From The New Yorker: HOW DIFFERENT—AND DANGEROUS—IS TERRORISM TODAY?

Jun 07, 2017, 10:31 AM

Robin Wright for The New Yorker.

n Sunday, just hours after three men launched an assault on London Bridge, British Prime Minister Theresa May stepped in front of 10 Downing Street and told the world, “We believe we are experiencing a new trend in the threat we face.” In many ways, the attack in the British capital, as well as others over the past two years in Nice, Berlin, Stockholm, Paris, and Manchester, actually weren’t all that unique in terms of tactics, targets, or even motive. A century ago, a battered horse-drawn wagon loaded with a hundred pounds of dynamite—attached to five hundred pounds of cast-iron weights—rolled onto Wall Street during lunch hour. The wagon stopped at the busiest corner in front of J. P. Morgan’s bank. At 12:01 p.m., it exploded, spraying lethal shrapnel and bits of horse as high as the thirty-fourth floor of the Equitable Building, on Broadway. A streetcar was derailed a block away. Thirty-eight people were killed; many were messengers, stenographers, clerks, and brokers who were simply on the street at the wrong time—what are today known as “soft targets.” Another hundred and forty-three people were injured.

That attack, on September 16, 1920, was, at the time, the deadliest act of terrorism in American history. Few surpassed it for the next seventy-five years, until the Oklahoma City bombing, in 1995, and then the September 11th attacks, in 2001. The Wall Street case was never solved, although the investigation strongly pointed to followers of a charismatic Italian anarchist named Luigi Galleani. Like isis and its extremist cohorts today, they advocated violence and insurrection against Western democracies and justified innocent deaths to achieve it.

Europe has also faced periods of more frequent terrorism than in the recent attacks. Between 1970 and 2015, more than ten thousand people were killed in over eighteen thousand attacks, according to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database. The deadliest decades were, by far, the nineteen-seventies and eighties—during the era of Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang, Italy’s Red Brigades, Spain’s E.T.A., Britain’s Irish Republican Army, and others. The frequency of attacks across Europe reached as high as ten a week. In 1980, I covered what was then the deadliest terrorist attack in Europe since the Second World War, when a bomb, planted in a suitcase, blew up in the waiting room of Bologna’s train station. Eighty-five people were killed; body parts were everywhere. A neo-fascist group, the Armed Revolutionary Nuclei, claimed credit.

Yet May is correct: modern terrorism is still evolving. It has already gone through distinct phases, with shifting missions, messages, and means of mobilizing. The onset is generally associated with the early acts by radical Palestinian groups in the late nineteen-sixties, such as the 1968 hijacking of an El Al flight from Rome to Tel Aviv. A half century later, terrorism is now a standard feature of asymmetric warfare, with fewer wars pitting states against each other and more of the combatants being non-state actors with less traditional forms of weaponry. One of the most striking trends is the way professional or experienced terrorists are being supplemented by a proliferating array of amateurs, Bruce Hoffman, the author of the classic “Inside Terrorism” and director of security studies at Georgetown University, told me.

“There may have been, in aggregate, more terrorism in the seventies and eighties, but it was discriminate,” he said. “They kept their terrorism within boundaries related to their cause. Today it’s different. It’s less predictable, less coherent and less cohesive. It leaves the impression of serendipity. isis posts pictures of a vehicle and says get in your car and drive into people—and that’s all it takes.”

Another major difference in the early twenty-first century is that the most salient movement is a transnational religious movement, which is a stark departure from the secular Mar...