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I. U.S. Policy
II. Terrorism Knowledge Base
III. Country Reports on Terrorism 2005
IV. Motivations
V. Maps
VI. Bibliography/Recommended Reading
VII. Footnotes

Terrorism1 has been a significant issue for U.S. policymakers for decades. However, it took the single most deadly attack on American soil to make it the top national security concern. Within a month of the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration launched a new "War on Terror," which included a campaign to remove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, kill or capture the ringleaders and members of Al-Qaeda, and generally combat terrorist groups across the globe by cutting off their funding, pressuring governments that provide them active or passive support, and improving intelligence sharing across borders with friendly governments.

In the six years since 9/11, some international terrorist groups have evolved significantly. The combination of strengthened counterterrorist measures and the loss of former safe havens have forced already dispersed groups like Al-Qaeda to decentralize in new ways. These changes have been aided by the spread of jihadist ideology that, coupled with fallout from the Iraq war, have created a new generation of individuals inspired by the jihadist worldview who plan and commit acts of terror often without regular command and control from any established group. The perpetrators of the Madrid bombings in 2004 fit this profile, as they are believed to have been self-starters who took their inspiration but not their orders from jihadis. The London bombers of 2005 fit this description as well according to most media accounts, although other scholars dispute that claim and argue that the London attack was an Al-Qaeda operation, revealing that Bin Laden's organization is far from contained.2 Regardless, FBI assistant director for public affairs John Miller said, "we've gone from having a university for terrorism to having a correspondence course over a computer."3 Although it remains unclear whether graduates of the correspondence course can inflict as much damage as those with hands on training, the former are nonetheless a relatively recent phenomenon that pose unique challenges to counterterrorist efforts.

The distinction between domestic and international terrorists groups has always been a gray one, but this situation has been further muddled due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the vast majority of terrorist attacks in the world over the past few years have occurred.4 Scholars and policymakers alike debate how much of a link exists between Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers (also known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq) and Al-Qaeda, whether those trained and experienced in terrorist tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan will carry their jihad beyond the current battleground, as their Al-Qaeda predecessors did in the 1990s, and whether the terrorism is a threat that requires such massive focus and funding from the American government.

The Bush administration claims that Al-Qaeda in Iraq shares ties to Bin Laden and the remnants of the Al-Qaeda leadership likely holed up in Waziristan, that Americans must fight and kill terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan so they don't "follow us home," and that terrorism remains the top national security threat, warranting the hundreds of billions of dollars spent each year in its name. Bush further claims that Iraq remains the central front in the war on terror, that American is safer but not yet safe, and that the larger struggle against terrorism is winnable if the American people stay committed to their proactive and, at times, preemptive strategy. Some scholars question the strength of ties between various Al-Qaeda "franchises," argue that most terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan is home grown and will not lead to attacks on American soil, and claim that the terrorist threat is overblown and the "War on Terror" as currently conducted is counterproductive and unnecessarily expensive.5 Others argue that terrorism should be handled as a crime rather than a war, that America is less safe that it was on 9/11, and that the current "War on Terror" is unwinnable in its current form.6 These numerous, significant debates reveal how much is at stake and how terrorism and America's handling of it have become a central question in American foreign policy at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

I) U.S. Policy

The National Security Strategy of the United States (March 2006)

The "Global War on Terror": America is at war with a weakened but not defeated enemy

  • The NSS reaffirms that deterrence is no longer enough, America must take the fight to the enemy and actively deny them safe haven and funding

  • "Terrorist networks today are more dispersed and less centralized. They are more reliant on smaller cells inspired by a common ideology and less directed by a central command structure." (NSS 9)

  • "In the long run, winning the war on terror means winning the battle of ideas, or it is ideas that can turn the disenchanted into murderers willing to kill innocent victims." (NSS 9) Unfortunately, U.S. efforts to prevail in this "battle of ideas" have been misguided and weakly supported by the Bush administration

