How has the character of conflict changed since 9/11?

Written by Kanyinsola Adetunmbi

Conflict is a reality of society, which could have numerous sides and participants. However, this essay will assess the characteristics of conflict specifically from the angle of the United States and the threat of terrorism and insurgency.  The 9/11 attacks were a significant moment in the change of paradigm of war and conflict. 19 terrorists, funded and affiliated with the Al Qaeda Islamist extremist group hijacked three American airlines loaded with 20,000 gallons of jet fuel and crashed into the World Trade Centre twin towers, and the Pentagon, killing over 3,000 American civilians (History, 2010). This attack on US soil catapulted terrorism and insurgency to the forefront of discourse on war and conflict.

Insurgency and terrorism are some of the most prominent forms of conflict in the 21st century. However, they also existed long before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. With this in mind, what then is so distinct about conflict today and what differentiates the conflicts seen today from previous types of wars such as WW1 and WW2? Using concepts such as ‘Hybrid Wars,’ and ‘War among the people,’ this essay will illustrate how conflict has changed, and some of the characteristics of conflict post 9/11 which makes it different from previous forms of conflict.

Kanyinsola Adetunmbi has a degree in International Relations from the University of Sussex and is currently working at Youngstars Development Initiative in Nigeria. Her interests include children rights, equal gender representation in public and private sector, and developmental issues in Africa. 

Also, though written in the early 19th century, the Clausewitzian concept of the character and nature of war is arguably applicable to the modern day conflict. Though this perspective rightly illustrates that there are fundamental and unchanging aspects of war such as its political objectives. Nonetheless, the changing aspect of conflict should not be underplayed. This school of thought on war and conflict acknowledges the nature of conflict as ‘more than a chameleon…’ and thereby in line with the concept of war as ‘evolutionary, not revolutionary’ (Hammes, 2006).

Thus, this essay will illustrate that conflict has changed in the post 9/11 era, and the very nature of conflict is that it is subject to change, depending on its period and context.

Hybrid Wars/ 4GW

According to the United States National Defense strategy of March 2005, the September 11 attack was a rude awakening that caused the US to realize it was at war (The Department of Defense, 2005). The enemy being a ‘complex network of ideologically driven extremist actors’ who deployed several means to sabotage the global interest, terrorize and threaten the partnerships of the US (ibid, p.7). Thus, the post 9/11 era has witnessed the prevalence of conflict which is characterised by a ‘fusion’ of wars that has blurred the lines between regular and irregular conflict, it deploys a mix of conventional and traditional tactics, and is predominantly characterised by Non-State Actors (NSA) (Hoffman, p. 7, 2007). According to writers like Hoffman 2007, conflict in the 21st century should be understood as ‘Hybrid Wars’ whereby NSA such as Al Qaeda, though irregular may try to engage in conventional types of warfare. While, traditional states such as the US may resort to both conventional and unconventional forms of warfare (Hoffman, 2007). This characteristic of conflict is distinctly different from older warfare as seen during the World Wars, and Cold War, which primarily involved traditional nation-states, as opposed to the prevalence of NSA as belligerents in the 21st century.

In the absence of a global definition, terrorism can be distinguished from other forms of violence based on factors such as its premeditation, its desire to create an environment of fear, attack on civilians, and its desire for political change (Wilkinson, 2006). Terrorism is a phenomenon of society which dates back as early as the 19th century, with evidence from the Irish patriots of 1858, and the Russian Revolution of 1917 both which deployed ‘terrorism’ as a means of rebellion against repressive regimes (Laqueur, 2007). Also, in the 19th and 20th century, prior to the 9/11 attack, religious terrorism was merely a ‘localized phenomenon’ thus, Islamist terrorism is a reality that is not solely peculiar to the post 9/11 era. Instead, it is a phenomenon that is dated back centuries before (ibid, p.30). However, the 9/11 terrorist attacks are significant in the discourse of modern-day conflict because it represented the moment an unconventional NSA such as Al Qaeda, challenged the a unipolar power of the United States, thereby causing a change in the paradigm of conflict, and introducing the US defence on the Global War on Terror (GWOT), which will be discussed further on (Ozkan, 2016).

