Professors Maria Rasmussen and Mohammed Hafez organized a workshop in August examining innovations among terrorist groups. Researchers from a number of international universities presented case studies ranging from the 1968 hijacking of an Israeli airliner to the 2005 London bombings. These case studies point to several preconditions and predictive indicators of terrorist innovation.
Innovation is a constant feature of terrorism, yet little is known about how terrorists innovate, the factors that drive them to innovate, and the indicators that could help predict their trajectory toward innovation. On August 5-6, 2010, experts gathered for a workshop sponsored by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Advanced Systems and Concepts Office (DTRA-ASCO), to discuss the preconditions, causes, and predictive indicators associated with terrorist innovation in weapons of mass effect (WMEs). They presented their research findings on seven historical and contemporary cases of terrorist innovation, ranging from airplane hijackings by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) to the current threat emanating from Al-Qaeda’s mass casualty attacks. These case studies generated a number of generalizations about what motivates innovation, how terrorists come to innovate, and whether it is possible to anticipate innovations in WME terrorism.
The experts assessed three categories of terrorist innovation: tactical, strategic, and organizational, with emphasis placed on the first two. Tactical innovation usually involves inventing or adopting new techniques or technologies to achieve unchanging objectives. Strategic innovation entails formulating new objectives, which necessitate the adoption of new operations, targets, or technologies to advance those objectives. Organizational innovation involves new ways of structuring the terrorist group or inventive methods of drawing recruits.
Preconditions and Causes
Preconditions refer to the context in which innovation took place. This includes political, technological, or security developments which made innovation by terrorist groups more or less likely. For example, experts agreed that larger and/or wealthier terrorist organizations would find it easier to innovate. Causes are those internal and external drivers that directly precipitate innovation or accelerate its progress.
The expert consensus was that terrorist innovation is often a product of a gradual, incremental synthesis of earlier innovations, rather than a dramatic leap in terrorist tactics and technologies.
The PFLP airplane hijackings beginning in 1968 involved a synthesis of two innovations that appeared much earlier: non-political airplane hijackings in Latin America and the strategy of internationalizing a local conflict.
Euskadi Ta Askatasuna’s (ETA, Basque Homeland and Freedom) 1973 assassination of Luis Carrero Blanco, the Spanish Prime Minister, by planting explosives in a tunnel beneath his travel route was inspired in part by an earlier ETA prison breakout involving the digging of a tunnel.
Al-Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attacks, which were the ultimate manifestation of WME terrorism, merged two prior terrorist innovations: airline hijackings and suicide bombings.
The participants also agreed that terrorist innovation is usually motivated by problem solving intended to overcome constraints in the security environment, or limitations in the political one. Terrorists seek new technologies, targets, or opportunities in order to circumvent security measures, revitalize support for their cause, pursue a new strategy to remedy failed ones, or simply escalate a conflict because lower levels of violence are assessed to be ineffective.
The PFLP airplane hijackings were in large measure a response to the failure of Arab states to defeat Israel on the battlefield, requiring a new strategy to mobilize Arab masses and international support for the Palestinian cause.
Aum Shinrikyo’s drive to acquire its deadly capacity for chemical attacks began after the failure of its leader to gain acceptance through the electoral process.
Al-Qaeda’s organizational innovation of recruiting and training “homegrown” terrorists for an attack in London was driven by its inability to send its own militants abroad in the post- September 11 security environment.
There was widespread agreement among the participants that leadership is central to innovation. In nearly all the cases of WME innovation discussed at the workshop, leaders played a key role in demanding, funding, and justifying deadly innovation. The experts were not in agreement on what types of leadership styles are propitious for innovation.
Experts pointed to the PFLP, Al-Qaeda, Aum Shinrikyo, and Irish Republican Army IRA case studies as evidence that “centralization of leadership and decentralization of execution” is a necessary condition for innovation.
Case studies highlighted the role of “charismatic entrepreneurs” (PFLP, Independent Islamist cell London bombings) or “maniacal entrepreneurs” (Aum Shrinrikyo, Oklahoma City, IRA) with an irrational desire to inflict mass casualties or create a mass psychological impact.
