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Illusions of Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism$

Richard English

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780197265901

Published to University Press Scholarship Online: May 2016

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197265901.001.0001

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date: 29 May 2020

How and Why Do Terrorist Campaigns End?

How and Why Do Terrorist Campaigns End?

(p.111) 7 How and Why Do Terrorist Campaigns End?
Illusions of Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism

Audrey Kurth Cronin

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

In order to assess terrorist groups within a broad historical and strategic framework, it is vital to assess how and why terrorist campaigns end. Moreover, if effective counter-terrorism is to be developed, then serious reflection is required regarding what happens during the final phase of terrorist campaigns, and why. This chapter therefore: first, analyses four classic strategies of terrorism and considers why Western democracies have particular difficulty responding to them; second, it reviews six historical patterns of endings for terrorist organisations that have emerged from scholarly research on hundreds of groups; third, it assesses (in light of these six patterns) which counter-terrorism policies have hastened al-Qaida’s demise and which have not, while also reflecting upon the rise of ISIS and its potential future significance.

Keywords:   terrorism, counter-terrorism, al-Qaida, ISIS

THE THREAT OF RADICAL JIHADI TERRORISM appears to be endless. No sooner did Western governments speak of reduced danger from al-Qaida than a new offshoot, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)1 emerged and launched a brutal campaign that even al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri found excessive. In the midst of this violence and rhetoric it is difficult to make sense of the threat.

Studying how and why terrorist campaigns end enables us to put al-Qaida, ISIS and all other such groups into a broader historical and strategic framework. Most scholars focus upon the origins of groups, assuming that doing so will yield insight into what drives them and how to defeat them. My research indicates that this approach is only partly revealing, if not backwards. The causes of terrorist groups–the motivations that initially drive them to target civilians as a way to achieve political aims–rarely persist over the course of a campaign and are not the crucial elements leading to their demise. To develop effective counter-terrorism, it is much more important to understand and dissect what happens during the final phase of campaigns, and why. Looking at how terrorist groups decline and end enables us to identify and trace classic patterns of endings across campaigns, and it is a more promising way to push them in that direction.

Understanding how terrorist campaigns end informs (or should inform) policy. It is the only way for states to be strategic in their counter-terrorism. Processes of ending for terrorist campaigns hold within them the best insights into which counter-terrorism policies succeed and which ones fail, and why. (p.112) Whether the group is gaining or losing strength and momentum, understanding classic patterns of endings enables thoughtful leaders to avoid common mistakes and gauge how well government counter-terrorism efforts are faring. It also helps to inure policy-makers and their publics from the classic strategies of terrorism, which are designed to enrage, provoke, inspire or intimidate. Reminding ourselves that terrorist campaigns end enlarges our perspective beyond the action/reaction dynamic that is central to terrorism’s emotional manipulation of the audience. It helps to distinguish counter-terrorism measures that are hastening a group’s demise from those that are interfering with it. The goal is to offer a mental framework for how to think strategically about the evolution of the threat of terrorism and the counter-terrorism response to it, so as to provide a broader context and gain a more balanced perspective of risk.

To accomplish this goal, we will first analyse four classic strategies of terrorism and consider why Western democracies have particular difficulty re-sponding to them. Second, we will briefly review six historical patterns of endings for terrorist organisations that have emerged from scholarly research on hundreds of groups. In light of these six patterns, the concluding section assesses which counter-terrorism policies have hastened al-Qaida’s demise and which have not, also reflecting upon the rise of ISIS and its significance going forward.

The strategies of terrorism

Terrorism is not a fight between peer competitors, except perhaps on the level of instinct and emotion. States are virtually always militarily, financially and institutionally stronger than terrorist groups. By arguing that they have no alternative, terrorist group leaders use symbolic violence against innocents to even the odds by challenging the state’s ability to protect its most vulnerable citizens. Shocking violence aims to undermine state credibility, gain attention and elicit a passionate response. Officials, especially democratic leaders, cannot help but react to popular sentiments and anxieties among their constituencies, resulting in tactical responses that are satisfying in the short-term but undermine a state’s long-term strategic interests. So a dynamic of interactive terrorist attacks and state reactions unfolds. It is deadly difficult for governments to be strategic in response to terrorism, and terrorist attacks are deliberately designed to exploit that vulnerability.

