Terrorism, by definition, has always used violence to achieve its goal of destabilizing America and the rest of the Western world. In attacks on institutions and values, they hope to spread seeds of discontent or panic with the intent of catalyzing political change, jihad or an uprising against a government. Lone bombers and shooters make the headlines and derail the national conversation endlessly, and the terrorists get the headlines they want for their organization and their oft-horrifying message.
As terrorism is better understood by the public, they are growing wise that panic is exactly the result terrorists want. Attacks certainly make headlines these days, but shortly after the tragedy, they become forgotten bylines. People simply don’t care about terrorist attacks as much as they used to. Like all other things, the public has grown desensitized. America strikes back, but there is little the common person can do.
As the world changes, terrorists need a new strategy, and the more technology-proficient terrorists are turning to cyberterrorism or cybercrime. Similar to Anonymous or other hacking groups throughout the world, they will leak convenient information, steal data, and otherwise wreak havoc online in the name of a political cause. They might not even do it for publicity. Destabilization from an unknown source is a terrifying prospect.
It is also cheap and hard to trace. After an individual terrorist performs a violent act, they might not survive, or if they do, they may spend the rest of their life in a detention facility (hopefully giving up valuable intelligence in the process). Cyberterrorism is the panic that keeps on giving, and all it needs is a laptop and some training time to spread serious problems. These attacks cause more than just viruses and headaches for computer specialists, and the information released can even cause mass panic when applied correctly.
Misinformation–or simply the painful truth–can derail an entire democracy when applied correctly. Comey’s information regarding Hillary Clinton’s email servers during this last election is a clear example of this. For better or for worse, it affected the election in various ways, and it made Trump’s election appear illegitimate to many of his critics. To a neutral observer, it caused chaos and spread panic either way.
While Comey’s acts were obviously not terrorist-related, it does provide evidence of the point that violence is not necessary to cause hysteria. All it takes is a computer and a website like Wikileaks to shift the political zeitgeist immeasurably in the digital age. “Fake news” is in many ways a buzz word, but the concept remains, and a planted story could make a terrorist group look different–even sympathetic in certain situations–in the eyes of the public.
Alternatively, there could be a false threat, or a hack into emergency services, breaking communications systems and causing panic by disabling the structures that American society needs to function. A false health scare could cause economic damage. Conspiracy theories spread like wildfire, and a dedicated terrorist knows how to fan those flames. America is built upon faith in the core system resting on the notion that America will be defended and our sacred rights will be protected. Terrorism drives a stake through the heart of this faith.
In this frightening digital age, people will likely learn to protect themselves as best they can. They will upgrade their security or use proxies to protect their families, but they will always be questioning what they hear from the media or what they read online. The distrust will grow, and some will succumb to terrorist propaganda. The panic will continue to spread slowly, especially given America’s current toxic political climate. Terrorists want a divided America that is dependent on the government and its programs, and that’s the present state of the nation.
Without political change from the top to the bottom, America is going to eventually collapse under the weight of its own government and its own debt. Terrorists understand this better than myopic big-government advocates, and terrorists are often fine with waiting in the weeds for the right moment to strike. They do not need to do a thing as long as America is creating fear for itself in the form of dependency and over-regulation. Why poke a sleeping giant too hard when they can just wait for it to waste away?
America needs to be careful of where it is going, and careful about what it will accept. Terrorists have adapted strategies, and state-sponsored terror will have a new face soon.