  • Terrorism is not (solely) driven by poverty, Israel-Palestine issues, American policy in Iraq, or U.S. efforts to prevent terror attacks; but it is a result of political alienation, grievances, misinformation/conspiracy culture, an ideology that justifies murder

  • Current strategy is based on two pillars: supporting spread of democracy and free markets, and leading the community of democracies in the 21st century
    • The NSS says Hamas was elected in free and fair elections, but claims that any group is not "democratic" if it does not renounce terror, recognize Israel's right to exist, promote recurring elections, etc.
      • This claim leaves the door open for the U.S. to withdraw assistance to Palestinians, which it has largely done, especially to those in Gaza
      • This move undermines the U.S.'s reputation for democracy promotion in Middle East in the eyes of many, especially when combined with the sham elections in Egypt and Saudi Arabia

II. Terrorism Knowledge Base (

A. Methodology

B. A basic picture of the nature of these group

  1. Al-Qaeda
    • Al-Qaeda has more of an international focus on the "far enemy" of the U.S. and the West rather than local Arab regimes. Al-Qaeda has the largest overall casualty count of the four groups, but this is largely from 9/11 attacks
    • Al-Qaeda allies with and supports a number of other terrorist organizations through funding, training, and sending its own members to help with other operations
    • Many argue that Al-Qaeda is more decentralized than ever; the leadership seems to be providing more ideological inspiration than anything, although the group's monetary resources are still believed to be adequate given the low costs of most terrorist operations
  2. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers)
    • Most attacks are domestic and target government and police in attempt to undermine the nascent Iraqi government
    • Questions remain about AQI's position within the Iraqi insurgency, its relations with other insurgent groups, and whether it has the desire or capability to take its operations outside of Iraq in the future
  3. Hamas
    • Most attacks are against civilians and private property in the West Bank and Gaza in attempts to force Israeli troops to leave these areas
    • At the beginning of 2008, Hamas continues to struggle to become a legitimate political actor and turn its election victory in 2006 into real political clout and bargaining power with regional actors as well as the U.S.
  4. Hezbollah
    • Hezbollah has launched few suicide bombings in recent years, a tactic the group helped make popular in the 1980s
    • Hezbollah has enmeshed itself into Lebanese society, as it now provides a number of social programs in southern Lebanon, has its own media organization, and has a number of seats in parliament as well as ministers in the government
    • In 2006, Hezbollah's kidnapping of Israeli soldiers helped spark a number of Israeli airstrikes and incursions into southern Lebanon with the stated purpose of destroying Hezbollah
    • Hezbollah fired hundreds of rockets into Israel each day in response, and despite some significant losses at the hands of the Israelis, Hezbollah survived the conflict with renewed desire to become the biggest political player in Lebanon and weaken Israel

One can use to easily create a number of figures and tables on terrorist groups, incidents, targets, and other variables.

C. Terrorist Incidents by Region (1/01/2001 - 1/28/2008)

Region Incidents Injuries Fatalities
Africa 329 2051 1420
East & Central Asia 76 86 64
Eastern Europe 958 3727 1405
Latin America & the Caribbean 1302 2324 1274
Middle East / Persian Gulf 12552 50212 26438
North America 96 2391 2991
South Asia 4550 14898 6523
Southeast Asia & Oceania 1466 4577 1516
Western Europe 1998 1428 309

III. Country Reports on Terrorism (U.S. State Department, 2005)

  • Country Reports on Terrorism 2005 PDF
  • Biggest trends over the past year: rise of more micro-actors (self-starters), increased sophistication of terrorists, and increasing overlap with transnational crime (11)
    • Argues that smaller, decentralized groups are less capable but also less predictable (12)
    • Increase in attacks by local terrorists with foreign ties (London bombings)
    • "Overall, we are still in the first phase of a potentially long war. The enemy's proven ability to adapt means we will probably go through several more cycles of action/reaction before the war's outcome is no longer in doubt. It is likely that we will face a resilient enemy for years to come." (15)
      • Unclear why things will end, why resolution will arrive
  • Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) is collection of programs designed to help spread democracy, improve education, strengthen the economy, and empower the women of the Middle East
    • Since 2002, this initiative has received $293 million, or less than the cost of the Iraq war for 2 days ($150-250 million per day)

