The threat of terrorism—both real and perceived—is shaping international relations like never before. Terrorism’s roots are ancient, and in its modern form it has existed long before the attacks of September 11, 2001. Nonetheless, that day marked a historic shift in the attitudes of peoples and governments around the world. No longer was terrorism a dramatic but essentially minor strategic concern: now its jihadist variant would top the list of foreign policy objectives and contribute to foreign interventions, aggressive new laws at home, and massive resource commitments.
Although the United States and Europe understandably focus on the threats directly affecting their own countries and citizens, the problem is far greater in the Muslim world. Europe and America have both seen spectacular acts of terrorism that have sown panic and fear within their societies. In the Middle East, however, terrorism has morphed into insurgency and civil war, leaving hundreds of thousands dead. Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen all suffer from civil wars in which terrorist acts are daily occurrences.
Terrorism, however, is constantly evolving. Just as al-Qaeda displaced other groups to rise to the top of the terrorist hierarchy by the late 1990s, now the Islamic State has eclipsed its former master and emerged as the world’s top concern. The group’s staggering brutality, military prowess, and global ambitions have lent it a powerful mix of dread and awe: just as millions of Muslims revile it, tens of thousands have flocked to fight under its banners. Yet the Islamic State is far from the only terrorism concern. Al-Qaeda remains active, and its affiliates are of particular concern. Other groups like Hizballah and Boko Haram foment violence and disrupt efforts to improve governance. The Palestinian terrorist group Hamas now should also be described as a government, controlling the de facto state of Gaza.
Although terrorists in general are operationally conservative, the tactics and methods they use also change. Suicide bombings, once a rarity, are now so common as to rarely make the headlines. As networks grow denser and wider, innovations spread more quickly. Groups rapidly learn from one another how to manufacture improvised [End Page 3] explosive devices, execute gruesome methods such as beheadings, and use social media to their advantage, sharing the most effective practices and emulating success.
Governments try to adapt to these new threats and changing methods, but inevitably the response is slow, uneven, and imperfect. In the United States, President Barack Obama’s foreign policy has been cautious with regard to intervention in the Middle East in general—leading to criticism that terrorist hotspots like Libya, Syria, and Yemen have been allowed to fester—but the president has proved aggressive in targeting individual terrorists. He is also stepping up U.S. military operations against the Islamic State. Europe’s response varies considerably. Some states, like France, are active members of the military coalition against the Islamic State and are aggressively pursuing terrorists at home—often to the point of alienating their own Muslim communities and increasing the risk of radicalization. Other European states also suffer integration problems, and some have poor intelligence services that do not coordinate well inside or outside their borders.
Terrorism has left the technical and security realms and entered that of mainstream politics. In the United States and especially Europe, the perceived threat of terrorism is shaping elections, attitudes toward refugees, and community relations in general. Much of this discourse, however, is histrionic or ill-informed, and the resulting pressure often leads to bad policies or exaggerated views of the threat.
No end is in sight. The Islamic State may be suffering setbacks in the Middle East, but no one expects its base there to vanish or a diminishment of the danger it poses regionally or globally. Many other groups also remain active, and the chaos in the greater Middle East offers fertile soil for new threats to grow. As a result, terrorism will remain an important security concern and political issue for years or even decades to come.
The articles in this issue offer numerous revelations into the complexity of terrorism and its many faces. They address issues such as the way...