It is difficult for a terrorist organization to sustain itself absent a safe haven in which to train and indoctrinate recruits and plan future operations. Whether one is discussing the Viet Cong’s use of rural make-shift camps across South Vietnam while being supplied along the Ho Chi Minh Trail from the north, or the use of training camps in North Africa – mainly Libya during the 70s and 80s – the jungles of Southeast Asia, or the camps supplied by the intelligence services of the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe on behalf of West European organizations like the German Red Army Faction and Italy’s Red Brigades, none of these organizations could have survived as long as they did and proven as deadly without the active support they enjoyed from the outside. It is no mistake that terrorism as a systemic problem in Europe evaporated with the end of the Soviet Union, nor is it coincidental that al Qaeda ceased to function as a centrally-organized and controlled entity after it was deprived of its training camps in Afghanistan.
Regarding ideology, the end of the Cold War saw a major reduction in terrorism inspired by Marxist-Leninist ideology, but the exponential rise of religious-based terrorism as Islamist militancy spread in response to fundamentalist agitation against Western, especially U.S., influence in the Islamic world. The use of military installations in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s two holiest sites, by the U.S. during the effort at liberating Kuwait from Iraqi occupation turned into a major casus belli for Osama bin Laden and his followers, who made eviction of Western influences from the Arabian Peninsula their highest priority. Similarly, in the Philippines, the Marxist ideology that undergirded the People’s Liberation Army gave way to the Islamist militancy of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The use of hijacked passenger planes to destroy prominent buildings in New York City and Washington, D.C. represented the most radical development in the weapons used by terrorists. The Russian-designed AK-47 rifle remains the symbol of terrorism in most of the world, but that is mostly relevant to insurgencies operating in rural areas. One of the most significant and destructive weapons routinely used by terrorist organizations is the car bomb. On October 23, 1983, a truck bomb destroyed a large concrete building in Beirut, Lebanon, being used as a barracks by the U.S. Marine Corps. The effectiveness of that early and spectacular example of a car or truck bomb was the death of 241 Marines and the subsequent withdrawal of U.S. forces from Lebanon, thereby terminating the mission. Car bombs have remained a staple of terrorist operations ever since.
Recruiting terrorists today is easier than ever given the prevalence of the Internet and its exploitation by those seeking to proselytize impressionable young men (and sometimes women) and indoctrinate them in the fundamentalism that exists at the core of terrorism. The use of graphic images intended to evoke emotional responses, combined with appeals to religious conviction, has proven enormously successful in convincing young men to give up their lives in relative comfort to go to places like Iraq and Afghanistan to kill foreign occupiers. Al Qaeda’s online site, Inspire Magazine, is monitored daily by western intelligence services for clues to the next terrorist target, and for insights into the effectiveness of that organization’s recruiting efforts.