As stated earlier, terrorism is not new. Nonetheless, there are characteristics of terrorism as a means of conflict post 9/11, which are distinct to the 21st-century era, and thus exemplifying how the characteristic of conflict has changed. One distinct aspect of terrorist attacks in the post 9/11 era is the indoctrination and use of children for acts of terrorism. Modern-day terrorist groups such as ISIS- an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and Boko Haram, located in West Africa are known to deploy this method (Bloom and Horgan, 2015). The vulnerability of children, which makes them easier to be indoctrinated into the ideology of these terrorist groups, their unconscious knowledge of mortality, and the less likely chance to resist or forsake the cause has led to the growing rise of ‘child soldiers’ in terrorist attacks post 9/11 (ibid). For instance, on the 15th of January 2015, a video surfaced on the Internet featuring a 10-year-old boy from Kazakhstan executing two Russian members of ISIS accused of being informers (Bloom and Horgan, 2015). Furthermore, Boko Haram, a terrorist group, which operates predominantly in Nigeria, and other neighboring countries such as Chad, admitted to masterminding the suicide bombings involving two Northern Nigerian girls, just two days afterward (ibid). By desensitizing these children to acts of violence such as beheadings and killings. This, in turn, prepares them to become the next generation of terrorists (ibid). According to Sawicki (2016), the use of children as suicide bombers as at late 2013 was very rare, for instance, the use of children suicide bombers in Pakistan became visible in late 2000. Another example of the increase of child suicide bombers post 9/11 is the case of Boko Haram terrorist group. Following its kidnapping of 200 school girls in 2014, there was a sharp rise in its use of children to further its agenda.  (Sawicki, 2016).  Among other things, children offer tactical advantage to terrorist groups as they can carry explosives without fear of suspicion. and thus can approach specific targets with more ease (ibid).  This is one example of the way conflict has changed post 9/11, whereby terrorist groups take advantage of children.

Furthermore, the advent of technological age in the 21st century has led to an expansion of the battlefield and complicating its dynamics. It has also led to an increment in the number of participants due to faster means of communication (Turitto, 2010). Statistics show that over the last decade, terrorist websites have increased from less than 100 to about 4,800 (Kaplan, 2009). Though these figures may be an exaggeration, there is undoubtedly an unprecedented sharp rise in the Internet activity of terrorists’ post 9/11 (Kaplan, 2009). Terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda have taken advantage and used this medium for easy recruitment, bomb-making tutorials, fundraising, coordination of attacks and the spread of messages and videos, which promote its ideology (ibid). Al Qaeda’s media arm, known as ‘Al Sahab’ is one of the most effective and functioning terrorist media outlets today (Kaplan, 2009). According to John Arquilla, a professor in defense analysis, the Internet is very useful in enabling terrorists as it exposes them to a larger pool of donors and recruits alike. For instance, some websites use the popular online payment portal today; PayPal in receiving donations (Kaplan, 2009). Thus, though the Internet existed before the 9/11 attacks, terrorist groups have exploited technological advancement in their strategic and tactical approach to conflict. Therefore, this shows how conflict post 9/11 is characterized by features that were not previously so.

Among other factors, these are some of the significant characteristics of terrorism as a form of conflict post 9/11, thus highlighting the changing nature of global conflict.

According to writers like Hammes, these peculiar characteristics of conflict in the 21st century should be understood as Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW), a lengthy, advanced and evolved form of insurgency which employs all feasible means; including political, military and socio-economic aspects to hinder policy decision makers of the enemy from the attaining its strategic goals (Hammes, 2006, p. 2). This form of warfare is also rooted in the integral perception that the efficient use of political will can defeat a more advanced military and economic power (ibid). Thus, this form of warfare which was conceptualised by Mao Tse Tung before WW2 has been adjusted, refined and modified by subsequent co-combatants in different parts of the world, and the Al Qaeda network is one of the latest to adopt this form of warfare (ibid, p. 4).

