Tactics of terrorism

  (Redirected from Terrorist tactics)

The tactics of terrorism are diverse. As important as the actual attacks is the cultivation in the target population of the fear of such attacks, so that the threat of violence becomes as effective as actual violence.

While advancements in technology, modernization, and globalization have helped many states prosper over the course of history, they have also opened terrorist groups to new tactics and weaponry. The different tactics that terrorist groups utilize can be very simple to extremely complex. In his book, Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge, Harvard Law Professor Alan M. Dershowitz states that before the dawn of dynamite and automatic weapons, killings conducted by terrorists had to be done on a one-on-one basis.[1] Dershowitz also describes how the introduction of new weapons and technology has enabled terrorists to kill more efficiently and in greater numbers:

"The weapons of choice for earlier terrorists were the dagger, the noose, the sword, and the poison elixir. The introduction of the hand-thrown bomb and the pistol, and more recently the machine gun and plastic explosives, enabled terrorists to kill much more efficiently. Now weapons of mass, or ‘wholesale,’ destruction allow terrorists to ‘leverage’ their personnel, as proved by the events of September 11, 2001, in which a relatively small number of highly trained individuals armed with primitive box cutters and prepared to give up their own lives were able to use passenger jets as weapons of mass murder."[2]

Terrorist tactics tend to favor attacks that avoid effective countermeasures and exploit vulnerabilities.[3] As such, terrorist groups have the potential to utilize many different types of terrorism tactics depending on the circumstances and the perceived likelihood of success. Some tactics are more conventional and widely used in the operations of many terrorist groups. These tactics include shootings, hijackings, kidnappings, bombings, and suicide attacks. Other tactics are seen more unconventional and have only been used in a few instances, if at all. However, these unconventional tactics are perceived by government officials and experts alike as serious potential threats. Some types of unconventional terrorism tactics commonly recognized by terrorism experts are bioterrorism, agroterrorism, nuclear terrorism, and cyberterrorism.


As a consequence of globalisation, the relative ease of access to the chemicals used to make explosives has made improvised explosive devices (IEDs) increasingly prominent. This has the dual effect of increasing the available firepower of terrorists who are generally far weaker than their targets as well as assuring the publicity necessary to attract sympathisers to their cause.

These may be implanted in automobiles to make a car bomb, planted on the roadside to detonate near target vehicles, or even strapped to the bodies of individuals for suicide attacks. From a tactical perspective, each of these methods have positives and drawback, for instance car bombs act as their own delivery mechanisms and can carry a relatively large amount of explosives with weights of up to and over 1000 pounds (450 kg),[4] while a suicide vest has a much smaller payload but may allow the wearer access to spaces and individuals that vehicles cannot.

Suicide attacksEdit

Suicide terrorism is the most aggressive form of terrorism, pursuing coercion even at the expense of losing support among terrorists' own community. What distinguishes a suicide terrorist is that the attacker does not expect to survive a mission and often employs a method of attack that requires the attacker's death in order to succeed (such as planting a car bomb, wearing a suicide vest, or ramming an airplane into a building). In essence, a suicide terrorist kills others at the same time that he kills himself. Usually these tactics are used for a demonstrative purposes or to targeted assassinations. In most cases though, they target to kill a large number of people. Thus, while coercion is an element in all terrorism, coercion is the paramount objective of suicide terrorism.[5]

The number of attacks using suicide tactics has grown from an average of fewer than five per year during the 1980s to 180 per year between 2000 and 2005,[6] and from 81 suicide attacks in 2001 to 460 in 2005.[7] These attacks have been aimed at diverse military and civilian targets, including in Sri Lanka, in Israel since July 6, 1989,[8] in Iraq since the US-led invasion of that country in 2003, and in Pakistan and Afghanistan since 2005.

