On New Terrorism And Yemen: A Hard Look – Analysis


Terrorism, especially “New Terrorism” is a very debatable topic in the present discourse of International Relations, Political studies and Social Science.

The term New Terrorism particularly got popular in the scholarly discourse after September the 11th attack on the World Trade Center, but it is not a new concept; atleast as far as general narrative is concerned.

Canadian news magazine “Macleans” published the “Menacing Face of New Terrorism” in 1986.1 In 2003, Dore Gold wrote mentioned “New Terrorism” as something “far more lethal than anything that has come before it…a terrorism that seeks the total collapse of its opponents”. 2

In scholarly discussion however there are a lot of different opinions about the new terrorism and the criteria which categorizes the acts of terrorism. The general arguments range from the basic difference between the motives of terrorism, pointing out that “new terrorism” is an end in itself, the motive being massive destruction, and generally based and justified on religio-social grounds, whereas old terrorism was a means to an end, generally a political end, was aimed to create as much spectacle as possible with minimum, or specific damage, and had a strict political agenda behind it.

The notion of terrorism tied and entwined with religion, specifically with Islam shares a causal relation with the 9/11 attacks.

In this backdrop, two important essays are to be reviewed in this paper, “Don’t confuse me with facts : knowledge claims and terrorism” by Michael Stohl, and “Fighting Al Qaeda in Yemen : rethinking the nature of Islamist threats and the effectiveness of US counter terrorism strategy” by Christina Hellmich.

New Terrorism and the case of Yemen

Michael Stohl in his essay, points out the lack of empirical research when it comes to studies related to terrorism. He mentions that almost eighty percent of terrorism literature is not researched, concurring with the views of Schmidt and Jongman, Ariel Merrari and Ted Gurr. This idea brings about his argument that with such less actual data, most of the scholarly articles on new terrorism is not faring well, when confronted with the data of the past 40 year of insurgent terrorism.

New Terrorism is not a new concept apparently. Martha Crenshaw mentioned, “The idea that the world confronts a “new” terrorism completely unlike the terrorism of the past has taken hold in the minds of policy makers, pundits, consultants, and academics, especially in the US. However, terrorism remains an intrinsically political rather than cultural phenomenon and, as such, the terrorism of today is not fundamentally or qualitatively “new”, but grounded in an evolving historical context. The idea of a “new” terrorism is often based on insufficient knowledge of history, as well as misinterpretations of contemporary terrorism. Such thinking is often contradictory. For example, it is not clear when the “new” terrorism began or the old ended, or which groups belong in which category.” 3

Terrorism is also categorized under certain criteria by Hoffman here,

ineluctably political in aims and motives; violent – or, equally important, 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.4

Stohl starts with the assertion that terrorism is communicatively constituted violence. His definition is “the purposeful act or threat of act to create violence to create fear and/or compliant behavior in a victim and or audience of the act or threat”. He maintains that the need to clearly distinguish between Violence as an act and Terrorism is very important. Since evidently the definition is a broad conceptual statement, which is not distinguishing between actors and non actors, it is only intended to be broad. The only act that might fall under the purview of terrorism according to Stohl is an act which needs to be violent in nature, and which needs to communicate a message. So even political murders, which will have political motives, and an act of violence might or might not have a message to be communicated. It might be a simple murder or intended to eliminate the person at question. The intent of the act or the Mens Rea is equally important to determine the act crossing the threshold to fall under Terrorism. “What distinguishes terrorism from other acts of violence, in addition to the act of violence carrying a message that is, its communicative constitution, are its instrumentality and its targets. And regardless of t he horror of the violence, whether we are examining insurgent or state terrorism, how the multiple audiences of the terror react is almost always far more important than the act itself and the instrumental victims who are the direct casualties of the act.”