The critical leadership variable is openness to new ideas and willingness to experiment and learn through trial and error, regardless of how centralized or decentralized the organization.
The discussion among experts highlighted the important role of ideology or “toxic grievances” in inspiring and legitimating WME attacks, especially the ones that concern mass destruction and mass casualties among civilians. Groups with grandiose worldviews, millenarian ideologies, or deep feelings of humiliation are less likely to impede the use of mass casualty terrorism than those with clearly defined objectives.
Aum Shinrikyo was a cult inspired by a “cosmically scientific belief system” that viewed killing as a vehicle to elevate its victims to a “higher spiritual plane.”
Timothy McVeigh was a product of a long and festering “warfare ideology” that framed the U.S. government as encroaching on the basic liberties and freedoms of its citizens.
Al-Qaeda’s “martyrdom complex” was aided by clerical support that justified suicide attacks in defense of Islam and permitted the targeting of Western civilians to reciprocate the killing of Muslims by Western governments.
The experts did not give too much weight to explanations for innovation centered on state sponsorship, safe havens, or competitive outbidding between terrorist groups. These factors inspired or facilitated innovation in some cases, but they do not appear to be necessary or sufficient for recurring patterns of WME innovation.
Predictive indicators refer to the observable steps and preparatory behaviors leading to the innovative terrorist attack and that could have revealed the terrorists’ intent had they been investigated thoroughly.
The experts were pessimistic about our ability to pick up on predictive indicators that could help flag or foil terrorist innovation. In five of the seven cases, experts argued that intelligence and/or law enforcement work could have provided warnings of an impending WME attack, but the significance of these potential warnings are only apparent with hindsight. Moreover, the evolutionary nature of innovation, which is marked by gradual learning and adaptation, and the seemingly endless possibilities of combining older innovations in new ways, makes it difficult to pinpoint the trajectory of specific innovations.
Furthermore, predictive indicators are not universal; any potential list of indicators must be confined to the specific innovation sought after by the terrorists. This finding suggests that security specialists may have to proceed on a case-by-case basis when seeking to anticipate and foil deadly innovations.
Specific threats made in terrorist leaders’ statements are one predictive indicator of innovation commonly found in the cases analyzed in this workshop. Another salient indicator is prior attempts by the terrorist group to deploy innovative tactics.
Al-Qaeda repeatedly threatened to strike the U.S. homeland and undertook several mass casualty operations against American targets abroad prior to September 11.
Aum Shinrikyo undertook extensive research in chemical and biological agents, and conducted some attacks using chemicals prior to their major Tokyo subway operation in 1995.
Earlier failures in terrorist innovation should not be taken lightly because they could serve as indicators of future intent as well as opportunities for the terrorists to experiment and learn through trial and error. Underestimating the terrorist adversary and the failure of the authorities to investigate with due diligence its prior activities often precedes successful WME attacks.
Considerations for Future Research
Experts agreed that the study of terrorist innovation is a burgeoning field that requires much more scholarly attention and analytical rigor. They recommended several strategies to help advance our understanding of the topic:
Investigate past cases of failed terrorist innovations or ones that were not widely adopted by other groups. This type of research could reveal barriers to innovation and diffusion, which can be helpful in shaping security countermeasures against the innovation and diffusion of WME terrorism.
Investigate terrorist campaigns alongside individual incidents, because the former could reveal patterns of subtle innovation and adaptation that single episodes cannot uncover. This research would be particularly useful for understanding organizational innovation, which was not covered in depth in this workshop.
Investigate WME terrorism in cases that do not pertain to Western societies. Some of the most spectacular acts of terrorism in the 20th and 21st centuries have taken place in the developing world. These case studies could reveal patterns of terrorists exploiting opportunities associated with underdevelopment, corruption, weak state enforcement capabilities, or protracted civil and regional conflicts.
This report is the product of a collaboration between the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Advanced Systems and Concepts Office and The Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.
- Report Number ASCO 2010 019