Teaching Terror and the Resource of Knowledge

By Mahil Dole | Published: 2:00 AM Apr 12 2021

By Mahil Dole

“Terrorist are not born, they are thought and self-thought.”

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Last week I wrote about new terrorism, its international reach and the importance of addressing this global threat. Throughout the last few decades, a growing body of research has emerged to analyse ways to thwart terrorist organisations and syndicates. A common framework within the study of terrorism suggests that terrorist attacks are the product of two primary elements: motivation and capabilities. A major portion of the scholarly literature in this area has focused on terrorist motivations – particularly the religious ideological motivations of the Islamic Jihad movement, ethno nationalist motivations and political motivations. 

Terrorism is a form of political violence that requires knowledge of demolitions, weaponry and stealthy operations, among other areas. No one is born with the knowledge of how to build bombs, use a firearm, conduct surveillance or hijack air planes. These are skills that must be taught and practiced. Like law enforcement and intelligence agents that confront them, political extremists learn their craft through training programmes, apprenticeships and actual practice. In recent years’ terrorist and extreme networks have developed training programs and instructional materials to teach aspiring combatants among thousands of militants, while allowing the leaders to observe, select and recruit the potential individuals. Terrorist also rely on local and international knowledge and the cunning intelligence gained from experience, including planning and executing attacks. They learn by doing adapting their know-how to the opportunities and constraints provided by each operation. 

Counter-terrorism strategies

Developing our understanding of how terrorists learn is critical to shaping effective counter-terrorism strategies. Learning lies at the heart of terrorists’ capability to spread their knowledge among like-minded extremists and adapt their tactics in the face of intensive state efforts to destroy them. Indeed, terrorist’s ability to learn from study and experience, helps account for the resilience of all terrorist/extremists networks.

Knowledge is a vital commodity for anyone or any organisation. It can make the difference between success and failure, right and wrong, or even life and death. Today, for any individual or organisation, knowledge and learning is seen as being critical to its success. Knowledge and learning are also important in the world of terrorism. In fact, successful terrorist attacks are rarely accomplished by idiots; rather  to carry out their lethal agenda, terrorists require a broad range of knowledge that incorporate skills, competency, creative thinking, understanding of engineering, coded communications etc. Without such knowledge, terrorists are more easily thwarted, apprehended or otherwise likely to fail. 

Different levels

Within a terrorist organisation, there should be different levels of knowledge attained and used by different members for difference purposes. To learn how these levels of knowledge are acquired by individuals and shared within the organisation is an important aspect in countering new terrorism. From a global perspective, there are basically two distinct types of knowledge that matters most in the world of terrorism: (i) Individual and (ii) organisational. Operational knowledge transfer is complemented by terrorists’ actions which showcase successes and failures that other groups can learn and provide an important vehicle for inspiring other individuals to commit their acts of terrorism. 

Some of the significant motivational material used in the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka were 

(i) Boosting Islamic morale and lowering that of the enemy, 

(ii) Preparing and training new members for future responsibilities,

(iii) Mocking the State’s admiration among the population, 

(iv) Removing  personalities that stood in the way of the Da’wa call, 

(v) Agitating the population regarding matters of concern to public/community, 

(vi) Rejecting compliance with  and submissions to the state’s practices

(vii) Giving legitimacy to Jamaths’

(viii) Spreading fear and terror through the states rank and file, 

(ix) Recruiting new members to the organisations ranks.

Strategic communication

Overall, in conducting attacks of terrorism, terrorist syndicates carry out a form of strategic communication that addresses multiple audiences, including their enemies, their supporters and potential new recruits. Further successful attacks can provide useful operational knowledge to other terrorist groups, who can learn from the tactics demonstrated. The global news media help facilitate this transfer of motivational and operational knowledge transfer each time they broadcast details of how a successful attack was carried out. Extensive news coverage of innovative tactics used by one syndicate provides particularly helpful information to other syndicates. 

Global dimensions

Knowledge is a critical asset for any terrorist organisation. Knowledge could be seen as information that becomes useful upon human interpretation. Successful terrorist syndicates are committed to the long-term training and education of their members. Officious terrorist organisations learn from the strategies and tactics of other groups. They study counter terrorist strategies and adapt accordingly. They learn by studying our doctrines, statements, public judicial records, investigation news stories of counterterrorism successes and various information resources available in the internet.  Success of the terrorist or the syndicate dependent on their ability to keep one step ahead of the counter-terrorism technology. 

