No. XXXVIII (2016)

Terrorist Threats in the Twenty-first Century: Selected Factors

Sebastian Wojciechowski
Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań

Published 2016-01-01


  • law,
  • constitution,
  • jurisprudence,
  • criminal law

How to Cite

Wojciechowski, S. (2016). Terrorist Threats in the Twenty-first Century: Selected Factors. Archives of Criminology, (XXXVIII), 29–59.


Terrorism is one of the biggest problems in today’s world and one that, to a greater or lesser extent, continues to evolve. This evolution is true of many aspects, including terrorist tactics and strategy as well as types of terrorist threats. The global and destructive reach of terrorism is clearly reflected in different comparative studies. For example, data gathered by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) indicate that there were over 150,000 terrorist attacks around the world between 1970 and 2015. These attacks were carried out in over 100 countries, most of them, however, in Afghanistan, Iraq Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria. In recent years, the force driving the escalation of terrorist activity was initially Al- -Qaeda, followed by the Islamic State. ISIS combines features commonly attributed to terrorist organizations, criminal groups, states, terrorist networks, and military formations. Contrary to the common view, the Islamic State is not a state as defined in international law and practice. Although it has territory, a population, and authorities, it does not have the capacity to pursue international relations and does not meet the criterion of external sovereignty. Only a state fulfilling all of these conditions can rightly be called a state. Thus, in the case of ISIS, we can only talk of certain elements of statehood and not of a state proper, as understood in international law and relations. In 2015, the number of terrorist attacks around the globe dropped by 13% (from 13,463 in 2014 to 11,774 in 2015). A particularly sharp drop occurred in Pakistan (45%), Iraq (28%), and Nigeria (11%), whereas other countries witnessed a surge in the number of attacks. This was the case of Turkey (escalation by 353%), Bangladesh (270%), Egypt (69%) and Syria. Syria presents a particularly complex and alarming picture, with the number of terrorist attacks up by 65%, the number of people killed up by 62%, the number of those injured up by 91%, and the number of those kidnapped and held hostage up by 67%. In 2015, the number of people who lost their lives as a result of terrorism dropped by 14% (from 32,727 in 2014 to 28,328 in 2015). There was a rise in the number of people injured (2%) and kidnapped and held hostage by terrorists (29%). The latter phenomenon is particularly alarming since it indicates renewed terrorist interest in this form of activity. The purpose of the article is to answer the following research questions: What is terrorism? How can it be defined? What are its primary causes and features? What characterizes contemporary terrorist threats? What is the scale of global terrorism today? What led to the emergence and subsequent rapid rise of the Islamic State? How can terrorism be prevented and combated effectively? The author uses his own definition of terrorism. He defines terrorism as a variously motivated and implemented form of political and/or social violence (or threatening such violence) breaching the binding legal order, perpetrated by individuals or groups through different means and methods, leading to physical, psychological, or material damage. This form of violence has a direct target or targets (for example individuals representing a given state) or an indirect target through which the perpetrator wants to achieve his final purpose. This definition draws attention to a couple of important and universal features of terrorism. Firstly, it demonstrates the diversity of its causes (motives), spanning a wide range of factors that drive and escalate the phenomenon. Secondly, it highlights the fact that terrorist acts violate the law, resulting in a broad range of consequences. Thirdly, it stresses that terrorism (as people often mistakenly assume) encompasses not just the actions of groups, but also those of individuals. Fourthly, it points to the multiplicity and diversity of means and methods employed by terrorists. Religious, political, or ethnic reasons are not the sole driving forces behind terrorism, which springs from a combination of many different factors, including cultural, historical, psychological and socio-economic determinants – the latter often underestimated or overlooked. There is frequently a direct or indirect link between terrorism and poverty or other serious socio-economic problems observed in a given territory. This is reflected, inter alia, in the data published in the Global Terrorism Index 2015. This report indicates that in recent years, countries that have seen the steepest increase in the number of deaths due to terrorist attacks are largely poor ones, including Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Syria, and Somalia. Of course this does not mean that poverty or big social inequalities always lead to terrorism. They can, however, stoke up different extremist attitudes, including ones with ties to terrorism. This state of affairs is known as “fueling terror.” The paper highlights selected aspects of contemporary terrorism. Other important issues include the problem of terrorist financing, the consequences of terrorism, identifying real and potential perpetrators, the evolution of terrorist strategy and tactics as employed by “lone wolves,” suicide bombers, and women and children used to carry out attacks, links between migration and terrorism, etc. A comprehensive discussion of these topics requires a separate and much broader study. Such a study should be prepared by an interdisciplinary team of specialists bringing together not just security, but also legal, psychology, sociology or economic experts. Such a team should include both theorists and practitioners with wide-ranging experience in analyzing, eliminating, and forecasting terrorist threats.


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