Terrorism is a threat to us all. (Credit: AlexLMX/Bigstock)
Terrorism is a threat to us all. (Credit: AlexLMX/Bigstock) (via: bit.ly)

Terrorism can be compared to AIDS. In both instances, the major goal in the study of each consists in delivering humankind from one of the most malevolent global hazards of our time.

While AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) and its properties have been attributed a concrete and understandable medical definition, terrorism to this day has not been given a comprehensive and distinct characterisation. Terrorism has been given dozens of different labels. Even though the approaches vary, in each case terrorism is associated with attacks on civilian targets and civilians, targets that have no direct relation to an actual conflict, a military conflict, or to the direct causes of a conflict.

Let us specify at once, that this series of DOC publications on the theme of terrorism refers to Islamic terrorism, which is currently the most relevant – it is a delusion to expect its disappearance in the near future. Other terrorisms, especially left-wing separatist movements, can be characterised as local, limited in time and space, and do not represent the same global menace as does Islamic terrorism.

Islamic terrorism is the sole phenomenon that has officially raised a reaction internationally, articulated as such by the UN in 2008. Its global antiterrorism strategy for preventing terrorism,[1] adopted on 24 December 2015, turned out to be practically ineffective.

The fact that the expert community cannot table a unified determination of Islamic terrorism is not necessarily its fault, but rather a disaster arising from one weighty, objective reason: such extensive and intense terrorism with an underlying religious motivation has never been encountered before. Usually experts do not talk about terrorism as a phenomenon, but rather about terrorists, about those perpetrating terrorist acts.

Nevertheless, while politicians agree on condemning terrorism, their attitude with regard to various terrorist groups seems somewhat ambiguous. American, Russian, and European politicians are ready to deliberate and even cooperate with certain terrorist groups and their affiliates, whereas they consider certain other organisations as criminal. This is supported by the connection between the US, the Syrian Jabhat al-Nusra, and factions of the Taliban movement; between Russia and the Palestinian Hamas (previously the USSR and the Palestinian Liberation Organization); between Russia and the Muslim Brotherhood, when Mohamed Morsi, as a member of this organisation, was Egypt’s president from 2012 to 2013; and between Chechen separatists and certain Arab countries. Consequently, defining a ‘terrorist’, and subsequently ‘terrorism’, is a subjective and cyclical effort. Such a situation results in a blurred notion of terrorism. As a result, certain politicians can define terrorists and terrorism’s accomplices as informally legitimate.

Terrorism is ‘embedded’ in one of the cardinal and most practiced tendencies of the Muslim world – Islamism. Islamism, also known as ‘political Islam’, is a religious, politico-ideological movement for the realisation of the Islamic alternative, i.e., a model of society and government based on Islam. The likelihood of such a nation is close to nil, just as that of any model based on a religious concept and/or national exclusiveness.

We could continually confer about the utopic nature of the Islamic alternative, but it is present in the consciousness of the Muslim community, as is the belief in its realisation. This can be illustrated by two episodes. The first is that the ‘Islamic Project’ has been in existence from the time of Prophet Mohammed, who, in the seventh-century Arabian Madina, established the Islamic proto-state; the second is that the implementation in the Muslim world of Western and Soviet models and national development plans, which brought economic and political crisis, proved unviable – they became the basic catalyst of government coups d’état, revolutions that were finally crowned the ‘Arab Spring’ during the second decade of the twenty-first century. Hence, the Islamic alternative only gained greater popularity among a substantial number of Muslims, representing the optimal solution to issues faced by the Muslim community.

In terms of the methods for reaching this major goal, the approaches of Muslims can be classified according to three main categories. The first of these operate within the framework of the law and avoid conflicts with the government. This category of Islamists is not determined to force events and strives towards its goals in phases, without necessarily setting strict timeframes. Ekaterina Stepanova, a specialist on terrorism, designates this category very appropriately as ‘Legalist Islamism (Stepanova, 2010, p. 107).

The second category includes those who are more active, inclined towards organising massive demonstrations and working with the Muslim ‘street’, and are not intimidated by the law. This group expects to fast-track the Islamic alternative, the Islamisation of government and society. However, these Islamists have limited patience and are willing to compromise with their opponents.

The third category consists of extremists who will resort to any possible means to accomplish their goals, including armed forms of combat, regardless of the potential victims. Their slogan is ‘the Islamic State is here and now,’ and by any means. Terrorists operate within this framework. The terms extremism and terrorism are practically interchangeable in the media and in politicians’ statements. However, the terms do differ.