Indeed, the core concepts and foundational ideas of twentieth-century Western strategic thinking undermine effective counter-terrorism in the twenty-first (p.113) century. The archetype of the last century’s strategic theory is the development of air power, especially the (apparent) successes of strategic bombardment during the Second World War. Terrorist attacks typically involve bombings, kill civilians and challenge the public will. Anyone who witnessed the attacks of 9/11 would easily see the parallels with strategic bombing, in both their physical effects and their psychological impact upon survivors. It is a seductive, oversimplified paradigm. The instinctive response is to retaliate massively, as if the state were answering the actions of another state. The deep fear expressed by policy-makers in the Bush Administration–that the 2001 attacks orchestrated by al-Qaida were prelude to more devastating nuclear attacks on the American homeland–confirms the direct line they drew intellectually from strategic bombing, to nuclear attack, to terrorist attack. The regrettable extension of that logic into the 2003 invasion of Iraq (a state with no connection with bin Laden’s organisation at the time) is further proof. US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice famously stated that while there would always be uncertainty about Iraq’s nuclear capabilities, ‘We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.’2 From the perspective of senior US officials whose formative experience was the bipolar Cold War confrontation, those shocking al-Qaida assaults represented the opening salvo in a war of annihilation that might soon escalate to nuclear attack.

The problem is that this kind of strategic thinking is unsuited to the strategies of terrorism, which must be understood not from the perspective of the targeted state and its military frameworks but from that of the terrorist group and its aims. Terrorist groups are not peer competitors with the legitimacy and structures of other states. They may call their forces ‘armies’, but most terrorist groups lack the state’s organised military apparatus and instead seek to build power by draining off a state’s strengths. They cannot fight states as equals. Which strategy a group uses depends upon which target it is trying to influence and draw strength from at a given time. Terrorist groups gain strength and weaken states by using violence to do one of three things: either undermine the state’s contract with its own citizens; elicit actions that are at odds with the state’s interests; or draw support from third-party audiences. When terrorist attacks threaten a state’s purpose or change its behaviour, they can drive the state to cede power and even defeat itself.

Unfortunately, many policy-makers persist in seeing the strategies of terrorism strictly within the two-sided frameworks of coercion and compellence, (p.114) concepts of nuclear strategy first laid out in the 1960s.3 By this way of thinking, terrorism looks like a kind of counter-value targeting engaged in by nonstate actors. Sometimes the framework is accurate: terrorist attacks may try to force states to withdraw from foreign commitments or make those commitments so painful that domestic pressure forces a government to abandon them. policy-makers cite the US and French withdrawals from Lebanon in 1983, the US withdrawal from Somalia in 1993 and the Spanish withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2004 as examples of what al-Qaida and its associates were trying to accomplish. ISIS has used numerous approaches, but compellence is its primary strategy. American political scientists use the same framework: the deeply embedded use of game theory, developed by economists and later used as a foundation for nuclear deterrence theory, has led to causal models driven primarily by the interaction between two rational actors: state and group.

But terrorism is a messy business and this two-sided framework does not fully capture all of its purposes. It has always been an incomplete picture of Osama bin Laden’s logic and strategy, for example, which is obvious after reading his speeches and fatwas (something few Americans do). When terrorist attacks are used to influence an audience, an attack upon a state and its citizens may be the means to bring about an irrational state reaction or to inspire, intimidate or even marginalise a completely different group of people that is of interest to the group. Unfortunately, in creating its counter-terrorism strategy, the US and its allies tended to focus exclusively on compellence while ignoring other classic strategies of terrorism.

