Evolving Capabilities of Terrorist Groups

Instructor: Mary Ruth Sanders Bracy

Mary Ruth teaches college history and has a PhD.

In this lesson, we will learn about the increasing capabilities of terrorist groups including the different types of violent and non-violent activities that have expanded their capabilities. We will also review how the proliferation of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons (CBRN) have allowed terrorist groups to increase their capabilities.

New York. London. Brussels. Paris. It seems as though nearly every day, the world gets news of more terrorist attacks. How have the capabilities of terrorist groups changed over the years as they have gained access to new and different types of weapons?

The Purpose of Terrorism

For most terrorist groups, the main goal is to get as much attention as possible. This can mean a lot of different things: causing destruction, getting publicity and news coverage, or having a big presence on social media. The tactics they use are different based on what they are trying to do, and their capabilities depend on what they have access to.

Some common terrorist tactics are:

  • Assassinations of important individuals (usually political leaders)
  • Airplane hijackings
  • Bombings
  • Kidnappings and hostage-taking
  • Using vehicles as weapons

Terrorism does not have to be deadly to be considered terrorism, but it frequently is. Violence is one way that terrorist groups get attention.


Terrorist group capabilities have changed throughout history, and their tactics reflect their capabilities at any given moment. One of the first major terrorist attacks was in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1881, when a member of the group 'Narodnaya Volya' detonated a bomb under the carriage of Tsar Alexander II, killing him. Assassinating a political leader is a common tactic for terrorist groups, especially in the early years of terrorism as a phenomenon. Assassination makes a statement and draws attention to terrorist goals, and serves the purpose of symbolically destroying the leadership of an oppressive system.

Airplane Hijackings

After World War II, many terrorist groups began to use a new technology to their advantage: commercial aircraft. Several high profile terrorist attacks occurred where terrorists hijacked airplanes and forced them to divert to their chosen destinations. This was especially common as a tactic used by terrorists sympathetic to Palestinian and communist causes (for example, multiple hijackers in the United States demanded to be flown to Cuba). In the early days of terrorist airplane hijackings, very few lives were lost, as terrorists generally hijacked the airplane and at some point evacuated the passengers and crew. This changed throughout the late 20th-century, as terrorist groups realized they could get more attention with additional violence. The most famous of these attacks were the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington D.C., which killed nearly 3,000 people when members of the Islamic fundamentalist group Al-Qaeda hijacked three airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. A fourth plane was retaken by the passengers on board and crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.


Terrorist groups have long had the capability to make bombs (see the above paragraph about the assassination of Tsar Alexander II). Bombs are a tactic that can inflict maximum damage with minimal effort, and they are transportable. The stereotype of the suicide bomber is well-known (a terrorist who straps a bomb to his or her body, detonating it and killing him or herself along with other victims). Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Bomber, built a large bomb in the back of a rental truck, detonating it outside of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 169 people.

Kidnapping and Hostage-Taking

Terrorists also frequently use kidnapping and hostage-taking as a technique. Sometimes, this is done for revenue purposes: terrorists can request ransoms from families of kidnap victims. Other times, the point of a terrorist kidnapping is more sinister. Terrorist groups can take hostages and kill them. This happened in 1972 at the Munich Olympic Games, when members of the Palestinian Terrorist group Black September took eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage, demanding the release of prisoners held in Israel. All eleven hostages were killed.

Vehicle attacks

Many recent terrorist attacks have used a fairly new tactic: vehicles as weapons. Essentially, a terrorist crashes a vehicle into a crowd of pedestrians, inflicting as much damage as possible. This occurred in Nice, France, on July 14, 2016, when a terrorist linked to the Islamic State drove a large truck into a crowd of pedestrians, killing eighty-six people.

New Types of Weapons

As terrorist groups have become more sophisticated, the risk that they will gain access to weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons) has increased. Keeping these weapons out of the hands of terrorist groups is a main component of anti-terrorist activities today.

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