IV. Motivations

V. Maps

  • Terrorist Trends 2005
    • This is a useful map with location of incidents marked, figures by region, highlighting most active terrorist groups, most common targets, and largest attacks

VI. Bibliography/Recommended Reading

Terrorism and U.S. Policy, National Security Archive collection, George Washington University.

Terrorism: A Guide to Selected Resources, Center for the Study of Global Change, Indiana University.

Bruce Riedel, "Al Qaeda Strikes Back," Foreign Affairs (May/June 2007).

Robert Pape, "The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism," American Political Science Review, Vol. 97, No. 3, August 2003.

David Lake, "Rational Extremism: Understanding Terrorism in the Twenty-first Century," Dialog-IO, Spring 2002, pp. 15–29.

Andrew Kydd and Barbara Walter, "Sabotaging the Peace: The Politics of Extremist Violence," International Organization, Vol. 56, No. 2 (Spring 2002), pp. 263-296.

Marianne Heiberg et al, eds., Terror, Insurgency, and the State: Ending Protracted Conflicts (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).

Gary Schroen, First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan (New York: Ballantine, 2005)

  • Schroen describes his experience as the leader of the CIA’s Jawbreaker team, the first group of Americans to enter Afghanistan for OEF

Gary Berntsen, Jawbreaker (New York: Crown Publishers, 2005)

  • Berntsen, who picked up where Schroen left off when he took command of the Jawbreaker team in early November 2001, does the same with his book, which follows the campaign through Tora Bora

John Mueller, Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them (New York: Free Press, 2006).

  • A skeptical take on the terrorist threat and Washington’s response to it.

VII. Footnotes

1. There are numerous potential shades of gray when dealing with definitions of terrorism involving the target, the perpetrator, the motivation, the fallout, and the publicity, among other things. The definition used by RAND for their MIPT Terrorism Incident Database is as follows: "Terrorism is defined by the nature of the act, not by the identity of the perpetrators or the nature of the cause. Terrorism is violence, or the threat of violence, calculated to create an atmosphere of fear and alarm. These acts are designed to coerce others into actions they would not otherwise undertake, or refrain from actions they desired to take. All terrorist acts are crimes. Many would also be violation of the rules of war if a state of war existed. This violence or threat of violence is generally directed against civilian targets. The motives of all terrorists are political, and terrorist actions are generally carried out in a way that will achieve maximum publicity. Unlike other criminal acts, terrorists often claim credit for their acts. Finally, terrorist acts are intended to produce effects beyond the immediate physical damage of the cause, having long-term psychological repercussions on a particular target audience. The fear created by terrorists may be intended to cause people to exaggerate the strengths of the terrorist and the importance of the cause, to provoke governmental overreaction, to discourage dissent, or simply to intimidate and thereby enforce compliance with their demands."

2. Peter Bergen, "Al-Qaeda, Still in Business" The Washington Post, July 2, 2006.

3. David Anthony Denny, "Terrorists' Tactics Changing, Says FBI Official" News From the Washington File, April 13, 2006.

4. The controversy surrounding Bergen’s argument proves the point: it is unclear whether terrorist attacks within Iraq and Afghanistan should "count" as part of a larger calculation of terrorism levels, and it remains uncertain, once those wars wind down, whether those individuals and groups perpetrating attacks in those countries will start launching similar attacks elsewhere, and in what numbers. "The Iraq Effect"

5. John Mueller, Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them (New York: Free Press, 2006).

6. Andrew Bacevich, "Picking Up After Failed War on Terror,"  Chris Dishman, "The Leaderless Nexus: When Crime and Terror Converge," Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 28, No. 3, 2005: 237 – 252.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology