What will the next wave of terrorism entail? It is very likely to look like something we’ve never seen before, but also something we have. It will have no leaders, and will have no structure. How far away is it? In some ways, it’s already here.
“History does not repeat but it rhymes”
In 2019, Claire Berlinski published (Berlinski) an article highlighting the correlation between the Nihilist movements of Czarist Russia, and the increasing prevalence of lone wolf mass shootings. During the nihilist revolutions, there was a deep-seated, collective animosity boiling under the surface. It was directed at the power structure that formed the oppressive Czarist government, which ruled of Russia. This bitterness manifested itself in the form of various loosely connected revolutionary groups, which were misanthropic in nature and lashed out violently at power structures in order to create chaos and inspire political change.
One particular writer that Berlinski cites is Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky, a middle-class man, lived through the period of the Russian nihilist revolutions of the mid-1800s. While having minor connections to some radical figures, he came to despise these (and similar) movements, progressively becoming more and more critical of their moral failings. As he aged, Dostoevsky published a number of cynical critiques directed toward these so-called “revolutionaries” within Russia, penning novels such as “Notes from the Underground” and “Demons.” In them he would describe these sorts of individuals as the opposite of the saintly and divine “God-man;” but rather as, what the Nihilist Krillov referred to, the “man-god”, or “self-willed-man” (Midgley 68). According to Krillov, “suicide (and murder) was the highest value for the self-willed man… for those men who had suddenly lost their roots, as though the ground were giving way under everyone’s feet.”
These sorts of individuals lashed out towards society in seemingly random violent acts that were rooted in hopeless despair and hatred toward humanity. Sounds familiar?
What will it look like, and how will it be different?
While there are over 100 scholarly and academic definitions, with slight variations, of the word terrorism , an approximate universal characterization outlined by David Hoffman is that it is:
- Ineluctably political in aims and motives;
- Violent or, of equal importance, threatens violence;
- Designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions beyond the immediate victim or target;
- Conducted by an organization with an identifiable chain of command or conspiratorial cell structure (whose members wear no uniform or identifying insignia); and
- Perpetrated by a subnational group or non-state entity” (Hoffman)
The primary issue with this, and many other definitions of terrorism , is that it relies on viewing terrorist organizations as containing some sort of leadership mantle, or at the very least involving some type of cell structure. This is the primary difference that Manifesto terrorism will have from previous forms of terrorism : Instead of requiring cells, a hierarchy, or even an organization to function, terrorist attacks would only require a manifesto circulated through radicalized internet fora to incentivize lone wolf attacks.
These manifestos would exist and thrive through collective consensus and attitudes, with the weaker ideas dying off and the strongest surviving within their respective ecosystems, representing a sort of ideological Darwinism in the same way that memes become popular. As these manifestos and prospective ideologies develop, cultures and rituals may emerge (think about how some incel communities martyrize Elliot Rodger, or how those within fringe fora talk about their number of victims in terms of “scores” [Wells])..
The first major change that would occur is that terrorist “groups” as we know them will not exist in the same way (though those that meet Hoffman’s definition will still likely continue to exist in tandem). If a stream of ideologically driven attacks only requires a manifesto to exist, there will be no leaders or cell structure to target. It is certainly true that this concept is taken out of the playbook of John Robb’s “open source warfare” (Robb); but the primary difference here is that in this instance lone-wolf attacks require no “propaganda divisions” like that which ISIS has utilized in the past to disseminate radicalizing or inciteful messages. Not only would this mean that there will be no specific hard or soft targets to neutralize, but the propaganda circulating through radicalized fora and social media groups will be constantly shifting and evolving due to internal and external circumstances and attitudes.
The second main difference is that the threshold for entrance and participation will be next to nothing. Historically, terrorist groups have shown recruiting preference to educated, middle- or upper-class individuals due to the fact that they were generally seen by organizational heads to be more capable and therefore more likely to successfully execute an attack (Benmelech). Allowing less educated, hot-headed, or incompetent recruits to enter the organization would risk its survivability. This is something that sophisticated organizations like Hezbollah have been known to actively avoid.
In respect to Manifesto terrorism , this would no longer be the case. There will be no organization to reign over members, and there will be no threshold for participation. All you will have to do is to have enough emotional investment in the manifesto(s) provided to be a willing participant. This means that the recruitment pool for potential terrorists will be far larger than any previous time in history and will manage itself with zero external input. There will be no limits to how extreme the participant’s behavior may be and who is targeted because there is no organization, and thus no organizational cost-benefit ratio to consider.
The third difference regarding Manifesto terrorism will involve how state-sponsored terrorism will function. Currently, and in the past, terrorist groups have received material support and training from nation-states (Feltman) to augment their operational capability. More often than not, this support comes along with the implicit or explicit expectations that the terror group would aid their benefactors in the pursuit of their interests; allowing their sponsor some level of leverage, and by proxy, control over the terrorist group and its behavior.
In the case of Manifesto terrorism , organizational influence of this form would be impossible, as there would be no tangible group to support. Rather, it will likely take the form of introducing propaganda into the operational environment (e.g. internet fora and groups) which would radicalize, inform and influence the membership in a way that is beneficial to the nation-state. In Manifesto terrorism , rather than the group knowing that it is being supported and influenced, the information being introduced will likely come from sources in the guise of other members. Additionally, nation-states will likely attempt to identify and profile subjects within the operational environment who are particularly open to suggestions and engage in targeted campaigns to influence them into taking a particular set of actions. As the Cambridge Analytica scandal has demonstrated (Staff), this is well within the capabilities of nation-states at this time; at both a collective and individual level.
When will it happen?
It is very likely that we are already in the embryonic stages of Manifesto terrorism , and have not yet realized it. Books like The Turner Diaries and Hunter already see widespread circulation among fringe, white supremacist fora and have inspired a number of attacks. The Christchurch shooter, El Paso Shooter and Chabad of Poway shooters frequented and posted on the fora in which this literature was shared (Stewart). The Christchurch shooter even went as far as to reference the number “14” (a number in reference to a 14-word phrase popularized by The Turner Diaries) by writing it on the weapon he was using (Inskeep).
The manifestos that inspire these acts may not even necessarily be limited to literature. Prior to the opening weekend of the Joker movie, both the FBI and DHS released a bulletin (McBride) warning of attacks inspired by the film mentioned in online chatter within “clowncel” fora (a bizarre subset of incels obsessed with all things “clown”-related).
Suffice to say, Manifesto terrorism will not be limited to a single type of ideology. It could be simultaneously conducted by leftists, those on the right, or individuals invested in any other sort of belief system. These ideologies may be competing, and sometimes may even stand in direct opposition to each other. The common thread they will share, however, is a collective contempt for human existence and a canonization of the act of suicide and murder.
The question of when Manifesto terrorism will come is not what should be asked, as it is very likely that it is already here — and here to stay. The question that should be asked instead is how it can be contained and what will happen if the ambitions of its participants exceed the capabilities of the state and its allies.
Editor’s note: This article was written by John Rune. John is currently finishing up his bachelor’s degree in Political Science at Portland State University and seeks to pursue a PhD in fields related to National Security.