Between 1980 and 2000, the largest number of suicide attacks was carried out by separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam of Sri Lanka. The number of attacks conducted by LTTE was almoust double that of nine other major extremist organizations.[9]

In Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, suicide bombings are an anti-Israel strategy perpetrated generally by Islamist and occasionally by secular Palestinian groups including the PFLP.[10]

India has also been the victim of suicide attacks by groups based in Pakistan, a recent example taking place in February 2019.[11] An attack by the Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammed group on Indian security forces Pulwama district of Jammu and Kashmir, India, resulted in the loss of 40 security personnel of the CRPF. This eventually resulted in the India–Pakistan border skirmishes of 2019. [12]

Rocket and mortar attacksEdit

The use of rocket and mortar attacks had been widely used from 1982–2012, in the example of the middle east rocket attacks against cities and settlements had been carried out by political entities such as Hizballa and Hamas (not counted as state terrorism) and to non political organization such as Islamic Jihad, Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine, al-Qaeda and many others.

Rocket-propelled grenades, especially RPG-7, and hand grenades, are in widespread use by terrorist groups.[13]

The number of attacks using explosive projectiles has grown as can be seen in Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel,[14] according to the reports somewhere between 800,000 people [15] to million and a half [16] are being in direct danger of mortar and missile range. In research published in 2011, 15,000 people had been treated or need treatment for PTSD[17] and 1,000 people are being treated in psychometric facilities due to reasons directly to mortar (qassam) and rocket attacks (Grad).[18][19][20]

Vehicle-based attacksEdit

In the 2000s, there have been a number of vehicle-based attacks in which terrorists used earthmovers or other motor vehicles to run over pedestrians or to attack vehicles.[21] Some examples of such attacks include the 2008 Jerusalem bulldozer attack and the Omeed Aziz Popal SUV rampage.

Compared to suicide-bomb attacks, using vehicles as weapons is easier to plan and carry out without detection. The tactic does not require acquiring explosives. The weapon, a standard street-legal vehicle, is readily available in the target country and can be used without raising suspicion. According to a report by Stratfor global intelligence, using a vehicle as a terrorist tactic is nearly as effective, yet not as destructive as a suicide bombing.[21]

In 2016, two deadly terrorist vehicle-based attacks occurred in Europe: the July attack in Nice, France, that killed 86; and the December attack in Berlin, Germany, that killed 12. This was followed by five other similar attacks in 2017: one in Jerusalem in January that killed four, one in London in March that killed three, one in Stockholm in April that killed five, a second attack in London in June that killed three, and two in Barcelona and Cambrils in August that killed fourteen people. That same year, another similar attack occurred in the US, specifically New York City, in October, killing eight. Other terrorist attacks of a similar M.O. have occurred intermittently in Western countries since 2014, though these produced no fatalities.

Aircraft attacks and hijackingsEdit

In the failed 2002 airliner attack, shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles were fired at an airliner while taking off.

Aircraft hijacking is also employed as a terrorist tactic. On September 11, 2001, 19 al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked American Airlines Flight 11, United Airlines Flight 175, American Airlines Flight 77, and United Airlines Flight 93 and crashed them into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, the southwestern side of the Pentagon building, and Stonycreek Township near Shanksville, Pennsylvania in a terrorist attack, killing 2,977 victims, most of them American citizens.

Chemical and biological weaponsEdit

Bioterrorism is the deliberate release of viruses, bacteria, or other germs (agents) used to cause illness or death in people, animals, or plants.[22] Biological agents are typically found in nature, but it is possible that they can be changed to increase their ability to cause disease, make them resistant to current medicines, or to increase their ability to be spread into the environment.[22] Biological agents in the hands of terrorists pose serious threats to states’ security because they can be easily spread through the air, through water, and through food.[22] Biological agents can also be difficult to detect and often do not cause illness for several hours to several days.[22] A prominent example of a bioterrorist attack on the United States is the September 2001 anthrax attacks. On September 18, 2001, several letters containing anthrax were sent to media outlets and the U.S. Congressional offices of Senator Thomas Daschle and Senator Patrick Leahy. Five Americans died from anthrax inhalation as a result of contact with the contaminated mail.[23] While the 2001 anthrax attacks were relatively small-scale, the United States government has taken several steps since to 2001 to pass legislation and initiatives aimed at better protecting the United States against biological attacks, improving the United States’ public health system, and improving the United States ability to respond to biological attacks.

