MIT Security Studies Program Seminar

The New Terrorism

Col. Russ Howard
United States Military Academy

March 9, 2005


Col. Howard began his talk by referring to two articles that he published on terrorism in 1999. In these articles, he proposed the following:

  1. It will take a catastrophic event for the United States to rethink its national security policy, specifically NSA '46
  2. The United States needs a Department of Homeland Security
  3. The United States should adopt a doctrine of pre-emption to fight non-state actors.

For the remainder of his talk, Col. Howard identified the seven fundamental changes associated with the advent of terrorism.

Number 1: America is at risk

Prior to September 11th, the last time the United States was attacked by a foreign national was in 1814, when the British attacked Washington , D.C. In the past, the US was not concerned about being a target of attack. 9/11 was a life-changing event because it demonstrated that the US is at risk.

Number 2: More violent

In the past, terrorists wanted a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead. Terrorists aimed to change the political structure. Today, however, terrorists do not want to change the political structure or a mass audience. Rather, they want a lot of people dead. On the macro-level, we know this is the case because of the events of September 11th. We also know this because Special Forces in Afghanistan have seized terrorists' laptops, training exercises, and training manuals. In essence, increased violence is their method of operation.

Number 3: Truly global

Terrorists of today are truly global, transnational, non-state actors. Arrested members of Al Qaeda, for example, are citizens from 49 different states, including the United States . The largest Hamas cell in the Western hemisphere is located in Toronto . In the past, state sponsored terrorist groups were sub-state actors and operated in a small area. Today, two or three terrorist organizations exist with global reach. The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) established the way states interact with each other—diplomacy, economics, and military. In confronting terrorist groups, how does the Treaty of Westphalia apply? Whom do you retaliate against?

Number 4: Terrorists today are better financed

In the past, terrorist groups were state sponsored, but underfinanced. As a result, they had to take hostages, rob banks, etc. This raised the profile of such groups, which became a law enforcement opportunity. In other words, in trying to maintain fiscal solvency, these groups undercut themselves. Today's terrorist groups are better financed. Al Qaeda does not need to rob banks. Bin Laden has an estimated 30-50 million dollar inheritance. Al Qaeda groups have been very effective at penetrating philanthropic organizations. Since September 11th, to prevent the seizure of their assets, such groups have moved their finances to the commodity markets.

Number 5: Better trained

In the past, terrorists were poorly trained. In contrast, Al Qaeda is very well trained. For example, they do not use an analogue phone twice, and use a messenger to communicate very important information. Today's terrorists are not just trained in the military art, but the "black arts." The training camps in Sudan and Afghanistan were a rite of passage.

Number 6: Difficult to penetrate

In the past, terrorist groups were penetrable with drugs, sex and money. There is no evidence that the 19 perpetrators of 9/11 terrorist attacks were ever engaged in sexual activity while in the US . The old methods of penetration will not work with today's terrorist groups. Al Qaeda has a sophisticated cellular structure, which is very redundant. Al Qaeda has different types of cells for operations, intelligence, etc.

Number 7: Weapons are weapons of mass destruction

In the past, terrorist weapons of concern were small arms, plastic explosives, RPGs, and an occasional anti-aircraft missile. Today, we are concerned about weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Today's terrorist groups want WMDs, and they probably already possess components of chemical weapons. The threat environment is very different.

Finally, Col. Howard expressed concern that the American public does not understand "the new terrorism." The motivation in American culture is for the well being of the individual: we want every soldier to have a chance at survival, no matter the mission. It therefore is difficult for Americans to comprehend suicide bombing. Until the US understands this motivation and addresses it at an earlier age, it will be very difficult for the US to prevail in its war on terror.


Col. Russ Howard, USA , is Professor and Head of the Department of Social Sciences at United States Military Academy , West Point . Formerly, Col. Howard was the Commander of the 1 st Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Lewis , Washington . Other assignments included Assistant to the Special Representative to the Secretary General during UNOSOM II in Somalia , Deputy Chief of Staff for I Corps, and Chief of Staff and Deputy Commander for the Combined Joint Task Force, Haiti/Haitian Advisory Group. He is co-editor of Homeland Security and Terrorism: Readings and Interpretations from the McGraw-Hill Homeland Security Series (2005).

Rapporteur: Kelly Grieco

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