Small Wars Journal

Terrorism is Still a Problem. It Has Not Gone Away.

Wed, 08/01/2018 - 12:23am

Terrorism is Still a Problem. It Has Not Gone Away.


J. Robert Kane




Since late 2001, counterterrorism has been the foremost national security initiative of the U.S. government. More has been invested in counterterrorism responses than any other level of national security or military operations to include combating aggressions from near-peer threats. [1] President Bush declared a ‘War on Terror’ and it has been a war we have waged as a country ever since and without making any empirical play towards victory. [2] President Obama called the war over but the conflict and U.S. involvement has not ended. [3] The problem may be that we just may not have learned the lessons that we were taught of the past 17 years.


Time and time again, counterterrorism experts both in cabinet policy and military capacities alike have contended that you cannot just kill your way to victory when it comes to countering terrorism or violent extremism. They have argued that kinetic acts, such as drone strikes or capturing battlefield combatants, do not so much as reduce terrorists or terrorist actions (albeit temporarily) as much as they fuel the fire to a new generation of extremists. [4]


Meanwhile, we have invested most of our counterterrorism resources to either killing or capturing terrorists despite these revelations. Be it through signature drone strikes that kill potential terrorists through pattern recognition that also result in potentially massive collateral damage or covert rendition programs intended to capture terrorists for the sake of removing them from their organizations or for purposes of collecting intelligence, kinetic military actions have been the bread and butter of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. [5]


What We Should Have Learned About Counterterrorism


The old maxim of killing one terrorist leads to a handful more of newly enticed recruits to extremism is true. We have known that for a quite a while. But our policy does not reflect it. We assume that if we militarily defeat these extremists to a hard enough degree that they will be forced to surrender and the war on terrorism will be won.


Unfortunately, that is not the case. The lessons we were taught over the past almost two decades should have shown us that. The roots of terrorism are societal, political and economic. If anyone has some tribulation against the West or in our case, the United States, terrorist acts and extremism will exist. It is never going away and most especially not through brute force.


But perhaps the reason that we believe that terrorism is susceptible to military action in the way we have displayed it will work is because terrorists do in fact stop when hit hard enough. At this point, we think that we defeated them. The problem is that we misunderstand what it means when a terrorist group stops or is defeated according to a western perspective. Most policy officials do not get this but some intelligence analysts do. The problem mainly has to do with mirror-imaging. [6]


When we think of a truce from a western perspective, we think that the other side has given up—that the opponent has thrown in the towel and risen the surrender flag, signifying that the fight is done. That is what intelligence professionals working counterterrorism have been taught themselves. The problem is that jihadist terrorists don’t think of truces in the same light. For intelligence, that brings about a case of mirror-imaging that is augmented by group think.


Unlike more traditional adversaries who can be forced to quit through force or military might, terrorist groups generally do not. They may go underground but it is only to live long enough to bring the fight to the enemy at a later time.


The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) represents the most rapid transformation and development of a terrorist group that we have ever seen. Beginning as an offshoot of al-Qaeda and developing into al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), ISIL has shown to be good at surviving no matter the cost. [7] This was first seen when AQI’s leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, broke away from the main group in Afghanistan then led by Usama bin Laden in 2006. Differing in opinion with bin Laden and willing to fight as an independent group outside of his sphere of influence, al-Zarqawi was willing to take the chance of fighting on his own and engaging in violent jihad on his own terms. [8] Hence, ISIL was born.


While it can be argued that ISIL is not a terrorist group according to U.S. Government definitions because it holds land and that is something that insurgencies do while terrorist groups do not, its tactics remain the same. [9] This is important because the land holding part of ISIL’s operations must be treated as an insurgency, the tactics they use to achieve political gain are forms of terrorism and can be treated as such.


ISIL has been hit with many blows but it has not gone away. While the group may not have as many foreign operations now as it did previously, that does not mean it is coming to the end of its life cycle. ISIL is reorganizing itself in order to develop its resources in order to plan and execute as many foreign operations as possible. That is the target of going underground as a terrorist organization. Doing so allows the organization to survive and reduce attrition by reducing the potential for further military or law enforcement action against it. [10]


When a terrorist group like ISIL suffers a loss, it does not just call it quits and move on to another endeavor. Surrender is never really an option. It just means that the organization was hit hard and cannot keep fighting for now. [11] When other groups would disband, terrorist organizations generally go underground. They apply aid to lost or hurt assets, recruit and train new operatives, formulate new plans and generally build up enough strength to fight another day. [12]


Some Americans contend that terrorist group leaders who come up with attack plans and send young martyrs to take their own lives in suicide attacks are hypocritical. They say that these older ringleaders of the terrorist organization just hide in safety and trick (persuade) more disadvantaged young men (and now even women) to martyr themselves in the name of Islam.


