of its different aspects. Further studies can be analyze each individual point discussed in this paper, for example, by looking at current jihadi discourse and past terrorist discourse, and comparing that to their use of violence. These types of studies emphasize empirical analyses that can lead to better understanding of terrorism, and therefore, better counter-terrorism measures.

*Originally written in 2010


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