From the January/February 2015 issue of Discern Magazine

The New Face of Terrorism

Barbaric terrorist groups and lone wolf terrorists now make headlines the world over. But is this new face of terrorism actually new—or eerily familiar?

Terrorism continues to inflict a recurring nightmare on the world. New tactics and new atrocities arise regularly.

As I write in late 2014, Britain is facing the biggest terrorism threat in its history, U.K. Home Secretary Theresa May announced, with more than 40 major terror plots foiled since suicide bombers infamously struck London in 2005.

In addition to plots to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and Prince Harry, there have been “attempts to conduct marauding ‘Mumbai-style’ gun attacks on our streets, blow up the London Stock Exchange, bring down airliners” (Independent, Nov. 23, 2014). 

“Four or five plots have been stopped this year,” said Scotland Yard Chief Bernard Hogan-Howe, who detailed the escalating change in the frequency and seriousness of the plots and highlighted the worrying trend of militant lone wolf attacks (BBC News, Nov. 23, 2014).

Lone wolf terror attacks

The recent wave of lone wolf attacks, now dubbed “the new face of terrorism,” involves self-initiated attacks by individuals, with no demonstrable planning or coordination from a larger organization. Radicalized over the Internet to kill and terrorize citizens in their home countries, they leave no trail of clues as to their intentions.

The threat of homegrown terrorism has crept into several nations recently. 

  • In May Frenchman Mehdi Nemmouche returned home after 11 months fighting in Syria and promptly acted out his rage by shooting four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels. 
  • In September Australian authorities thwarted a plot to commit random “demonstration beheadings” in Sydney. 
  • In October Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot and killed a Canadian soldier outside the National War Memorial in Ottawa and then stormed Parliament, firing as he went. 
  • In November two men carrying a gun, meat cleaver and ax terrorized a Jerusalem synagogue, leaving four people dead and several more lying in a pool of blood.

While much of the terror activity has been in Europe, two different Pew Research polls tell us that more than six in 10 Americans are anxious about the rise in Islamic extremism in the world, and 75 percent of Americans agreed with the statement “occasional acts of terrorism in the U.S. will be part of life in the future.”

Their anxiety is not unwarranted. The latest Global Terrorism Index, released by the Institute for Economics and Peace, reports that:

  • In 2013 alone, the world saw almost 10,000 terrorist attacks, a dramatic 44-percent increase from the previous year despite a sprawling global counterterrorism campaign.
  • These terrorist attacks in 2013 resulted in nearly 18,000 deaths, a 61-percent increase from the previous year.
  • Although terrorism is globally distributed, resulting in deaths in 60 countries, it is also currently highly concentrated. Over 80 percent of incidents occurred in just five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria.
  • At least 13 countries have been identified as facing a greater risk of significant terrorist activity in the coming years.

Trends in terrorism

One ominous trend over the past decade has been a shift from small nationalist and ethnic terrorist groups toward large groups with broad religious and political goals. Burgeoning and bloodthirsty regional terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Boko Haram (Nigeria), al-Shabaab (Somalia) and the Taliban (Afghanistan), have an outsize presence as they motivate individuals living in distant Western societies to commit ever more violent terrorist acts of their own. 

With poster-boy-for-terror “Jihadi John” performing grisly executions of Western journalists and aid workers, ISIS (the Islamic State) garnered a lot of publicity. 

Born from an especially brutal al-Qaeda faction, ISIS swelled from relative obscurity to control and brutalize large swaths of Sunni-dominated Iraq and Syria. Led by the self-declared “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, this ruthless group of more than 30,000 black-clad jihadists has been estimated to include roughly 15,000 foreign fighters, of which at least 2,000 are Westerners.

Terrorists return home to the West

While it might initially appear to those in North America and Europe that jihadist terror organizations are at a comfortable distance away in Africa and the Middle East, the fact is, terrorism is never farther away than a plane ticket or click of the mouse.  

While it might initially appear to those in North America and Europe that jihadist terror organizations are at a comfortable distance away in Africa and the Middle East, the fact is, terrorism is never farther away than a plane ticket or click of the mouse.With an alarming 4,000 European Union citizens having answered the call to jihad in Syria, European leaders realize that “radicalized local Muslims returning from jihad in Syria and Iraq are a grave national security threat” (Sept. 28, 2014, Wall Street Journal).

The influx of European returnees is “so huge that it is almost impossible for the European security services to keep track of them all,” said Magnus Ranstorp, research director at the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College (Josh Cohen, “Europe Grapples With Its Homegrown Jihadists,” The Weekly Standard, Aug. 15, 2014).

Terrorists are taking advantage of the naïveté, weakness and lack of will in much of Western Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia to spread jihadi ideology and set up networks of terror. Recent terrorist plots uncovered and thwarted in nearly every European nation have aimed to destroy cultural heritage sites, such as the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, and assassinate Pope Francis.

As one European counterterrorism official told CNN, “The threat of attacks has never been greater—not at the time of 9/11, not after the war in Iraq—never” (Paul Cruickshank, “Europe Faces ‘Greatest Terror Threat Ever’ From Jihadists in Iraq and Syria,” CNN World, June 19, 2014).

While Western leaders, until recently, have downplayed the threat of terrorism outside of the Middle East, others have shown more perception. 

Discerning the existential risk of terrorism, historian Paul Johnson somberly stated in a speech on terrorism he delivered 35 years ago: “It is almost impossible to exaggerate the threat which terrorism holds for our civilization. … The threat of terrorism is not being contained; it is, on the contrary, increasing steadily. … Most people, I fear, tend to underestimate the sheer fragility of civilization. They do not appreciate that civilizations fall as well as rise.” 

