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Resilience: A critical trait when confronting the threat of terrorism

Terrorism is a global problem with a long history – the Global Terrorism Database has recorded over 170,000 terrorist attacks, both by individuals and over 2,700 groups, between 1970 and 2016. Terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda tend to have structures and operations that make resilience a critical trait when confronting this threat.

Image of chemical terrorist attack training at Incirlik Air Base (U.S. Air Force)

Terrorist groups have multiple characteristics that allow them to endure despite asymmetrical disadvantages with respect to material resources, technology, and other important assets. The resilient nature of terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda has been noted as early as 2006, five years after the launch of the war on terror. By 2009, counter-terrorism officials estimated that Al-Qaeda’s core was at its weakest point, with the termination of key leaders such as Osama bin Laden and declining manpower reserves. By 2012, General John Allen, then-commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, argued that Al-Qaeda had “re-emerged” through funding, recruitment, and expansion, and by 2014, Al-Qaeda had sufficiently rebuilt to establish a new network, AQIS – Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent.

There are multiple factors that allow terrorist organizations to endure. A 2014 Rand Corporation study highlighted that the transition of Al-Qaeda from a hierarchical network to a relatively decentralized organization with flexible leadership and networks in Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, and other areas, allowed them to survive U.S. and NATO military pressure and continually reinvent themselves. Further, the persistent appeal of Al-Qaeda’s ideology in the areas where it operates, with historical community relationships ranging back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and their exploitation of ungoverned territory, motivates recruitment and funding that allows the terrorist organization to rebuild.

The implication of this flexibility is that policy and strategies to fight terrorism need to take into account the structural features that allow these organizations to persist.

The idea that terrorist organizations are resilient is a contested idea. Daniel Byman, Professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Services argues that Al-Qaeda is in a meaningful decline, noting that it “maintains a low operational pace; it has thin resources, and limited popular support, and indeed, it is regressing on many of its goals;” it has failed to conduct a “successful, spectacular attack” in over a decade, among a host of other arguments.

The difficulty of eradicating the networks of terrorist organizations means that both policymakers and civilians have to be continuously engaged in combating terrorism. Managing public fears about terrorism is important because feelings of fear and vulnerability distinguish terrorism and make it powerful; preparing for it similarly to preparing for other forms of disasters such as flooding, disease, etc, can help reduce the effectiveness of a terrorist’s approach.

In his book “The Edge of Disaster,” Global Resilience Institute Founding Director Dr. Stephen Flynn argues for emergency training, and incorporating a variety of public, private, non-profit, etc. stakeholders.

“Thinking about and preparing for when things can go very wrong need not be about becoming a nation of Chicken Littles,” Dr. Flynn writes. “It is foolish and self-destructive to oscillate between immobilizing fear, on the one hand, and blithely going about our lives playing a societal version of Russian roulette, on the other. Natural disasters will happen, and not all terrorist attacks can be prevented. However, what is preventable is the cascading effects that flow from these disasters and attacks. The loss of life and economic fallout that disasters reap will always be magnified by our lack of preparedness to manage the risk actively and to respond effectively when things go wrong.”

In resilient communities terrorists get less “bang for their buck” which, in the face of a tactic that relies on fear, lowers the incentive for future attacks and discredits a group’s strength. Future efforts to confront terrorism require addressing the features of its structure, and building capacity to be resilient against these kinds of attacks.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Overview of the GTD – Global Terrorism Database
  2. Al-Qaeda Crippled But Resilient – Council on Foreign Relations
  3. Learning to Live with Terrorism – The Atlantic
  4. Judging Al Qaeda’s Record, Part I: Is the Organization in Decline? – Lawfare
  5. Judging Al Qaeda’s Record, Part II: Why Has Al Qaeda Declined? – Lawfare
  6. Al Qaeda: Quietly and Patiently Rebuilding – The Cipher Brief
  7. A Persistent Threat The Evolution of Al Qa’ida and Other Salafi Jihadists – Rand Corporation

[Featured image: Map of terrorist incidents between 1970 – 2015 (Wikimedia/Global Terrorism Database)]