TERRORISM: Past, Present and Future

Boko Haram in Nigeria



DATE: 05/MARCH/2022


The concept of terror is not new; people in different parts of the world have witnessed different forms of violent attacks for centuries. Although there is no universally accepted definition of the term “terrorism,” the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) notes that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon passed a controversial judgement in 2011, stating that customary international law recognized the existence of “transnational terrorism” in 2005 (Black, 2004; White et al, 2010). The customary rule of international law regarding transnational terrorism requires that:

  • A criminal act (such as arson, kidnapping or hostage-taking etc) has been committed or threatened.
  • The criminal act is intended to cause panic among the population thereby endangering public safety, and directly or indirectly forcing a government or international bodies to either take an action or refrain from pursuing a particular cause (Locatelli, 2014).
  • The criminal action has an undertone of transnational influence or direct sponsorship.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) defines terrorism as an unlawful use of force or violence against individuals, groups or property to cause fear and coerce a government (including individuals and groups) to enhance achievement of certain social or political ambitions (White et al, 2010).


There are two types of terrorism: domestic terrorism and international terrorism.

Domestic terrorism includes acts of terror perpetrated by an individual or group living and operating from the geographical location. The intended target of domestic terror is often the government although civilians are and property are often considered collateral damage. According to the FBI, domestic terror includes criminal acts of violence carried out by persons or group of individuals for the purpose of furthering ideologies (social, economic, religious, racial, political, environmental etc) propagated by domestic influencers (Howie, 2009).

International terrorism includes violent, criminal acts perpetrated in one country by individuals or groups that owe allegiance to foreign countries. Basically, international terrorism is politically-motivated but may have social or religious undertones. The FBI defined international terrorism as criminal acts of terror committed by individuals and/or groups loyal to one or more affiliated foreign terrorist organizations as well as rogue nations. Rogue nations refer to states or nations that violate international law and are considered a threat to global peace and security (Olujobi & Yebisi, 2022).


Islamic extremism (also known as radical Islam) is an ambiguous term. It refers to “the advocacy for extreme measures or views” associated with Islam and other sects within Islamic religion. This definition varies in both political and academic domains. For example, the UK government defines Islamic extremism as ‘all forms of Islam preaching radical ideologies that oppose individual liberty, tolerance of different faiths/beliefs, democratic governance, mutual respect and the rule of law.’ UK High Courts describe Islamic extremism as violent tactics (such as bombing and assassinations) used by radicalized Muslims to achieve some perceived Islamic ambitions (Locatelli, 2014).

In the academic setting, radical Islam is best understood as:

  • An idea that semi-secular states/governments are infidels because of their failure to embrace Islam.
  • An idea that any ideology propagated by a state or government associated to the West (that is, capitalism and democracy) or the East (communism and socialism) has failed—with historical evidence of bankruptcy—and should be opposed by all meas.

Thus, Islamic extremism often results in jihadism or Islamic terrorism.

Jihadism was first used by journalists after the historical 2001 calamities on US soil. It refers to a politically rooted, anti-West ideology pursued by militant Islamic movements for political or social objectives. Islamic terrorism refers to violent, criminal acts perpetrated by Islamic extremists and fundamentalist militant Islamists who share same religious motivations (Richards, 2020).

Buoyed by ideologies of extreme intolerance, a group of 19 hijackers affiliated to the militant Islamic extremist network, al-Qaeda, carried out terrorist attacks against the United States on September 9, 2002. The 19 terrorists—organized into three groups comprising five members each and one group of four—hijacked four commercial airliners mid-flight. Each group had an experienced pilot who controlled the cockpit, and their aim was to crash those planes into landmark buildings with very high economic impact and human casualties. All airplanes were en-route California from Northeast US. The terrorists eventually crashed the first two planes into the North and South Towers of the World Trade Centre (a targeted building in New York City). While hijackers in the third plane crashed on the west area of the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, an unexpected revolt from passengers in the fourth plane (Flight 93) thwarted plan to destroy a federal government building in Washington, D.C. – either the US Capitol or the White House. However, Flight 93 busted into flames in a field within Stonycreek Township (near Shanksville, Pennsylvania). Over 3,000 people died in the terrorist attacks allegedly masterminded by Osama bin Laden whereas about 25,000 sustained various degrees of injury (Bonino, 2020).

