Terrorism: An Ever-Evolving Virus, Deadlier Than Ever

The face of terrorism has changed in the 13 years following the 9/11 attacks. Much like a mutant virus, terrorism evolves to counter factors that threaten it. These changes are distinct, and can be divided into three categories: changes in organization, changes in recruitment and operations, and changes in the nature and scope of attacks. I offer a quick overview of these evolutionary processes, and how they challenge global counterterrorism efforts.

(image from Wikimedia)
(image from Wikimedia)


Terrorist groups used to be organized in a top-down, hierarchical structure. The heightened vigilance and military response after 9/11 forced terrorists to change this. They reformed into decentralized, loosely-connected networks of cells. These reforms sought to protect the entire organization from collapse, should a drone strike kill top leadership or an investigation thwart an ongoing plot.


With the exception of local military operations (like ISIL in Syria, or the Caucasus Emirate in Chechnya), terrorist groups operate less like military generals and more like online recruiters. The people they recruit, known as “lone wolves” or “wolf packs, operate with little or no communication or guidance from the central command. By acting completely on their own, they pose a greater, hidden threat than operatives that require complicated support networks, such as so-called “sleeper-cells.” Unlike planted agents, they are unaware of the identity of other members in the organization, making them harder to detect, track, and unravel.


The nature of the attacks themselves have also changed. Plots leading up to and immediately following 9/11 focused on “high-value/high-impact” targets. However, once a high-value target has been struck, the sophistication required to repeat that attack increases multi-fold. The complexities required to commit another 9/11 are much more burdensome than the original, thereby increasing the likelihood that it will fail. The more cogs and wheels involved in a contraption, the greater the danger that something will break.

An example of this is the USS Cole bombings in 2000. The attack was simple: load a motor boat with enough explosives to cause damage, steer it towards the ship, and detonate. Now, can you imagine the hardships a terrorist would have to endure to commit the same attack today?

Analysts assess such risks with a system called the CARVER+Shock matrix. This rates:

  • Criticality Will this strike affect your enemy’s ability or desire to continue his mission?
  • Accessibility How easy is it to gain access to the target?
  • Recuperability How easy is it for the system to recover from this attack?
  • Vulnerability How easy is it to accomplish this attack?
  • Effect What is the direct economic and sociological cost of this attack?
  • Recognizability Is the target meaningful? Will the victim recognize the target after it has been struck?
  • Shock  What are the psychological repercussions of this attack?

Terrorists know that they can inflict a tremendous, negative, impact on all these assessments by striking softer targets. Examples include the Boston Marathon bombings, the abduction of young girls in Nigeria, and the recent attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Not only are these targets visible and familiar to the public, they are less guarded, and permit a greater range of complexity without jeopardizing the mission.

Case in Point: The 2008 attack in Mumbai could have been a very simple plan. It required a small band of terrorists to gather enough arms and explosives to raid a hotel and go on a city-wide rampage. In practice however, the attack was more than a year in the making, required exacting coordination between attackers, an intimate knowledge of the area (including parts closed-off from the public), and massive amounts of training and supplies (furnished by the Pakistani Intelligence Service). Since the attack focused on soft targets, the elaborate details of the plot weren’t included to protect it from being foiled. Rather, they were included so the terrorists could reek as much devastation as possible before being overtaken. By that time, 164 people lay dead, and 308 people were left injured. The psychological impact was felt world-wide. After 60-hours of televised coverage, the event shattered the sense of collective security of people around the globe. For a soft-target attack, the impact could not have been higher.

Herein lies the danger. Although terrorists will continue to identify and exploit vulnerabilities in high-value targets, they will strike at as many soft-targets as they can. Because of this, complex designs are no longer prerequisite for a successful attack. They are simply an add-on to increase the impact of an attack. Lone wolves and wolf packs operate independently of the larger organization, and are therefore harder to identify and take down. The adaptable nature of modern terrorism makes it all the more difficult to counter. It’s difficult enough to secure and screen every airport; it is impossible to guard every street, school, office building, or cafe. This broader range of potential targets undermine the effectiveness of counterterror efforts. After all, to prevent a terrorist attack, we have to be right all of the time. They only have to be right once.

Clayton Ousley lives in Ann Arbor, MI with his beautiful daughter, Charlotte (a German Shepherd/Alaskan Malamute mix). He has a BA in History and Intelligence Studies from Notre Dame College, and is currently working on his MA in Military History from Norwich University. He enjoys playing his bagpipes, reading, hiking, and cooking ethnic foods.