The New Era: How Terrorism Has Changed Since The 9/11 Attacks

It took seconds for the images of American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 plowing into the Twin Towers to be beamed around the world on September 11, 2001. Now, 16 years on, the reverberations of that attack—the worst ever on U.S. soil—continue to be felt in America and the wider world. 

It was 9/11 that ultimately took the U.S. into two of its longest and costliest wars—first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq—as well as bringing the phenomenon of radical Islamist terrorism to the forefront of the public conscience in the West. Ultimately it was 9/11 that set Al-Qaeda and, a decade later, the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), on their paths of destruction and bloodshed.

Since that September morning in 2001, more than 200,000 people have died in attacks on trains, markets, famous boulevards and concert halls, military compounds, souks and mosques from Baghdad to Boston, Paris to Kabul. Terrorist attacks may be on the decline, but the world lives now in a new era of unpredictability and insecurity, where danger feels omnipresent.

An increasingly globalized world has allowed coverage of attacks to spread far and wide, and provided a platform and means of communication for extremist idealogues, who are now able to beam their radical message into bedrooms across the world. It has allowed fanatics in Syria or Iraq to recruit vulnerable young men and women anywhere in the world, some of which have gone on to carry out devastating attacks in their home countries.

A Latin expression neatly sums up the fears of many in the West in 2017 as jihadists—both homegrown or returners battle-hardened in the Middle East—seek not only to strike at the heart of their cities, but their way of life: ‘Hannibal ante portas,’ the enemy is at the doors. Here’s how terrorism has changed since 9/11.

ISIS V. Al-Qaeda

Charlie Hebdo Paris Attacks Brothers Chérif Kouachi (L) and Saïd Kouachi (R) pictured in undated images released by French police. Both men carried out the shooting attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. At least one of the brothers had travelled to Yemen to train with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. French police

After Al-Qaeda sanctioned the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush—joined by British Prime Minister Tony Blair—decided to go after its leader, Osama Bin Laden, who was being provided sanctuary by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Two years later, in 2003, the U.S. and Britain went to war in Iraq against Saddam Hussein. 

As well as the wholescale destruction of both countries and hundreds of thousands of civilian casualities, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan turned Al-Qaeda into a many-headed beast, creating a tornado of jihadi activity in the region. When Saddam was ousted, the U.S. disbanded the Iraqi police force and banned former regime rank and file from taking part in the new Iraq, as a result, tens of thousands of now unemployed young men joined the insurgency against the American occupation.  

It was that insurgency that grew into the group we now know as ISIS, headed by a former U.S. prisoner in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Although it was formed out of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Baghdadi's group quickly alienated the leadership because of its brutality in Iraq and Syria. In 2014, Baghdadi, speaking from the pulpit of the famous Al-Nuri Mosque in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, announced a self-proclaimed caliphate that would straddle the Iraqi-Syrian border.

The rivalry between ISIS and Al-Qaeda can be viewed as good or bad. While it divides the jihadi leadership in the world, they also push each other and compete with one another, rendering them both potentially more dangerous.

Al-Qaeda may have appeared subdued by ISIS’s rise, but in fact it remained active across Africa and the Middle East and in January 2015 directed an attack on European soil, the shootings at the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Despite ISIS losing much of its state in iraq and Syria, both it and Al-Qaeda will remain dangerous in the years ahead. Both have tens of thousands of fighters, and a desire to spread their radical Islamist message not just in Africa and the Middle East, but among Westerners too.

The Rise and Fall of the Caliphate

ISIS in Iraq A man stands in front of a fire from oil that has been set ablaze in the Qayyarah area, some 60 kilometers (35 miles) south of Mosul, on October 19, 2016, during an operation by Iraqi forces against Islamic State militant group (ISIS) group jihadists to retake the main hub city. Yasin Akgul/AFP/Getty

Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabab and the Taliban have all managed to hold territory, but none on the level of the Islamic State which, at its most powerful, controlled territory the size of Jordan and had an annual revenue of $1.9 billion. ISIS Inc. has drawn in a global coalition in an attempt to defeat the group because it proved so dangerous. A non-state actor holding on to such a large amount of territory gave it legitimacy, funds and space to plan attacks abroad.

Like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, or Bin Laden in his Tora Bora hideout, this safe space would allow Baghdadi and his top commanders to act with impunity, overseeing the butchery of thousands, the beheadings of western journalists and the execution of its deadliest attacks in the West, specifically the Paris assaults of November 13, 2015. This was an attack directed from Syria, moved from Belgium and activated in France.

Now, a series of battlefield defeats has left the group clinging on to just several cities in Iraq and Syria. The dwindling of ISIS’s caliphate will devoid the group of a sanctuary, yet it could push the group and its fighters—native or foreign—underground, and possibly back home to commit attacks. Thousands of Europeans were drawn to Iraq and Syria and their stateless nature creates an alarming situation for Europe, where ISIS has dispatched operatives or uses its European nationals to inspire like-minded Muslims at home.

When the state ceases to exist, the raison d’être of the Islamic State will be removed. But the fact that the group managed to achieve this, and hold on to a state for three years, is a development that will only serve to have emboldened the jihadist community and its desire for a land where the black flag flies high. Outside of Iraq and Syria, its affiliates—18 at the last count—continue to spread its message, from the Philippines to the Sahel. The Islamic State’s ideology, like Al-Qaeda, is therefore far from over.

