General Joseph L. Votel, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, graciously delivered the keynote speech at the 2015 Senior Conference and took the opportunity to set out the gravity and scope of the issue under consideration. The article below is adapted from his speech.
I’d like to start by posing a basic question to this distinguished audience. What makes an effective terrorist? Now, I don’t necessarily mean that question in the way you might first consider.
You might think that I’m asking you to reflect on ideology, socio-economic factors or a general sense of disenfranchisement, but that’s not quite where I’m heading. Personally, I do not think there is a singular or consistent cause for terrorism.
Nor do I believe that the impact of their actions defines an effective terrorist. A suicide bomber who drives headlong into a crowded market is really no different than a suicidal maniac who attacks a classroom full of kids. I really mean: In the end, what allows a terrorist to achieve his or her objective?
As I reflect on acts of terrorism over the last 40 years—and there have been too many of them—I note two common characteristics: the targeting of innocents and the factor of surprise. Several case studies illustrate these commonalities.
In 1972, Palestinian terrorists from the Black September group broke into the Munich Olympic Village and stormed the Israeli dormitory. They took 11 hostages, eventually killing them all, along with a German policeman. This event, carried out on the world stage through televised coverage of the Olympics, literally brought terrorism into our homes in real time.
Thirteen years later, on October 7, 1985, four men representing the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF) hijacked the MS Achille Lauro off the coast of Egypt and demanded that the vessel set course for Tartus, Syria.
Before the hijacking was over, one elderly American passenger had been killed, pushed overboard in his wheelchair.
A decade later, on April 19, 1995, American citizen Timothy McVeigh, assisted by Terry Nichols, angered by FBI actions at Ruby Ridge and Waco earlier in the decade, detonated a rental truck full of explosives outside of the Alfred R. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people—including a large number of children in a daycare center.
And we are all far too familiar with the more recent attacks conducted in our homeland. The horrendous violence on September 11, 2001 and two years ago in Boston both trace their origin to religious fanaticism.
Unfortunately, that fanaticism and violence continues today, as the Islamic State, a group we knew almost nothing about 18 months ago, and their adherents use car bombs, explosives, beheadings, hostage taking, and lone wolf attacks to further their aspirations.
But what do all of these terrorists have in common? It’s not the way in which they planned or executed their attacks. It is not who they targeted. It is certainly not that the PLF, Timothy McVeigh, Usama bin Laden, the Tsarnaev brothers, or ISIL share some common underlying ideology.
The simple, unfortunate threads of continuity are twofold. First, although they were motivated by different beliefs and ideologies and pursued different objectives, they extended those beliefs into behavior that we find unacceptable—the targeting of innocent persons.
The second characteristic is less obvious, but perhaps more disturbing. It’s that we were surprised by each of these events, and that we continue to be surprised to this day. With 14 continuous years of experience fighting terrorist networks, how is it that we were unable to see the rapid rise and growing prominence of ISIL?
Inside this is also the answer to my rhetorical question. What makes a terrorist effective is unpredictability, surprise, and the exploitation of things that are common to us, but which we often take for granted.
I don’t know if I can describe what terrorism will be or look like in the future. Historically, we don’t do particularly well at this. Why is that? Why do we fail to anticipate actions that so directly threaten our security?
Well, as Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions…especially about the future.” In all seriousness, it is really hard to predict what people will do—particularly when we can’t always define their motivation and inspiration.
There are, actually, many factors that contribute to this shortfall. One of the biggest factors is our tendency to myopically focus on a singular root cause, to find that one answer to the “why” question and then attempt to apply a laser focus on that one cause while effectively ignoring other potential reasons.
Our focus on ideology is a great example of this. Sunni-Wahhabism is in vogue today, and is winning our attention right now, but I am not so sure I agree that it is the singular root cause for terrorism.
In fact, I’m not sure there is ever a singular root cause. What about the results of rampant unemployment? Dissatisfaction with corrupt or oppressive government regimes? Social or cultural disenfranchisement?
There are three broad reasons why I think we continue to have problems in effectively predicting and preventing terrorism. They have to do with adaptability, persistence, and imagination.
Complex threats continue to evolve and manifest in ways we don’t completely understand. Terrorism has survived and evolved throughout the ages.