The original face of terrorism

In a modern, civilized world, how could humans act in the brutally inhuman ways they do? What would drive people to such cruelty?

We should not overlook a seldom-discussed factor—the spiritual dimension. Terrorists’ behavior today directly reflects the original architect of terror—the true and unchanging face of terrorism—Satan the devil. Because terrorists mirror the same ideas, attitudes and strategies of Satan himself, it is no surprise when strategies of negotiation or pacification turn out to be worthless.

Those along the pathway to radicalization and terrorism commonly share several traits. One starting point for terrorists is an extreme sense of injustice, aggrievement and resentment for a perceived restriction or deprivation. Many feel their family, nation, ideology or brand of religion has suffered unfairly, and they must therefore strike back with vengeance and retaliation. This becomes a powerful and obsessive drive. 

In the Bible, Lucifer, the covering cherub at God’s throne (Ezekiel 28:14-17), also felt unfairly treated as he anticipated the creation of mankind. He knew that humans would be made lower than angels (Hebrews 2:7), but that they would have far greater potential, eventually even judging angels (1 Corinthians 6:3).

Lucifer became Satan and is described as having an almost narcissistic rage. Since failing in his attempt to violently overthrow God in heaven (Isaiah 14:13-14), Satan is now said to walk the earth like an enraged and roaring lion, seeking whom he can destroy (1 Peter 5:8; Revelation 12:17). 

Jihadists harbor a similar obsessive and genocidal antipathy towards modernity, Western freedoms, Christianity, Judaism and women. For terrorists, demonstrating rage and gaining public interest and attention become a vicious cycle that requires an increasingly dramatic spiral of body counts and gore.

Terrorism through “body bag scorecards” and social media

According to Gary LaFree, director of the Department of Homeland Security–funded START Global Terrorism Database, “Gone are the days when terrorist groups like the Irish Republican Army or Italy’s Red Brigade would try to keep casualties low by issuing warnings. If you’re a terrorist group now and you want to get your message out,” he said, “the more people you kill, the more ‘successful’ you’ll be.”

This “body bag scorecard” mentality has led world leaders to identify nuclear terrorism as the No. 1 global security threat. With several terrorist groups actively seeking weapons of mass destruction, the chilling prospect of the detonation of a crude nuclear weapon or “dirty bomb” built by terrorists with materials stolen or purchased on the black market is staggering. The consequences to the global economy would dwarf the effects of 9/11.

Modern terrorists fight their wars as much on social media as they do on the ground, and they judge their success by the amount of publicity they receive.Modern terrorists fight their wars as much on social media as they do on the ground, and they judge their success by the amount of publicity they receive. Using Internet sharing sites and tweeting from the battlefield has become commonplace in order to reach a target audience of fertile minds hungry for dramatic, attention-riveting acts of violence.

“I cannot overstate it,” says Steve Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute. “At the heart of jihad worldwide, in Syria and Iraq, as well as what is happening now in Canada, U.S. and Europe, are American social media companies. … If it were not for them, recruitment, fundraising and communication would not be what they are. … Every major designated terrorist organization is active on all of these accounts” (“Digital Seduction of Jihad,” National Post, Oct. 25, 2014).

In this light, the Bible describes our adversary, Satan, as “the prince of the power of the air who now works in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2). He uses spiritual “airwaves,” so to speak, to project his rebellious worldview.

Times of terror will be replaced by a time of peace

The Bible foretold, centuries in advance, the implications of the global terrorism we now experience and why it would be allowed to occur. The prophetic words of Scripture leap into perspective in vivid descriptions of these turbulent times. 

This age of terrorism may have been at the forefront in Isaiah’s prophecy about our present day: “Their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed innocent blood … wasting and destruction are in their paths. The way of peace they have not known, … they have made themselves crooked paths; whoever takes that way shall not know peace” (Isaiah 59:7-8). 

Though God clearly hates wickedness and violence (Psalm 11:5), He has explained that there would be a choice of national blessings for obedience (Leviticus 26:3-12) or an intensifying array of punishments for despising His way (verses 14-39). 

“But if you do not obey Me, and do not observe all these commandments, and if you despise My statutes, or if your soul abhors My judgments, … I also will do this to you: I will even appoint terror over you, … which shall … cause sorrow of heart. … I will set My face against you, and you shall be defeated by your enemies. … And you shall flee when no one pursues you” (verses 14-17, emphasis added).

Those who watch and pray realize how much today’s world is filled with violence. But the good news is that a time is coming—after a climax of war and terror—when Jesus Christ will return as the King of Kings. He will remove the true face of terror—Satan the devil—abolishing terror (Psalm 91:1-5) and establishing peace (Isaiah 2:1-4) in the coming Kingdom of God.


Sidebar: Homegrown Terrorism

A troubling trend in terrorism has been the radicalization of young people to kill and terrorize citizens from their home countries in either lone wolf attacks or by joining brutal regional terrorist organizations.

<p>Jihadi John</p>

Jihadi John

  • ISIS poster boy Jihadi John is the alleged British national who performed the beheadings of captured Western journalists and aid workers.
  • Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot and killed a Canadian soldier outside the National War Memorial in Ottawa and then stormed Parliament.
  • Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev walk past marathon supporters just before their homemade bombs explode at the Boston Marathon finish line.

About the Author

Neal Hogberg

Neal Hogberg is a member of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, and attends the Dallas, Texas, congregation.

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