RAND explains How Terrorist Groups End, and gives Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida

This study was, of course, ignored.  As a general rule, the US government’s interest in advice is inversely proportional to the relevant expertise and knowledge of the source.  Best of all is to know little about the subject, but have an active imagination and firm grasp of what the answers should be.

Summary

All terrorist groups eventually end. But how do they end? The evidence since 1968 indicates that most groups have ended because (1) they joined the political process (43 percent) or (2) local police and intelligence agencies arrested or killed key members (40%). Military force has rarely been the primary reason for the end of terrorist groups, and few groups within this time frame have achieved victory. This has significant implications for dealing with al Qa’ida and suggests fundamentally rethinking post-9/11 U.S. counterterrorism strategy: Policymakers need to understand where to prioritize their efforts with limited resources and attention.

The authors report that religious terrorist groups take longer to eliminate than other groups and rarely achieve their objectives. The largest groups achieve their goals more often and last longer than the smallest ones do. Finally, groups from upper-income countries are more likely to be left-wing or nationalist and less likely to have religion as their motivation. The authors conclude that policing and intelligence, rather than military force, should form the backbone of U.S. efforts against al Qa’ida. And U.S. policymakers should end the use of the phrase “war on terrorism” since there is no battlefield solution to defeating al Qa’ida.

Excerpt:  Ending the “War” on Terror

Al Qa’ida’s resurgence should trigger a fundamental rethinking of U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Based on our analysis of how terrorist groups end, a political solution is not possible. Since al Qa’ida’s goal remains the establishment of a pan-Islamic caliphate, there is little reason to expect that a negotiated settlement with governments in the Middle East is possible. A more effective approach would be adopting a twofront strategy.

First, policing and intelligence should be the backbone of U.S. efforts. In Europe, North America, North Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, al Qa’ida consists of a network of individuals who need to be tracked and arrested. This would require careful work abroad from such organizations as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), as well as their cooperation with foreign police and intelligence agencies.

Second, military force, though not necessarily U.S. soldiers, may be a necessary instrument when al Qa’ida is involved in an insurgency. Local military forces frequently have more legitimacy to operate than the United States has, and they have a better understanding of the operating environment, even if they need to develop the capacity to deal with insurgent groups over the long run. This means a light U.S. military footprint or none at all. The U.S. military can play a critical role in building indigenous capacity but should generally resist being drawn into combat operations in Muslim societies, since its presence is likely to increase terrorist recruitment. A key part of this strategy should include ending the notion of a war on terrorism and replacing it with such concepts as counterterrorism, which most governments with significant terrorist threats use.

The British government, among others, has already taken this step and abjured the phrase war on terror. The phrase raises public expectations—both in the United States and elsewhere—that there is a battlefield solution to the problem of terrorism. It also encourages others abroad to respond by conducting a jihad (or holy war) against the United States and elevates them to the status of holy warriors. Terrorists should be perceived and described as criminals, not holy warriors.

Our analysis suggests that there is no battlefield solution to terrorism. Military force usually has the opposite effect from what is intended: It is often overused, alienates the local population by its heavy-handed nature, and provides a window of opportunity for terrorist-group recruitment. This strategy should also include rebalancing U.S. resources and attention on police and intelligence work. It also means increasing budgets at the CIA, U.S. Department of Justice, and U.S. Department of State and scaling back the U.S. Department of Defense’s focus and resources on counterterrorism. U.S. special operations forces will remain critical, as will U.S. military operations to counter terrorist groups involved in insurgencies.

There is reason to be hopeful. Our analysis concludes that al Qa’ida’s probability of success in actually overthrowing any government is close to zero. Out of all the religious groups that ended since 1968, none ended by achieving victory. Al Qa’ida has virtually unachievable objectives in trying to overthrow multiple regimes in the Middle East. To make matters worse, virtually all governments across Europe, North America, South America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa consider al Qa’ida an enemy. As al Qa’ida expert Peter Bergen has noted, “Making a world of enemies is never a winning strategy.”

About the authors

Seth G. Jones is a political scientist at RAND and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.  He received an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.  He specializes in stability operations and counterinsurgency. He is the author of…

  • In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan (W. W. Norton, forthcoming)
  • The Rise of European Security Cooperation (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

He has published articles in such journals as International Security, National Interest, Security Studies, Chicago Journal of International Law, International Affairs, and Survival, as well as such newspapers and magazines as the New York Times, Newsweek, Financial Times, and International Herald Tribune. His RAND publications include

  • “Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan”, RAND Counterinsurgency Study, Volume 4 (2008);
  • “Establishing Law and Order after Conflict” (2005);
  • “The UN’s Role in Nation-Building: From the Congo to Iraq” (2005);
  • “America’s Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq”  (2003).

