Transnational Terrorism, Analysing the greatest threat to global security

Transnational Terrorism

Globalisation has brought with it not only unprecedented opportunities and progress in human development but also greater risks. Events in one economy can quickly spiral to others and the same can be said of social, cultural and political events. One theme that is relatively unexplored yet is how terrorism has evolved in the era of globalisation. Rather like the way in which the dark web piggybacks on the internet, a shadow side of globalisation gives criminal and violent groups the ability to spread their message and widen their operations. The impact of this shadow globalisation alters not only the organisation, resources and methods of such groups but also their reasoning and motivations. Under these conditions, there have been the proliferation of transnational terrorist groups with globalised agendas whose operations involve many countries or have ramifications that transcend national borders.

Terrorism, whether transnational or not, is a highly contested arena. To date, there is very little consensus regarding its definition. Disagreements emerge over the purpose and function, the perpetrators, the victims, the legitimacy and the methods and targeting of terrorist actors. Generally, terrorism is understood as the use or threat of violence by non-state actors to influence citizens or governments to pursue a political or social change. It is important to mention that wrong definitions can lead to flawed counter-terrorism strategies. When states do not agree on the definition, they argue over both the nature and the cause of terrorism as well as who can be called a terrorist. With no agreed international law governing state responses, they find it hard to work together to remove the threats.

How terrorism went transnational?

History of terrorist groups can be divided into four successive waves, each characterised by the global politics of the day. For instance, nationalist and anti-colonial groups emerged after two World Wars, while anti-communist and anarchist movements proliferated during the Cold War period. Today, a new, or fifth, wave of modern terrorist groups has hit the world as products of, and challenges to, key ideas associated with globalisation, thereby giving terrorism a transnational character. Today’s transnational terrorism is seen to operate in many states, utilising the ‘shadow globalisation’ flows of people, weapons and information to further their cause.

Why it spread?

The causes behind this new type of terrorism reflect the deepening of human interconnectedness worldwide. For example, one of the terrorist groups of this ‘fifth wave’ was Al-Qaeda whose initial success was because it operated a global technology, mythology and ideology. Combined with the franchise-like nature of the outfit, it was able to claim responsibility for attacks all over the world by financially, logistically and materially assisting the smaller groups that aligned themselves with Al-Qaeda. Such affiliations were possible because Al-Qaeda promoted a global ideology that linked local causes together via an image of world politics that presented Muslims worldwide as victims of Western oppression. Today’s terrorism is, therefore, transnational in cause, operation and effect.

Why people join terrorist groups?

Researches show that individuals join terrorist groups for a variety of personal and political reasons. They may join because of a feeling that this will bring benefits for them. For example, the Islamic State (a.k.a. Daesh, ISIS and ISIL) seeks to establish a new, theologically-driven state in the Middle East. It also promises fighters from all over the world better living conditions and pay than they might achieve in their home countries. The ability to travel across borders more freely because of globalisation and the economic resources available to Islamic State in the form of oil has made it easier to join them. Individuals may also join a terrorist organisation because they strongly empathise and identify with the group even if they are not directly affected by the cause.

Motivation and goals

A key way of understanding why individuals join and remain part of transnational terrorist groups is radicalisation theory. Radicalisation, which is rightly called ‘everything that happens before the bomb goes off’, suggests that there are pathways to becoming a radical or terrorist and that it’s a dynamic, individualised process. Because of its individual nature, there is no single terrorist profile in today’s transnational world, even in particular countries. Terrorists may be female, married, old, rich, have children—or not. Attempts to profile behaviours have therefore not been successful. What radicalisation research does show is that a quest for identity and greater significance in the world together with empathy for those who are suffering makes an individual more vulnerable to terrorist messages that appear to offer solutions.

At the group level, goals are also transnational. This is best illustrated by looking at Al-Qaeda and Islamic State. These groups utilise a global religious language to create an understanding of global politics that divides the world in two. On one side is the world of Islam—a place of goodness, where religious laws are upheld and Muslims are not oppressed. On the other side is the world of war where Muslims are oppressed by tyrannical leaders.

These outfits attract Muslims by asserting that they all are connected with each other as Ummah and all Muslims should join them in their fight against the ‘Oppressors’, regardless of where they live. They also argue that because the ‘Oppressors’ are everywhere and attack Muslims everywhere, their cause and fight is global. They refer to the ‘near enemy’ (local governments) and the ‘far enemy’ (governments of global powers) as possible aggressors against whom a member of their organisation might fight. This enables them to tap into local political grievances and give them a global religious veneer, or to highlight global incidents and claim that they are related to their local cause. What is notable is the degree to which such an understanding of the world replicates (or is replicated by) some Western governments’ thinking that also sees the world as ‘either with us or against us’.


