What drives terrorism? It's a question asked by governments and individuals, militaries and businesses. In an April 27 webinar in which Fred Burton and I discussed the evolution of terrorist threats toward soft targets, we briefly discussed this very topic. Knowing what these influential forces are is crucial to understanding how an attack is conducted, placing it in context and, perhaps most important, anticipating and even forecasting future changes in terrorism trends. Tactics and tradecraft never stop changing, either: They are constantly evolving to respond to external forces that enable, constrain and otherwise shape them. And while the list may differ among experts, the main drivers the Stratfor Threat Lens team tracks are ideology and terrorist theory, political and economic developments, counterterrorism efforts, technology, and media coverage.
Based on public interest from the webinar, I'd like to pull back the curtain and provide a glimpse into how our methodology assesses these five driving forces. In this series, each one will be examined individually, but it's important to remember that not one factor operates in isolation — the world does not work that way. They are all interconnected, and almost always working together (or at cross purposes) to help transform terrorism dynamics.
There are many definitions of terrorism, but for our purposes we will loosely define it as politically motivated violence against noncombatants. While many groups and individuals practice terrorism, terrorism for the sake of terror is not their end goal. Instead, it's merely one tool that's used to achieve a greater purpose, whether that objective is launching a revolution that will bring about a "workers' paradise," providing animals the same rights as humans or establishing a global caliphate.
Of course, not all political groups condone the use of terrorism to achieve their goals. In fact, most — even groups that advocate radical or revolutionary change — do not. A prime example is the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization that has long called for the radical reordering of governments and society in the Muslim world based on Sharia law. It stresses working within the political system using non-violent means, however, as the organization did in Egypt in 2012 when Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi was elected president following former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's ouster. Even after a military coup overthrew Morsi in 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood continued to preach non-violence.
There will always be hyperbole in terrorist propaganda. Nevertheless, it tends to clearly state the goals and intentions of terrorist groups, even when they are not capable of achieving them.
Still, some of the organization's offshoots, such as the Palestinian Hamas organization, have advocated the use of violence to achieve its ends. More recently, many younger Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members have become frustrated by the approach and have broken away from the group entirely, forming new organizations such as the Hasam Movement. By following the rhetoric of these former members, it was not hard to predict that new groups would rise; ones unafraid of conducting attacks against the Egyptian government.
The statements published by groups are also good sources to glean the intent of terrorist groups. Many are often transparent: The title of Osama bin Laden's 1996 work, "Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places," alone showed that he wanted to lead attacks against the United States. Furthermore, bin Laden's 1998 fatwa, which was labeled as a statement by the World Islamic Front and co-signed by the leaders of four other groups in Egypt, Pakistan and Bangladesh showed that his ideology was gaining steam.
Similarly, when al Qaeda in Iraq changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq, it signaled its intent to establish an Islamic polity. Then when the group changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, it showed it wanted to create an Islamic polity that spanned Iraq and Syria. And when it declared a global caliphate, logically it demonstrated a desire to expand the polity beyond Iraq and Syria to the entire world.
When it comes to selecting targets for attacks, ideology has its part to play as well. Marxist and anarchist groups, for example, will attack industrialists and government targets, but most will avoid killing or injuring citizens they view as being oppressed by capitalists or the state. Still, even groups that are part of the same movement can have significant differences in ideology. We have written extensively on the deep divides between al Qaeda and the Islamic State. These differences include not only targeting — but also how jihad should be pursued altogether. Focusing on the ideology makes it clear that an al Qaeda and Islamic State merger will not occur, despite press reports warning that their deadly union is coming. After all, the Islamic State's flagship media product, Rumiyah Magazine, would not label al Qaeda leaders "Jews of Jihad" if the group had any serious thought of joining forces.
There will always hyperbole in terrorist propaganda. Nevertheless, it tends to clearly state the goals and intentions of terrorist groups, even when they are not capable of achieving them.