The use of chemical weapons includes that by Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese "new religious movement", which in 1995 carried out the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. Ian Davison, a British white supremacist, and neo-Nazi who was arrested in 2009 for planning terrorist attacks involving ricin poison. In 2011 the United States government discovered information that terrorist groups were attempting to obtain large amounts of castor beans for weaponized ricin use.[24]


A subset of bioterrorism, agroterrorism refers to the deliberate introduction of an animal or plant disease for the purposes of generating fear, causing economic losses, or undermining social stability.[25] The ultimate goal of agroterrorism in killing livestock and plants and contaminating food is to cause economic crises in the agricultural and food industries, social unrest, and loss of confidence in the government.[25] Many experts believe that the United States’ agricultural sector and food supply are among the most vulnerable and least protected of all potential targets of attack, and they believe that terrorists have taken note of this.[26] After American and allied forces overran some Al-Qaeda’s refuges in caves in eastern Afghanistan in 2002, they found U.S. agricultural documents and Al-Qaeda training manuals on targeting agriculture among thousands of other documents.[26]

Analysts have identified a number of characteristics of the United States’ agricultural system that make it very vulnerable to agroterrorism. Given that agriculture generally demands large expanses of land, farms are geographically dispersed in environments that are difficult to secure.[25] Also, livestock are usually concentrated in confined locations, which allows diseases to infect more animals quickly.[25] Although many experts believe the United States is susceptible to agroterrorism, they have never suffered from a large scale agroterrorism related attack. Many political scientists have identified the 1984 salmonella attack in The Dalles, Oregon as a small-scale example of an agroterrorism attack in the United States. A religious cult intentionally contaminated ten restaurant salad bars with salmonella in an attempt to influence a local election, sickening more than 750 people.[26] Even though the United States has not experienced a large-scale agroterrorism attack to date, similar to its anti-bioterrorism initiatives, the United States government has passed several pieces of legislation and started initiatives over the past few decades to better secure its agricultural system and prepare for potential attacks.

Nuclear weaponsEdit

Concerns have also been raised regarding attacks involving nuclear weapons. It is considered plausible that terrorists could acquire a nuclear weapon.[27] In 2011, the British news agency, the Telegraph, received leaked documents regarding the Guantanamo Bay interrogations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The documents cited Khalid saying that, if Osama Bin Laden is captured or killed by the Coalition of the Willing, an Al-Qaeda sleeper cell will detonate a "weapon of mass destruction" in a "secret location" in Europe, and promised it would be "a nuclear hellstorm".[28][29][30][31][32]

While no terrorist group has ever successfully acquired and used a nuclear weapon, many political scientists and prominent government officials consider nuclear terrorism to be one of the single greatest threats in global security. There is strong evidence that terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda are actively seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, and the plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU) needed to produce them.[33] Another serious concern is that weaknesses in many states’ nuclear security apparatuses have left them susceptible to theft or loss of HEU or plutonium. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Illicit Trafficking Database (ITDB), there have been 18 incidents of theft or loss of HEU and plutonium reported in ITDB’s participating states.[33] Given these serious concerns, the United States, its allies, and international organizations like the United Nations have established several international agreements and initiatives to ensure that all states’ nuclear security standards are adequate and effective, and to secure all vulnerable and unprotected nuclear stockpiles around the world over the next few years.