Not all extremists are ready to inflict terrorist methods on a defenceless population, and not all extremists will demonstrate their cruelty on TV. The major targets of terrorists are military personnel, the armed enemy. Extremists play by the ‘rules of war’. The individual, the ruthless ‘common jihadist’ who takes part in warfare, does however have a certain code of conduct and moral restraints.

The terrorist does not.

Terrorism can be regarded as the last resort of extremists, who see no other means for realising their goals. Terrorism in such a context exposes the weakness of Islamists, which they are prepared to offset with merciless barbarism, taking revenge and punishing their enemies, including the West, Christians, and ‘traitors to Islam’ within the ranks of the Muslim world.

The paradox consists of the fact that the ‘extreme measures’ of terrorism discredit the Islamists who defend the notion of an Islamic state, perhaps in the eyes of other Muslims as well. Islamists are engaged in a constructive effort – the construction of their own nation, with its own institutions and structures. Furthermore, they dream of a kind of legitimation, of recognition as a faction that can be a party to a dialogue.

Terrorism has no creative ambitions. The major concern of terrorists is self-actualisation and retaliation against the entire world, expressed through vengeance on individuals who do not have any direct affiliation with the conflict. It is a vengeance against all that is foreign, a punishment of strangers for the sole reason that they are strangers. In a certain manner, the actions of terrorists can be labelled as a ‘civilisational vengeance’.

Terrorism is irrational. It is meaningless; it leads nowhere. Terrorists live in their own world and operate based on their own reasoning. They are compelled essentially by their own high emotionality. This can be applied not only to rank-and-file shahids, but also to organisers of terrorist acts, including Osama bin Laden. One must be under high psychological pressure in order to conceive terrorist acts such as 9/11, taking children as hostages in Beslan (2004), or the mass killings in Moscow and Dubrovka (2002) and in Paris (2015). According to Mark Urnov, a well-known Russian researcher, ‘Such an emotional phenomenon as frame of mind, as disposition, is a poorly recognized factor – if left unmonitored, it can imperceptibly impact on the political behaviour of individuals or groups and can lead to unpredictable consequences’ (Urnov, 2007, p. 7).

In the last few years, terrorist acts have been carried out in various parts of the world by people with an unstable psyche. Examples include the assassination of a French priest in 2016 or the nightmarish incident in the same year in Moscow when an Uzbek governess decapitated a young child left in her charge. These incidents can be considered as terrorists acts, as banditry, but also as medical conditions. However, a religious motivation was revealed in the behaviour of the perpetrators – neurotically afflicted individuals whose acts were complemented by shouting Islamic slogans.

According to Mark A. Gabriel, an Egyptian-born Islamist who served as the Imam (spiritual leader) of a mosque in Giza (a suburb of Cairo), became a professor at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and subsequently returned to Christianity: ‘People in the West have a hard time understanding terrorists. They wonder, “Are they just all crazy?” I can assure you, these people are not lunatics. Nor are they psychopaths….No, they are following a philosophy, and once you understand this philosophy, none of their actions will surprise you’ (Gabriel, 2002, p. 24).

It is impossible to fully agree or disagree with this statement. It is difficult to envisage the make-up of a terrorist willing to die for the sake of attaining their objectives. Essentially, a terrorist is a sincere religious fanatic, but also someone ready to take revenge for their failed life, a person systematically subjected to psychological manipulation (including narcotics), or someone who is simply crazy. Let us not forget the financial aspect – the fact that the preparation and execution of a terrorist act, especially a large-scale one, requires some financial resources. It is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to determine the exact amounts. According to various sources, the cost of the 9/11 attack was estimated at about $200,000; the bombing of the USS Cole destroyer in 2000 (considered as practice for 9/11) at $10,000; the hostage-taking in Beslan in 2004 at $1,000, which was paid to the local policemen for driving in a prohibited sector. It is impossible to determine the cost of the acts in the Paris, London, and Moscow subways.

In spite of the incredible variety of possible reasons for a terrorist attack, the major one can be described as the sincere, fanatic faith of the executor in the righteousness of their act. Otherwise, terrorism would simply be considered as a purely criminal act.

Terrorism is profoundly theatrical. Terrorists are actors. They need an audience, and they attain one by virtue of the media. Without the media, terrorism would not have such a global impact; without the Internet and television, the mass repercussions and individual fear would not be as strong.

For a long time, secret services have been trying to draw a portrait of the average terrorist, of a warrior in a terrorist movement. In 2016, the New American Foundation analysed the personal data of 3,681 fighters, ten percent of the overall number of warriors of the Islamic State. This data concerns only those who joined the conflict in Syria via Turkish borders from mid-2013 to mid-2014. In 2016, a certain ‘former jihadist’ shared this data with Sky News. And what was the result? ‘The average Islamic State terrorist is a single male, with a rudimentary religious education, without ever having held a weapon prior to joining the IS’ (see Table 1 below).