Provocation, polarisation and mobilisation are strategies of leverage that are common in the history of terrorism. Provocation was most dominant in the late-nineteenth century, often associated with the action–repression–uprising cycle envisioned by Carlo Pisacane, Luigi Galleani and other advocates of ‘propaganda of the deed’. Its goal was to try to force the state to do something–not a specific policy, but a brutal reaction that undercut its legitimacy and worked against its interests. The best example was the Russian group Narodnaya Volya, whose goal was to attack representatives of the tsarist regime, force a brutal crackdown and bring about a peasant uprising. Brazilian revolutionary Carlos Marighella, in his 1969 Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla, further developed the concept in the twentieth century. There are many twentieth-century cases of provocation, including the Basque group Fatherland and Liberty’s (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or ETA) (p.115) early strategy in Spain, the Sandinista National Liberation Front’s strategy in Nicaragua and the National Liberation Front’s (NLF) strategy during Algeria’s war of independence from France. From the perspective of a terrorist group, a strategy of provocation is risky and imprecise: it often drives a state to react in unforeseen ways that hurt state interests while also crushing the group. Then, as is so often the case with terrorism, everyone loses.

A second strategy of leverage is polarisation, where terrorist groups use violent attacks to divide the population and delegitimise the state from within, ultimately preventing it from governing. This strategy targets different ethnic, racial, nationalist, religious or sectarian residents, fracturing the domestic politics of the state, again driving regimes sharply to the right. Authoritarian behaviour emerges, compromising political freedoms and ultimately forcing populations to choose between aligning with the state or with the group. Polarisation strategies also appeared regularly during the twentieth century; they are especially useful to groups trying to force political change in democracies. It is difficult to respond effectively to this strategy, because the imperative to distinguish between those carrying out attacks and those targeted by them makes the problem even worse. It tempts governments to profile, perpetuate stereotypes and drive communities further apart along the very lines of attack that terrorists open up. Examples of groups that have deliberately tried to polarise communities include the LTTE in Sri Lanka and the PIRA in Northern Ireland. The Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algeria employed this strategy in a most extreme way, slaughtering as many as 100,000 people during Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s.4

The last strategy of leverage is mobilisation, where leaders use terrorist attacks to inspire, recruit and mobilise a following. If a terrorist group is trying to mobilise supporters, its actions are not necessarily directed toward changing the behaviour of the state at all. State actions are a means, not an end in themselves. The group is far more interested in enlarging its resources, both people and assets, than in destroying the state–an aim that is unrealistic with strong states anyway.

A strategy of mobilisation aims to attack high-profile targets so as to bring attention to the cause, build stature and draw resources, including recruits, allies, sympathisers and passive supporters. For example, the 1972 Munich olympics massacre rallied attention, sympathy and support for the cause of Palestinian nationalism in exactly this way. Before 1972, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was a relatively unknown organisation: the horrified (p.116) fascination of millions of television viewers permanently erased that obscurity. Al-Qaida leaders’ own public and private declarations clearly state that mobilisation is the pre-eminent goal of the group and its associates. In 2001, Ayman al-Zawahiri described mobilisation as a key reason for attacking the ‘far enemy’, namely the US and its Western allies, rather than focusing on more controversial domestic enemies, meaning local regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The top goal was never to defeat the United States. The logic, according to Zawahiri, was to use a clear-cut case of targeting ‘infidels’, so as to mobilise the Muslim umma (community), hit high-profile targets, attract vast media attention, lionise al-Qaida and draw jihadi recruits.5 Indeed, strategies of mobilisation are extremely well suited for the twenty-first-century globalised world, with its democratisation of access to information, sharp reduction in cost of messages and virtually instantaneous communications (especially images), allowing movements of all kinds to mobilise on a scale and at a speed that is unprecedented.

These four strategies–compellence, provocation, polarisation and mobilisation–are not mutually exclusive and may be used in combination. Some groups even use different approaches at different times, as the dynamic of a campaign unfolds and both sides react. But wise counter-terrorism strategies must discern between them, because state reactions within one strategic framework are counter-productive within another. For example, if a state assumes that a terrorist group is trying to change its behaviour through a frontal strategy such as compellence, it may respond in a way that feeds into indirect strategies of leverage such as provocation, polarisation and mobilisation. De-pending on the context, states can respond with overwhelming military force, for example, only to encourage increased mobilisation of support for a group. The result is that the group or cause strengthens and the state loses ground. It is easy to strike a blow against a terrorist group and kill current members; it is difficult to end it.

