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Topic: Technology
Region: South Asia
Type: Articles
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Pyotr Topychkanov

Ph.D. in History, Senior Researcher at SIPRI, RIAC Expert

The threat of terrorism has not diminished; it has merely changed shape in response to harsher conditions. Communication within terrorist organizations has weakened, coordination has suffered, planning has been reduced to rush-jobs and resources have become scarce. The number of attacks on the most vulnerable targets has increased. “Lone wolf” attacks has increased in recent years. Consequently, it has become more difficult for special services to uncover and predict terrorists attacks. By stepping up the violent nature of their attacks, terrorists are achieving their goal of spreading this feeling of impotence.

At about 10 o’clock in the morning local time on 16 December 2014, terrorists sieged a school in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial capital of Peshawar in Pakistan. At half past six that evening all four school buildings were cleared. More than 140 people were killed in the attack, most of them children, and another hundred or so were injured. About 500 people may have been present in the school at the time (more than 1000 pupils aged 10 to 18 attend the school).

Seven terrorists were killed as a result of the attack (it is still unclear whether all of them were killed by security forces or if they blown them up). They were all wearing explosive belts, were armed with the sophisticated automatic weapons and ammunition, and were stocked up with provisions. During the siege, the terrorists used improvised explosive device to hinder to counter terrorist operation.

According to General Asim Bajwa, Director General of Inter-Services Public Relations of the Pakistani armed forces, the terrorists were not planning on taking any hostages; their objective was to kill as many people as possible. Media reports confirm this, with more than 100 people being executed within the first two hours of the siege.

Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (Taliban Movement of Pakistan, TTP) have claimed responsibility for the attack. According to a TTP representative, the attackers were instructed to kill the older pupils. The reality, however, was that they killed indiscriminately.

The school was chosen for a reason; it is one of Pakistan’s 148 Army Public Schools and, as such, the majority of its pupils are children of military personnel.

Close relatives of many of the victims are involved in the large-scale counter terrorist Operation Zarb-e-Azb  launched on 15 June 2014 in the Federally Administrated Tribal Area. To date, more than 1270 people have been liquidated as a result of the operation, the vast majority is involved with terrorist groups. In addition, more than 350 people have been injured and 220 detained. Around 930,000 civilians have been displaced since the beginning of the operation.

The attack in Peshawar would be entirely consistent with the logic of the standoff between the TTP and the security forces of Pakistan if it had not been carried out in the place and manner in which it was. The target was a school and the terrorists had absolutely no intention of making any demands to the authorities. Their goal was to kill as many people as possible before the security forces rushed to the scene of the attack. And they held no illusions of getting out alive (except, perhaps, for those who, according to some reports, fled the scene); the idea was to hole themselves up in the school and hold out as long as their ammunition and provisions would allow.

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Attacks of this kind are taking place with increasing frequency in South Asia. The most high-profile incidents were the November 2008 Mumbai attacks in India and the June 2014 Jinnah International Airport attack in Karachi, the capital of Sindh Province in Pakistan. Pakistan has become a regular target of school attacks, with at least ten such incidents taking place from 2011 to 2014. Only a few weeks ago, 17-year-old Pakistan native Malala Yousafzai, who received horrific injuries as the result of an attack on a school bus in 2012, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.

The increase in terrorist attacks of this kind is a trend that affects not only Pakistan, but also other countries, regardless of whether terrorist groups operate within their borders. This is due, a) to the success of the global war on terrorism; b) to new opportunities that can be exploited by terrorists; and c) to substantial changes in the media.            

The success of the war on terrorism at the national and global levels has severely handicapped terrorist organizations. It has become almost impossible for terrorist groups to maintain active international contacts, move human, financial and military resources between and within countries, engage in the long-term planning of terrorist attacks and carry out multi-stage terrorists acts – in short, they have been limited in every action that could raise a red flag for the security services.

However, the threat of terrorism has not diminished; it has merely changed shape in response to harsher conditions. Communication within terrorist organizations has weakened, coordination has suffered, planning has been reduced to rush-jobs and resources have become scarce. The number of attacks on the most vulnerable targets has increased. “Lone wolf” attacks has increased in recent years. Consequently, it has become more difficult for special services to uncover and predict terrorists attacks.

The transformation of the terrorist threat has also been aided by advancements in fields such as information technology. Future terrorists can now be recruited over the internet instead of in person. The rise of the Islamic State has shown that the worldwide web has allowed terrorists to solve the problem of recruiting and training supporters, and organizing and coordinating their actions in an effective manner. The impact of terrorist attacks in terms of propaganda has increased as a direct result of the internet.

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The changing information environment has contributed in part to the increased barbarity of terrorist acts. Violence has become a regular fixture in daily news reports around the world. If a person is not directly affected by a terrorist attack, chances are he or she will be entirely indifferent towards it. Terrorists are turning to increasingly brutal and daring acts just to be noticed.

At the first glance, the transformation of terrorism may instil a sense of impotence. Undoubtedly the threat of terrorism has become a reality for everybody on the planet. No state has the capacity to protect every single building and facility that has the potential to be a target for terrorists (the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013 or the Sydney café siege in December 2014 are prime examples). No security service is capable of identifying and stopping every single suspect. And the Special Forces can hardly react quickly enough to a terrorist threat, as the terrorists will always be able to take someone’s life before they are stopped.

By stepping up the violent nature of their attacks, terrorists are achieving their goal of spreading this feeling of impotence. The only possible response to this threat is to strengthen security measures at the international, regional, national, community and even personal levels, improve the effectiveness of the war on terrorism, increase international cooperation and consolidate society in the face of terrorism. Particular attention should be paid to reducing the possibilities that terrorists have in the internet.

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