Cyber Havens and Remote-Controlled Terror

German police A German police officer carries a seized computer after police conducted a raid targeting individuals suspected of inciting people to go and fight for the Islamic State group in Syria, on September 22, 2015. Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty

The onset of the internet, mobile phones and a myriad of apps has enabled jihadists to operate online in protected corners of the web with relative impunity, a threat not seen before 9/11. Now, they capitalize on social media to spread online magazines, video releases and even news bulletins. The communications operation of jihadist groups has become more sophisticated than ever. Social media companies have battled back, suspending hundreds of thousands of accounts, but jihadists find safe haven with each other on the dark web and encrypted messaging apps, such as Telegram or Wickr, to not only talk their message, but to plan and act upon it.

In several high-profile attacks in Europe, jihadists in Iraq and Syria have been found to be directing the attacker remotely, in constant contact with the radicalized individual. In Germany, a suicide bombing in Ansbach and an ax assault in the Bavarian city of Wurzburg last year were carried out by men in touch with ISIS operatives. In France, Rachid Kassim, a prominent ISIS recruiter who was based in Syria, is believed to have connected the two jihadists who slit the throat of a priest in northern France in July 2016 via Telegram. Authorities also suspect his role in a plot that police foiled near the famous Notre Dame cathedral in Paris last September that Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said was “remote-controlled” from Syria.

Undercover reporting has shown that ISIS instructors offer careful advice and support to the individual, urging them to go ahead with their attacks, and boosting their confidence to do so. “Please be very careful, take precautions and be quick to operate,” an instructor told a reporter from German newspaper Bild, who pretended to be a willing attacker. “The more time you take, the more chances there are for failure. May Allah guide your steps.”

It continues to present Western intelligence agencies and governments with the dilemma of balancing privacy and democracy considerations with matters of security. The threat is now less from mass-scale attacks like 9/11, which authorities can get a handle on, but more regular, lower-scale assaults inspired from other territories around the world.

Everyday Weapons

Berlin attack Security and rescue workers tend to the area after a lorry truck ploughed through a Christmas market on December 20, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. Michele Tantussi/Getty

Jihadists are still intent on causing maximum damage in mass-casualty attacks on airliners, as demonstrated by the downing of a Russian jet over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in October 2015 and a recent plot to gas an airliner departing from Australia. But the method of attacks has morphed to include the use of everyday objects like knives, trucks, cars and homemade bombs. ISIS’s late spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani developed on Al-Qaeda’s call for the use of trucks in a 2014 audio message. He said that the group’s supporters should use any weapon they could muster to strike the kuffar, or disbelievers, in the West.

“Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car,” he said. The call was heeded by jihadists, who took it upon themselves to initiate a series of low-level but deadly attacks that would spread fear in the U.S. and Europe about pervasive radical Islamism, and the thought that an attack could happen at any moment against anyone, even if they had no role in their government or military. These included vehicle attacks in Berlin, London, Nice and Barcelona, as well as knife and shooting attacks in Paris, Copenhagen and Russia’s restive Caucasus republics.

“Attacks like New York, Madrid or London needed preparation, logistics and sophisticated material. Although an attack like that of Barcelona or Brussels undoubtedly needs a form of planning, we are far from 9/11,” says former head of Belgian intelligence Alain Winants.

“But this is just what gives the feeling of a greater insecurity. The targets now are less symbolic. We speak of soft targets, people going to work, people in a concert or at a sport event. Everybody, everywhere is susceptible of becoming a target and a victim being at the wrong place on the wrong moment.”

ISIS and Al-Qaeda have continued to publish guides for its “soldiers” to strike in the West. The most recent releases include how to target a train, how to poison western grocery stores and even how to make homemade bombs with the dangerous substance used in the Paris and Brussels suicide bombs: triacetate triperoxide, or TATP.

Even as the Islamic State falls, radicalized individuals, who in some countries like France are believed to number thousands, taking up arms with any weapon possible remains a scary and realistic prospect that security services and European and North American societies will have to deal with for years to come.

Off-The-Radar Jihad

San Bernardino Attack In this handout photo provided by the San Bernardino County Sherrif's Department, four guns are seen near the site of a shootout between police and suspects in the San Bernardino shootings, December 4, 2015 in San Bernardino, California. San Bernardino County Sherrif's Department via Getty

With intelligence agencies preoccupied with thwarting mass casualty attacks planned from abroad, the battle for spies also comes at home in the form of “bedroom jihadis,” those people who self-radicalize and whose intentions cannot be easily traced. The bigger and more organized a plot, the greater the number of signs that security services are given to allow them to disrupt a cell or plot before it is activated. And another attack on the scale of 9/11, which left 2,999 people dead, remains unlikely.

But now, individuals or small cells can plan and act outside of the command of jihadist groups, and therefore out of sight of the authorities. Both ISIS and Al-Qaeda call for its supporters to attack at will, without direction. It has given rise to individuals taking matters into their own hands, such as Omar Mateen, the Orlando shooter; Salman Abedi, the British-Libyan man who bombed an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in May; or the San Bernardino shooters.

“The change of structure makes intelligence work more difficult,” says Winants. “When terrorists act on their own or in little groups, intelligence work is much harder. The small groups are very cautious, very defiant and therefore much more difficult to be brought in.”

Top counter-terror chiefs in Europe and North America have said that the new threat is a shift to “Terrorism 3.0,” with ISIS on the back foot in the Middle East, so relying on individuals to attack against the coalition at home. Christian Rousseau, head of Canada's Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre, said at a Washington intelligence forum last week that security agencies are “relatively good at being able to catch” the threats from overseas, where plans and money are being exchanged.

"The generation of terrorism that is now most impactful in Canada is the inspired or enabled terrorism," he said. "We're in a world that's even more difficult because not only can we not deter them... but there are no signs to help us deal with this."

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