The Nature of 21st Century Terrorism

by Warren Phillip-Clarke

To identify how Terrorism has developed in the 21st century, we need to know what terrorism is.

In the United States of America, terrorism is defined in Title 22 Chapter 38, of the U.S. Code as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents”.

The Irish Republican Army (IRA), also called Provisional Irish Republican Army, was created in 1919 born from the Irish Volunteers, a militant nationalist organization founded in 1913. The organisation sought the establishment of a republic to succeed from British rule in Northern Ireland and the reunification of Ireland.

Certain factions of the IRA believed that violence particularly terrorism using “guerrilla” type tactics was a necessary part of the struggle to rid Ireland of the British, even though there was a political wing developed to negotiate their cause.

Early forms of IRA terrorism were based on political assassination, they then changed tactics and took to using modern, timed explosives and car bombs. This was aimed at creating fear in metropolitan Britain, in order to achieve political gains. So, targets were very carefully specified. What the IRA tried to do for the most part and what they believed they were doing was that they were not trying to harm the local community. Now, that was part of their mythology. If they killed a Protestant, they would argue that it wasn’t a Protestant they were killing, but it was a member of the security forces who happened to be a Protestant.

After the American Civil War, defiant Southerners formed the Ku Klux Klan to intimidate supporters of Reconstruction and the newly freed former slaves. The Modern “KKK” is said to have appeared in around 1915.

Its appeal was directed exclusively toward white Protestants; it opposed Jews, Black people, Catholics, and newly arriving Southern and Eastern European immigrants such as Italians, Russians, and Lithuanians, many of whom were Jewish or Catholic.

Again, using Guerrilla type tactics the KKK did most of their work at night under the disguise of their Pointed White Hoods and capes, to protect their identity. Tactics involved torture, Shootings, and Hangings. It was also known that the KKK would burn houses down sometimes with the occupants still inside.

Modern Day terrorism is most commonly engaged by organisations possessing fundamentalist religious ideology. Some of the most extreme and destructive organisations that engage in terrorism include:

  • Hamas
  • Al-Qaeda
  • Liberation tigers
  • Taliban

Many of these groups have adopted suicide bombing as a regular tactic, an act in which agents attempt to destroy an important economic, military, political, or symbolic target by detonating a bomb on their person.

The online research magazine, “Global Studies Quarterly, Volume 2, Issue 1, January 2022” published an article showing that between 1998 and 2010, 2,093 suicide attacks had occurred around the globe, perpetrated by Islamist actors.

The Washington Post reported that in Europe alone from 1970 to 2016: 5,215 people died from bombings.

September 11, 2001, the attacks on the world trade centre claimed 2,996 lives, a marked result for a single attack coordinated attack. Since then, there have been the 7/7 bombings in 2005 in London, all coordinated by Muslim extremist actors. All were suicide actions.

The shift has been from “guerrilla” attacks to suicide attacks predominately. The suicide attacks quite often now are employed to hurt, kill or maim as many people as possible regardless of who they are. No longer are these attacks aimed at governments, the military or their supporters.

It is a prudent observation that in the timeframe of the 21st century, technological advancements have made it easier to become radicalised, obtain information, plan and undertake an act of terror. Without having to discriminate in selecting a target, it has made opportunity part of the process now. It has also seen the rise of “lone actor” and “copy-cat” agents as planning and research can be done in isolation.

Early on assassinations and bombings were undertaken by individuals or teams who went on to carry out other activities in more of a militia style of process, whereas now, in particular for radicalised religious actors, “dying for the cause” and becoming a martyr is seen as a high accolade. In Al-Suri’s ISIS he promotes a methodology that would expect to see the frequency of individual jihadists attack to continue and keep pace, fuelled by self-radicalisation.

In 2010 Al-Qaeda publish a glossy magazine called Inspire. One of the magazines had an article outlining the “Ultimate mowing machine”, a guide on how one could strengthen, arm, and weaponise a vehicle to conduct vehicle as weapons attacks, using items from your local hardware store.

In 2017 ISIS Rumiya Magazine published an article on the best types of vehicles to use for Vehicle Bourne Improvised Explosive Devices, how to obtain the vehicles in a manner so as to not draw attention to yourself and other information on how to plan attacks.

These magazines were distributed in the same way any other mainstream publication was, making the transition seem more attractive. It was simple western marketing.

As risk management professionals, we need to understand that a threat actor has many tools at their disposal, and depending on what their aim is could predicate their modality for attack. Depending on your area of operations, state-sanctioned attacks could also be of concern, however these are less likely outside of conflict zones.

With a human mind having limitless opportunity to think up ways to meet a challenge, it makes planning and preparedness a key tool for the implementation of a prevention and response strategy. Ideology now can break the cultural norms, so to profile a threat actor on looks alone is a dangerous activity.