In the developing age Information Technology, many political scientists and prominent government officials have become increasingly concerned about the ability of terrorist groups to execute cyber attacks and states’ vulnerabilities to these attacks. Cyberterrorism could potentially become an increasingly desirable tactic for terrorist groups given that they can be executed thousands of miles away from the target and are difficult to trace back to the perpetrator. In an October 2012 speech, United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described the seriousness of a cyber attack on the United States: “A cyber attack perpetrated by nation states or violent extremists groups could be as destructive as the terrorist attack of 9/11. Such a destructive cyber terrorist attack could paralyze the nation.”[34] The term “cyberterrorism” was first coined by Barry Collin, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Security and Intelligence in California, in the 1980s.[35] The Center for Strategic and International Studies defines cyberterrorism as “the use of computer network tools to shut down critical national infrastructures (such as energy, transportation, government operations) or to coerce or intimidate a government or civilian population.”[36] Many experts believe that new vulnerabilities will be created as nations and their critical infrastructures become more dependent on computer networks for their operation.[36]

While concern is growing, cyberterrorism attacks still largely remain hypothetical, especially in the United States. In his report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, James A Lewis writes that so far cyberterrorism has meant little more than propaganda and intelligence collection, and that no critical infrastructures have ever been shut down by cyber terrorist attacks.[36] Lewis also describes how terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda have made significant use of the Internet, but only as a tool for intra-group relations, fundraising, and public relations.[36] An Al-Qaeda training manual entitled “Military Studies in the Jihad Against the Tyrants” explicates that explosives are the preferred weapon of terrorists because “explosives strike the enemy with sheer terror and fright.”[36] While explosions are dramatic, strike fear into the hearts of opponents, and do lasting damage, cyber attacks, like some other types of terrorism tactics, simply do not have the same dramatic and political effect that terrorists seek. Some political scientists, like Lewis, argue that terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda might use cyber attacks to disrupt emergency services in order to reinforce and multiply the effect of a physical attack.[36]

Conventional firearmsEdit

Despite the popular image of terrorism as bombings alone, and the large number of casualties and higher media impact associated with bombings, conventional firearms are as much if not more pervasive in their use.[37] For example, in the second part of the 2011 Norway attacks, 77 people were killed by Anders Behring Breivik, a man armed with two guns. The 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks were done partly by guns and partly by bombs. Also, one Transportation Security Administration officer was killed and few others injured by a man with an assault rifle in the 2013 Los Angeles International Airport shooting.

In 2015, Omar Mateen killed 50 people with firearms during Orlando nightclub shooting.

In 2004, the European Council recognized the "need to ensure terrorist organisations and groups are starved of the components of their trade," including “the need to ensure greater security of firearms, explosives, bomb-making equipment and technologies that contribute to the perpetration of terrorist outrages."[38]


Stabbing attacks are inexpensive and easy to carry out, but very difficult for security services to prevent.[39]

Secondary attacksEdit

Terrorist groups may arrange for secondary devices to detonate at a slightly later time in order to kill emergency-response personnel attempting to attend to the dead and wounded. Repeated or suspected use of secondary devices can also delay emergency response out of concern that such devices may exist. Examples include a (failed) device that was meant to release cyanide-gas during the February 26, 1993 World Trade Center bombing; and a second car bomb that detonated 20 minutes after the December 1, 2001 Ben Yehuda Street Bombing by Hamas in Jerusalem.


There are and have been training camps for terrorists. The range of training depends greatly on the level of support the terrorist organization receives from various organizations and states. In nearly every case the training incorporates the philosophy and agenda of the groups leadership as justification for the training as well as the potential acts of terrorism which may be committed. State sanctioned training is by far the most extensive and thorough, often employing professional soldiers and covert operatives of the supporting state.


Where terrorism occurs in the context of open warfare or insurgency, its perpetrators may shelter behind a section of the local population. Examples include the intifada on Israeli-occupied territory, and insurgency in Iraq. This population, which may be ethnically distinct from the counter-terrorist forces, is either sympathetic to their cause, indifferent, or acts under duress.


Funding can be raised in both legal and illegal ways. Some of the most common ways to raise funds are through front groups, charitable organizations, or NGOs with similar ideologies. In the absence of state funding, terrorists may rely on organized crime to fund their activities. This has included kidnapping, drug trafficking, or robbery.

