Last week, while attending a security conference for nongovernmental organizations, I had the opportunity to talk with a friend of mine about analyzing the threats posed by militant groups. After the conversation was over, I realized it might be worth sharing those thoughts with Stratfor's readers.
I use the word "militant," as opposed to "terrorist," intentionally. Over the years, many readers have criticized Stratfor for its description of jihadist group members as militants. Some believe that in refusing to use the terrorist label, we are somehow being soft on such groups. But nothing could be further from the truth.
A Multifaceted Threat
Throughout history, there have been very few organizations that could be truly be termed terrorist groups. Terrorism, which I loosely define as violence directed against noncombatants for a political purpose, is a tactic. In the same way that war, in the words of Carl von Clausewitz, is "the continuation of politics by other means," so too is terrorism an extension of politics through the use of violence against noncombatants. But most actors who have practiced terrorism have done so within the context of a larger military campaign. Even groups such as Black September and the Abu Nidal Organization, which were specifically established to conduct terrorist attacks, were part of a broader Palestinian military effort that also featured guerrilla warfare.
It is critical, then, to think of groups such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or the Islamic State's Wilayat al-Sudan al-Gharbi (formerly known as Boko Haram) as much more than just practitioners of terror. These groups also possess significant guerrilla warfare and insurgent capabilities, and in some cases they even have conventional mobile warfighting skills. Terrorism is just one of the many diverse military tactics they employ, meaning that the threat they pose is quite different from that of an actor that only employs terrorism.
Marxist, Maoist and Focoist militant groups often use terrorism as the first step in a longer armed struggle. In some ways, al Qaeda followed suit: It used terrorism in the hope of shaping public opinion and raising popular support for its cause, with the expectation that it would grow strong enough to wage an insurgency and eventually conventional warfare to establish an emirate and, over time, a global caliphate. Jihadist groups spawned from al Qaeda, such as the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have grown into militant organizations that can conquer, hold and govern a territory.
Terrorism can also be used to supplement an insurgency or conventional warfare. In such cases, terrorism is often employed to unbalance and distract the enemy, usually by striking vulnerable targets at its rear. The Afghan Taliban uses terrorism in this manner, as does the Islamic State, which has also become quite adept at employing a form of hybrid warfare that employs suicide car bombs at the outset of battles to destroy its opponents' will to fight. This method is not unlike larger militaries' use of air power for the same purpose.
Still, the skills required for various types of military operations differ. Most U.S. soldiers would not make good irregular warfare fighters just out of boot camp. There is a reason programs for more advanced training, such as the U.S. Army's Special Forces Qualifications Course and Ranger School, exist. The same holds true for militant training. Most jihadist fighters receive basic guerrilla warfare training, where they are taught to fire assault rifles and learn hand-to-hand combat, but this initial preparation does not equip them to conduct terrorist attacks overseas. Terrorist attacks, especially those perpetrated far from the group's main area of operations, require a very different set of skills than guerrilla warfare. In many ways, the elements of terrorist tradecraft are far more similar to that of espionage: A terrorist must be able to travel internationally without raising suspicion and complete the terrorist attack cycle, which includes conducting surveillance, acquiring weapons and deploying for an attack, without being detected.
In much the same way that soldiers are selected to attend Ranger School or the Qualifications Course, only a few of the tens of thousands of jihadists who attend basic guerrilla warfare training at al Qaeda camps are selected to attend courses in bombmaking and terrorist tradecraft. But before a group can impart such skills to its recruits, it must first possess the skill itself. Therefore, an important part of assessing a group's capability to project power, whether through military or terrorist operations, is to determine its level of military proficiency and terrorist tradecraft. This can be done by carefully evaluating the attacks it has conducted, both individually and in comparison with one another.
To determine the type, scope and severity of the threat posed by a specific group, it is also important to analyze its capabilities independently rather than conflating them. For example, the Islamic State's Wilayat al-Sudan al-Gharbi has a long history of conducting effective guerrilla warfare operations in its core territory. However, it has struggled to expand its efforts beyond this area of operation. The group has also had difficulty attacking hardened targets with strong security measures in place. Launching a suicide attack against a market in Maiduguri is a far cry from attacking a ministry building in Abuja or a foreign energy company on Nigeria's coast.
Even groups with considerable terrorist tradecraft capabilities, such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have struggled to overcome security measures designed to prevent terrorists from traveling. They have responded to these obstacles by engaging in remote attacks such as the underwear and printer bomb incidents of 2009 and 2010. In such cases al Qaeda's expert bombmaker built the bombs in Yemen before secretly dispersing them to operatives abroad. The challenge of getting a trained terrorist operative into the United States or Europe ultimately prompted such groups to adopt the leaderless resistance model of operations starting in 2009.
Examining an actor's military and terrorist tradecraft gives us the ability to assess the capabilities component of the threat equation, but it does not provide any insight into the question of intent. In many ways, a group's intent can be far more ambiguous and difficult to gauge than capability, which can be empirically measured by looking at past attacks. As noted earlier, terrorism is ultimately an extension of politics; much of what militant commanders and propaganda organs produce is simply rhetoric meant to achieve a political goal rather than to reveal a group's true intent. Such rhetoric can come in a wide variety of forms, including threats designed to inspire terror among a target population, boasts that exaggerate the group's strength or statements that validate the group's cause and justify its actions. Militant groups also frequently employ disinformation in an attempt to conceal their plans for strategic or tactical purposes. Thus, separating rhetoric from actual intent can be very difficult.
Sometimes analyzing a group's intent becomes easier when the organization publishes clear guidance pertaining to its targeting policies. Al Qaeda, for instance, has repeatedly stated that it primarily targets the United States and Europe, as opposed to local governments in the Muslim world. However, in practice al Qaeda's franchise groups often diverge from the core leadership's stated intent, and only a few of their attacks have been directed at "the far enemy." This is partially because of a lack of capability, but some groups, such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, have to some extent resisted guidance from the al Qaeda core, opting instead to adhere to their own targeting criteria. In such cases, the franchise groups' operations, rather than their rhetoric, often better reveal their true intent.
With so many factors at play, gauging the intent of a militant group is more of an art than a science. Still, it can be done if one is careful and remembers that actions speak louder than words.