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Terrorism: A Problem and the Larger Context (Part 1 of 4)

Terrorism as a Problem

Problem solving and intelligence analysis typically begin with a clear statement of the problem. However, in the environs of “terrorism,” the initial statement of the problem is difficult. The first challenge is defining “terrorism”: various sources cite the existence of over 100 definitions for terrorism.1,2 While many of the definitions are nuanced variants, other definitions are in absolute contradiction and mutually exclusive. The common thread that exists, even between opposing definitions, is violence. Governments, radical groups, political organizations, journalists, and academia all select a particular definition to frame their arguments and moral positions, then these entities typically reach different conclusions based on the same set of facts. Thus, the definitions serve as political, religious, moral, or philosophical backdrops but shed little clarity in framing a singular problem. Given the common theme of violence in all definitions of terrorism, a second point of agreement states terrorism is both a local and global problem. A further argument is easily made that terrorism is a tactic within a larger strategy.

Intelligence analysts have the responsibility to provide policymakers clarity regarding the threats to the United States. Clarity requires a rejection of personal biases, elimination of political correctness, and objective insight as to ‘the threat.’ For example, a rational argument applying political theory can state that certain radical Islamic groups use terrorism as a means to move forward their specific religious agendas and objectives. This ‘rational argument’ explains satisfactorily why these radical Islamic groups are constantly fighting each other as well as the West. Radical Islamic organizations use terrorism as a means to pursue the goals of the respective group. Thus, intelligence analysts should view terrorism as a tactic and part of a larger strategic threat. The strategic threat perspective allows the counterterrorism forces to focus on the operational aspects of defeating terrorist threats while intelligence analysts develop intelligence studies which examine the strategic root of the threat.

Historically, Terror Precedents Were Means to Advance Strategic Goals

The evidence from three millennia shows terror being used as a tactic by groups, entities, and organizations pursuing religious, political, ethnic, racial, ideological, economic, and state goals.Two things are apparent in this body of evidence: first, for every entity employing terror across 3,000 years of history, virtually all utilized terror as a tactic and never a strategic “objective” or “goal”; second, terror tactics are part of a continuum in pursuit of non-terror goals.3,4  These historic insights suggest a reexamination of how counterterrorism forces and the Intelligence Community create intelligence studies and deploy resources against modern day terrorist organizations like ISIS, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, AQAP, AQIM, and various terrorist splinter groups. One of the first steps is to observe that all these terrorist groups are rooted in religious-driven goals.5,6

Threat Focus: Existential and Enduring?

ISIS, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, AQAP, AQIM are formally identified as terrorist organizations and threats to the U.S. and the West. However, none of these organizations has the military capability to pose an existential threat to the United States. The various terrorist attacks in the past three decades on the U.S. and Europe caused loss of lives, economic dislocations, and transient panic; however, none of these attacks had more than a “tactical” impact. The U.S. responses have cost trillions of dollars and thousands of military casualties; despite the clear threat to the United States plus the expenditure of American blood and treasure, the U.S. did not formally declare war nor go on a national war footing. Except for certain intelligence analysts and some academics discussing terrorist “goals,” the focus has been on the spectacular nature of the terrorist attacks. Discerning the strategic goals is relatively straightforward as the various terror groups broadcast and document their goals. ISIS states the goals of establishing a Sunni caliphate and eliminating all opposition, both secular and non-secular; Iran, identified by the U.S. as a state-sponsor of terrorism, (and Hezbollah, acting as an Iranian military surrogate and political agent) espouses extending Shia influence across the Middle East; al Qaeda and al Qaeda affiliates share a primary objective of al Qaeda to overthrow the corrupt “apostate” regimes in the Middle East and replace them with “true” Islamic governments. Corollary to this objective is al Qaeda’s aim to defeat the United States, which al Qaeda sees as one of the root causes of the Middle East’s problems.5,6,7 Given the idea that tactics support a strategy, current intelligence studies should give new emphasis to the ‘terror groups’ stated goals. The next three installments in this series will examine the respective goals, strategy, and tactics of ISIS, al Qaeda, and Hezbollah as those goals, strategy, and tactics present threats to the United States and the West.

Job Opportunities Now in Counter-terrorism and Intelligence

The current administration has identified elimination of ISIS and any other terror group that threatens the U.S. as a national priority. This places a priority on hiring individuals that have the right set of capabilities, i.e., knowledge, skills, and abilities, to produce the essential intelligence studies and develop effective counter-terrorism tactics to defeat international terrorism. Online universities now provide an additional resource to meet these national security needs. An online school that specializes in intelligence, counterterrorism, and strategic studies is a key to preparing for jobs in intelligence, law enforcement, and the security industry. These specialized schools hire faculties that have practical real-world experience plus understanding of the academic theory and principles. The result is a resource to prepare individuals with enhanced skills and capabilities to defend the country.


  1. Iowa State University Staff. (2010). Terrorism. Department of Sociology at Iowa State University.  Retrieved from: https://www.soc.iastate.edu/sapp/terrorism.pdf
  2. Department of Emergency and Military Affairs Staff. (2016). Various Definitions of Terrorism. Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs. Retrieved from: https://dema.az.gov/sites/default/files/Publications/AR-Terrorism%20Definitions-BORUNDA.pdf
  3. Roser, M. & Nagdy, M. (n.d.). Terrorism. Our World in Data. Retrieved from: www.ourworldindata.org/terrorism
  4. Antiquity Now Staff. (2013). Terrorism in the Ancient World: Part 2. Retrieved from: https://antiquitynow.org/2013/11/19/terrorism-in-the-ancient-world-part-2/
  5. CRF Staff. (2017). Islamist Terrorism From 1945 to the Rise of ISIS. The Constitutional Rights Foundation. Retrieved from: http://www.crf-usa.org/america-responds-to-terrorism/islamist-terrorism-from-1945-to-the-death-of-osama-bin-laden.html
  6. Bar, S. (2004). The Religious Sources of Islamic Terrorism. Hoover Institution. Retrieved from:http://www.hoover.org/research/religious-sources-islamic-terrorism
  7. Byman, D. (2015). Comparing Al Qaeda and ISIS: Different goals, different targets.Brookings. Retrieved from: https://www.brookings.edu/testimonies/comparing-al-qaeda-and-isis-different-goals-different-targets/

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