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Dr. Dalal Mahmoud, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Faculty of Economics and Political Science, Cairo University


Terrorism per se is a labyrinthine and intricate phenomenon in which ideological, social, political and security dimensions come into interplay. Given its complex nature, terrorism is defined differently in many cultures and disciplines. Based on the common characteristics of the existing definitions, terrorism can be defined as "any act in which violence or the threat of violence is used by an individual or a group for political, ideological or other reasons, and directed against persons, locations or public property in the target country. It should be noted that a terrorist act is organized and planned, purposely to create a state of terror, panic and intimidation at a specific segment of people to achieve a goal by force or to spread propaganda for something, whether such a perpetrator operates for himself or herself or by proxy in cahoots with an organization, or hand in glove with a specific country linked directly or indirectly with the terrorist act committed or the perpetrator". 

The term terrorism went into circulation by the end of the eighteenth century. History shows that terrorism dates back to more than what publications reveal; terrorism operates as a continuous activity that has snowballed into different stages of metamorphosis, running through the ideological level and the dynamic level, as well. As such, attention is principally attached to the dynamic development drummed up by terrorism in various stages and is glaringly reflected in the appalling atrocities of currently active terrorist organizations.

The terrorist acts committed by the terrorist organizations rampant in the Arab and Islamic world could have originated by the global jihadist movement in Afghanistan since the 1970s. As a matter of fact, in the wake of the bombing of the World Trade Towers in the United States known as the 9/11 Attacks 2001, Al-Qaeda has led the most dynamic development of terrorist organizations by carrying out cross-border terrorism. With Daesh (ISIL) mushrooming ubiquitously, a new phase of terrorism came to existence.


Prior to 2011, the traditional goal of terrorist action was to exercise influence on the government and political decision-makers as to adopt a specific policy. Telling examples include terrorist attacks that targeted tourism in Egypt in the 1990s. It can also be argued that the purpose of the 9/11 Attacks was to impact the US policy in such a fashion as to make the attitude of the US administration tolerant and lax about certain issues. Following 2011, however, the goal veered off the conventionalized track and became more focused on overthrowing government and seizing power. To this end, Daesh (ISIL) has highlighted and manifested such development by controlling and seizing large swaths of the territory of Iraq and Syria, annexing them to be the territory of the Caliphate State. 

It can be noted that a whole host of factors have contributed to the metamorphosis of the goals of terrorist groups; the most critically notorious party factored in making terrorist groups expand is the countries sponsoring and supporting such organizations to instrumentalize them as puppets to achieve their political interests. On the one hand, the symbiotic interrelation made such organizations that cherish political aspirations go beyond the scope of influencing decision makers. On the other hand, such organizations become active in fragile states and thrive when the government grip on the central state becomes loose.

The spread of terrorism

With the shift of terrorism from a local phenomenon to a global one, terrorist organizations soared 180% between 2001 and 2018, as reported by a number of global estimates. Currently, it is estimated that there are about 67 to 100 organizations operating on the ground across various zones. Sadly, the scope of terrorist attacks has grown increasingly wider and has gone cross-border, targeting swathes of territory that are not relevant to the organization, such as the attacks carried out in a number of European countries in response to their engagement in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. More importantly, the number of countries targeted by terrorist attacks has also increased from 42 countries in 2016 to 47 countries in 2017. Global estimates indicate that there were 75.163 terrorist attacks observed around the world between 2011 and 2018.

Structure of Organization 

Traditionally, the organizational structure of terrorist organizations was glaringly hierarchical in nature, based on centralized decision-making. By time, it snowballed into a cluster-like structure of active cells operating in a relatively decentralized manner. Over the course of time, the organizational nature of terrorist groups and organizations (ISIL and Al-Qaeda) were transformed into a network-like cluster by the various branches spread all over the world. Such organizations rely on communications and operations through a core network to plan and organize all operations, recruitment of members and financial transfers; Al-Qaeda exists in 18 countries, while ISIL is active in various degrees in about 26 countries.