But nothing could be further from the truth. While these jihadists look forward to the afterlife and the promises it entails, they still have a mission to achieve on earth. For that reason, they cannot just all run off to death as martyrs. They have to live to fight another day in order to accomplish the mission, to fulfill the objectives of the jihad. [13]


As some terrorist groups eventually do come to an end, more a born. It is part of the life cycle of terrorism. Certain groups like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) do retire. The PFLP did so because its parent organization, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), no longer felt the need to engage in terrorism to achieve its political objectives. [14] Other organizations like the Taliban have strong ideological considerations that warrant their existence. [15] For them, it is not a matter anymore of deterring U.S. interests abroad anymore, in terms of hitting American targets as much as it is fighting for the necessary portions of Afghanistan and Pakistan that they desire to control. [16]


More extensively, Hezbollah has found a way to engage in terrorist operations as needed both for its own agenda as well as its state-sponsored agenda via proxy of Iran. As political objectives need to be satisfied through unorthodox means, terrorism becomes the means of choice. For Hezbollah, it works effectively. [17] Like the PLO, Hezbollah has found ways to achieve political objectives through legitimacy as well and that has been a strong focus of the organization in southern Lebanon. [18] But it does resort to traditional terrorism operations outside of the Lebanese border and that is highlighted by Hezbollah’s close working relationship with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC)-Qods. [19] Hezbollah may not be as much of a threat to American interests now as it was in the ‘80s. But it definitely is a complicating force in the Arabian Peninsula, in particular, and terrorism still is the method of choice in conducting operations. [20]




Terrorist groups have come and gone. Some are seen to be more persistent than others. But the fact remains that there are always some in existence. Whether or not they go underground at points in time or call a truce in jihad, they do so to resurface and resume operations harder than where they left off. [21]


That is why terrorism will always remain a threat. As long as someone believes their troubles and tribulations are a product of the United States, our country will always remain a focus of terrorist threats. Just because the threat has been leveraged in intensity, do not be fooled into thinking that it has simply gone away. The terrorist threat is chronic. It has its high and lows. But if you lose sight of its potential, you will not be prepared to stop it when the time comes.


End Notes

[1] Mueller, John, and Mark Stewart. "Evaluating Counterterrorism Spending." Journal of Economic Perspectives 28, no. 3 (Summer 2014): 237-48. doi:10.1257/jep.28.3.237.

[2] Zenko, Micah. "An Honest Evaluation of the War on Terror." Council on Foreign Relations, July 1, 2015.

[3] Stern, Jessica. "Obama and Terrorism." Foreign Affairs, September/October 2015, 62-64.

[4] Jordan, Jenna, Margaret Kosal, and Lawrence Rubin. "How to Give Counterterrorism a Fighting Chance." The National Interest, January 17, 2017.

[5] Lum, Cynthia, Leslie Kennedy, and Alison Sherley. "Are Counter-terrorism Strategies Effective? The Results of the Campbell Systematic Review on Counter-terrorism Evaluation Research." Journal of Experimental Criminology 2, no. 4 (December 05, 2006): 489-516. doi:10.1007/s11292-006-9020-y.

[6] Porch, Douglas, and James J. Wirtz. Surprise and intelligence failure. Naval Postgraduate School Center for Contemporary Conflict, Monterey, CA, 2002.

[7] Gerges, Fawaz A. "ISIS and the Third Wave of Jihadism." Current History 113, no. 767 (2014): 339.

[8] Zelin, Aaron Y. "The war between ISIS and al-Qaeda for supremacy of the global jihadist movement." The Washington Institute for Near East Policy 20, no. 1 (2014): 1-11.

[9] Cronin, Audrey Kurth. "ISIS is not a terrorist group: Why counterterrorism won't stop the latest jihadist threat." Foreign Affairs. 94 (2015): 87.

[10] McCauley, Clark, and Sophia Moskalenko. "Mechanisms of political radicalization: Pathways toward terrorism." Terrorism and political violence 20, no. 3 (2008): 415-433.

[11] Gerges, Fawaz A. The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

[12] Della Porta, Donatella. "15 On individual motivations in underground political organizations." Terrorism Studies: A Reader (2012): 231.

[13] Pape, Robert Anthony. Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. Random House Incorporated, 2006.

[14] Zanini, Michele. "Middle Eastern terrorism and netwar." Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 22, no. 3 (1999): 247-256.

[15] Ordóñez, Lucía Martínez. "The War Against the Taliban: Tactical Operations and Strategic Moves." In Military Operational Planning and Strategic Moves, pp. 81-90. Springer, Cham, 2017.

[16] Shahed, Kalam. "Afghanistan: In Search for an Alternative Route to Stability." Global Policy 9, no. 1 (2018): 146-150.

[17] Matusitz, Jonathan. "Brand Management in Terrorism: The Case of Hezbollah." Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism 13, no. 1 (2018): 1-16.

[18] Dietrich, Richard C. "Joseph Daher. Hezbollah: The Political Economy of Lebanon’s Party of God." Perspectives on Terrorism 11, no. 4 (2017).

[19] Stewart, Scott. "Hezbollah, Radical but Rational." Stratfor, August 12 (2010).

[20] DeVore, Marc R., and Armin B. Stähli. "Explaining Hezbollah's Effectiveness: Internal and External Determinants of the Rise of Violent Non-State Actors." Terrorism and Political Violence 27, no. 2 (2015): 331-357.

[21] Phillips, Peter J. "The Life Cycle of Terrorist Organizations." International Advances in Economic Research 17, no. 4 (2011): 369-385.


Categories: counterterrorism

About the Author(s)

J. Robert Kane studies intelligence and terrorism. He is an intelligence officer and researcher who has worked on Middle Eastern targets. In addition to research funded by the U.S. Government, he has conducted studies at New York University, Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. He can be found on Twitter at @jrobertkane.