Hyperterrorism: A New Form of Globalized Conflict

Terrorism experts have long argued that the religious motivations of many extremist groups today have increased the likelihood of a new, virulent, and highly destructive form of terrorism involving nuclear, chemical and biological weapons - weapons of mass destruction. As the events of Sept. 11 demonstrate, nothing could be further from the truth.

The attackers who flew kamikaze-style into the World Trade Center and Pentagon did not use WMD and did not need to. They understood that security factors have been transformed in the post-Cold War world. To underline this point, they staged what we call a hyperterrorist attack, one far more dangerous than conventional terrorism or the fantastic theories of experts.

Hyperterrorism is an innovative type of conflict made possible in post-Cold War conditions, which are marked by the powerful transnationalizing forces of globalization. While no serious analyst would argue that conventional forces, missiles, aircraft carriers, rapid strike forces and the territorial units in which they are based are irrelevant, conventional warfare now exists in a qualitatively different setting.

Contemporary conflicts are shaped by the globalization process. The context is one of greatly increased levels of exchange in politics, trade and markets, finance, production, migration, culture, technology, and the environment. It is also an environment in which transnational ideologies and organizations greatly extend the reach of organized violence. These conditions provide better opportunities for greater exchange, but also pose new dangers of lessened control and influence.

In its new geopolitical setting, hyperterrorism is not "war" as previously understood. Like all forms of terrorism, hyperterrorism uses violence by non-state actors with the aim of creating panic and projecting an image of power for political ends. In such attacks, it is important to remember that the attackers have specific target publics in mind.

In the World Trade Center-Pentagon attacks, the three target publics were global, national and governmental. The first target , global civil society, was being shown that America is vulnerable and unprepared. The second target public, the US population, was informed that it is now very much at risk. The third target, the Bush administration, was being cruelly mocked over its obsession with hi-tech missile defence, inept economic management, and tenuous electoral mandate.

In other words, the WTC-Pentagon hyperterrorists understood that while the Bush administration gazed firmly at its pet rogue states (Sudan, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, etc.), it could be caught unaware by a new type of attack.

The attack that horrified the world on Tuesday is unprecedented. Some foreshadowing was provided in 2000 when the USS Cole was seriously damaged after two men in a small boat detonated explosives alongside it . Although the USS Cole was a military target, the incident featured a low-tech hit at a symbol of military and political might.

The Sept. 11 attacks take the creation of panic for political purposes to a new level. They struck at both civilian and military targets, exacting its highest toll among those whose links to US policies are indirect. It also combined low tech and hi tech tools. Hi tech in this scenario was mainly a platform: powerful jets, graceful skyscrapers in a teeming metropolis, and a global media system to convey news at lightning speed.

The low tech component were the simple weapons the hijackers carried to evade poorly-paid and undertrained airport security guards.

If there really is a war as a result of the WTC-Pentagon attacks, it will not resemble anything we have known in the past. Contemporary wars have been fought between identifiable opponents using conventional weaponry. We now face opponents who are not readily identifiable, do not use powerful weapons, are not defending a territory, and have no fixed address.

Hyperterrorism has several features. Hyperterrorists combine hi and low tech, whichever is convenient, practical and deadly. Hyperterrorists ride on the back of globalization, using the structures of contemporary life to attack modern society. Hyperterrorists rely on the media for impact - counting on horror and moral outrage to provoke the US and West into a wider conflict with unforeseen consequences. Hyperterrorists willingly use time-honoured techniques of self-sacrifice to achieve their ends.

The battle against hyperterrorism means that the entire trajectory of North American security over the past twenty years must be thrown into question. Instead of deregulating airline safety, governments must now reinforce it by training and equipping professional security personnel. Rather than privatizing transport, governments must now actively involve themselves in guaranteeing public safety. Instead of turning inward, governments must accelerate and intensify the means through which we can learn to understand and live at peace with the world.

The Bush administration is at a crossroads. Its message has been based on "America first" and unilateralism. Since President Bush took office, the US has abandoned the Kyoto pact, rejected a verification treaty for biological weapons, refused to enter negotiations for a small arms treaty, been unwilling to ratify a treaty to create an international criminal court, and expressed its intention to abandon an anti-missile treaty with Moscow. A new globalized politics shows the folly of this trajectory. The US now needs a multilateral solution to hyperterrorism. NATO and Russia have responded. Will the Bush administration see the path to the future?

Dr. Michael Dartnell is a Research Associate at the Centre for International and Security Studies at York University in Toronto. A specialist in new forms of conflict, he has written a book on French terrorism as well as articles on international legal counter-terrorism and the Northern Ireland conflict. He is working on a book on how the Internet is changing political conflict.