So the primary motive of terrorism is communicating a message, an agenda or ideology. Terrorism itself is a means to the end, according to Stohl. He mentions an important aspect which has affected the global discourse of Terrorism, the advent of social media as a phenomenon. Terrorism has been reported by the radio for the past hundred years and the television for the past sixty years. The advent of social media, and the internet, a medium which has all the three formats, the audio, visual and print at the same place, changed the whole playing field.

Stohl goes on to argue, citing tables from 1968 to 1994 that the resulting deaths from terrorism were highest during the 1960s and 1970s, if we don’t obviously take the 9/11 to account. This ofcourse blows to the wind the assertion that “new terrorism” is more lethal and deadly when it comes to the number of casualties. Stohl’s research takes note from the original start of the “War on terror” rhetoric, with the joint address to the Congress by President George W. Bush on 20th September 2001. Stohl writes, “ However, note that even while expressing the underlying tenet of the new terrorism thesis, namely, their lethality, Mr Bush actually makes reference to the terrorist’s use of violence to communicate what the terrorists want, as well as their intention to punish, to coerce and to intimidate ‘ us ’ to get what they want. Much of this latter communicative message was lost in both the media coverage and the subsequent discussion of the war on terror. “

Another interesting side note of this essay deals with the misinformation when it comes to dealing with Terrorism. In an apparent bid to show success in the global war against terror, the numbers of active insurgents, and terrorists were apparently massively inflated. In simultaneous contemporary media narrative Al Qaeda is portrayed as a “brand”, an identity, far more competent and deadly than it actually is, an umbrella for the “trademark” global Salafi Jihad, like a “venture capitalist fund”.

Stohl concludes with the assertion that the continuous narrative of New Terrorism, maintained under both the Bush and the Obama administration, was bought by the American public, and got etched in their mindset, even though the empirical data never actually corroborates to the fact that there is any such thing as new terrorism, and how different it is from traditional terrorism. The enormous amount of money spent on the war on terror, and the killing of numbers of “terrorists” also according to data didn’t manage to satisfy or brought a greater sense of security to the public. The thesis of new terrorism never really helped in correcting the discourse; rather it actually effectuated a devastating decade resulting from flawed and at times callous understanding and interpretation of the concept of terrorism. In essence he agrees with Bruce Hoffman, who said, “This kind of terrorism is the face of war in the 21st century,” in his op-ed, “Terror’s Aftermath: A Counterterrorism Policy for Yesterday’s Threat.” “One horrendous incident alone does not form a new pattern. In fact, terrorism seems to be returning to its historic roots in many ways. “

In that backdrop of failed understanding of a core concept against which a war is going on supposedly, comes this piece by Christina Hellmich about a specific and arguably the most misunderstood battle ground in the war against terror, the case study of Yemen. Yemen is now a country reeling under the combined turmoil of Arab Spring, a massive sectarian Shia – Sunni flashpoint, and as a “frontline ally” and one of the most important states in the war against terror, the second largest battleground of Drones. Yemen, as Hellmich here marks out, is one of the strong hold of the Al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula (AQAP). With the missed attempt to bomb an American passenger flight during Christmas Day 2009, by Umar Farouq Abdulmutttallab the focus of the attention shifted back to Yemen. The immediate reaction was massive arming and aiding the Saleh Government of Yemen, and radically increasing the COIN operations as well as covert actions and Drone strikes. It came to public discourse with the targeted killing of Anwar Al Awlaki, a top ranking Al Qaeda ideologue, one who directly inspired the Fort Hood shooting, the stabbing of British MP Stephen Timms and ofcourse the failed underwear bombing.