This is why it is crucial to understand how terrorist groups end. In the midst of a campaign it can be difficult to dispassionately assess the effects of counter-terrorism tactics. The goal is not to achieve a temporary advantage but to drive a group toward its own demise. And in the endings of hundreds of terrorist campaigns, indirect strategies of leverage predominate far more than direct strategies of compellence. Democratic governments who see the group as an equal actor, answering its attacks in an action/reaction dynamic, satisfy the short-term politics of domestic constituencies but prolong counterterrorism campaigns. Driving a terrorist group toward its end, on the other (p.117) hand, demands parrying indirect strategies of leverage through nuanced and historically informed counter-terrorism policies that take a longer view.

Patterns of endings for terrorist groups

As the preceding discussion of strategies of terrorism demonstrates, seeing any terrorist campaign as a two-sided battle between a group and a government is incomplete and misleading. Terrorism involves three strategic actors, each exercising differing influences on the termination of campaigns. Some pathways of decline are more under the control of the state, some are more related to the group and others are more influenced by outside observers. The only way to fully understand how groups end is to see the dynamic relationship between all three actors: group, target and audience. Patterns of decline and demise reflect factors that are both internal and external to a group, and do not always bear a direct relationship to state actions taken against them.

With this in mind, the research undertaken for my book6 examines the experience of hundreds of groups. It includes scrutiny of some 457 groups, drawn mainly from a database covering organisations operating after 1968, although some prominent earlier cases are also covered. The book considers all types of terrorism, including left-wing, right-wing, ethno-nationalist, separatist and religious or ‘spiritualist’ terrorism. Thus it is not confined strictly to jihadi terrorism, although the conclusions reached are relevant to the violent Islamist groups that we currently face. The work does not minimise or discount in any way the current threat of jihadi terrorism: groups are at various points in their trajectory of rising and falling, with a few clearly gaining strength. It also does not imply that terrorism, as a phenomenon, will end–only specific terrorist campaigns. The purpose of the project is to understand consistent historical patterns of endings for terrorist groups so as to recognise them consistently when facing the threats of today and tomorrow.

Out of this analysis emerged six general pathways that reappear consistently. They are not mutually exclusive: a group can display more than one dynamic for ending. But each terrorist group demonstrates at least one of these patterns.

The first pathway is decapitation, the capture or killing of the leader of the group. In my book, cases where the leader was arrested included France’s (p.118) Action Directe, El Salvador’s Fuerzas Populares de Liberación, Japan’s Shoko Asahara (leader of Aum Shinrikyo) and Peru’s Abimael Guzmán, leader of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). Cases of assassination included the Philippines’ Abu Sayyaf, Russian and Chechen separatist leaders and Israel’s campaign of targeted killings against Palestinian groups. On the basis of that study, I concluded that publicly delegitimising a leader in the eyes of his followers or potential supporters, especially by parading him before cameras as in the case of Sendero’s Guzmán, was strategically more effective than killing him, because it had important political effects on the cause and on his image. Through painstaking military and police work, an effective capture can avoid creating a martyr (as with Ché Guevara), yield a storehouse of intelligence (as with Peru’s Guzmán), and publicly de-romanticise a popular cause (as with Indonesia’s Nazir Abbas). Sometimes killing a leader was unavoidable, but groups that ended through assassination were hierarchically structured, characterised by a cult of personality, younger than most other groups and lacked a succession plan.7