Terrorist financing generated through the use of underground smuggling tunnels and the probability that a specific smuggling tunnel or terrorist criminal social network will use the smuggling tunnel to launch a kidnapping operation or terrorist attack has been addressed in the literature.[40][41]


Even though older communication methods like radio are still used, the revolution in communication technology over the past 10–15 years has dramatically changed how terrorist organizations communicate. E-mails, fax transmissions, websites, cell phones, and satellite telephones have made it possible for organizations to contemplate a global strategy. However, too great a reliance on this new technology leaves organizations vulnerable to sophisticated monitoring of communication and triangulation of its source. When Osama bin Laden found out that his satellite phone conversations were being intercepted, he ceased using this method to communicate.[42]


The primary weapon of terrorism is fear, destruction and killing are not an end in and of itself, but a tool to create fear and terror in the minds of the enemy. In an asymmetric situation an enemy who cannot be defeated militarily may be defeated psychologically, that they may come to fear attack and its consequences so much they may become willing to forgo a superior military position in order to be free of the cause of that fear.

If a terrorist group can carry out enough credible attacks then "coded warnings" or planted electronic chatter, designed to be intercepted, can cause as much disruption as a genuine attack or bomb. As long as the supposed attacks are plausible and they are supported by the occasional genuine attack, the authorities will be forced to expend resources to combat non-existent devices, dummy bombs and plain fictions, disrupting the lives of citizens, and feeding the public's fear.


  1. ^ Alan M. Dershowitz, Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), pg.6.
  2. ^ Alan M. Dershowitz, Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), pg.7.
  3. ^ FEMA, “Evolving Terrorist Threat: Long-term Trends and Drivers and Their Implications for Emergency Management,” September 2011, http://www.fema.gov/pdf/about/programs/oppa/evolving_terrorist_threat.pdf.
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  7. ^ The Moral Logic and Growth of Suicide Terrorism, Figure 2 (p. 129).
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  10. ^ Pedahzur, A., 'Suicide Terrorism' (Cambridge 2005), pp.66-69.
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  12. ^ https://amp.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/02/kashmir-india-pakistan-stand-off-war-border
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  19. ^ [1] PTSD victims are treated as psychiatric cases
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  22. ^ a b c d J.V. Borelli, Bioterrorism: Prevention, Preparedness, and Protection (New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc., 2007), vii.
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  26. ^ a b c Dean Olson, “Agroterrorism: Threats to America’s Economy and Food Supply,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, February 2012, http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/law-enforcement-bulletin/february-2012/agroterrorism.
  27. ^ Nuclear Terrorism: Frequently Asked Questions, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, September 26, 2007
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  30. ^ "'Nuclear hellstorm' if bin Laden caught - 9/11 mastermind". News.com.au. April 25, 2011. Retrieved April 27, 2011.
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  32. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-05-07. Retrieved 2011-10-29.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  33. ^ a b Matthew Bunn and E.P. Maslin, "All Stocks of Weapons-Usable Nuclear Materials Worldwide Must be Protected Against Global Terrorist Threats," Journal of Nuclear Materials Management 39 (Winter 2011): 21.
  34. ^ Jim Garamone, “Panetta Spells Out DOD Roles in Cyberdefense,” U.S. Department of Defense News, October 11, 2012, http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=118187.
  35. ^ Maura Conway, “What is Cyberterrorism?,” Current History (December 2002): 436.
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  37. ^ United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. "Conventional Terrorist Weapons". Archived from the original on 2007-06-12. Retrieved 2007-09-06.
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  39. ^ Bergen, Peter (2 October 2017). "London shows the challenge of preventing low-tech terror". CNN. Retrieved 4 April 2017.
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  41. ^ Lichtenwald, Terrance G. and Perri, Frank S.(2011). "Smuggling Tunnels: The Need for a Transnational Analysis" Inside Homeland Security, Volume 9, Issue 1.
  42. ^ Sageman, Marc. 2004. Understanding Terror Networks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Ch. 5 pp. 158-161