However Hellmich doubts the capabilities and hyped state of operational power of AQAP. She maintains that while the rhetoric from the side of AQAP after the death of Osama Bin Laden rose to a fever pitch, it was nothing but an expected move. It was absolutely perceivable that in order to maintain a façade of legitimacy, among Arab and Muslim diaspora, and among a perceived global Anti-Western resistance coalition, especially when the effectiveness of Al Qaeda and Wahabbi radicals are increasingly questioned in view of their massively unimportant and diminished role and importance in Arab Spring, the AQAP leadership would try to heavily to rally its troops around the flag of Jihad. The heightened state of readiness in mainland USA, and the fact that not a single massive attack occurred, with the constant encouragement of the leadership of AQAP to the members of the group and Muslims all over the World for individualized, homemade attacks, proves two things, the plight of the group and its diminished capability, and the rejection of its ideology by the majority of the Muslim youth.

Hellmich raises pertinent doubts about AQAP in the first part of the piece. She questions the nature of AQAP operations, and points out, corroborating with Thomas Heghammer that the fact that Al Qaeda merged all across Arabian Peninsula giving away the regional autonomy that characterized the movement is a clear sign that the group is defeated and in serious shortage of manpower and operational capability. “It can thus be assumed that AQAP will attempt to appear as unified competent and powerful as possible—yet the extent to which this amounts to wishful thinking and mere pretension is another question entirely…” she states. “Thus the truth about AQAP’s capabilities is replaced by claims, counterclaims, and uncertain theories, all of which profit from a lack of established facts in their bid for credibility. The benefit for the jihadis is that in the absence of indisputable evidence one way or another, AQAP is what it can make the audience believe it is.”

Hellmich interestingly also sheds some light on the history of Yemen and US relations, and how it effectuated the increase in Al Qaeda network in the country. Yemen is among the bottom rung of the Arab Gulf States, with a majority of the population living under dollar 2 a day, and half a million Yemeni children suffering from malnutrition. Political dissent, heavy handed governance, public dissatisfaction and corruption are major causes of unrest in an already sectarian strife torn country.

Yemen’s uneasy role in the Global war against terror is highlighted by the fact that Yemen, in order to appease US just after 9/11, and to continue the flow of cash that was pouring in since the USS Cole bombing, started to take radical steps to tackle home grown Islamic terrorism. Infact Hellmich alleges that Yemeni government was coerced into a fight against Islamism, even at the risk of destabilizing the whole country and alienating the majority of the population, right since the first gulf war, when Yemen refused to support the war, and in return all the aid were stopped. Determined to not make the same mistake again, after 9/11, Yemen Govt. went out of its way to be an ally in the war against terror. Ironically this time it managed to alienate the people even more, with arbitrary arrest and heavy handed rule. “The strategy underlying the arrests was twofold: firstly Yemen had to be seen to take action on terrorism, and quickly, in order to placate the United States. Secondly, containment and control were the order of the day: the more people who were detained, with or without evidence against them, the fewer would be left to carry out another attack against U.S. interests and risk making Yemen itself the target of American hostility. Yet, experience in other countries has shown that knee-jerk political reactions and over-zealous programs of arrests of suspected terrorists have done nothing to reduce radicalization, but rather have tended to have the opposite effect, with those falsely arrested becoming more sympathetic to the terrorists’ cause. “

Hellmich mentions that alongside started the massive drone campaign, and with the death of Abu Al Harithi in 2002, the AQ in Yemen was majorly defeated, and it made the US rethink it’s involvement in Yemen. The subsequent abandonment of Yemen by US was a tactical déjà vu of Afghanistan in the 90s. The Yemen Government was never thanked or appreciated as it was a common notion among US policy makers that Yemen had just merely done its duty. This neglect, according to Hellmich, is a prime cause for the rerise of the ghost of AQ in Yemen, and the subsequent unrest and Arab Spring.