With the current fixation on the use of armed unmanned aerial vehicles, or ‘armed drones’, to kill members of the al-Qaida network in places such as Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, this approach has gained a widespread attention and is the source of hot controversy.8 Although some terrorist attacks have been disrupted or prevented as a result of using of armed drones beyond the battlefield, al-Qaida has demonstrated the capacity to replace leaders–even Osama bin Laden, who had a plan of succession in place to follow his 2011 demise. The widespread anger against the US tactic, which progressed well beyond leadership decapitation to include a much broader range of targets including Taliban members and low-level operatives, shifted the attention away from al-Qaida’s terrorism and caused outrage among US allies and enemies alike. While the United States has sought to minimise civilian casualties, increase transparency and reduce its reliance on drones, the far-reaching negative impact of the campaign lingers in US foreign policy. There is no reason to believe that targeted killings are ending the al-Qaida movement, especially when jihadi affiliates and offspring such as ISIS are taken into account.

(p.119) The second pathway is negotiation. While it is unusual for negotiations to lead to the demise of groups strictly on their own, they often contribute to their decline and ending as an integral part of a state’s comprehensive ap-proach to counter-terrorism.9 Yet, the rate at which groups enter talks is lower than generally thought. In my research, only about 18% of the hundreds of groups had negotiated at all. Groups that entered talks tended to be older (20–25 years) than the rest (average age 8 years), so were more established. And once they started, the talks seemed to persist: only about 10% of those who negotiated gave up on the talks altogether and walked away. The predominant pattern was for talks to drag on, neither succeeding nor failing completely. And there are numerous cases of progress: a wide range of organisations such as the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland, the Philippine Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the 19th of April Movement (M-19) in Colombia and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) have either reduced their violence or ended it altogether in the wake of negotiations. Sometimes governments lose patience and crush terrorist groups with military force after stopping and starting talks, as was the case with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka. Other times, the two sides go in and out of talks, as has been the case with ETA, which has episodically stopped and restarted its violence yet gradually lost support over time.

From a state’s perspective, negotiations are best sought with older groups where governments have prepared their constituencies for a long-term process.10 Indeed, the best way to think about negotiations is as a means to shift the violence or energy of an established group into a different channel.

Sometimes terrorist organisations fulfil their political objectives, so success is the third pathway to the end. Here it is vital to distinguish between tactical or ‘process’ goals, and strategic or ‘outcome’ goals. It is not at all uncommon for terrorist groups to achieve process goals such as increasing the strength of one faction compared to another (sometimes called ‘outbidding’), showing strength or ruthlessness, lionising leaders, publicising the cause, exacting revenge, signalling, or simply surviving. Terrorists often succeed in perpetuating a campaign but that does not mean that they ‘win’. Groups set their own terms: they succeed when the organisation’s goals are achieved. Fortunately, strategic objectives are easy to spot: they are what terrorist group leaders describe as the long-term purpose of the campaign. Strategic goals (p.120) may be political (relating to the state–its regime, organisation, boundaries, population), economic (redistributing resources or wealth), social (racial or ethnic identity, modernisation) or religious (relating to spiritualist identity, values, strictures, virtues), or some combination of these.

Looking at the overall historical record, terrorism does not achieve its strategic objectives very often. Of the 457 groups studied in depth in How Terrorism Ends, only about 5% had by their own standards achieved their objectives (even those that evolved over the lifetime of a group). There are two especially well-known case studies of groups that have succeeded: Umkhonto, the military wing of the African National Congress,11 which succeeded when apartheid ended; and Irgun, which reached its political objective with the withdrawal of British forces and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Even when terrorism does succeed, the transition to legitimate governance involves distancing the new regime from any history of terrorist attacks. Terrorism succeeds only when the state bungles its response or the group can attract sufficient support to grow and transition to other activities.