Table 1: Data on fighters joining Islamic State in Syria, 2013–2014

Marital StatusPercentage of fighters
            Married with children23%
            Unskilled industrial workers32%
            Students/unskilled workers28%
            Unemployed peasants18%
            University diploma13%
            Incomplete higher education10%
            Secondary education32%
Religious Education*


*20% did not indicate their educational level

Source: Data taken from Korostikov & Tumanov, 21 July 2016.

During a roundtable discussion in Astana in 2016, Ikbaldjdan Mirsaitov – an analyst for Search of Common Interests, a non-governmental organization based in Kirgizia – recounted that women and young people in his country are the most susceptible to extremist propaganda, because they feel rejected. Single women are particularly vulnerable, and single mothers are ready and willing to join IS (indeed, ‘sex jihad’ has surfaced as a new term).[2]6 Warriors’ wives can also be mentioned, as they are known for having taken part in several acts in Russia.

Specialists from Kazakhstan have determined that the average age of a terrorist fluctuates between 20 and 28. In Russia, terrorists are extremely varied in nature. According to information distributed by the media, a terrorist’s age fluctuates between 18 and 40. They comprise the unemployed, students, and former businessmen. In Europe, terrorists are also most often young people – this information has not changed much over the last few years. I would like to note something else, a more relevant circumstance: the fact that a successional aspect has been instituted in terrorism. While Islamic terrorism surfaced around the mid-nineties, now we are confronted with a second, perhaps even a third generation of terrorists (indeed, as President Dmitry Medvedev mentioned, a third generation of terrorists are fighting in Russia’s North Caucasus).

With regard to the religious, or rather to the religious-ideological motivation for terrorism, we should not forget the regional and local conflicts that further its advance and spread throughout the Muslim world, also implicating non-Muslim ‘Hectors’, such as the US, Europe, Russia, India, and China. The conflict initiated in the mid-1940s in the Middle East remains unsolved, with the religious factor constantly rising, especially with the inspiration of Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah.

Terrorism is nurtured globally, regionally, and locally – and all of these sectors have a constant interdependence. Take for instance the North Caucasus, where local disputes serve as a motive for terrorist acts, including enmities between families and clans, which are oftentimes interpreted by their organisers and executors as a struggle for Islam. Can these internal squabbles really be qualified as terrorism?

In many Muslim countries throughout the world, the history of terrorism is associated with the struggle for liberation from colonialism. Let us remember for instance the Sudanese Mahdist rebellion against British dominion in the 1880s, the Basmachi movement against the Soviet Union in Central Asia in the 1920s and 30s, the proclaimed jihad of the Algerian revolution of 1954–62, among many others, not to mention the Muslim separatist movements in Xinjiang, the Philippines, and Chechnya, where Muslims demanded independence and systematically resorted to terrorist methods, assaulting the civilian population. Terrorism has a certain continuity in efforts to vindicate a present struggle based on former movements opposing foreign rule.

The overall environment for terrorism remains conducive. In the early twenty-first century, it is becoming even more propitious in the Middle East, in certain African countries, in Afghanistan, and in certain parts of post-Soviet countries.

Following the creation of the Islamic State in 2006 and its proclamation of itself as the worldwide caliphate, certain experts began speaking about a new phase in the history of terrorism. This is possibly true, inasmuch as the leaders of IS have sanctioned terrorism as its official political instrument (if we agree that a form of policy actually does exist within IS). This is its distinction from al-Qaeda, which never pretended to create a nation – it exists as a network. The antagonism and rivalry between IS and al-Qaeda was seen as a possible reason for the attenuation of terrorism. However, terrorist groups always tend towards amalgamations and concurrently to dissociations. It appears that the fragmentation of terrorism is not only its weakness, but also its strength, since its amorphous structure facilitates its resistance and dissemination. A potential terrorist can always choose the movement they want to join.

Furthermore, present-day terrorism is going through a kind of atomisation, whereby individual terror arises occasionally. Fighting such phenomena is much harder than fighting structured groupings. Lone terrorists are impossible to predict.

According to the Global Terrorism Index, seven of the ten countries that suffer most from terrorism are Muslim. The leaders in this index are Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The non-Muslim countries listed are India, Nigeria, and Thailand.[3] However, terrorism in these countries is a consequence of the activities of Muslim groups, which are in turn connected with like-minded groups throughout the Muslim world.