Paying close attention to the way an organization operates can reveal how it will evolve, too. As far back as 2005 Stratfor has discussed the implications of a jihadist movement that was broader than the al Qaeda core group, and how it was dangerous to view it only as a unified entity. The tensions between the al Qaeda core and Abu Musab al Zarqawi's al Qaeda in Iraq as reflected in a letter released in 2005 reinforced the notion that jihadism is a movement rather than a single hierarchical organization. It's a widely accepted understanding now, but initially it was somewhat controversial.
The concept of leaderless resistance is another important area of focus; one that reinforced the notion that the unified jihadist movement originally under al Qaeda could and would become a dispersed and broad threat. In this model, lone terrorists or small cells receive ideological and targeting guidance from a central movement, but don't have direct contact with the group in an effort to increase operational security. Leaderless resistance is not a new concept by any means, but it was perhaps best articulated and documented by U.S. white supremacist leaders following the 1988 Fort Smith Sedition Trial. The Earth Liberation Front, the Animal Liberation Front and some anarchist groups also adopted the concept, doing so in an act of desperation after seeing their movements thoroughly disrupted by U.S. law enforcement.
The concept of leaderless resistance is another important area of focus; one that reinforced the notion that the unified jihadist movement originally under al Qaeda could and would become a dispersed and broad threat. In this model, lone terrorists or small cells receive ideological and targeting guidance from a central movement, but don't have direct contact with the group in an effort to increase operational security.
The al Qaeda core and other jihadist networks were similarly uprooted by the United States and it allies following 9/11, forcing jihadist military theoretician Abu Musab al-Suri to begin promoting a leaderless resistance model for jihadists. In late 2004, al-Suri wedded the theory to the concept of individual responsibility to conduct jihad. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) eventually picked up the idea in 2009, penning an article in the group's Arabic language magazine, Sada al-Malahim, in which AQAP leaders encouraged Muslims living in the West to operate on their own instead of attempting to travel overseas to receive training with jihadist groups. Individuals were encouraged to conduct simple attacks against soft targets using knives, guns, clubs, small bombs and other readily available weapons. The operational model posed immense difficulties for counterterrorism agencies, forcing many analysts to begin focusing on the actual terrorist attack cycle, "the how" rather than "the who."
This paradigm was on display in the Ft. Hood shooting in 2010, during which Major Nidal Hasan, a jihadist living in the United States, conducted a simple attack in an army processing center after being inspired by AQAP. The success of the attack motivated AQAP to dramatically increase its efforts to inspire and equip other jihadists in the West to emulate the grassroots attack. AQAP began publishing its English-language magazine called "Inspire" not long after. Even al Qaeda's core jumped on the leaderless resistance bandwagon, having English-spokesman Adam Gadahn appear in a video encouraging Muslims living in the West to conduct attacks against soft targets near where they live, using whatever weapons they could get their hands on.
But while leaderless resistance provides better operational security for grassroots operatives, they still lack the tradecraft and capability of their trained peers. In fact, resorting to leaderless resistance became an admission of weakness, as it had for previous groups. Asking jihadists to use a knife or club was a far cry from threatening to launch an attack that would surpass 9/11. Still, the Islamic State took up leaderless resistance in September 2014. A message from Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammed al-Adnani reiterated AQAP's earlier call for jihadists living in the West to conduct attacks against soft targets, no matter how basic.
It is interesting to now to see so many asserting that attacks such as the recent vehicular assaults in London and Stockholm by grassroots jihadists are something new. They aren't. For those paying attention, it's clear that the leaderless resistance strategy — what Inspire Magazine calls "open source jihad" — stretches all the way back to al-Suri's writings, with examples in Ft. Hood, Boston, Tolouse, Glasgow, Ottawa, and Sydney among others. Understanding terrorism theory and how groups practice it puts terrorist organizations in perspective. It also permits one to forecast things like emerging and evolving threats.