The fourth pathway to the end of terrorist campaigns is failure. The short, eight-year average life span of terrorist groups attests to the difficulty of using this kind of tactic for long. A large proportion of groups find it difficult to keep going for two main reasons: either they implode, burn out and collapse upon themselves; or they lose popular support and fizzle out that way. Implosion can occur because groups fail to pass the cause to the next generation, as with left-wing and anarchist groups of the 1970s such as the Weatherman and the Symbionese Liberation Army. Or they may succumb to in-fighting, disagreements about ideology, arguments over tactics, or other kinds of internal dissent. Brutal disputes can lead to fratricide: the Japanese group Aum Shinrikyo, the British ‘White Power’ group Combat-18 and the West German Second of June Movement all killed members who were suspected of disloyalty. On the other hand, popular support may be lost because the ideology becomes irrelevant (as with many Marxist groups post-1990), government counter-action makes it too risky to participate (as in Chechnya), or the government offers a better alternative, such as new spending, jobs and public benefits (as in Northern Ireland). And sometimes groups lose contact with their constituencies because they are isolated and under pressure.

(p.121) But a principal way to lose popular support is through targeting errors, where attacks cause revulsion among the very constituency the group is trying to attract. The resulting backlash can damage a group more dramatically than any state counter-terrorism measures. Two famous examples are GAI’s killing of 62 tourists at the pyramids in Luxor, Egypt in 1997 and the Real IRA’s car bombing of Omagh in 1998, both of which mobilised public anger against the groups. When a terrorist group commits a targeting error it undercuts the only source of its legitimacy, which is the claim to be acting altruistically on behalf of a larger constituency. If the constituency revolts, the group suffers because its members are revealed as nothing more than murderers.

Repression, the fifth pathway out of terrorism, is the approach states pursue most instinctively. This is hardly surprising. Modern nation-states base their legitimacy on the ability to protect their citizens; terrorism threatens this. Many counter-terrorism campaigns begin with overwhelming force either deployed internally, when the threat is mainly domestic, or externally, when the threat is based beyond the state’s borders. Notable case studies of repression include Uruguay and the Tupamaros, Russia and Chechen rebels and Egypt and the Muslim brotherhood (1928–66).12 Because of the enormous military advantage of most states, it is possible to end a terrorist campaign through repression, especially if the government is willing to destroy everything. But sometimes repression exports the cause to another place (as with Chechnya and Ingushetia, for example) or mutates it into a new form (as with Egypt and the origins of al-Qaida). Repression is particularly costly for democracies as it requires ‘profiling’ or discrimination of targets, tramples on civil liberties and human rights, places a strain on the fabric of the state and, by alienating its own citizens, weakens its ability to anticipate future terrorist campaigns. Especially in an age of globalised communications, brutal state action can worsen the terrorist threat over time by engendering a violent international backlash.

The last pathway is reorientation, meaning that terrorist campaigns transition out of primary reliance upon terrorist attacks toward either criminal behaviour or more traditional types of warfare. Criminal behaviour and terrorism overlap; indeed, the former often funds the latter. But converting fully to criminality means shifting away from acquiring assets as a means of achieving political objectives to amassing them as ends in themselves. Those fighting violent criminal networks sometimes argue that terrorism and criminality have become indistinguishable; but if the profit motive eclipses any altruistic political objective, it can affect a group’s legitimacy in the eyes of (p.122) their constituencies and thus influence the degree to which they threaten state existence. Here the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armada Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC) and the Philippine group Abu Sayyaf come to mind. Some criminal groups need government infrastructure and would rather pay off corrupt officials than kill them.

The other way that groups transition is to escalate into full insurgency or even conventional war, especially if they are supported by states or can mimic state governance in a particular territory. Organisations that have successfully transitioned into insurgencies include the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE), the Cambodian Khmer Rouge and the Communist party of Nepal-Maoists. Like crime and terrorism, insurgency and terrorism overlap–it would be foolish to posit a clear distinction between these evolving concepts. But there are differences of degree and emphasis, particularly in the strength of a movement and the nature of its targeting. Unlike terrorist groups, insurgencies operate as military units, are strong enough to engage military forces directly, are numerically larger and can seize and hold territory, even if temporarily. When groups become insurgencies it is always bad news for the state. The only good news is that this development puts a terrorist threat on more familiar ground for military forces.