Martin C. Libicki is a senior management scientist at RAND.  He received a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.  His work focuses on the relationship between information technology and national security.  His is the author of two commercially published books:

  • Conquest in Cyberspace: National Security and Information Warfare (2007)
  • Information Technology Standards: Quest for the Common Byte (1995)

And numerous monographs, such as:

  • “What Is Information Warfare” (1995)
  • “The Mesh and the Net: Speculations on Armed Conflict in a Time of Free Silicon” (1994)
  • “Exploring Terrorist Targeting Preferences” (2007)

He was also an editor of the RAND textbook, New Challenges, New Tools for Defense Decisionmaking (2003). His most recent assignments:

  • to create and analyze a database of post–World War II insurgencies
  • devise a strategy to maximize the use of information and information technology in countering insurgency
  • explore terrorists’ targeting preferences
  • develop a post–September 11 information technology strategy for U.S. Department of Justice and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Terrorist Information Awareness program
  •  conduct an information-security analysis for the FBI
  • assess CIA’s R&D venture, In-Q-Tel.

Other work has examined information warfare and the revolution in military affairs. Prior employment includes 12 years at the National Defense University, three years on the Navy staff as program sponsor for industrial preparedness, and three years as a policy analyst for the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s Energy and Minerals Division.

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20 thoughts on “RAND explains How Terrorist Groups End, and gives Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida

  1. I’ve been developing the notion in my head that we’re not in a clash of civilizations, but a war of worldviews between a Western liberal outlook and an Eastern theocratic authoritarian outlook. If that’s the case, and the most likely ways to succeed are to integrate them into the political process or arrest/kill key members, how do we proceed?

    If integrating them into the political process is the right course of action, one must get the militant Muslim to abandon his religious beliefs. Good luck with that. And if killing/arresting key members is the right course of action, it seems we’re going after the wrong people by targeting military and operational commanders, because they’re acting on urging of spiritual authorities.
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    FM reply: I suspect that time is our ally. Active strategies just risk screwing up our almost certain victory, as the forces of modernity force changes in the jihadist ideology.

  2. We can do both. Target the worst of the worst. Negotiate with the not-so-bad. Politic with those have legitimate grievance. Stop the torture and kidnappings and careless bombing. Do all those at the same time. :)

  3. And bring the forces back under government control, no more letters of marque: “Congressman Prepares Legislation to Ban Blackwater“, Jeremy Scahill, AntiWar, 14 January 2010

    As multiple scandals involving Blackwater continue to emerge almost daily, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence is preparing to introduce legislation aimed at ending the US government’s relationship with Blackwater and other armed contracting companies. “In 2009, the U.S. government employed well over 20,000 armed private security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there is every indication that these figures will continue to rise in 2010,” Schakowsky wrote in a “Dear Colleage” letter asking for support for her Stop Outsourcing Security (SOS) Act. “These men and women are not part of the U.S. military or government. They do not wear the uniform of the United States, though their behavior has, on numerous occasions, severely damaged the credibility and security of our military and harmed our relationship with other governments.”
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    FM reply: I’ll bet nothing is done.

  4. It’s just so lame. Really, seems so 90’s. Al Qa’ida is the first, but not the last, of the outsourcing terrorist organizations. These suggestions may work just fine, for now. But just wait for Al Qa’ida 2.0! There is no getting away from it, it IS a war on terror. Attempts to deny it will just delay the necessary reforms that are needed. The word WAR, is needed, to convey the urgency, and the danger. Anything less is just stupid.

    Less troops, more police, more CIA, all good, and all so beside the point. The point is, the nation state can now be threatened, and even destroyed, by something other than another nation state. Weapons of mass destruction will continue to be commoditized, and to decrease in price on the open market. The nation state is threatened, the rule of law is at risk, and more cops on the beat is not all that is needed.

    We need new international organizations, and new international law, along with an alliance, of a kind, between free nation states. And a re-organization of our own outmoded, dumb as toast society. All of our defenses are configured to deal with other nations, and the threats they may pose, well, we are not fighting just other nations now.