U.S Military Intervention

Having established some of the distinct characteristics of conflict in the 21st century, which symbolise that conflict has changed from the perspective of belligerents such as Al Qaeda and ISIS, it is also imperative to assess the changing nature of conflict in the 9/11 era from the perspective of intervening powers such as the US. The 9/11 events were highly significant in the discourse of conflict as it symbolizes the threat Hybrid Wars pose to superpowers. Thus, this essay will now explore the characteristics of conflict from the perspective of the US in response to terrorism, and its fight against the GWOT.

Post 9/11, there are distinct trends in the nature of US military operations in response to the threat of transnational terrorism, as opposed to earlier forms. This is arguable because the war is now ‘among the people’ (Smith, 2006).  This blurring of lines between civilians and combatants has significant implications for the nature of US military responses to the threat of terrorism. Consequently, response requires a less strategic, but more complex engagement (ibid).

Firstly, during the era of industrial warfare in the early 19th century, the political objective of participant countries was attained by simultaneously attaining the strategic military target, and thus leading to an opponent conforming to the political will of its counterpart (Smith, 2006). For instance, during WW1 and WW2, opposing parties sought to be victorious on the battlefield with the understanding that this achievement would lead to a change in political outcome (Smith, 2006, p. 270). However, in the post 9/11 conflict era, war and military engagement, against the threat of terrorism are conducted for ‘softer, malleable and sub-strategic aims’ (Smith, 2006). In other words, US military intervention is conducted in order to create a condition where its political intentions and objectives can be attained; some of these intentions could be political, economic or diplomatic driven aspirations and ultimately democratic (Smith, 2006, p. 270).

For instance, the Iraq War of 2003, which was subsequent to the 9/11 attacks, exemplifies this. Among other factors, the invasion which was led by the US sought to accomplish democratic objectives and annihilate the threat of growing terrorist threat within the region. It also sought to protect oil-related economic relations within the region and the US (Bassil, 2011). Thus, unlike earlier industrial wars which were aimed at creating states, and ending threats like Fascism and the Ottoman empire (Smith, 2006), military engagement from countries such as the US usually serve sub-strategic and ‘softer’ goals, in order to create a condition where socio-political and economic objectives can be attained as opposed to clear-cut strategic goals which were more prevalent prior to the 9/11 attacks (ibid).

Secondly, another feature of military engagement is the blurring of lines between civilians and combatants. Post 9/11, increasingly US military engagements in response to threats is characterised by the fact that the battlefield is amongst the people, and could be anywhere (Smith, 2006). The guerrilla fighter, a current participant in the 21st century conflict, seeks to be concealed among the people, moves among, and as part of the people in order to avoid suspicion (ibid). Also, these participants seek to move freely among people who share the same ideology and cause in an overt form, as seen in Al Qaeda in Afghanistan under the Taliban (Smith, p. 282, 2006). Consequently, US military engagements could take place against guerrillas disguised as civilians, moving amongst civilians, and also unintentionally against civilians. This is due to the camouflaged nature of guerrillas amongst the people (Smith, 2006, p. 278).

Furthermore, subsequent debates following the 9/11 attacks, were centered around illiteracy, poverty and socio-economic deprivation as the ‘root cause’ of insurgency and terrorism (Strachan and Scheipers, 2011). However, according to writers like Laqueur (2003), this often-referenced attribution of terrorism is due to Western guilt on the legacy of imperialism. Rather, studies have shown a correlation between employed, educated, and financially comfortable individuals and members of terrorist organisations (Strachan and Scheipers, 2011, p. 286). For instance, Ayman Al-Zawhari, current leader of Al Qaeda is a trained surgeon. Also, evidence gathered by a UN aid worker in Gaza Palestine observed that none of the 9/11 bombers were ‘uneducated, poor, depressed or simple-minded’ or displayed suicidal tendencies. Rather, they were regular members of their family, while two in particular, were sons of millionaires (Strachan and Scheipers, p. 290, 2011). The guerrilla fighter, in this case, uses this tactic in order to ‘neutralize the strength of the opponent,’ which in this case is the United States (Smith, 2006). Thus, in modern day conflict, the blurring of lines between combatants and non-combatants necessitates a more complex type of US military engagement.