From Guy Fawkes and his Gunpowder plot of 1605 to the attacks on our consulate in Erbil in April, terrorist groups adapt and exploit developments in technology, culture, and social norms.
Terrorists also persistently improve on tried and true methods, developing new and innovative ways to execute their attacks. The evolution of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) is a case in point.
In 14 years we have seen terrorists go from crude exploitation of military ordnance to factory-manufactured devices designed to penetrate top level armor, and experiments with body bombs.
This evidence simply drives home the point that terrorists have always adapted their methods, techniques, and approaches to match the tools and opportunities of the day. We should not expect anything else in the future. Complexity makes it easier for them.
Terrorist groups have also evolved—more of today’s groups are disassociated from nation-states and are becoming singular influences in their own right. ISIL not only coerces and subjugates its victims to an ideology, but it also seeks to govern physical space. They are adapting to a perceived need and attempting to fill space left vacant by sovereign governments.
In addition, the social media boom has allowed terrorists to recruit and communicate better and faster. And they are learning—they learn from their mistakes and lack of operational security. They are self-aware. They remain anonymous and adapt to their environs. Their organizations exploit our complex hyper-connected world and metastasize like a cancer.
For many reasons—legal, cultural, bureaucratic, or financial—we have not adapted well or quickly. Even though we recognize the tools and methods the terrorists are exploiting, it’s frequently difficult to connect all the dots.
It’s even more difficult to maintain focus on the problem for the long term. Our inability to persistently apply pressure often allows individuals and groups to surprise us with their actions and capabilities.
The evolution of the Red Brigades, a paramilitary organization born in Italy in the 1970s, is one example of this dynamic. The Red Brigades gradually lapsed into inactivity through the 1980s and 1990s.
However, a decade after their supposed demise, a new group emerged calling itself the “Anti-Capitalist Attack Nuclei.” This group materialized, seemingly from nowhere, exhibiting a continuity of ideology, symbols, and communication styles with the allegedly defunct Red Brigades. Some individuals from this new entity were even known to have been original Red Brigade members.
We’re seeing a very similar phenomenon today in the way that al-Qa`ida in Iraq and others resurrected to form a core under the banner of ISIL.
Our political system, news media, and national attention are consistently drawn to the next crisis and have little patience for dealing with long-term issues. This tendency affects budgets, resources, and our talented people. The terrorists know this, they exploit it, and they keep pressing forward.
Acts of terrorism, both large and small, come at us from almost every direction, and in creative ways that we often don’t anticipate.
One of the findings from the 9/11 commission concluded that we simply lacked the imagination, and belief, to envision that a group of terrorists would learn to operate large commercial passenger airliners and then fly them into tall buildings where thousands worked.
This led us to collectively dismiss intelligence reports pointing in that direction.  The lesson that 9/11 taught us is that saying “that will never happen” is only ever true until it does.
Over the last 18 months we have seen more than 23,000 persons converge on the Levant in response to ISIL’s call for action. What do we imagine they will do when they return to their homelands?
We do not spend enough time considering all of the contributing factors—looking through social and cultural lenses, studying and mastering technologies, understanding the multiplicity of ideologies, or connecting local to regional to global events—at least not quickly and efficiently enough to be predictive and preventive.
Implications for the Future
I firmly believe that the ability of terrorists to rapidly adapt in our complex world, combined with our lack of persistence and imagination, will continue to create blind spots in our counterterrorism efforts. The implications of these gaps are significant.
Terrorist attacks, like the case studies mentioned earlier, are a reflection of the kind of terrorism we’re familiar with today. But, we can ill afford to think that we will continue to face the same foes in the same way using the same tactics.
In the future, we will have to come to grips with new types of terrorists, such as the computer-savvy individual who knows how to exploit rapid technological advances and the ubiquity of the internet. Terrorists in the future will be even more sophisticated and will continually improve their capabilities in virtually all aspects of their operations and support.
As societies become more connected and interdependent, many more will become aware of their cultural disenfranchisement and economic disadvantages. Across the country and around the globe, connected youth are becoming more and more desensitized to unacceptable and violent behavior through absorption of various electronic inputs, to include streaming news, entertainment mediums, and video games.