Assessing al-Qaida and ISIS

As I first wrote in 2006, this analysis of how groups end indicates that al-Qaida’s demise will unfold either through outright failure or transition to a different kind of threat.13 The other four pathways are implausible and unpromising. Al-Qaida does not fit the profile of a group that ends through decapitation and, indeed, decapitation through drone attacks and even the killing of Osama bin Laden have not ended it. As for the second pathway, although there have been efforts to talk with some members of the Afghan Taliban, no negotiations are possible with core al-Qaida. Strategic success for al-Qaida is likewise impossible, as efforts to mobilise popular support behind bin Laden’s group have fallen flat. Lastly, the limits of military repression have unfolded through two conventional conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a dramatic increase in both US Special Operations and targeted drone strikes. While these measures have degraded the al-Qaida leadership, especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and reduced its ability to carry out operations, military force has not ended the group and will not be able to do so. That leaves the pathways of failure and reorientation: while (p.123) failure is the outcome that we should have been striving hard to facilitate (or at least not impede), transition into an entirely new kind of insurgency is the result I fear is fully underway.

For years al-Qaida has had all the hallmarks of a group that could fail. Its popular support began to dissipate in 2007, as the group’s killing of civilians, sectarian targeting, lack of religious authority and condemnation of other Muslims as ‘apostates’ repulsed Muslim populations throughout the world. Then the dramatic changes of the Arab Spring exposed the hollowness of al-Qaida’s claim to be the vanguard of a Salafist revolution. The elation of popular uprisings in places like Egypt, Libya and Syria was followed by a devastating second act of governance failure, political struggle, violence and civil war. Some argued that the ‘Arab Spring’ had merely provided radical jihadis greater space in which to organise and take over; but nowhere in the aftermath of the uprisings did al-Qaida emerge as the dominant force. Al-Qaida had failed to be the catalyst for change–the role it had always promised to play in building a new future for all Muslims–and by 2011 al-Qaida core was a shadow of its former self.

Still, the United States failed to understand the political context for its regional counter-terrorism policies, removing political pressure from al-Qaida and placing it squarely upon itself, thus enabling al-Qaida spin-offs to draw recruits and pose a growing threat through the movement’s metastasis. Ironically, those who argued that the United States should stay the course with its use of drones and special operations tended to be the same people who warned that the al-Qaida threat was spreading throughout the Middle East and Africa. Any strategic connection between one and the other was discounted or ignored. Al-Qaida affiliates especially in Yemen (al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP), the Sahara (al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM), Somalia (al-Shabab), Nigeria (Boko Haram) and Iraq (al-Qaida in Iraq) lost leaders but gained strength with a wave of popular anger fanned both by perceptions of US drone policy and the perceived lack of concern for the tens of thousands of Syrian civilians killed by chemical weapons and other atrocities. At the time of writing, half of the population of Syria has been displaced from its homes or residences, having fled to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and other neighbouring states.

In the middle of all this, the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, Jamat al-Nusra openly feuded with ISIS and the two became bitter enemies. In February 2014, al-Qaida disavowed any ties with ISIS, which has now proven to be the stronger of the two organisations. ISIS has since attracted an unprecedented number of recruits, including from Europe, to a traditional ground campaign that has crossed the Syrian border and swept across Western Iraq. In July 2014, (p.124) ISIS declared itself the ‘Islamic State’ and announced the establishment of a new Caliphate in the Iraqi/Syrian territory it occupied. No longer ‘al-Qaida’, ISIS transitioned from terrorist group to an insurgency and then a conventional army, with formidable weaponry, tactics and capability captured from a US-built Iraqi Army that ran away as the group advanced. The situation as it currently stands is that al-Qaida and its partner al-Nusra are on the defensive, with core al-Qaida seen as an anachronism, dramatically overshadowed by a brutally violent group that emerged from the remnants of an organisation that would never have existed had it not been for the ill-advised 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Despite their common rhetoric about returning to pre-modern Islam, ISIS is a very different group from al-Qaida. The sources of its demise will likewise be different. Even as it engaged in horrific terrorist attacks, al-Qaida consistently sought to mobilise the Muslim umma, reaching out to ordinary Muslims to convince them to follow. By contrast, ISIS has no such nuanced programme. It is not a terrorist group. It is stronger, more numerous, more wealthy and more dangerous than any terrorist organisation forced to rely on asymmetrical violence and strategies of leverage. Although it has a very sophisticated media presence, the goal of ISIS is old-fashioned territorial conquest and despotic governance. It is an unprecedented regional challenge that Iraq, regional neighbours, European allies and the United States must now struggle to meet. The only ray of hope in this picture is that, like other groups that have transitioned from terrorism to conventional warfare, ISIS is now a truly military threat that traditional militaries should be better suited to meet. In our failure to understand and shrewdly answer terrorist strategies, we may have found ourselves a brutal conventional enemy that we fully understand.