Another essential characteristic of conflict post 9/11 is the role of the media and information technology era in the 21st century and how this affects the dynamics of modern day conflict. With the advent of media, and the growing prevalence of the Internet, the reality of conflict has been brought to the homes of civilians, including electorates and politicians in real-time (Smith, p. 284, 2006). Thus, leaders are sometimes influenced by what they see, and by the perceived response of the people. Consequently, they respond and make decisions based on these perceptions (ibid). Occasionally, decision makers act and make decisions based on their purpose and objective (Smith,  2006, p. 284). Also, due to the availability and accessibility of media and Internet sources in the 21st century, information regarding conflicts could be distorted due to personal bias or misinterpreted due to a lack of knowledge or information (ibid, p. 285). However, the presence of 24-hour media is also crucial to intervening countries such as the US because it is an imperative tool in attaining its political objective of ‘winning the will of the people’ (ibid). In other words, from the perspective of intervening countries such as the US, 24-hour media is a medium to show the electorates their side of the conflict, and also the threat of the opposing party of the conflict. This is enabled by the nature of modern day media and information technology.

Additionally, another important characteristic of conflict post 9/11 is the increasing use of advanced technology against opponents. Specifically, the US is forefront in the development and use of advanced technology in fighting transnational terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda (Turitto, 2010). Following the 9/11 attacks, the US began an extensive use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), commonly referred to as drones in its effort to combat the Global War on Terror (GWOT) in the Middle East (Callam, 2010). The 9/11 attacks presented a rude awakening and necessitated the demand for advanced technology to hunt down ‘terrorists’ in rural and ungoverned areas of Afghanistan (ibid). During the first year of its operations, the American Air Force was able to hit an approximate of 115 Afghanistan targets. Also, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) made use of the drones to target Al Qaeda personnel in the Middle East (Callam, 2010). In November 2002, a US drone was responsible for the execution of a member of Al Qaeda, who was a suspect in the USS Cole bombing of 2000, an attack against the US (ibid). While further evidence showed the use of drones by the US in February 2017 which killed a top Al Qaeda official in Yemen (The Sun, 2017).

However, antagonists of the significant use of technology in modern day conflicts argue that the US is in the middle of a 4GW, and America’s hastiness to embrace its technological capabilities as the solution to all its problems overlooks historical, cultural factors (Hammes, 2006). Seeing as conflict post 9/11 are ‘timeless’ (Smith, 2006) and require a long period of time, the US will also need to employ human skills and knowledge, and not just technology in order to be victorious (ibid, p. 109).

Amongst others, these are some of the changing characteristics of conflict post 9/11 from the perspective of an intervening power such as the US. However, a different perspective on the fundamental aspect of war would argue that there is an underlying role of politics in war, regardless of time (Maxwell, n.d). This introduces the counter-argument of the concept of conflict as being fundamentally constant.


The notion that the September 11 attacks represented a new form of conflict and warfare is as an on-going debate that can be argued and analysed from different perspectives. One of them being the understanding that the 9/11 terrorist attacks should not have been a surprise to the world but seen as a logical and expected progression of conflict  (Hammes, 2006, p. 130). One angle in illustrating this continual nature of conflict is the 19th century Clausewitzian perspective of war as ‘a continuation of policy by other means’ and a process of compelling our enemies to do our will. This concept was relevant prior to 9/11 and is still very much applicable in post 9/11 conflict, and thus counters the concept of conflict post 9/11 as new (Teta, 2016).