Protective strategies from safety in design to Artificial Intelligence driven facial recognition programs tied to CCTV systems to form part of a layered approach to managing the risk.

Sometimes though, it’s the human element that is the linchpin to a system working, this, unfortunately, can also be our greatest downfall. As a practitioner, we need to emulate the efforts the threat actors are making, to prevent them from being successful.

Educating our staff, training them to look for the person who is out of place, taking time to assess the location they are in for things that look out of place, communicating that it’s okay to make a call and be wrong, then to make no call and be right.

There is a fine balance in being prepared and being an alarmist. As a practitioner though we also need to be proactive and not rely on one method of prevention and protection.

Even though Australia has just recently reduced its security alert level, I am still planning a complementary layered approach to management for the venues my organisation is building. After all there is empirical evidence that Lone wolf threat actors use opportunity as a key element in their attacks.

The Global Terrorism Index Stated- “In the more economically developed countries, social disenfranchisement and exclusion play an important role in terrorism.” With this mind, my concern is right-wing extremists. These groups are also known for conspiracy theories and anti-government sentiment that can often be linked back to these racist and xenophobic roots. Australia’s COVID-19 response has brought more of these people out for comment.

What makes this more of a concern is that right-wing extremists are generally motivated by some perceived notion of social or economic hardship, are much harder to identify, and tend to be middle-class and educated rather than the stereotype of poor and uneducated.

The ASIO Director-General, Mike Burgess, notes in the annual threat assessment for 2022 that during the past 12 months, this threat emanates more from a potential lone actor than groups. Mr Burgess has stated in every annual threat assessment that ASIO has seen an increase in the threat from right-wing extremists.

With this in mind, for our venue development are starting with a risk assessment including both internal and external factors. Insider threat is as much of a concern as a blatant external attack.

From a physical point of view the venues will have access control and CCTV systems to assist guards and venue managers with perimeter management in order to own our territory.

Our communications and approvals processes means we are required to engage with local emergency services and local government to build the venues. It is my intention to turn these approvals processes into partnerships and invite these agencies to the venues once completed, to train and exercise their teams with us.

Our staff engagement will start early so we can train our supervisors in cross-discipline response so they get to know the venue better in the case of a major incident.

The last part will be the standard security protocols of inspection/search and scanning supported by facial recognition protocols at the venue entry points. We need to impact onto them the importance of vigilance.

It is incumbent on me and the supervisory team though to maintain vigilance and gather intelligence and data surrounding the latest threat trends, artist fanbases, and any other security-related data our partners can share with us.

This extends to our medical providers also, having them drill with response teams to ascertain the potential issues they may encounter also allows for a more coordinated response to any issues we could perceive. Coordinated responses and suitable communications will carry us through any challenge we face.

Whilst Australia has had limited Terrorist Attacks, the ones we have seen have generally been multimodal, so our venues need to be able to prevent vehicle as a weapon incursion, as well as the personal weapons threats, we have seen here in the past, all the while considering that a suicide event is not out of the question completely.

So the management process is one of risk management lead by intelligence and a team of supervisors supportive of the team to make informed decisions to protect our assets and patrons. We need to enable the entrepreneurial spirit in our staff to make decisions for the betterment of our organisation.


  • Paul Reynolds; quoting David Hannay; Former UK ambassador (14 September 2005). “UN staggers on road to reform”. BBC News. Retrieved 20 Jan 2023
  • Cornell Law School; “22 U.S. Code § 2656f – Annual country reports on terrorism”. LII / Legal Information Institute. Retrieved 20 Jan 2023
  • Whelehan, Niall (2012). The Dynamiters: Irish Nationalism and Political Violence in the Wider World 1867–1900. Cambridge.
  • Chris Alcantara; Washington Post (2017) 46 years of terrorist attacks in Europe, visualised Retrieved 20 Jan 2023
  • Seung-Whan Choi, Davis Brown; Global Studies Quarterly, Volume 2, Issue 1, January 2022, ksab046, . Retrieved 20 Jan 2023
  • Caitlin Grant; Right-wing extremism in Australia; Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security, Parliament of Australia. Link. Retrieved 20 Jan 2023
  • Institute for Economics and Peace. “Global terrorism Index 2020”, chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/ Retrieved 20 Jan 2023
  • 1998 PBS and WGBH/Frontline, Behind the mask, the IRA and Sinn Fein. Link. Retrieved 24/01/2023
  • Zoe Marchment Spatial decision making of terrorist target selection, Department of Security and Crime Science University College London. Retrieved 24/01/2023
  • Abhijnan Rej, The Strategist: How Abu Mus’ab al-Suri Inspired ISIS (2016)- Observer Research foundation Occasional Paper. Retrieved 24/01/2023