Assessing the Evolving Threat of Terrorism

The ‘war on terror’ has focused exclusively on transnational terrorism since the hijackings of 9/11. Based on almost 40 years of data, this article shows that domestic terrorism poses a much greater threat to the world community. Thus, this focus needs to be reconsidered, especially because recent research shows that domestic terrorism spills over into transnational terrorism. This article also argues that homeland security and the dominance of religious fundamentalist terrorists are making the hardest-to-defend targets – private parties – the target of choice since 1999. Moreover, terrorists are increasingly favoring attacking people over property. Even though terrorism murders relatively few people, it poses a supreme collective action problem for the world community.

For transnational terrorism, the need for proactive measures raises a collective action problem because prime-target nations are more likely to act, with other nations taking a free ride against a common terrorist threat. With the spillover of domestic terrorism into transnational terrorism, there is also a collective action problem arising with respect to the fight against domestic terrorism.
For all target types, there is an increased targeting of people over property, which makes defensive homeland security measures more challenging. As defensive action becomes more difficult and costly, more resources must be put into proactive measures that dismantle terrorist groups and their infrastructure.
The changing targeting of transnational and domestic terrorists has made public places – shopping malls, department stores, public squares and public transport – likely attack venues. For domestic terrorism, private parties have been the prime target since 1981. Targeting differences between domestic and transnational terrorism can inform the allocation of homeland security resources.
For transnational terrorism, enhanced defensive counterterrorism precautions and the increasing dominance of religious fundamentalist terrorists have made the hardest-to-defend targets – private parties – the terrorists’ target of choice since 1999.
The war on terror needs to focus on more than just transnational terrorism, because domestic terrorism poses a greater threat in terms of lives and property loss than transnational terrorism. This is also true because domestic terrorism tends to spill over into transnational terrorism as local terrorists seek greater world recognition.
Policy makers must keep the risks and consequences in mind and not overspend on defensive efforts that attempt to shift potential terrorist attacks abroad.