Civil wars are also ongoing in the above-mentioned countries, whether proclaimed or veiled. Such a latent war is continually either renewing or fading in Russia’s North Caucasus (the raking of this region in the GTI has receded). Terrorism is inherent in any civil war – it is its integral part. Terrorism is essentially a consequence of internal conflicts – whether in Iraq, the Philippines, or the North Caucasus – its justification being an idealistic religious overture to Islam in the form of a jihad.

The barrier between local and international Islamic terrorism is arbitrary, if it even exists, since local movements operating on an international level seek the assistance of their Western confederates, regardless of their national affiliation. This is especially the case since Islam and other monotheisms (Christianity proclaims that ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek’) emphasise the primacy of religious affiliation over ethnos. This thesis acquires a special connotation among Islamists.

Terrorism has become a permanent factor in world politics. It is a particular ‘central power’ of Islamism, impacting the overall international environment. A former British diplomat in Afghanistan, Sherard Cowper-Coles, believes that ‘the killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011, by US Special Forces has changed everything and nothing’ (Cowper-Coles, 2012, p. 292). It is somewhat difficult to disagree.

This collection of expert comments on terrorism offers an analysis of the terrorist phenomena in four regions of the world – Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Persian Gulf, and Afghanistan. A special hazard in these areas is the cooperation of various independent terrorist organisations and groups. Notwithstanding the internal particularities of these countries, they have one common denominator – systematic, ongoing terrorist activity, the constant threat of terrorism, which is a major influence on the internal climate in these countries and regions.

Research with regard to the situation in these segments of Eurasia can elucidate not only the essence of terrorism as a phenomenon, but can also (to a certain extent) assist in foreknowledge of the unfolding situation, helping to predict the time and circumstances of new terrorist acts, and suggesting measures for their prevention.

As noted in 2003 by Gilles Kepel, a French political scientist and specialist on the Islamic and contemporary Arab world, ‘Terrorism has missed its political aim, but it continues to maintain its resilience in the face of repression and to cause havoc around the world’ (Kepel, 2004, p. 151). It appears that terrorists, unlike Islamists, did not devise any eminent strategic goals. Today’s terrorism is essentially an instrument of the extremist wing of Islamism, their ‘last chance’. Hence the validity of the second part of Kepel’s statement. The mobilisation capacity of terrorism remains high, and it will endure for an indefinitely long time.

Alexey Malashenko

Chief Researcher, Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute


Cowper-Coles, Sherard. 2012. Cables from Kabul. London: Harper Press.

Gabriel, Mark A. 2002. Islam and Terrorism. USA: FrontLine.

Kepel, Gilles. 2004. The War for Muslim Minds. Cambridge, MA/London: Belknap Press.

Korostikov, Мikhail, and Grigotiy Tumanov. 2016, July 21. Terror of Singles and Modestly-Religious. Kommersant Daily.

Stepanova. Еkaterina. 2010. Terrorism in Asymmetrical Conflict. Moscow: Scientific Books.

Urnov, Мark. 2007. Emotional Atmosphere of Society as a Subject of Political Study – Problem Statement. Moscow: National Research University, Higher School of Economics, Series WP14.

[1] The first antiterrorism document was adopted by the UN in 1963 and was entitled “Convention on Offences and Certain Other Acts Committed on Board Aircraft.”

[2] See his address at the OSCE roundtable on 29 February 2016: ‘The increased cooperation between government agencies and civil society, including [at] the international level, as an opposition and prevention of coercive extremism and radicalization leading to terrorism’.

[3] Available online at: http://reliefweb.int/report/world/global-terrorism-index-2016.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the original author(s) and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views and opinions of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, its co-founders, or its staff members.
Previous articleDmitri Trenin on International Relationships
Next articleThe Kurds: Between a dramatic past and an uncertain future
Alexey Malashenko

Chief Researcher, DOC Research Institute, RU

Prof. Malashenko graduated from Institute of Asian and African Countries, Moscow State University. He is Ph.D. in History, one of the leading experts of Islam, orientalist, political scientist.Prof. Malashenko is the author and editor of about twenty books (in Russian, English, French, and Arabic) and more than 200 articles. The latest are: • The Fight for Influence. Russia in Central Asia. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Washington DC, 2013 • Policy in Russia and Russia in Policy. Moscow, 2013 • My Islam. (Monograph) Publishing house ROSSPEN, Moscow 2010 • L'islam en Russie (Monograph). Les editions Keruss. Canada 2009. Pp. 1-280 • Ramzan Kadirov, a Russian Politician of the «Caucasian Nationality” (Monograph), Publishing House ROSSPEN. Moscow 2009 Before joining the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute he was the Chair of the “Religion, Society, and Security” Program at Carnegie Moscow Center, Professor at Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE), Professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Head of the Islamic Department at Institute of Oriental Studies RAN (Russian Academy of Sciences).