One of the manifestations of the current escalation in terrorist attacks around the world, particularly by loosely affiliated cells and lone actors, is their revenge-driven motivation. This feature is part of what I believe should and can be considered the fifth historical wave of modern terrorism. It is based on terrorists’ guiding principles of inflicting violent retribution on their adversaries for what they perceive to be injustices against them. What makes this a significant trend is that this revenge-driven motivation applies to terrorists of all extremist ideologies, whether Islamist or white supremacist, foreign or domestic.
This trend is an extension of David C Rapoport’s “Historical Wave Theory” of modern terrorism, which consists of four historical waves, in which each wave is approximately 30-40 years in length, and is characterized by a new type of extremist ideology or warfare tactic. It begins with the “Anarchist Wave” from the 1880s through the 1920s, continues with the “Anti-Colonial Wave” from the 1920s through the 1950s, the “New Left-Wing Wave” from the 1950s through the 1970s, and the “Religiously Fundamentalist Wave” from the 1970s to the early 2000s. It is the contention of this article that the revenge wave is characterizing the current period in terrorist warfare, with loosely networked cells and lone actors playing an important role in conducting attacks in which this motive is a driving force behind them.
Unlike the earlier historical waves of terrorism, the objective of the revenge wave is not about changing how people live their everyday lives or force people to change their religious or political ideologies, but to inflict violent vengeance on their perceived adversaries. Thus, unlike each of the earlier “four waves,” which had a political or religious purpose, and which at their core, were intended to influence and change how people lived their lives or implemented new political systems, with such terrorist campaigns failing to achieve their objectives (except for the rise to political power by Iran’s Ayatollahs, Hizballah in Lebanon, and Hamas in the Gaza Strip). The one constant that is driving this wave of terrorism appears to be a vengeful anger and hatred towards one’s perceived adversaries, whether the anger or hate is based on Race, Gender, Citizenship status, Political Affiliation, or it derives from Governments and Western societies that are perceived by extremist Islamists to be oppressing Muslim societies. This hate and anger is real, and it is a major motivating factor driving revenge terrorism.
As a result of these and other factors, a new revenge-based historical wave of terrorism has become pervasive. The message of revenge is easy for terrorist radicalizers to sell to potential adherents who feel that injustice has befallen them and their communities, with the extremist groups that push for revenge appealing to their members. The principle of revenge, therefore, is being used to easily inspire adherents to strike back at any target that represents their adversaries. Revenge terrorism is also easy to execute because it does not come with the promise of the group having to actually deliver a conquered territory or financial benefits as its objectives. Revenge terrorism does provide immediate results for the terror group which uses it to claim victory every time its adherents carry out an attack on their behalf, which is then used to inspire others who seek further revenge.
Revenge is, at its very core, a form of “Targeted Violence,” which can be used to carry out an attack anywhere, anytime, and at the hands of anyone. Schools, Houses of Worship, Public Spaces, etc., are now environments that experience acts of targeted violence and revenge terrorism. While most school shootings are not necessarily considered acts of terrorism, these acts of violence are targeted for revenge against someone or some group. Because revenge terrorism does not have to be affiliated with a specific terror group, it can extend to the individual level for any number of reasons. Thus, whether revenge is driven by bullying, jealousy, perceived injustice, greed, or any other reason, it has become so pervasive that it has become a new historical wave is likely to remain a predominant form of terrorist warfare for the next few decades.
Recent examples of revenge-based terrorism include some of the following examples:
- On May 2017, a terror attack at a concert venue in Manchester, UK, killed 23 people. The attack, carried out by an ISIS supporter, is believed to have been an act of revenge, according to the bomber’s sister, for the killing of Muslim children in Syria by U.S and Coalition forces (Brunn, Holt, AOAV 2019).
- On March 15, 2019, a revenge-driven white supremacist carried out a shooting rampage at the Al Noor Mosque in Christchurch New Zealand, killing 51 people and wounding 42 others. The shooter, an Australian, identified as a White Supremacist, carried out this terror attack against the Muslim community in revenge for Islamic State-inspired terror attacks that had occurred in Europe. The shooter was reportedly influenced to take revenge by an Islamist terrorist, known as the “Lorry Attack”, which took place in Sweden and had killed five people. The “Lorry Attack” had reportedly served as a primary motivator for his revenge. As its own form of revenge attack, the “Lorry” attacker was himself driven to punish Sweden for its role in the global fight against ISIS.
- On March 20, 2019, an ISIS spokesperson, Abu Hassan Al Muhajir (since killed) issued a call for revenge for the attacks at the Al Noor Mosque. On April 21, 2019, that call for revenge took place in Sri Lanka at an Easter Sunday service, in which an ISIS influenced group killed 259 people in a series of attacks at mosques and other Muslim sites.
- In April 2019, a white supremacist in Britain was convicted and sentenced to jail for planning an attack on a mosque in revenge for the Manchester arena attack.