We need to analyse and understand the Global Dimensions of Knowledge Transfer in the Terrorist ecosphere. Thus, we need to strive and disrupt the Global Transfer of Terrorist Knowledge. We have to develop an understanding of the characteristics that affect a particular syndicate’s learning abilities, the next step in comprehensive counterterrorism strategy involves trying to reduce these abilities. Our counter-terrorism efforts van be enhanced by identifying the knowledge experts in the terrorist ecosphere and constricting their ability to share their knowledge with potential terrorists. 

Different types of Learning require different counterterrorism responses. If we view the terrorist threat as one primarily encircling two forms of knowledge on an individual level – motivational and operational – and recognise the differences in how and where these forms of knowledge are transmitted, we could adapt our responses accordingly. Both types of knowledge are important, but they require different responses. Motivational dimensions require an ambitious effort to combat those who spread messages of hate and violence and counter these messages with moderate ideas. Activities to counter the spread of motivational knowledge transfer should include broad, multilingual and educational campaigns, while the activities to combat operational knowledge require better intelligence on where operational learning takes place. 


As centres of Terrorist Learning move from physical to the virtual realms, so must our counter-terrorism efforts evolve accordingly. 

The article addresses very concisely the problem of global terrorism from a perspective of knowledge – specifically, the role that knowledge plays in the terrorist ecosphere and how it is used to maintain a terrorist organization’s capacity to carry out deadly attacks.  From this perspective, it becomes clear that further research is required. Some issues of concern that warrant additional study:  

- How can nations reshape the strategic environment in which terrorist syndicates operate, in order to deteriorate their capability transfer?

- Identify the characteristics of terrorist syndicates that enhance or restrict learning?

- How best we could restrict the use of the internet for transferring lethal terrorist knowledge, while maintaining the commitment to open information exchange.

- Exploring the possibilities of developing formal and informal knowledge networks amongst counterterrorism and international security communities that are more robust and effective than those of the terrorists?

- How can the Media reduce the legitimacy and useful knowledge those terrorist organisations that might derive from their coverage of terrorist violence?

- Identifying the knowledge experts within particular terrorist organisations?

- What do we need to know about knowledge transfer among terrorists? What we do not know yet, and why don’t we know this? 

Guiding Principles

- Understand and Adapt to the Threat Environment as threats against the State evolve, the State must adapt its intelligence capabilities to new security landscapes and craft innovative responses. 

- Understand Positive and Potentially Malicious Uses of Technology: Technology can provide important new solutions to the challenges of terrorism and targeted violence. But technological developments can also magnify these challenges. Technological advances influence how people radicalise to violent extremism and mobilise to violence; empower violent extremists to portray attackers as role models; provide attackers with new tactical avenues and means of destruction; and create vulnerabilities to information operations, including by foreign states, that are designed to enhance the attractiveness of violent extremist causes.

- Collaborate with Domestic and International Partners: Terrorism and targeted violence often transcend national boundaries. The Department must address these threats with interagency and international collaboration, including effective intelligence and information sharing, as well as capacity building. 

- Emphasize Locally-Based Solutions: No matter the threat, mobilisation to violence occurs at the local level across the country. The state must support communities’ efforts to ensure they are equipped to play a central role in vital tasks like identifying signs of violent extremism and “off-ramping” susceptible individuals before they mobilise to violence.

- Uphold Individual Rights. The state must defend individual rights including privacy, civil rights and civil liberties. 

There are many topics worthy further exploration. Overall we must learn to apply the principles of organisational learning to our efforts to combat terrorism/extremism. We must gather and analyse useful knowledge, incorporate it into our plans and actions and grow smarter. And we must do this faster and more effectively than the terrorists/extremists do, or risk losing the global struggle against terrorism and extremism.

(The writer is a Senior Superintendent of Police (rtd), former Head of Counter Terrorism) – State Intelligence Service/Sri Lanka and Senior Vice President of Vonfidel Group – Global Intelligence and Security Consultancy) 

By Mahil Dole | Published: 2:00 AM Apr 12 2021

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