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Opinion | Jessica Stern

Attacks on soft targets likely to get worse

People link arms at a vigil in Manchester, England, on Tuesday.Emilio Morenatti/AP

Police have identified a 22-year old Briton of Libyan descent as the suicide bomber in the deadly attack at Manchester Arena in England on Monday night. The attack at an Ariana Grande concert left 22 people dead and dozens injured. ISIS claimed credit for the attack, referring to the bomber as a “soldier of the caliphate.” Much remains unknown, including whether the bomber was part of a network.

Terrorism is psychological warfare, whose principal goal is to frighten us into overreacting. Another purpose is solipsistic: to shore up the fighting spirit of sympathizers and to attract new recruits — some of whom identify with the terrorists’ purported cause, but many of whom are simply angry at society and aim to lash out. Equally important, terrorists aim to demoralize those who identify with the victims. While they don’t often get what they claim to want, terrorists usually succeed in achieving two vital goals: spreading fear and provoking reactive policies.

Counterterrorism efforts have made a 9/11-style attack far more difficult to carry out. But jihadi groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda remain determined to attack the West, and they are likely to succeed with continuing attacks on soft targets, such as shopping malls or concert halls. International law enforcement and intelligence agencies are collaborating to thwart the external-operations plotters of jihadi groups, such as EMNI — the external-operations wing of ISIS. Nonetheless, as ISIS continues to lose territory, its ability to carry out attacks in the West will be enhanced with foreign fighters returning to their home countries to conduct, enable, or assist with attacks. The problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.


Europe is more vulnerable to attacks than the United States. Authorities estimate that of the 40,000 foreign fighters who have left their home countries to join terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria, some 4,500 are from the West, of which 250 are from the United States. (And in the United States, an estimated 40 percent of those arrested in connection with ISIS-related crimes have been converts.) In many cases, Muslim immigrants went to Europe as guest workers and were never fully integrated. This may be part of the explanation for why European Muslims are more prone to radicalization. Other possible risk factors include alienation, social contagion, confused identity, prejudice, and youth unemployment among Muslims. In Europe, nearly 60 percent of those who have left their home countries as foreign fighters were criminals prior to radicalization. Thus, religious ideology would not seem to be the primary driver for their radicalization.

A large spike in the number of terrorist attacks carried out in the West in 2015 has increased anxiety about terrorism. According to the Global Terrorism Index, there were 577 deaths in OECD countries in 2015, a 650 percent increase from the previous year. More than half of these attacks were carried out by ISIS or by individuals and groups claiming to act in its name. But it is important to keep this increase in perspective: Compared with the 9/11 strikes, and compared with previous terrorism campaigns in Europe, the death count for these plots was relatively low. In the United States, gun violence kills about 1,000 times more Americans per year than terrorists do.


The Global Terrorism Index shows that the vast majority of terrorist attacks are carried out not in the West, but in Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria — where governments are fragile or where there is a civil war.

Still, according to the 2016 American Values Survey, terrorism is seen as the single most important issue facing America today. Seventy percent of Americans (83 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of Democrats) said that terrorism was a critical issue to them personally. A majority (53 percent) of Americans said that they were worried that they or someone in their family will become a victim of terrorism.

How to explain this level of fear? Risk analysts report that we tend to respond to visible crises that are vividly portrayed on the news, even if the baseline rate of danger has not changed. Less visible threats — even those that are statistically far more dangerous — elicit a more measured reaction, or even neglect. For example, climate change has the potential to displace hundreds of thousands of people. It is likely to lead to future wars. And yet terrorism often gets far more attention. I believe that part of the reason for this “irrational response” is that terrorists elicit spiritual dread. Terrorism involves what philosophers traditionally call moral evil — suffering caused by the deliberate imposition of pain on sentient beings. Climate change seems to fall into the category of natural evil, or something that has happened by accident. It does not elicit this kind of spiritual dread.


Terror can make us lash out at the wrong enemy, for the wrong reasons, or both, as was the case for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. We want to wage war, not just on terrorism, but also on terror, to banish the feeling of being unjustly attacked or unable to protect the blameless. This is especially true in regard to attacks on young people, as happened Monday night in Manchester.

We need to be conscious, at all times, of our natural tendency to lash out in response to moral evil in ways that sometimes worsen the threat. We should question whether the current policy to demolish and destroy ISIS, to drive it out of the territory it currently controls, could have the unintended effect of spreading the organization still further around the globe, as suggested by unnamed Israeli military officials quoted recently in Politico.


Terrorism is not a traditional threat to national security. Its impact cannot be measured with “rational” means such as counting warheads or assessing throw-weight. For the audience, the radius of fear it spreads is far greater than any physical danger.

“Realist” political scientists, trained to focus on nation-state actors, cannot understand why we pay so much attention to terrorism. Terrorists’ arsenals, as frightening as they are, are vastly exceeded by the capabilities of nation-state enemies. But this position, along with the perennial hope that these pesky nonstate actors will go away, misses something profoundly important: Terrorism poses a continuing political and psychological threat. It requires a politically and psychologically-informed response.

Jessica Stern, a research professor at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, is coauthor of “ISIS: The State of Terror.’’