    The threat is just not atomic weapons, etc. It is the reaction of the populace, after an attack, when their befuddled and clueless leaders, say, “but we put more cops on the beat!” It’s more smart, not more cops. If democracy cannot protect us, then democracy will go, and the terroists will score a major victory.
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    FM reply: While I appreciate your personal panic, there seems to be little evidence that this is anything other than your nightmares. The pinprick attacks so far hardly justify the massive rebuilding of our society that you recommend. Most of the evidence I’ve seen suggest that there was no panic after the terrorist attacks during the past few years. IRA in UK. Al Qaeda in UK, Spain, US. Poison gas in Japan. These have been used in the US as an excuse to expand government powers, but that’s another issue.

    “There is no getting away from it, it IS a war on terror”
    Terror is an emotion. Not a political movement, not even a tactic. This is a certain-to-fail formulation of the situation, IMO.

  5. Or maybe we could try for a pact with the you-know-who.

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQ4dA6kZsEs&hl=en_US&fs=1&]

  6. FM reply: “I suspect that time is our ally. Active strategies just risk screwing up our almost certain victory, as the forces of modernity force changes in the jihadist ideology.

    No the west is going to lose the war on terror. The big lie in the war in terror is that it is a war between Islamic extremism and western democracy. But if you actually look at the actual motivations of the terrorists they are fighting to rule their own countries and depose a series of dictatorships maintained with US and western support. And far from installing western democracy the west is simply fighting to maintain it’s influence across the middle east.

    The reason why this is unsustainable is many fold. Most importantly even if every last official al Qaeda operative is wiped out the grievances will remain and others will be motivated to take up the struggle. New al Qaedas and probably more deadly will form.

    At the same time the clash of civilizations narrative is unsustainable in the west. The difference between the rhetoric and the reality constantly generates many uncomfortable questions and the political costs of one hot war after another are too high. One of the lessons of the cold war is that you can keep the big lie going if you don’t get directly involved in hot wars. And the financial collapse of the drivers of the wars (US and UK) is just going to increase disgruntlement with the costs. At some point this will eventually lead to a collapse in public support for policing the empire.

    Finally the big lie is self defeating, maintaining the lie makes policy decisions extremely complex and inefficient to the point of incompetence. Policies are implemented incoherently because different levels have completely different and opposing ideas of what is trying to be achieved. Most of the criticism of the wars is about taking part of the system and showing that it is diametrically opposed to the objectives of another part.
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    FM reply: Two problems with this analysis.

    “the west is going to lose the war on terror”
    First, as Lawrence of Arabia said, in the movie if not life, “Nothing is written.” Forecasts with such certainty are themselves wrong. Second, there is no “war on terror” in any meaningful sense (as your analysis shows), and the current wars have no foundation in America’s national interest. So losing might have trivial effects on us, as did the Vietnam War.

  7. >”Less troops, more police, more CIA, all good, and all so beside the point. The point is, the nation state can now be threatened, and even destroyed, by something other than another nation state. Weapons of mass destruction will continue to be commoditized, and to decrease in price on the open market. The nation state is threatened, the rule of law is at risk, and more cops on the beat is not all that is needed.”

    Terrorism is the tactic of generating unfounded fear. Sounds like it is working well for you.

    This is a highly effective tactic in the modern world where fear has become indistinguishable entertainment. It’s most amusing that proudly displaying your unfounded fears has become macho.
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    FM reply: Agreed. The same thing is found among other groups in our society. The Peak Oil, Ecological, and Climate Change doomsters. Displaying confident and exaggerated claims about esoteric threats is an easy way to distinguish ourselves in our society. Adopting the Goth look and macrobiotic diets are other ways. Why we have this need is interesting, and unknown to me.

  8. These ideas are only marginally different, in approach, from those of Rumsfeld’s last Quadrennial Military Review. Meanwhile, military forces are already engaged, national honor is at stake, and withdrawal or serious change of course is politically impossible. There are material interests and ideological forces in this country that believe in war (or the achievement of national goals through military power), and they will find ways to call local insurgencies, or terrorist groups, threats to national security.

    And, in a sense, they’re right. If we are going to continue as an empire, and live by exetracting the wealth of poorer countries, we will have to deal with local resistance. The authors here outline a smarter, softer approach, but in pursuit of the same old unstable power relations.

