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Lesson 1-3 Types of Terrorist Incidents

The following figure provides a spectrum of terrorist incidents, from the most common to the least common.


Bombings are the most common type of terrorist act. Typically, improvised explosive devices are inexpensive and easy to make. Modern devices are smaller and harder to detect. They contain very destructive capabilities; for example, on 07 August 1998, two American embassies in Africa were bombed. The bombings claimed the lives of over 200 people, including 12 innocent American citizens, and injured over 5,000 civilians.

Terrorists can also use materials readily available to the average consumer to construct a bomb. For example, on 19 April 1995, the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, OK, was bombed, and 168 people were killed by an improvised explosive device.

In the case of the 11 September 2001 attacks, terrorists skyjacked commercial planes, laden with full fuel tanks, to fly them into buildings as guided missiles or massive flying bombs. This awakened the world to a new level of terrorist bombing efforts.

Kidnappings and Hostage-Takings

Terrorists use kidnappings and hostage-takings to establish a bargaining position and elicit publicity. Although kidnapping is one of the most difficult acts for a terrorist group to accomplish, if it is successful, it can gain terrorists money, release of jailed comrades, and publicity for an extended period of time.

Hostage-taking involves the seizure of a facility or location and the taking of hostages. Unlike a kidnapping, hostage-taking provokes a confrontation with authorities. It forces authorities to either make dramatic decisions or to comply with the terrorist’s demands. Hostage-taking is overt and designed to attract and hold media attention. The terrorists’ intended target is the audience affected by the hostage’s confinement, not the hostage himself.

Armed Attacks and Assassinations

Armed attacks include raids and ambushes. Assassinations are the killing of a selected victim, usually by bombings or small arms. Drive-by shootings are a common technique employed by loosely organized terrorist groups. Historically, terrorists have assassinated specific individuals for psychological effect.

Arsons and Firebombings

Incendiary devices are cheap and easy to hide. Arson and firebombings are easily conducted by terrorist groups that may not be as well-organized, equipped or trained as a major terrorist organization. Arsons or firebombings against utilities, hotels, government buildings or industrial centers are common tactics used by terrorists to portray an image that the ruling government is incapable of maintaining order.

Hijackings and Skyjackings

Hijacking is the seizure by force of a surface vehicle, its passengers, and/or its cargo. Skyjacking is the taking of an aircraft, which creates a mobile, hostage barricade situation. It provides terrorists with hostages from many nations and draws heavy media attention. Skyjacking also provides mobility for the terrorists to relocate the aircraft to a country that supports their cause and provides them with a human shield, making retaliation difficult.

On 11 September 2001, commercial airplanes were skyjacked but only to gain control of the aircraft. The terrorists’ intent was not to create a hostage barricade situation, but to ensure the passengers did not interfere with their desire to crash the aircraft into their intended targets.

Other Types of Terrorist Incidents

In addition to the acts of violence discussed, numerous other types of violence exist under the framework of terrorism. Terrorist groups conduct maimings against their own people as a form of punishment for security violations, defections or informing. Terrorist organizations also conduct robberies and extortion when they need to finance their acts and are without sponsorship from sympathetic nations.

Cyberterrorism is a new, increasing form of terrorism that targets computer networks. Cyberterrorism allows terrorists to conduct their operations with little or no risk to themselves. It also provides terrorists an opportunity to disrupt or destroy networks and computers. The result is interruption of key government or business-related activities. Although this type of terrorism lacks a high profile compared to other types of terrorist attacks, its impact is just as destructive.

Historically, terrorist attacks using nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) weapons have been rare. Due to the extremely high number of casualties that NBC weapons produce, NBC weapons are also referred to as weapons of mass destruction (WMD). A number of nations are involved in arms races with neighboring countries because they view the development of WMD as a key deterrent of attack by hostile neighbors. The increased development of WMD also increases the potential for terrorist groups to gain access to WMD. It is believed that in the future terrorists will have greater access to WMD because unstable nations or states may fail to safeguard their stockpiles of WMD from accidental losses, illicit sales or outright theft or seizure.

Determined terrorist groups can also gain access to WMD through covert independent research efforts or by hiring technically skilled professionals to construct them. Although an explosive nuclear device is believed beyond the scope of most terrorist groups, chemical, biological or radiological dispersion weapons that use nuclear contaminants are not.

An example of a terrorist group gaining access to WMD was tragically evident on 20 March 1995. A Japanese religious cult, Aum Shinrikyo or Supreme Truth, chemically attacked Japanese citizens in the Tokyo subway system. Use of the nerve agent Sarin resulted in 12 deaths and 5,500 hospitalizations.

In October of 2001, several letters were mailed to selected U.S. Government and media individuals. Those letters contained the biological agent anthrax. In large amounts or even small amounts widely distributed, such biological agents can be a WMD. Fear of these biological agents can create as much terrorist value as their actual employment.


David L. Heiserman, Editor

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Revised: June 06, 2015