The Islamic State’s Shock-and-Bore Terrorism

The "caliphate" has figured out how to make committing acts of terror easy. It's also made them boring.


“It was the advent of the second plane, sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty,” wrote the novelist Martin Amis. “[T]hat was the defining moment.” He was referring to United Airlines Flight 175, the second plane that smashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. “That second plane looked eagerly alive, and galvanised with malice, and wholly alien,” Amis ruminated, adding: “For those thousands in the south tower, the second plane meant the end of everything. For us, its glint was the worldflash of a coming future.”

9/11 was a terrible moral outrage. But it was also a terrific visual event, shocking in its destructive immensity. As the philosopher Lars Svendsen puts it, drawing on a distinguished lineage of thinking that goes back to Edmund Burke and Thomas De Quincey and finally to Aristotle: “Violence can give rise to aesthetic delight, even though we find it morally deplorable.”

Not all violence, though. In fact, according to the sociologist Randall Collins in his study on the subject, most violence — the violence of everyday life in bars, nightclubs, kebab joints, betting shops, pool halls, and jail yards — is so banal and lacking in competence that aesthetic repulsion is the more likely response in those who witness or view it: “[It] is more ugly than entertaining,” Collins writes, and thus a world away from the balletic and beautifully choreographed violence of Hollywood movies. Or as Amis memorably captured it in a 1994 New Yorker article on screen violence: “In life, the average fistfight, for instance, lasts about a second and consists of one blow. The loser gets a broken nose, the winner gets a broken hand, and they both trudge off to the outpatient clinic. Thus the great Stallone joins the queue at the trauma unit, while Chuck Norris fumbles with his first-aid kit. It just wouldn’t play.”

Historically, terrorist violence has sought to transcend the quotidian and reach for the spectacular and the catastrophic, showing an acute appreciation for what plays. There are structural reasons for this: Terrorism is intended to communicate a political message to the widest possible audience. That message often takes a coercive form — “do this or feel the pain” — but not always: Sometimes a terrorist atrocity is intended solely to punish a group for its past crimes and injustices (real or perceived) and isn’t calculated to achieve anything beyond that. In both cases, however, the message must properly resonate. It must be heard, or else it is pointless. And what ensures resonance or a hearing is the lethality of the attack, since, in the words of the Irish intellectual Conor Cruise O’Brien, “one surefire way of attracting instantaneous worldwide attention through television is to slaughter a considerable number of human beings, in a spectacular fashion.” Lethality is also a crucial element in the coercive structure of terrorism, for unless a substantial dose of pain and mayhem has already been effectively delivered the threat of more violence isn’t fully credible. As the philosopher Jeremy Waldron remarks in an essay on the uses of terrorism: “By imposing [violence] in advance, [the terrorist] demonstrates that he already has the ability and the will to impose harms of the kind he is threatening to impose in the event of non-compliance.”

Over the past few years, however, terrorism in the West — often committed at the hands of those claiming affiliation with the Islamic State — has deviated from this essential logic and tended toward the banal and the commonplace. This is reflected not only in the lowly scale of recent attacks but also in the stunning crudity of the weapons enlisted in their commission, as well as in the rank mediocrity of the human capital executing them. If, as the terrorism expert Brian M. Jenkins classically observed more than 40 years ago, “terrorism is theater,” the current theatrical offerings are distinctly half-assed affairs, featuring a cast of B-movie wannabe thespians who can barely remember their poorly scripted lines or why they signed up for the low-budget caper in the first place.

One reason for the shift away from the spectacular is practical: In the West, at least, it’s now much harder for terrorists to carry out large-scale atrocities against civilians and symbolic landmarks. This is one of the legacies of 9/11. Political elites’ sudden sensitization to the threat of terrorism produced a dramatic securitization of the public and — notoriously — private space. Terrorists, it would seem, have more or less given up on using fully loaded passenger jets as missiles. It’s just too difficult, too hard a target to crack. They may not yet have given up on using chemical weapons, but thus far no terrorist group has managed to pull off a mass casualty chemical attack against Western targets.

Another reason for the shift is historical: Terrorism, like every other professional activity in the wider culture, has succumbed to the unstoppable forces of democratization. Terrorism, at least up until the emergence of al Qaeda in the late 1990s, used to require a talent for violence and subterfuge. It also used to require a casus belli, both for the terrorist and the organization to which they belonged. Now, it seems, it just requires a willingness to kill and die. Indeed, now, just about any village idiot can aspire to become a martyr to a cause that politically makes no real sense and that they barely understand.