Following these tragic terrorist incidents, the US invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO) against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. US-led forces captured Osama bin Laden, but he later escaped from custody. Havin denied any involvement in the 9/11 attacks, Osama claimed official responsibility in 2004, citing the following as motivations for Islamic extremism:

  • US relationship with Israel
  • US relationship with Saudi Arabia, including the strong financial ties with the Saudi royal family, and presence of US troops in the country
  • Economic sanctions against Iraq.

Osama evaded capture until his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan was exposed. US troops killed him during Operation Neptune Spear on 2 May, 2011.


Although the US has not experienced terrorist attacks in the magnitude of 9/11, a striking element of modern-day terrorism threats is the increasing number of Americans and US residents joining radicalized Islamic groups that consistently plot attacks against the US and foreign countries. Additionally, Islamist extremists cite US hostility against Muslim-majority countries as justification for continued attacks. Although Islam is a kind, peaceful and sacred religion, extremists and/or sects propagating radical approach to Islamic ideologies are responsible for the evolution of terrorism across the world (Tzezana, 2017).

However, the future of terrorism is dictated by:

  1. Foreign policy decisions/actions that provoke anger and resentment.
  2. Implementation of governmental policies that offer protection and sponsorship to rogue nations (Chicoine, 2020).
  3. Inability of political systems to settle ethnic or religious clashes, and
  4. Establishment of an effective framework for security governance in response to emergent threats.

Other factors contributing to the evolution of terrorism threat in both domestic and international scenes are:

  • Lone offenders: Conspiracy theories from large organizations are no longer the major terrorism threat. Terrorism has evolved towards lone offenders who are mostly individuals radicalized online and assembled for impromptu attacks. Because such individuals have no clear affiliation to any known terrorist organization, law enforcement agencies find it difficult to profile and disrupt their agenda. However, useful information from the public is helping state security outfits to identify and thwart some terror plans.
  • The Internet and social media: Terrorist attacks in the domestic and international scenes have evolved due to advancements in information technology. Terrorist groups now rely on the Internet to perpetrate radical ideologies, recruit members, and circulate messages, videos, pictures and publications to people who are receptive to extremist messaging. For example, ISIS urges members and sympathizers to carry out simple terrorist attacks in their locations or travel to ISIS-held territories in Syria and Iraq, where radicals undergo military training as foreign fighters.


Terrorism today has become a stealth operation master-minded by different individuals and groups (not only Islamic leaders) with socio-political, religious and economic interests (Mukherjee et al, 2019). The failed attempts to detonate homemade grenades in New York City subways (2009) and bomb Times Square in New York (2010) were carried out by Americans radicalized abroad So, as global insecurity escalates, everyone needs to profile behaviour, not individuals, and say something when they see something. Moreover, global leaders need dialogue with radical Islamic groups, not confrontation.


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Bonino, S. (2020), “Engagement, Desistance, and Revolt: What Do We Know about Terrorists Who Turn into Informants?”, Silva, D.M.D. and Deflem, M. (Ed.) Radicalization and Counter-Radicalization (Sociology of Crime, Law and Deviance, Vol. 25), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 243-257.

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Richards, I. (2020), “‘Sustainable Development’, Counter-terrorism and the Prevention of Violent Extremism: Right-wing Nationalism and Neo-jihadism in Context”, Blaustein, J., Fitz-Gibbon, K., Pino, N.W. and White, R. (Ed.) The Emerald Handbook of Crime, Justice and Sustainable Development, Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 397-418.

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