Hybrid Terrorism in Europe


The terrorist attacks in Brussels on March 22nd demonstrated a new stage in the development of terrorism. The attacks were not the actions of lone wolves or the conspiratorial actions of a branch of al-Qaeda. In addition, they do not look like the classic political terrorist attacks typical of the middle of the 20th century or the special services’ operation Gladio. If ISIS claims to be some kind of “state”, its actions should also be styled like a quasi-state. A new kind of hybrid terrorism has elements of all of these categories, but is framed by nihilistic Postmodern and liberal propaganda.


As an instrument of state policy, terror became widely practiced as a product of the Enlightenment. Being institutionalized in France at the end of the XVIII century, it spread across Europe and became a reliable tool for governments. Only later did terrorists become understood as people and organizations that seek political goals by using violence, including against innocent citizens. Originally, this method was an effective tool for international and national operations. It is quite logical that the heirs of Western teachers and slaveholders, represented by US liberal democracy, still use this method as a long-term policy.

For example, the well-known geopolitical theorist Colin Gray, in a number of publications that followed the events of September 11th 2001, stated that, firstly, the United States needed to clearly define the purpose of Al-Qaeda (which was made only in the new Obama administration's National Security Strategy), as the concept of “international terrorism” is too ambiguous and causes a wide variety of speculation. Secondly, during special operations, US troops may themselves act as terrorists, which were exposed by many people of many countries who have criticized the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Strategic Terrorism

Terrorism is a special form of psychological warfare, a battle for the mind’s through will.[i] For example, the level of US sponsored murders in other countries is carefully hidden from public opinion, while the reporters traveling with US military units are a psychological team which describes the mythical exploits and heroism of soldiers to raise their morale and to strengthen patriotism at home.

On the other hand, the perception of the presence of constant threats from terrorist organizations has forced a number of governments to form strategies[ii] to fight terrorism, which affects countries, regions, governments, organizations, religions, ethnic groups and companies’ business. If before terrorism was regarded as a certain deviation from the standard forms of violence which are regulated by international law and all sorts of conventions, now it is believed to be the new norm, which must be understood and dealt with.

P. Neumann and M.L.R. Smith (the Department of War Studies at King's College London) insist that our contention with terrorism – even that of the supposedly ‘nihilist’ variety – does not necessarily fall within the realm of the abnormal. Instead, terrorism should more appropriately be viewed as a military strategy.[iii].

The authors are of the opinion that only by examining the dynamics of strategic terrorism is it possible to create the necessary conceptual basis from which to arrive at a fuller understanding of the role played by terrorist violence in the campaigns of some of the groups that have gone beyond the use of strategic terrorism in advancing their aims.

If terrorism is understood as a military strategy, it will automatically become a tool to achieve political goals, not only by radical groups, but also by state actors.

Terrorism can be described as the deliberate creation of fear, usually with the use or threatening of symbolic acts of physical violence that is used to influence the political behavior of the selected target group. This definition is based on the work of T.P. Thornton[iv], whose studies represent some of the most informative and detailed analyses of terrorism.

The three aspects of this phenomenon that are stressed are:

– The violent quality of the majority of terrorist acts, which distinguishes the terror program from other forms of non-violent advocacy, such as mass demonstrations, leaflets, etc. Indeed, although people are sometimes afraid and anxious even without the threat of physical violence, apparently, the most common means for causing terror comes in the form of physical violence.

– The nature of violence. Thornton calls this “extra-normal”, meaning that a certain level of organized political violence, beyond the norms of violent political agitation that is accepted in a given society, should be called terrorism.

– The symbolic nature of an act of violence. A terrorist attack will have a greater meaning than its immediate consequences, i.e. damage, deaths, and injuries caused by it that have a limited connection to the political message which the terrorists use to establish communication. For this reason, a terrorist attack can only be understood in the evaluation of its symbolic content or “message.”

In addition, a planned terrorist campaign has certain stages of development.

Disorientation is an important objective and forms the first stage of a terrorist campaign. Terrorists believe that their actions will alienate authorities from the populous rendering it incompetent in protecting its citizens. To achieve this level, it is necessary to break normal social interactions, bringing the escalation of violence to the point when it becomes clear that the authorities are not able to prevent the spread of chaos[v].

A certain paradox here should be noted: while terrorists are interested in gaining the support of the masses, it is necessary to continue the violence. To do this, they conduct so-called non-discrete attacks and define their goals as legitimate and illegitimate. Legitimate targets, as a rule, are the representatives of the state: politicians, officials, soldiers, judges, police, etc., which are seen as agents of a repressive regime.

The second stage is the response: N. Berry suggests that terrorists try to manipulate the possible actions of their enemy, which has several variants[vi].

One of them involves an excessive or even random number of targets, which is an essential part of the process of disorientation. The terrorists want to provoke the government to work outside the law and to use extra-legal measures. As a result, terrorist attacks will often take place with the explicit goal of inciting harsh repression, which is most likely illegal[vii].

The deflation of power is the opposite of this “excessive target concept.” This is a scenario when the target group (the government) loses the support of society, as it is unable to adequately cope with the terrorist threat. The government believes that it lacks public consensus for a policy on terrorism as negotiations are regarded as a trick, a threat, or even a transfer of a certain legitimacy. As history has shown, this scenario became a classic problem for many regimes, especially within the framework of liberal democratic values.