Firstly, among other factors such as ‘hostility, chance and purpose’, which symbolise the nature of war (Echevarria, 2007), Clausewitz’ concept of war as ‘policy by other means’ highlights the political dimension of war, which is a constant characteristic of conflict irrespective of the era or time frame involved (Oldemeinen, 2012). In the War on Terror, Al Qaeda’s underlying objective was to organise and assemble the Islamic nation to rise in rebellion against US interference and involvement in matters of the Islamic world (Echevarria, 2007, cited in Oldemeinen, 2012). Meanwhile, the United States’ aim is to combat terrorism, reduce it to a local, unsponsored issue, and also influence all governments and international organisations in maintaining a policy of no tolerance and patience for terrorism (ibid). Thus it is evident that both sides of this conflict exhibit Clausewitz’ notion of war as ‘policy by other means’, whereby conflict is a political instrument used to attain the intentions of each participant; thus the political aim is the objective/end and conflict is the means (Online Library of Liberty, 2016, Oldemeinen, 2012).  Consequently, this negates the perspective of conflict in the 21st century as new, as this shows a fundamental trend, which has always been.

Secondly, another factor to consider while assessing the relevance of 19th century Clausewitzian concept of conflict post 9/11, which is characterised by the ‘War on Terror,’ is the way in which the US has responded to the threat (ibid). By referring and regarding transnational terrorist attacks as a ‘war’ and referring to Al Qaeda and subsequent terrorist groups such as ISIS as an ‘enemy,’ the US has therefore attributed ‘traditional state-centric,’ and the Clausewitzian concept of warfare to the perpetrators (Oldemeinen, 2012) and thereby applied Clausewitzian rhetoric of ‘Old Wars,’ to conflict post 9/11 (ibid). Thus, in this case, the Clausewitzian analysis of war is still relevant in the 21st century. Moreover, the fundamental aspect of the role of emotions such as ‘Hostility’ in driving participants to engage in conflict is just as relevant in the Clausewitzian 19th century as it is today (Clausewitz, 1976, cited in Oldemeinen, 2012). Whereby opposing sides, i.e. the US and Al Qaeda, are driven to war due to hostile feelings and intentions, with the aim of ‘rendering its opponent helpless.’ These are characteristics of the GWOT waged against Al Qaeda, and also against the US, which is a feature of conflict prior to the 9/11, attacks  (Oldemeinen, 2012), thus showing a constant nature of conflict.

Though these are accurate depictions for similar trends in conflict prior to and post 9/11, the fact still remains that the characteristics of conflict in the 21st century are characterised by factors such as technological advancement, the advent of child soldiers, the blurring of lines between state and non state, combatants and civilians, etc. which differ fro conflict pre 9/11. Thus, it will suffice to understand war as ‘more than a chameleon’ which is capable of altering its physical appearance, i.e. characteristics, and also susceptible to change in its nature depending on its context (Echevarria, 2007). In other words, conflict does not assume a single pattern, rather each era witness’s conflict that has unique characteristics, and varying in its very nature depending on its peculiar context (ibid). This perspective is also in line with the concept of war as a phenomenon of society that is evolutionary, rather than revolutionary (Hammes, p. 207, 2006). Consequently, the character of conflict post 9/11 has changed, and this resonates with the Clausewitzian concept of war as ‘more than a Chameleon.’


In conclusion, the characteristics of conflict post 9/11 have changed. This change is evident in both opposing sides of conflict in the 21st century, i.e belligerents such as Al Qaeda, and intervening powers such as the US. Insurgency and terrorism are some of the most prominent types of conflict experienced in modern times, and concepts such as ‘Hybrid wars’ and 4GW have exemplified that though terrorism and insurgency existed before, their characteristics have changed due to factors such as technological advancement, media, and the concept of ‘war among the people’ (Smith, 2006). In other words, insurgency and terrorism are forms of conflict, which existed before 9/11. However, they have ‘evolved’ regarding their characteristics to suit this era. This understanding of the constantly changing nature of conflict resonates with the Clausewitzian concept of was as ‘more than a chameleon,’ which makes it capable of changing both its external (characteristics) and internal (nature) features.

Kanyinsola Adetunmbi has a degree in International Relations from the University of Sussex and is currently working at Youngstars Development Initiative in Nigeria. Her interests include children rights, equal gender representation in public and private sector, and developmental issues in Africa. 


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