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Violent Extremist Innovation: A Cross‑Ideological Analysis

Violent Extremist Innovation: A Cross‑Ideological Analysis
20th December 2021 ICSR Team
In Reports

The full report can be accessed here. An overview of its findings can be found here.

Please read on for the Executive Summary.



  • Terrorist actors are constantly innovating to circumvent the state. This paper compares the efforts of both salafi‑jihadi and racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists (REMVE).
  • Salafi‑jihadi actors are innovating more dynamically and potently than their REMVE counterparts.
  • This is mostly due to salafi‑jihadist innovation originating from ungoverned spaces that are permissive environments for terrorist training, innovation and attack‑planning.
  • First deployment of these tactics tends to happen either in active combat zones or in fragile states highly susceptible to terrorist attack.
  • Two case studies are considered in this paper: vehicle‑ramming attacks and the use of drones.



  • Salafi‑jihadis believe that God has commanded them to innovate in all spheres of life (except that of religion). They are therefore promiscuous in their embrace of technology and material output.
  • They distinguish between scientific/material creation, which is neutral – such as a mobile phone, a knife or a vehicle – and civilisational creation, which is linked to a particular viewpoint of religion or life, such as an ornamental crucifix. Innovation with the latter is forbidden, while it is permissible with the former provided the new use does not contradict Islamic law, the sharia.
  • REMVE actors regard innovation as a strategic necessity to ensure the survival of the movement. Innovation is therefore viewed in much more practical terms, as a means to evade capture by state authorities and by which to strike against the state.


Vehicle‑ramming Attack

  • The first use of this as a jihadist tactic can be linked to the 1981 attack on the Iraqi embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, in order to deliver a suicide vehicle‑borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED).
  • This type of attack gained significant popularity after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It has since been used in theatres across the world, including Afghanistan, Somalia and, increasingly, the Chad Basin.
  • Later uses involved deploying vehicles to target civilian populations in the Israeli‑Palestinian conflict before al‑Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula tried to popularise the tactic with a broader audience through its magazine Inspire.
  • The turning point came in 2016 with a terrorist attack in Nice on Bastille Day. A series of similar attacks followed across Europe.



  • REMVE actors have used vehicle attacks since 2017 both as terrorist plots and to target individuals in mass civil protests.
  • The first incident of protester targeting occurred in August 2017 during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
  • Between May and September 2020, around 104 incidences of vehicle‑ramming were recorded, mostly at Black Lives Matter protests.
  • Associated gamification has occurred within the REMVE ecosystem with the creation of games such as Black Lives Splatter, where users are encouraged to run over protesters.
  • Vehicle‑borne terrorist attacks have occurred in the United Kingdom and Canada. The first was in the UK in June 2017 when a van was driven into Muslims leaving a mosque following prayers during the holy month of Ramadan.



  • Drones have seen widespread innovation by Islamic State on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq for three purposes: propaganda, hostile reconnaissance and payload delivery.
  • Propaganda uses relate to the production of high‑quality recruitment videos showcasing Islamic State’s military abilities and, previously, life within its state.
  • Hostile reconnaissance mostly consists of using aerial advantages to understand the battlefield. This includes observing troop movements, lines of attack and the deployment of blockades in urban combat landscapes. Another way Islamic State has used drones in this regard is to use aerial positioning to relay real‑time command and control instructions to fighters on the ground.
  • Drones were also adapted to deliver small payloads, such as grenades, in Syria and Iraq.



  • Innovation by REMVE actors in this regard has been more modest.
  • They have utilised drones for propaganda in more simplistic ways, such as to provide aerial footage of their demonstrations or events before then suggesting that mainstream media outlets have downplayed their numbers.
  • Terrorists have also used drones in a limited number of cases to conduct hostile reconnaissance of targeted sites, such as of mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
  • There was not yet been any REMVE adaptation of drones for payload delivery, which is possibly due to the difficulty of acquiring a suitable payload for such a device in Western countries.

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