Another type of response is the mistaken repression of the moderate opposition, as the government can start to suppress the moderate opposition that does not use violence. The prohibition of political parties, newspapers closures, arrests, and kidnappings are component parts of this governmental activity. The rational explanation of such action is that there could be connection between terrorists and moderate opposition and the possibility of them operating together. For example, the Irish Republican Army has a legal structure, Sinn Fein, which is the right wing, and in the ETA, Basque separatists have a political wing named Herri Batasuna. The example of the Islamic Revolution in Iran shows that mistaken repression can only accelerate the fall of the government. In addition, terrorists can act on behalf of the government for such purposes (using fake documents, uniforms or agents within the government structures) to discredit it.

The third stage is the acquisition of legitimacy: it is achieved either through skillful manipulation through the media or through political agitation, creating an interactive connection with the masses. Now the Internet is a tool for such communication, which can be very effective, as the Islamist jihadist example shows. Attaining legitimacy largely depends on the culture of the society in which terrorists act, and the given society’s ethics of violence and death.

There is a piece of research[viii] on terrorism that has an interesting statistic that compares death tolls. It noted that just in 2011, 1,400 people were killed in traffic accidents, 1,700 people died of AIDS in the United States, while in the world as a whole in the same period, 29,757 people died in traffic accidents, 14,612 were murdered, and 494 people died in plane crashes. For comparison, 2,996 died as a result of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima took 90,000 lives, and the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004 claimed 230,000 victims. The question should be posed if individual terrorist attack are worse from a moral viewpoint than man-made or natural incidents, especially considering the fact that the nuclear bombing of the Japanese cities was an unnecessary act of intimidation by the United States aimed at both its enemies and allies.

The Senior Scientist of the Council on Foreign Relations, Walter Russell Mead, even categorically stated that “Bambi is worse than Bin Laden”[ix] in referring to the statistical studies of Professor John Mueller of Ohio University, who estimated that lightning strikes, deer, and peanuts are more deadly then terrorists.

John Mueller, who is well known for studying US public opinion on war, has also recently analyzed the criticism of politicians who have declared and still declare that Islamic terrorists are close to creating weapons of mass destruction. Mueller, based on numerous studies and intelligence reports, points to the fact that that al-Qaeda was far from creating or obtaining nuclear weapons. In addition, he added that “outside of war zones, the amount of killing carried out by al Qaeda and al Qaeda linkees, maybes, and wannabes throughout the entire world since 9/11 stands at perhaps a few hundred per year. That's a few hundred too many, of course, but it scarcely resents an existential, or elephantine, threat. And the likelihood that an American will be killed by a terrorist of any ilk stands at one in 3.5 million per year, even with 9/11 included.”[x]

US foreign policy critics also state that the deaths of countless civilians in Iraq during the US invasion (according to the Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Physicians for Global Survival and the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War in Iraq during the US-British invasion 1,300 thousand people were killed) is disproportional on individual cases of terrorist attacks against the United States, even if we draw a parallel between Islam and “Islamic terrorism.” It proves the failures of the previous US strategy in fighting terrorism and reinforces accusations aimed at Washington regarding the use of terrorist methods to conduct policy.

Although, at the moment, the West has a stereotype that the most dangerous terrorism in its nature is the Islamic variant, it should be noted that the current situation of international jihadist terrorism is characterized by three interrelated trends: decentralization, localization, and individualization. These trends are in part a response to the success of the fight against terrorism since 2001, but they also reflect the changing patterns of geographic and ethnic diversification as well as ongoing ideological debate within the wider jihadist movements between those who are for organized jihad (jihad tanzim) and those who focus on the individual jihad (jihad fardiyah)[xi].

Meanwhile, the question remains: who is behind many of the attacks and such radical organizations? The terrorists, especially if they are part of an extensive international network, can be used as an authorized unity to conduct war, while the customer or beneficiary of such operations remains shady. This technique of using a third party, which can be a state or a group of militants, is called proxy war. Syria, perhaps, is a lucid example, as there are several states that each have their own interests in the region and therefore support and train terrorists, directing them against the legitimate government. Of course, we cannot forget about state terrorism itself, which is the most easily realized in the strategic dimension, especially if a group of states is involved in perpetrating terror.

[i] Chaliand, Gerard . Terrorism: From Popular Struggle to Media Spectacle, London: Saqi Books, 1987.

[ii] National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. February 2003.


[iii] Neumann, Peter R. & M. L. R. Smith. Strategic terrorism: The framework and its fallacies. Journal of Strategic Studies, 2005, 28: 4, 571 — 595

[iv] Thornton, T.P. "Terror as a Weapon of Political Agitation" in Harry Eckstein (ed.), Internal War: Problems and Approaches, New York: Free Press, 1964, pp.71–99

[v] Knauss, Peter and D.A. Strickland, ‘Political Disintegration and Latent Terror’, in Michael Stohl (ed.), The Politics of Terrorism, New York: Marcel Dekker, 1979, p.77

[vi] Berry, N.O. ‘Theories on the Efficacy of Terrorism’, in Paul Wilkinson and A.M. Stewart (eds),

Contemporary Research on Terrorism, Aberdeen: Aberdeen UP, 1987, pp.293–304.

[vii] Wilkinson, Paul. Terrorism and the Liberal State, London: Macmillan, 1986, p.296

[viii] Myhrvold, Nathan. Strategic Terrorism. A Call to Аction. Research paper NO. 2 – 2013

[ix] Etzioni A. From Empire to Community: A New Approach to International Relations. 2004

[x] Mueller, John. The Truth About al Qaeda. Foreign Affairs. August 2, 2011


[xi] Ungerer, Carl. Beyond bin Laden. Future trends in terrorism. ASPI, Dec. 2011, P. 17