The Islamic State, more than any other terrorist group, is at the forefront of this development, embracing anyone who can wield a kitchen knife, drive a vehicle, don a vest, or push a button. Even al Qaeda, which is commonly regarded among experts as an “elite” group, succumbed to these forces, extending a hand to that bumbling imbecile Richard Reid, who is currently serving a life sentence in an American supermax prison for trying and failing to ignite explosives in his shoes on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001. Terrorism was once the profession of “masterminds” and exotic outsiders who exuded a certain subterranean, badass cool; now, with the rise of the Islamic State, it has become a playground of punks and losers.

As terrorist groups have become more permissive in their recruitment policies, the scale and sophistication of their attack planning have correspondingly reduced, ushering in a new style of violence that is more squalid than spectacular. Flying planes into tall and iconic buildings, for example, doesn’t seem to be on the Islamic State’s agenda, but the most brutal beheadings, knifings, shootings, and vehicle rammings most definitely are. “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European, then … kill him in any manner or way however it may be,” declared Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who was killed last August. “Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him,” he suggested, setting the template for the recent wave of attacks in the West.

This injunction says more about the Islamic State’s declining power and immiseration than it does about its fanatical savagery, although it speaks volumes about this, too. The Islamic State, for all its capabilities and reach, hasn’t gotten even close to manufacturing an international terrorist atrocity on the scale and ambition of 9/11. Its most lethal attack in the West was the killing of 130 people in Paris in November 2015. It can still wreak carnage, as the July 2016 attack in Nice, France, amply testified, but it has yet to unleash the sort of cosmic, iconic attack that befits its tough, apocalyptic talk. And although the low-level international atrocities it inspires generate shock and intense, if fleeting, publicity, these outrages are poor at disseminating terror beyond the epicenter of the actual carnage, because the emotions they elicit in the wider audience watching from their TV screens or cell phones are primarily ones of anger and disgust. This is the inherent tension in the Islamic State’s current “just terror” strategy: Extreme and transgressive brutality attracts global headlines, but it also brings with it a surfeit of revulsion that crowds out and silences the terror.

And because of the sheer frequency of these attacks they have become normalized in the wider culture, from the ritual of “breaking news” coverage to that of the official reaffirmation of the sanctity of whatever belief system the terrorist acted in the name of. This has created a kind of terror fatigue: a desensitization to atrocity images, and a pornographic lust for ever more prurient details about each new atrocity and the person or persons who carried it out. It has almost made terrorism boring. Almost certainly, it has made it less terrifying.

One of Hannah Arendt’s great insights was that the perpetrators of evil, far from being exotically and voluptuously monstrous, are often banal and anemic nonentities. Of the Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann, she wrote that he was “neither perverted nor sadistic … [but] terribly and terrifyingly normal” — and hence utterly disproportionate to the enormity of the evil for which he was partially responsible.

There seems to be no such disproportion between perpetrator and deed in the recent wave of terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States. Like Eichmann, the authors of these attacks are mostly ordinary and unremarkable people: the terrorists next door. Far from being “masterminds,” they are often misfits, loners, or losers. And, also like Eichmann, they appear to have no clear motives at all, other than a generic desire to participate in “something historic, grandiose, unique.” But they are not, as Eichmann and his fellow Nazi bureaucrats undoubtedly were, the architects of a dementedly sophisticated evil on the scale of the Holocaust or a 9/11.

The vileness of their attacks is not in question, but there is something stunningly prosaic in how they were conceived and carried out. They are parochial, devolved, amateurish, ugly, and uncinematic. They do not create a theatrical spectacle or any overarching narrative. They leave no memorable visual mark on the culture, like, say, the implosion of the Twin Towers. They are as liable to arouse feelings of incredulity and disgust as feelings of fear and terror. They do not change a thing politically. One attack is indistinguishable from another; the perpetrators are never remembered because each is rapidly eclipsed by the next. “Who,” journalists Christopher Dickey and Nadette de Visser acidly remarked, referring to a 31-year-old French national, “will remember the fool who tried to blow up a bunch of gendarmes [on June 19, 2017] on the Champs-Élysées with an improvised suicide car bomb, but only managed to asphyxiate and immolate himself, stumbling half-fried into the street before collapsing and dying?”

For all these reasons, the Islamic State’s brand of international shock-and-bore terrorism is a miserable, monumental failure. And in this it is possible to discern a perfect symmetry between the terrorist and the deed.​

Image credit: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images

Simon Cottee is senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent. He is the author of The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam.

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