(1) This group is also known as the Islamic State (IS), the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or by a loose acronym of the Arabic words Dawlat al-Islāmiyya fī al-Irāq wa s-Shām, pronounced ‘Daesh’. Many (including the French government) prefer to use this acronym, as it echoes the Arabic words Daes (meaning to tread underfoot, crush) and Dahes (one who sows discord). Daesh is also how it is referred to in the Arab world. See Adam Taylor, ‘France is Ditching the Islamic State Name and Replacing it with a Label the Group Hates’, The Washington Post, 17 September 2014, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/09/17/france-is-ditching-the-islamicstate-name-and-replacing-it-with-a-label-the-group-hates/.

(2) Wolf Blitzer, ‘Search for the “Smoking Gun”’, 10 January 2003, CNN.com, at http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/01/10/wbr.smoking.gun/ [accessed 9 October 2014].

(3) Some people use the term ‘coercion’ (the use of force or threatened use of force), but coercion can be mixed with diplomacy and other positive inducements. Compellence refers here strictly to threats or negative actions designed to change behaviour. The concepts were first developed in Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1967).

(4) Rami Khouri, ‘Algeria’s Terrifying but Unsurprising Agony’, Middle East Review of International Affairs, March 1998.

(5) Ayman al-Zawahiri, Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner, pp. 75 and 78.

(6) For a full explanation of the strengths and weaknesses of the data behind this research, see Audrey Kurth Cronin, How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2009), especially the appendices.

(7) Important work has subsequently been done in this area. See especially Jenna Jordan, ‘When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation’, Security Studies, 18/4 (2009); Bryan C. Price, ‘Targeting Top Terrorists: How Leadership Decapitation Contributes to Counterterrorism’, International Security, 36/4 (2012); andJenna Jordan, ‘Attacking the Leader, Missing the Mark: Why Terrorist Groups Survive Decapitation Strikes’, International Security, 38/4 (2014).

(8) For an argument about the pitfalls of such an approach, see Audrey Kronin ‘Why Drones Fail: When Tactics Drive Strategy’, Foreign Affairs, 92/4 (2013) and‘The Strategic Implications of Targeted Drone Strikes for U.S. Global Counterterrorism’, in The Ethical, Strategic, and Legal Implications of Drone Warfare, edited by David Cortright, (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2015).

(9) This discussion also draws from my forthcoming article, ‘Hostage Negotiations and Other Talks with Terrorists: Price vs. Principle’, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Winter/Spring 2015.

(10) Promising and unpromising conditions for negotiations are described in chapter 2 of How Terrorism Ends, as well as in my Negotiating with Groups that Use Terrorism: Lessons for Policy-makers, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, Mediation Support Project, Oslo Forum, 2008.

(11) The degree to which the activities of Umkhonto we Sizwe (meaning ‘Spear of the Nation’, abbreviated as MK) led directly to the end of apartheid is debatable. Many argue that the counterproductive government response to the unrest played a more important role. In any case, the ANC formally renounced violence in August 1990 and declared that its campaign had ended. For an argument that MK played an insignificant role, see Adrian Guelke, Terrorism and Global Disorder (London, Tauris, 2006).

(12) All of these, and others, are analysed in greater depth in chapter 5 of How Terrorism Ends.

(13) Audrey Kurth Cronin, ‘How al-Qaeda Ends’, International Security, 31/1 (2006).