Computerized traffic and public safety systems and electronic banking will be among the new terrorist targets. It might be that the spectacular attack in the future will lie not in how many people you kill or injure, but in how effectively you can paralyze major urban areas by changing a few ones and zeros, or potentially disrupt the functions of financial systems. Just imagine the lasting impacts of those types of events happening without warning.
The incredible proliferation of devices that connect us to the “internet of everything” will be both tools and targets for terrorists. Experts say that by 2020 there will be more than 40 billion wirelessly connected devices, and that all of them could be easily hacked. 
In the future, we should think of disparate and isolated “lone wolves,” still independent, anonymous, and elusive, but now connected to each other in cyberspace—forming “wolf packs.”
These packs can share tactics, techniques, and procedures with one another, instantaneously move resources across the web anonymously—all while they collectively plan and execute their attacks.
What Can We Do?
Just because we have not always been successful at countering violence in the past does not mean we should not strive to do better in the future. In the near term, we must contain the use of violence and oppression—unilaterally, multi-laterally, by, with, and through.
We must disable and counter propaganda and information operations. We must address known causal factors by strengthening vulnerable populations and improving their ability to identify, characterize, attribute, and defend against terror networks and threats.
Our counter-terrorism architectures and capabilities will need to be more agile and more integrated. We need a common strategy. Understanding this complex environment will require mature global networks and effective links with our interagency teammates and partner nations—allowing rapid synchronization of information across agency, regional, national, and international boundaries.
Often this will mean working with non-traditional partners. But, by leveraging a global network that is already present in every region of the world, we can create the time and space necessary to address poor governance issues that have contributed to the emergence of threats such as Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and others.
Our whole-of-government efforts aimed at addressing violent extremism must work better and in conjunction with each other. It is imperative that we share a common operational view—across U.S. agencies and with our international partners—of vulnerable populations and ensure our limited resources are applied to assist those governments and areas in addressing circumstances that lead to increased motivation and opportunity for terrorists.
Given that many foreign terrorist fighters or “want to be” fighters and supporters virtually document everything on social media, we must confront the issue of privacy versus public safety.
We are going to live in a world that is more connected than ever before, and this connectivity will make us more vulnerable. But it also offers us a means to overcome and, ultimately, silence and defeat the dissatisfied few who we identify as terrorists. We must contest this space and own it.
How we arrive at a less violent and more harmonious existence in the future rests on the shoulders of the men and women on the frontlines against terrorism. But the outcome will only be as good as our aim.
Practitioners in large part rely on organizations such as the Combating Terrorism Center to establish the intellectual underpinnings of this field, allowing us to better know the enemy, and helping us best direct our precious resources.
We can become more effective at preventing attacks if we can utilize the collective imagination of our network to build the partnerships and processes we need.
We must also maintain the proper perspective, understanding that this is a global problem that will require global solutions.
If we’re able to do these things and maintain our persistence, understanding that this is an enduring conflict (a “long war” as General John Abizaid  often reminds us), and if we can learn from our past mistakes, not only in countering ideology, but in identifying the multitude of motivations, tools, and techniques that enable them to do harm, we have a chance to forestall the effects of violent extremism.
Our nation is depending on us and I look forward to being a partner in this effort.
General Votel is commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), headquartered at MacDill AFB, Tampa, Florida. A native of St. Paul, Minnesota, General Votel attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and was commissioned in 1980 as an Infantry Officer.
As a general officer he served in the Pentagon as the Director of the Army and Joint IED Defeat Task Force and subsequently as the Deputy Director of the Joint IED Defeat Organization established under the Deputy Secretary of Defense.
He served as the Deputy Commanding General (Operations), 82d Airborne Division / CJTF-82, Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, Afghanistan and was subsequently assigned as the Deputy Commanding General of the Joint Special Operations Command, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. His most recent prior assignment was as the Commanding General of the Joint Special Operations Command.
 The 9/11 Commission Report, pp. 339-348.
 “Internet of Things By The Numbers: Market Estimates And Forecasts,” Forbes, August 22, 2014.
 “Gen. John Abizaid Speaks on Leadership and Current Hot Spots,” Claremont McKenna University College, May 2, 2013.