Transnational terrorism activities are sometimes designed to provoke states into action as well as generate fear in populations. Attacks are frequently symbolic in purpose and often have a high casualty rate for maximum shock value. It was inconceivable, for example, that the United States would not respond to the 9/11 attacks or that France would not react to the Paris attacks. Here, attacks are designed to provoke states into doing something to prove they are protecting civilians, even when that action may undermine the values they live by or end up being so costly that popular support for government is eroded. This strategy was first formulated by Che Guevara, a leader of revolutionary communist movements in Cuba against the American-sponsored authoritarian Batista government. The approach is known as ‘focoist’ (or focoism), whereby terrorists imagine themselves as the ‘vanguard’ of popular revolutions.

Secondly, terrorist groups expect that, in time, ever greater numbers will realise they are oppressed and join resistance groups or that, with sufficient coverage, the international community will come to support their cause. This will reduce the influence of a global power. Here, we can point to the 9/11 attacks and the many years of terrorism that followed as bait to lure the United States into engagement in the Middle East as a means of undermining their political and economic stability. By this logic, first Al-Qaeda and later the Islamic State group pursue strategies that aim to grind down the global power and image of the United States so that it may no longer be willing or able to interfere in Muslim lands.

In the past, countries have managed to resist reacting to these sorts of violent action by terrorists. Consider Italy’s reaction to the assassination and kidnapping of the popular prime minister Aldo Moro by the socialist Red Brigades: during the investigation of Moro’s kidnapping, General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa reportedly responded to a member of the security services who suggested torturing a suspected Brigade member, ‘Italy can survive the loss of Aldo Moro. It would not survive the introduction of torture’.

Finally, terrorist violence is to recruit members and reinforce loyalty and membership among existing supporters. Extremely violent or highly technical attacks demonstrate the capability and will of the group carrying out the attack and its overall support. We see support for Islamic State coming from citizens in nations of every region because their attacks are dramatic and spectacular, which raises the profile of the group and demonstrates their military mastery. Islamic State group videos and propaganda frequently assert the weakness of the opposition as demonstrated by their deaths.

Transnational terrorism in international relations

Essential features of transnational terrorism ensure its importance within international relations because it represents a whole new security concern for states: the risk of attack doesn’t just come from other states (war) but from mobile criminal groups that move between states and are dispersed globally (transnational terrorism).

Antidotal responses

States perceive this new wave of terrorism threatening to their capacity, legitimacy and autonomy, in all, sovereignty, within a particular jurisdiction. This all-encompassing threat has led to a range of responses which included the creation of new criminal offences, broadened legal definitions of terrorism, the granting of greater powers of detention and arrest, as well as improving funding for counterterrorism agencies.

a. Inter-State cooperation

In the light of the transnational elements, states have sought closer cross-border cooperation between government agencies, most notably in policing and intelligence, in order to prevent the spread of terrorism.

b. Anti-radicalisation, soft measures

States have also reacted to the new threats by seeking to prevent or disrupt the emergence of ideas that might support terrorist violence through anti-radicalisation initiatives. These are sometimes referred to as ‘soft measures’. Overseas, these include supporting development goals of other countries to facilitate their stabilisation and the production of moderate voices in politics. Within domestic jurisdictions, ‘soft’ counter-extremism policies include placing greater emphasis on challenging particular extreme ideas in schools and universities, monitoring citizens for signs of radicalisation and making illegal the ownership and distribution of material that glorifies violence. These forms of intervention bring the state more directly into contact with the everyday lives of citizens.

c. No use of force

Some Western states have been tempted to intervene internationally in order to prevent the emergence of terrorist groups or minimise the efficacy of existing terrorist groups in ‘front-line’ states. Such intervention comes in the form of international aid, military advice and training, and financial and military support to governments. This has entailed the risk of supporting undemocratic governments and engaging in militarised activities in contested spaces. The use of drones by the United States in Pakistan is one instance that has given rise to considerable controversy. Such operations can actually help terrorist groups by giving them a narrative to spin their agenda around, reinforcing local fears of an aggressive Western intervention in their societies that must be opposed.


An important note to conclude on is that countering terrorism does not fall exclusively to the state: civil society and everyday acts by ordinary people also have a role. These can include examples of popular culture, inter-faith dialogue and moments of solidarity that break down the oppositional and binary world view that dominates transnational terrorist ideology. Nevertheless, terrorist groups are products of their time and, just like us, live in a globalised world. They are both shaped by globalisation and contribute to it through their actions.

Excerpted from International Relations
edited by Stephen McGlinchey

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