  9. >but in pursuit of the same old unstable power relations.

    Indeed what is so grim is that the most likely course is for the US to it way back to 9/10 – as a new realism – without realizing that the problems facing the empire on 9/10 are much greater and intractable than the problems raised by 9/11

  10. Why shouldnt they have a Pan Islamic State if they want ? ( but hope they remember the Ottoman Empire ) . If they cant have a Pan Islamic State why do we have to endure the Pan European Soviet State ?

    Politicl integration needs to come first . Taliban , Baathists , ex pats , Al Queda , IRA , BNP should be allowed to campaign and field candidates .
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    FM reply: They should not have a Pan Islamic State until most of their fellow citizens want it also. So far killing is one of the major tools in their quest for such a State. Most Arab terrorism is internal.

    “Politicl integration needs to come first”

    Very few States allow violent groups to campaign for office, for reasons which should be obvious to all. Hence the widespread use of “front organizations.” When the violence gets too high (that level varying from state to state), even those get excluded from the political realm. This dynamic is easily confused with the common tactic of declaring one’s enemies to be un-whatever — and banning them.

  11. “This is a highly effective tactic in the modern world where fear has become indistinguishable entertainment. It’s most amusing that proudly displaying your unfounded fears has become macho.” And, “FM reply: Agreed. The same thing is found among other groups in our society. The Peak Oil, Ecological, and Climate Change doomsters. Displaying confident and exaggerated claims about esoteric threats is an easy way to distinguish ourselves in our society. Adopting the Goth look and macrobiotic diets are other ways. Why we have this need is interesting, and unknown to me.”

    Just a hunch, but evolutionary biology probably plays a role. Humans evolved in a vastly different threat environment than that of today, and are neurologically atuned to the conditions that prevailed then (i.e., concrete, immediately discernable threats with short time horizons) rather than now. Simplistically, “flight or fight” adapts us to cope with immediate threat, but poorly disposes us to handle more subtle, lower-intensity problems. It is almost as if, lacking a concrete threat upon which to focus, our neurobiology invents one. The same neurobiology may also misdirect our attention in ways that are maladaptive.

    You have made much the same point on different occasions in discussing broken OODA loops, as Taleb does in “The Black Swan.” It does not make matters better that so many Americans are math- and science-illiterate, and lack the knowledge of how to evaulate trends, data, effects and the like. Such persons prove more prone to manipulation by scam artists, charlatans, politicians, quick-buck artists, greedy bankers and Wall St. sharks, and so on.
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    FM reply: That’s a powerful point. Our mental software (aka “wetware”) was designed for hunter-gatherers on the Serengeti plain (and such). That we can even construct a technological civilization is amazing, let alone make it work (more or less). But it requires stretching our abilities beyond their natural operating enevelope!

  12. One additional point on poor risk assessment, per the previous post. After the near-miss on Christmas Day, by the “underwear bomber,” discussion boards were lit up by people professing to be afraid to travel, or in one or two cases, actually panicked. I pointed out that to be that way may be emotionally gratifying (if immature) but serves no purpose. Statistically, the most dangerous part of traveling is riding to the airport in your car, not flying or the risk of a terrorist attack.
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    FM reply: Great point! By spending money to deter (not prevent) such low-probability events, we suffer massive opportunity losses — as their are far more serious problems starved of funds. For a discussion of this see “Crunching the Risk Numbers“, Wall Street Journal, 8 January 2010 — Excerpt:

    “This is not to suggest that no efforts should be made to stop “conventional” terror attacks. But surely we must understand that, at best, we will reduce the risk from an extremely small nonzero number to a slightly smaller nonzero number.”

  13. #14 How can we know if an area prefers or rejects the Taliban /Baathists , unless they get the chance to vote on it ? This is one of the several flaws in ‘ democracy ‘.
    The dark lesson of Hitler’s popularity casts a shadow over every free voting system .

  14. Fabius,

    Should we include this kind of RAND report as related to the ‘civilian think tank’ circle-jerk complaint from military intelligence posted in a recent thread? As very few examples of “ended” or disbanded terror organizations spring to mind post-cold war, and as NEW ‘terrorist’ groups forming from previously non-violent organizations seem to out number defunct entity’s, I’m unsure whether this is an example of deeply flawed top-down intellectualization of conflict, or is rather intended to be taken seriously. It would be helpful if RANDs definitions were directly linked or explained more clearly.

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