Anywhere there are countries or economies or militaries that are grossly unequal, there will be paramilitary forces who target civilians rather than military forces. Those on the weaker end of such competition will call these weaker forces the Resistance, or freedom fighters, or soldiers of God. Those on the stronger side will label them guerillas or terrorists. In contemporary times, many of the world’s terror groups are Islamist, but they hardly have a monopoly on the term – especially historically. In times not too far removed, the British labeled American revolutionaries terrorists. The most dramatic terror attack ever was of course the Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda attack on the United States, memorialized by the Tribute of Light near the tip of Manhattan Island (above).
What the Americans of today consider terrorists – groups that use violence against civilians with the specific intent of changing political priorities rather than to shape the battlefield – are fairly rare events outside of the Islamic world. The reasons are pretty straightforward. Terrorists need a fairly specific environment to thrive. The want a central government strong enough to control most, but not all, of its territory. Too strong a government, and the terror group will be hunted down. Too weak a government, and the terror group will have to use scarce resources to protect its own patch of land.
In the world to come, many of the world’s governments are going to fracture, producing a wealth of opportunities for violent paramilitary groups — but not necessary Islamist terrorists. Within the Islamic world, most governments will either remain too strong to allow terror groups to operate, or will skid right past that magic security balance into outright anarchy. Terrorism isn’t going away, but transcontinental Islamist terrorism probably already has seen its heyday.
For more on the shape of the world to come, and what encourages and discourages terrorism, see Chapters 8 and 15 of The Accidental Superpower.