December 15, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Losing the Fight Against Terrorism

• Global terrorism has continued to increase despite 13 years of the U.S.-led ‘War on Terror,’ a strong indication that tactical victories have not led to long-term strategic success

• The focus on tactics—some with significant negative strategic costs—has created a situation in which continued disruptions of various terrorist groups hasn’t translated into a disruption of the ideology

• Two of the four terrorist groups that accounted for 66% of all terrorist attacks in 2013—Boko Haram and the Islamic State—were formed after the ‘war on terror’ commenced, and the other two—al-Qaeda affiliates and the Taliban—are stronger now than they were 13 years ago

• The five countries that accounted for 80% of all 2013 terrorist attacks—Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria—all have deep-seated human rights concerns and social divisions that are utterly resistant to message-driven efforts to counter violent extremism (CVE).


With tactics dominating counterterrorism (CT) efforts, every battle won makes it harder to win the war. While the U.S. no longer calls its counterterrorism (CT) efforts a “Global War on Terror,” it is still fighting in much the same way it was 13 years ago.

The short-term gains—which are indeed meaningful—are inevitably swamped by the long-term increase of adherents to an ideology of violence. According to a recent report by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), nearly 18,000 people were killed in 2013 in terrorist attacks worldwide, a 61% increase over 2012. Given the explosion of violence in Iraq and Syria in the last six months, 2014 will likely be worse.

Just four terrorist groups—al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Islamic State, and Boko Haram—accounted for 66% of all terrorist attacks in 2013, according the IEP report. The U.S has been very successful in keeping al-Qaeda off balance and unable to mount a ‘spectacular’ attack through consistent application of CT tactics. But the group is actually larger now than it was immediately after the 9/11/2001 attacks, and its ideology of bin Ladin-ism infects more people now than when bin Ladin was alive to spread his message of hate. The same can be said of the Taliban, who are stronger now than they were at any time in the last decade. Despite untold expense and effort, the two groups most targeted by U.S. CT efforts have not only withstood the pressure but turned it into strategic advantage.

The other two groups, the Islamic State and Boko Haram didn’t even exist when the U.S. began its ‘war on terror.’ Despite the global focus on terrorism, these two groups now seriously threaten not only their respective countries but regional stability as well. The Islamic State and Boko Haram adhere to bin Ladin-ism and are propagating it more successfully than ever, in the face of significant efforts to counter the message.

Just five countries—Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria—accounted for over 80% of all terrorist attacks; this is logical given that these countries are the unfortunate hosts for the four aforementioned terrorist groups. Iraq and Afghanistan have seen violence explode in recent years even though both countries were the focus of U.S. CT and CVE efforts. It should be clear to all that the results of more than a decade of countering terrorism and violent extremism are unacceptable by any meaningful measure or metric, bringing up the pressing need for alternative approaches.

What unites these five countries and four groups is a complete alienation between government and the governed. All have serious issues with human rights and social and economic divisions that have proved utterly resistant to CVE efforts that rely on messages that don’t comport with the reality of the populations vulnerable to extremism. Additionally, all have relied on harsh CT measures that actually feed terrorism far more than counter it. This brings more importance to the recent release of the U.S. Senate Report on CIA Interrogation and Detention Programs. The use of those tactics by the U.S. has been demonstrably disastrous for the five countries most traumatized by terrorism.


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