The Weapons and Tactics Used by Terrorists

Terrorists prefer lightweight, inexpensive weapons.

Travel safety in Asia / AK-47
Photo by Alex07 / Wikimedia Commons

Terrorism involves the use of force or threats to demoralize, intimidate, and subjugate, particularly as a political weapon. But terrorism, itself, is an all-encompassing term that can refer to any number of tactics with which you may or may not be familiar. For example, what's a dirty bomb? Why is hijacking an effective terrorist tactic? Where does the association between terrorists and AK-47s come from? Find the answers in this brief summary of terrorist tactics and weapons.

AK-47 Assault Rifles

Initially used by the Red Army, the AK-47 and its variants were exported widely to other Warsaw Pact nations during the Cold War. Due to its relatively simple design and compact size, the AK-47 became the favored weapon of many of the world's militaries. Though the Red Army elected to move away from the AK-74 during the 1970s, it remains in widespread military use with other nations—and with terrorists.


The late 19th century saw a wave of political violence inspired by anarchist ideas, which were soon labeled anarchist terrorism. A few early assassinations included:

  • The assassination of Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1881
  • The assassination of the French president Marie-Francois Sadi Carnot in 1884
  • The assassination of U.S. president William McKinley in September 1901 by an anarchist, Leon Czolgosz

These assassinations led to fear among governments worldwide that there existed a vast international conspiracy of anarchist terrorists. There was never such a conspiracy, but different terrorist groups have long adopted and used this effective method of spreading fear.

Car Bombings

The news is filled with reports of car bombings in the Middle East and in other countries, such as Northern Ireland, before that. Terrorists use this tactic because it is effective in spreading fear. For example, the 1998 Omagh car bombing in Northern Ireland killed 29 people. In April 1983, a truck bomb demolished the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people. On Oct. 23, 1983, simultaneous truck bombings killed 241 American soldiers and 58 French paratroopers in their Beirut barracks. American forces withdrew shortly after.

Dirty Bombs

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission defines a dirty bomb as a radiological weapon "that combines conventional explosives, such as dynamite, with radioactive material." The agency explains that a dirty bomb is nowhere near as powerful as a nuclear device, which creates an explosion that is millions of times more powerful than that of a dirty bomb. And, no one has ever deployed a conventional explosive laced with radioactive material, says ​Nova. But, plenty of would-be terrorists have attempted to steal radioactive material to create such a bomb.


Since the 1970s, terrorists have been using hijacking as a means to achieve their ends. For example, on Sept. 6, 1970, terrorists belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) simultaneously hijacked three jetliners shortly after they took off from European airports en route to the United States. A couple of years before that, on July 22, 1968, PFLP members hijacked an El Al Israel Airline plane departing from Rome and headed for Tel Aviv. And, of course, the 9/11 attacks were, essentially, hijackings. Since those attacks, increased security at airports has made hijackings more difficult, but they are an ever-present danger and a favored method of terrorists.

Improvised Explosive Devices

Terrorists' use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) is so widespread that the U.S. military has a  group of soldiers called explosive ordnance disposal specialists whose job it is to seek out and destroy IEDs and other similar weapons. The specialists have been used extensively in Iraq and Afganistan where terrorists have made wide use of IEDs as a method of spreading fear, chaos, and destruction.

Rocket Propelled Grenades

Islamic extremists used rocket-propelled grenades to attack a crowded mosque in Egypt’s northern Sinai in November 2017, killing 235 people, mainly worshipers struck down as they tried to flee. The devices, with roots dating back to the American bazooka and German panzerfaust, are popular with terrorists because they inexpensive-to-make, easy-to-buy, single-shot devices that can take out tanks, and wound or kill many people as the Sinai attack demonstrated.

Suicide Bombers

In Israel, terrorists began using suicide bombers in the mid-1990s, and there have been dozens of these deadly attacks in that country since then. But the tactic dates back further: Modern suicide bombings were introduced by Hezbullah in 1983 in Lebanon, notes the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Since then, there have been hundreds of suicide bombings in a more than a dozen countries perpetrated by nearly 20 different organizations. The tactic is a favored one by terrorists because it's deadly, causes widespread chaos, and is difficult to defend against.

Surface-to-Air Missiles

In 2016, Al Qaeda used surface-to-air missiles to shoot down an Emirati fighter jet in Yemen. The French-made Mirage jet, flying in the air force of the United Arab Emirates, crashed into a mountainside just outside the southern port city of Aden after the attack, the "Independent" noted, adding:

"The incident raises the specter of other jihadist branches accessing sophisticated surface-to-air missiles in Syria, Iraq and further afield."

Indeed, "The Times of Israel" said that Al Qaeda possessed many of these missiles by 2013 and even fired a surface-to-air missile at an Isreali airliner carrying Israelis from Kenya in 2002.

Cars and Trucks

Increasingly, terrorists are using vehicles as weapons, to drive into crowds and kill or injure in large numbers. It's a terrifying tactic as it's available to virtually anyone and requires very little advance training or preparation. 

According to CNN, the ISIS is to blame for the majority of such attacks, including one in Nice in 2016 that killed 84 souls.

Domestic terrorists have also used this approach. A white supremacist killed Heather Heyer when he plowed into a group of protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Also that year, a man plowed into bikers with a van in New York City, killing eight and injuring 11.