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How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida

How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida by Seth G. Jones and Martin C. Libicki. RAND Corporation, 2008, 250 pp.

How Terrorist Groups End, a well-organized and thoroughly researched monograph, seeks to answer the question “All terrorist groups eventually end. But how do they end?” (p. xiii). Without an understanding of the fate of such organizations in the past, one finds it difficult to establish counterterrorism policy for the future. The authors are political scientists for the RAND Corporation, concentrating on key areas of foreign policy. Seth Jones, a specialist in stability operations and counterinsurgency, and Martin Libicki, one of the nation’s foremost experts on studies linking the rise of information technology with national security, team up to create a monograph rich in data analysis and to offer recommendations for future US counterterrorism policy.

In an age when terrorism specialists are en vogue and popular literature is replete with conjecture and opinion, it is refreshing to find a study that eschews selection bias by comprehensively examining the entire body of data. To avoid selecting a single case that fits their policy recommendation, the authors objectively examine how 648 terrorist groups ended between 1968 and 2006. The data reveals five causal mechanisms by which terrorist groups end: politics, policing, military force, splintering, or victory. Of these, the two most common are a peaceful transition to the political process and destruction by policing/intelligence efforts. Contrary to popular opinion, the military option has proved effective only 7 percent of the time.

Of the terrorist groups studied, 43 percent ended their campaigns through peaceful resolution of their political aims, and 40 percent ended as the result of policing and local intelligence efforts. When examining groups that successfully transitioned to the political process, Jones and Libicki identified breadth of the terrorists’ goals as the key variable. In general, the narrower the goals, the more likely either side would consider negotiating a viable alternative to violence. Applying this finding to al-Qaeda, we discover that a political solution is unlikely because neither the United States nor its partners in the Middle East would negotiate the terror group’s aim of reestablishing an Islamic caliphate. In the absence of a political solution, the second most successful option is policing and local intelligence. People who work in those areas are familiar with the populace, culture, and environment within which terrorist groups operate, allowing them to penetrate and disrupt these organizations within their state. Many times, police efforts lead to antiterrorism legislation that criminalizes activities that terrorist groups depend upon for financing, recruiting, and functioning. However, within their study the authors did find one exception requiring the use of military force—countering insurgencies. Large, well-equipped, and organized terrorist groups can overpower local police, so the military must combat the insurgency. From these findings, Jones and Libicki analyze the current US strategy for combating terrorism and offer their own policy recommendations.

Specifically, they believe that we should rethink our counterterrorism strategy. Overreliance on military force tends to ostracize local populations and diminish public support worldwide; moreover, it is too blunt a weapon for combating a fluid, networked organization such as al-Qaeda. Rather than conducting military operations, the authors recommend employing a two-front strategy based on policing and intelligence efforts, relying on military force only to counter insurgent activity. The military could confine itself to advising indigenous forces during the counterinsurgency. By adopting this new strategy, one would shift resources towards police efforts while increasing partnerships with foreign police and intelligence organizations. The authors recommend focusing on intelligence collection and then utilizing police forces to capture or kill key leaders within the network. In support of these efforts, implementation of counterterrorism legislation would cut off terrorists from their funding and logistical sources, making future operations difficult to conduct.

Pioneers in the field, Jones and Libicki present the first systematic study of how terrorist groups end, offering policy recommendations firmly rooted in their findings. However, they seem to fall short in one critical area of analysis—addressing terrorist groups that operate in failed or failing states. After all, what are strategists to do if no police or reliable intelligence service exists within a state of interest? A strategist need look no further than Afghanistan to find a current example of the problems that arise when one has no option other than relying on military force to root out terrorist elements. Granted, a network of intelligence and police services’ counterterrorism elements can unearth and capture or kill terrorists. But strategists must remember that, in the case of failing states, the military will prove critical—not just for combating the insurgency but for compensating for the lack of formal governance. The formulation of sound counterterrorism policy requires further study of the organization and use of US military forces to combat terrorist networks in failed or failing states. Ultimately, counterterrorism efforts should make a priority of relying on local sources of intelligence and police support, but if they do not exist, the military must be prepared to combat terrorist organizations.

Despite this criticism, How Terrorist Groups End represents one of the most thorough examinations of the demise of terrorist organizations. As such, it offers a wealth of data and a perfect starting point from which strategy planners on both the Joint Staff and Air Staff can conduct further analysis. Additionally, air and space power strategists will find this monograph an invaluable tool in identifying the threat we face as we continue to develop our Air Force to support counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations.

Maj Roger Ryan Messer, USAF

Naval Postgraduate School

Monterey, California

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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