“Although it is not the intention to advocate economic development as a tool for the Yemeni people and becoming involved only at times when it coincides with other key political interests has done little to endear the United States to the Yemenis, who speak of hypocrisy and double-standards. As a result, AQAP’s continued criticism of both the government and the United States is likely to meet a receptive audience. “ Hellmich states in her essay, adding a bit menacingly, “It is now clear that Al Qaeda was never close to defeat in 2002. “

However she ends with hope. According to her, even though it has been a stable US action plan of using a Government of a country, and then practically neglecting it when the time is up, the actions of Al Qaeda is in no way better. AQAP is not the force it used to be, with the mainline ideologues all dead, and a massive leadership crisis, but most importantly as Iraq is a sign, massive violence and reliance on violence alone, can never make a group a “heart and soul” of the polity of a country…rather, if Iraq is an example, and Arab Spring a criteria to measure, Al Qaeda in Arabic Peninsula will be relegated to the sidelines and as a result lose even more legitimacy.


A lost decade on the war on terrorism raises some interesting points and counter points, and this gives me an opportunity to remind everyone about Huntington’s seminal work on Clash of Civilisations. Probably no theory by any political scientist got criticized as much as Huntington’s Civilisational Clash theory. From economist Amartya Sen, who criticized Huntington saying that “Diversity” as a concept, is the most universally accepted value, to philosopher Edward Said, who criticized the clubbing of Arab world under one civilization, and Islam as a monolithic bloc as ignorant, Huntington was even termed “xenophobic and racist” at times. The Clash of Civilization theory of Samuel P. Huntington in 1993 was initially not well accepted and looked with skepticism by scholars across the World. However eventually with the attacks of USS Cole, the bombing of embassy in Nigeria by Islamists, war in Chechnya, India – China rivalry in Asia and finally after the World Trade Center attack, it evoked renewed interest as one of the defining theory that might define the post Cold War World. The theory, maintains that the post Cold War World will see conflict which won’t be ideological or economic in nature, but rather it will be civilisational. “ World Politics is entering a new phase, and intellectuals have not hesitated to proliferate visions of what it will be — the end of history, the return of traditional rivalries between nation states, and the decline of the nation state from the conflicting pulls of tribalism and globalism, among others. Each of these visions catches aspects of the emerging reality. Yet they all miss a crucial, indeed a central, aspect of what global politics is likely to be in the coming years. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations… ” he said, “The clash of civilizations will be the battle lines of the future. ”

With that platform, I believe it is time to do more research on New Terrorism and Islamism in Arab Peninsula. While absolutely agreeing to the fact that New Terrorism is not as new, it is a known concept of promoting your political ideology and communicating a message through violence, it is still not clarifying the mindset behind the World Trade Center attack, and the mass killing in the name of any specific religion, be it Islamism, Israeli violence against Palestine, or Gujarat riots of 2002 between Hindus and Muslims. It won’t be prudent to discard New Terrorism or Islamism as a concept which is proved wrong to the core, as it is an ongoing and mutating phenomenon across the globe and it is too early to form a coherent judgment on something which is fluid, and only with the benefit of hindsight, would we be able to properly judge the concept of religious extremism, and how it influences human behaviour, which is intrinsically linked and forms a causal relation with the subjects discussed above.

Bibliography :

Zalman, Amy: “What’s so new about the New Terrorism”? , About .com, March 2008.

Gold, Dore: Unholy Fire. American Spectator, March – April, 2003

Crenshaw, Martha : “New versus Old Terrorism”, PIJ, March 2003

Copeland, Thomas ; “Is the “New Terrorism” Really New?: An Analysis of the New Paradigm for Terrorism “

Huntington, Samuel P. : The Clash of Civilisations, 1993.

1. Zalman, Amy: “What’s so new about the New Terrorism”? , About .com, March 2008.
2. Gold, Dore: Unholy Fire. American Spectator, March – April, 2003.
3. Crenshaw, Martha : “New versus Old Terrorism”, PIJ, March 2003.
4. Copeland, Thomas ; “Is the “New Terrorism” Really New?: An Analysis of the New Paradigm
for Terrorism “

Sumantra Maitra

Sumantra Maitra is a Doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK. He spends way too much time on Twitter, @MrMaitra

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