- On March 25, 2020, a lone terrorist affiliated with Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), who hailed from the Indian state of Kerala, was reported to have carried out an attack on a Sikh house of worship in Kabul, Afghanistan, killing 25 worshipers. A statement by the Islamic State’s (ISIS) media organ claimed the attack was “revenge for the Muslims in Kashmir” who had suffered atrocities by the Indian government.
As demonstrated by the March 2020 attack, revenge-driven attacks by extremist Islamists is expected to continue, particularly in the aftermath of the October 26, 2019 American Special Forces assassination of ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in his hideout in Syria.
To effectively counter revenge terrorism, upgraded prevention is required. The requires a coordinated effort by all those tasked with countering terrorism, ranging from intelligence analysts, first responders, law enforcement, to the academic community as well as members of the community. Such revenge-driven perpetrators, especially lone actors, tend to leak their intent or exhibit warning signs that they may be on a pathway to violence, so the first level of response must be at the community level.
In an example of how important it is not to miss such early warning signs, Rakhmat Akilov, the Swedish “Lorry Attacker”, had moved to Sweden in 2014 from Uzbekistan to seek asylum, but initially failed to gain residency. Once he lost his job, he went hiding from the police, spending his days sleeping and smoking narcotics. Akilov was a wanted man by the police for not leaving Sweden after the rejection of his asylum case. As he was progressively radicalized into Islamist extremism, he became a recruiter for ISIS and was active on extremist social media sites. Thus, he was likely known as an Islamist extremist in his local community, but somehow kept evading surveillance by the authorities. This pattern is repeated in numerous cases, where law enforcement agencies should have known about such radicalized individuals, yet they keep evading through the cracks. As a result, upgraded management of suspicious person databases needs to be implemented so that such data points can be correlated by law enforcement for preemptive arrest.
For prevention to work, several measures need to be implemented. First, a substantial level of awareness of one’s surroundings and atmospherics, baselines and anomalies, suspicious behaviors, and interactions with others. Second, prevention needs data points that are relevant to identifying a potential target. This data must be capable of delivering qualitative and quantitative measurements, such as trending over time, pattern development, and linkage with other associates, to make it possible to analyze it from multiple perspectives. Understanding crime trends and patterns in a local community’s where such potential perpetrators are active is essential, as is awareness of the conditions around one’s area of operation.
In an investigation, analysts need to identify the conditions that breed hatred, bullying, harassment, perception, tardiness, societal withdrawal, and many other characteristics and behavior-based actions can and do contribute to revenge-based acts of violence. Consider this scenario: you receive information or a tip from a secondary source, close to your operation, that shows a student or employee has made a threat about revenge against your operation or other people in your operation. How do you handle that? Without the ability to properly analyze the individual making the threat and their behavioral history, you can decide to either under-react or overreact to the threat. For example: if the individual making a threat has a documented history of hatred towards others, has disciplinary or other adverse actions against them, you could see that there may be a path to violence underway, allowing you to see the threat as credible. Thus, information is required to make a data-driven decision on courses of action to be considered in order to avoid the risk of taking potentially wrong steps in an investigation. The bottom line is this, if you can’t or aren’t measuring the problems that exist, you can’t manage them and therefore you will be mangaged by them.
My point is that without operationally-relevant data, it is difficult to make the proper investigatory decisions. A good prevention architecture is deeply rooted in data. Data on patterns generated by past attacks and the attackers’ modus operandi and targeting, is the key to developing an active prevention program. Can targeted acts of violence be prevented, in many cases, yes, but we must believe we can prevent them, we must elevate our awareness of our surroundings, and we must utilize the day to day data we observe. By thorough analysis of that data, we can build a complete picture of what is happening and take more appropriate actions. Thus, “a data-driven decision is the best countermeasure.”
Understanding the nature of the revenge-driven fifth historical wave of terrorism is therefore crucial. This is especially the case in the current corona-virus pandemic, with terrorist groups likely planning to exploit it by carrying out attacks to exacerbate civil unrest. Such understanding of the revenge-driven motivation, therefore, enables analysts to be aware of the types of perpetrators who might conduct such attacks, as well as their tactics, weaponry, and targeting. If we are to make any progress in preventing these targeted acts of violence, we must quickly learn what is happening and what the life cycle of this tactic may evolve into. For example, IEDs have been used for several decades in various forms and have evolved from military land mines to remote-controlled devices that can pierce military armor. Delivery of this device has evolved from underground burial to payload on vehicles, drones, pressure cookers, and other commercial or over the counter items we see at many retail outlets. This adversarial tactics life cycle may continue to evolve; it truly depends on how such adversaries use their imagination and their ability to innovate in their modus operandi that needs to be considered by the law enforcement communities tasked with countering them.
Jason Destein, M.S., Criminal Justice, is the owner of Securable Alternatives, LLC (https://www.securablealternatives.com/), in Pittsford, NY. He also serves as an Adjunct Faculty in the Criminal Justice distance learning program at Southern New Hampshire University, in Manchester, NH. He can be reached at: Jason@securablealternatives.com.