Plans of Terrorist Acts

•    Recruitment: initially recruitment was processed through direct contact between members of an organization and potential individuals ready for allegiance and affiliation, after they are put into a series of acid tests and indoctrination similar to brainwashing. However, recruitment has gone through a remarkable development; it is processed through different remote communication means or through in-between agents. Daesh (ISIL) has successfully achieved such recruitment and has recruited members of different nationalities and different cultures, using various means of propaganda and psychological influence. As reported by the UNICEF, about 200 children are recruited every month in some African regions where terrorism is infamously rampant.
•    Territorial Claims: as the goals of terrorist attacks develop and become more complicated, new plans have emerged with the establishment of emirates mirroring much of statehood. Therefore, terrorism in such a stage characteristically depended on excessive violence, the destructive power of booby-trapped vehicles and the use of heavy weapons in some operations. More critically, the qualitative bubble gained prominence when terrorist organizations began using sophisticated weapons, such as drones, surveillance techniques, in addition to updating light weapons to increase their destructive capabilities and enhancing degrees of pinpoint precision, while reducing the cost of production of these weapons to increase their proliferation as evidenced by Al-Qaeda and ISIL.
•    Advanced Technology: terrorist organizations have extensively employed cyberspace and advanced communications technology; they have taken advantage of various social media to broadcast their ideologies and operations and showcase their capabilities and flex their muscles. The major terrorist organizations formed wide propaganda networks through electronic magazines, video snippets and audio clips as evidenced by the reports of the National Security Agency and the CIA.


Traditional contributions and donations by members of terrorist organizations have made up the main resources; however, terrorist organizations have currently diverse financial resources and huge budgets. For example, the UN estimated Daesh (ISIL) budget at $300 million in the wake of its defeat. These sources include the sale of under-control resources: the sale of oil accounted for 88% of Daesh (ISIL) resources between 2015 and 2017, in addition to taxes and confiscation of property.

As terrorism expands and mushrooms widely and more impactfully, terrorist organizations are now more into diversifying the sources of their revenues; they rely on traditional means to receive funds directly, or with financial transfers from the members or sponsors of such a terrorist organization. Some terrorist groups are supported by some wealthy people and some countries, and the revenues accruing from donations amount to at least $40 million. Terrorist organizations have gone to great lengths by providing alternative sources to evade security prosecutions. One of their most notorious ways to finance their operations is revenues accruing from selling oil and gas, as revenues from the sale of crude oil and derivatives in territory claimed by Daesh (ISIL) were estimated at about a million dollars a day since June 2014. This means that Daesh (ISIL) revenues ranged from 365 million to 550 million dollars in Iraq and the Levant per year. This is linked to unlawful economic activities to obtain more revenues or illicit commercial transactions of commodities, such as coal, diamonds and gold, and the use of digital currencies or cryptocurrencies that have become sources of terrorist financing to facilitate the concealment of the identities of their dealers. Daesh (ISIL) is one of the most terrorist organizations that use digital currencies or cryptocurrencies. In this regard, one of Daesh’s (ISIL) supporters issued a document entitled “Bitcoin and charity of jihad” in which he outlined the legal provisions for the use of “Bitcoin”, emphasizing the need to use it to finance the associated activities. It was adopted to finance operations in Asia (Sri Lanka and the Philippines) over the recent five years or so.

As more efforts are made to successfully control and track the transfers of funds to terrorist organizations, monitoring accounts and suspicious banking operations, terrorist organizations have increased their various criminal activities. In its 2017 report, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that non-governmental armed groups raised about $150 million in 2016 from illicit drug trafficking.

International reports indicate that terrorist organizations are linked to international criminal gangs as an additional source of funding, especially in human trafficking and arms trafficking as evidenced in eastern and western Libya in 2011.


The dynamic development of terrorist organizations can be sustained and increased to be more violent and hence threaten the stability of states. It should be well noted that clamping down on the dynamic development of such terrorist organizations heavily depends on several factors. To this end, the most important method is serious collective efforts in the fight against terrorism. Simply put, it stands to reason that if terrorism is cross-border, counterterrorism must necessarily be cross-border as well. This also applies to the countries prone to terrorism redux as it can nest and sprout up again here and there. Admittedly, it is not expected that such all-out efforts will pay off in fighting terrorism more relentlessly, while at the same time some countries instrumentalize terrorist organizations to achieve their political goals and buy off the world. If a serious and decisive stance is not taken by the international community towards such states, terrorism will always thrive and spread across various zones.