Historically, counterterrorism has largely been reactive, adopting policies and measures to respond to what violent extremists do. The purpose of this blog is to argue that as violent extremists innovate, so should counterterrorism because as Professor Leonard Weinberg noted, “Innovative terrorist groups seem to be exceptionally dangerous. Their innovations are often emulated by other groups – even ones with other aims and in other parts of the world.”
Writing in the late 1980s, Professor Martha Crenshaw linked terrorist innovation to survival as she emphasises that state actors adapt to the violence. Included in her assessment is the observation that innovation is not something that all violent extremists do or can do, which is why some may disappear.
Crenshaw was writing in the pre-social media and fourth technological revolution, which has affected the process of innovation as nowadays information can and is shared much faster. Nevertheless, the core of her argument remains as valid today as when it was first touted.
In her work on terrorism and innovation Professor Crenshaw identified three types of terrorist innovation: strategic, organisational and tactical. She conceded that it may be difficult to identify the difference between strategic and tactical innovation or distinguish the source of the innovation according to type, which could become obvious over time.
In the context of terrorism, strategic innovation occurs when the group veers from one strategy to another, which may lead the group to adopt new ideas, tactics or tools. The revised strategy need not impact the ideology of the group, which often stays the same. The group recognises that its current strategy is not getting it closer to the end-goal, which is why it needs to innovate. Both al-Qaeda and Islamic State provide good examples of groups that engaged in strategic innovation as a way to survive and continue. The former increasingly adopted a franchising, gradualist model. This was a strategic shift, as core al-Qaeda moved away from the direct commission of terrorist attacks to operating as an ideological disseminator marrying the local with the global (glocalisation). To achieve this, core al-Qaeda has to adapt its organisation and tactics to fit with its franchising model, including focusing more on the non-Western states, as seen for example in Zawahiri’s 11 September 2019 message, which focused more on those living in Arab-majority countries, calling on the faithful to attack American targets in their country. The Islamic State recruitment strategy is a good example of strategic innovation, as it applied advertising techniques to encourage young people to migrate to the so-called caliphate or commit acts of violence. Technological changes proved essential to these strategic innovations.
Organisational innovation refers to changes within the organisational space specifically to changes in the group’s structure and institutions. Organisational innovation is very much impacted by the environment, specifically effective anti- and counter-terrorism measures such as decapitation, as groups lose key strategic and tactical leaders that are not easily replaceable. Al-Qaeda’s founders recognised the need to form a durable organisation which is why they structured along traditional lines as a top-down, hierarchical organisation with clear strategic goals that are determined by the emir, whilst also permitting an element of decentralisation, giving the locals some operational independence. An important factor in ensuring al-Qaeda’s durability is its organisation fluidity, which is dependent on secure communication, which in turn has allowed Zawahiri to reconstitute the group’s Shura Majilis.
Tactical innovation refers to changes in methods, targeting or operations used by a terrorist group. The innovation generally manifests itself through the acquisition of new weapons or new targets or the recognition that a tactic no longer works, which is why there is a need to adapt. Paul Gill’s study of the Provisional Irish Republican Army highlights how the group adapted its use of improvised explosive devices. The change also altered perception about the group which before the change in tactic was described as ‘clumsy’, ‘disorganised,’ ‘unimaginative’ to one that commentators described as professional. Another example is the usage of drones, which states initially held a monopoly over, but over time non-state actors sought to acquire this tool (for example Israel had used drones in the 1980s in Lebanon, but by 1993 Aum Shinrikyo sought to acquire this tool. Ten years later, Hezbollah used a surveillance drone and by the mid-2010s, Islamic State had used a quadcopter with an explosive payload). This type of innovation is generally linked to a change within the strategic thinking, although tactical innovation is not necessarily reliant on strategic innovation.
It is in the tactical sector that there has been a fair amount of innovation especially as the technological revolution has made communication and therefore the sharing of ideas and information easier and faster. Research has highlighted how effective Islamic State has been in adapting, i.e. innovating, its communication strategy as states and companies develop a mechanism to hinder the group’s message. For example, when Twitter began removing the Islamic State official media account, al-I‘tisam, Islamic State’s main distribution unit adapted, using variations on its name when creating new Twitter handles to come back to the platform. As Twitter became better at shutting down the al-I‘tisam account, Islamic State created a new methodology for distribution, referred by some as the “centralised decentralisation”, allowing it to create official and unofficial dissemination accounts (some were linked to the group and others were managed by others who may not have had direct or even indirect links to Islamic State but supported the group’s agenda). Through this system, Islamic State was able to continue to disseminate propaganda material because when one account was taken down, others remained operational, tweeting whenever the new account of the one taken down was back online using an alternative handle. Another innovative way Islamic State has sought to promote its message and to recruit is through video games. Islamic State was not the first to use this medium, Hezbollah for example released a video game, Special Force, in 2003, in which the player fights against Israel. The game includes real battle fought between Hezbollah and Israel in Lebanon and the game itself is structured to include a narrative that the designers constructed, aimed at generating a new moral reality as much as the construction of heroes and villains. Notably, recognising that creating games from scratch is challenging, they are opting to undertake gamification, whether as a bottom-up or a top-down process.
Innovation, whether strategic, tactical, or organisational is a complex and yet a crucial process, as without it, violent extremists become susceptible to extermination or irrelevancy, as states adapt. When it comes to innovation, violent extremists are limited by their ideology, availability of resources, and a willingness to change. Currently, many Salafi-jihadi groups are engaged in strategic reassessment as they consider how to proceed with their campaign. This may explain the lull in terrorist attacks (especially against western targets). Nevertheless, these individuals are imaginative, technically savvy, and determined and they bank on the fact that many policymakers suffer from what is best described as a ‘failure of imagination’. Moreover, as Adam Dolnik had shown in his important research on terrorist and innovation, groups whose ideology centres on inflicting mass casualties and who want to undertake spectacular events tend to be more innovative. This is very true for most if not all Salafi-jihadi and extreme violent right-wing actors.
The fourth technological revolution has democratised scientific technology and has made emerging technologies more accessible. Historically, counterterrorism relied on interdiction and infiltration of communication, networks and organisation. However, as violent extremists adapt, narrowing their networks, relying more on encrypted communication, and encouraging more lone-actor activities we must recognise the centrality of a cooperative approach to counterterrorism, as seen for example with the successful hacking by Israeli cyberoprators of an Islamic State bombmaking cell in Syria that the United States and others learned that the organisation was working on an explosive that could bypass airport security, leading to a ban on laptops. However, relying on cooperation between governments is only half the process, as there must be better interaction with the private sector and academics who do not suffer from a failure of imagination. Initiatives such as the UN Global Counter Terrorism Strategy and the Madrid Guiding Principles must be supported and built upon.