The authors investigate the timing of insurgents’ use of terrorism within the context of wider-scale warfare. Unlike the great wars found in modern history, the dominant form of warfare in recent years has become internal. The main actors are non-state groups seeking to replace an existing political order through violent means. Terrorism, especially indiscriminate attacks on unarmed civilians, has been an important component of these groups’ tactical repertoires. The purpose of this study is to explore variations in the timing of insurgents’ use of terrorism within the context of war. The authors draw on the largely separate literatures on terrorism and warfare as well as complementary sources of data on terrorist events, insurgent groups, and various forms of armed conflict. The product of this analysis is a mapping of the frequencies of terrorist attacks over time and the identification of these attacks as occurring during the beginning, middle, or ending stages of wider-scale warfare. This is followed by in-depth discussions of the insurgent groups whose use of terrorism matches each of these patterns as well as the contexts within which these groups operate. Readers of this book will include students, scholars, policy-makers, members of the military, and the general public.
Conflicts involving armed non-state armed actors challenging states and each other have become the main form of warfare thus far in the new millennium. The main actors are insurgents and counterinsurgents. Their conflicts are primarily internal, though they occasionally cross borders. The conflicts are carried out with a type of brutality that can be expected when countrymen turn on each other and the institutions responsible for upholding law and order and protecting the population begin to fail. In addition, whereas states may carry out wars from the sky or sea, or at least from a distance, with the aid of satellites, long-range missiles and other sophisticated technologies, the armed non-state actors fighting in the present century’s armed conflicts do so primarily on the ground and at close range. The patterns of their use of terrorist tactics vary over time within the context of wider-scale warfare. In this study, the authors explore and seek to understand why this is the case.
In this chapter we borrow concepts developed by economists, time-based ideas during the initial phases of a protracted struggle as a means of making ‘agitation’ ‘propaganda’; or armed groups may employ terrorism concurrently with other tactics throughout the course of the war. Thirdly, challengers may treat terrorism as a ‘trailing indicator’, useful following some tactical defeat.
Our investigation of linkages between contemporary warfare and terrorism is based on an aggregation and analysis of data on terrorist events, insurgent groups, and various types of armed conflict. We follow this with studies of cases falling into each of our three classifications, including examples of terrorism as a leading, concurrent, or trailing indicator, as well as a fourth type of case in which terrorism does not coincide with warfare. Using these data sources, we map the frequencies of terrorist incidents over time for insurgent groups operating within contexts of wider-scale warfare.
Insurgents’ use of terrorism at the initial stages of conflict
For some insurgent groups, terrorist campaigns are a first step in initiating a wider-scale armed conflict. Terrorists – would-be insurgents – seek to change a political system and seek to do so through the application of violent means. In order to be successful, they require some form of support, either internal or external. In other instances, terrorism is a dead end. The (would-be) insurgents are unable to develop the support and capabilities needed for engaging their adversaries in warfare, despite their interests in doing so. Context matters here, as these weak actors are more likely to find success in weak states. In still other instances, those who use terrorism lack the ambition to initiate war. These are not insurgents; they seek to change policy not political regimes.
As David Kilcullen would have it, contemporary terrorism is often a key element in what he defines as ‘hybrid’ warfare. The new social media, the old mass media, increasing urbanization throughout the world and the proximity of the major cities to vital waterways have helped to create situations in which new wars combine guerrilla warfare, urban guerrilla tactics, terrorism and the adroit use of the media to pose challenges that are difficult to defeat. Leftist conflicts in Central and South America, the Middle East, and India and Pakistan offer illustrations.
Insurgents may fail in their insurgent efforts but that does not mean they give up their struggle. In fact, they may retreat from attempts to engage in wider-scale warfare to carrying out terrorist attacks as a means of showing their continued relevance. In some cases, factions of violent armed groups remain committed to armed confrontation. In these cases, the dissenting factions may refuse to accept truces or peace agreements and continue to launch terrorist attacks as a way of sabotaging peaceful outcomes.
The focus of this chapter is on al Qaeda, ISIL, and related groups and the threats they pose to various states in the Middle East and elsewhere. At the beginning of this volume we asserted some generalizations about the roles terrorism may play in twenty-first century warfare. We conclude this study by looking at patterns in the use of terrorism during these first years of the twenty-first century. Many of the insurgencies of this era are ongoing and their outcomes are not yet known. Thus far, however, we observe changes in the conduct of and participants in warfare. Terrorism is a tactic used early and increasingly in twenty-first century insurgencies. Insurgent groups’ targets are civilian and military; and, with some exceptions, their tactics are much the same regardless of their targets. Twenty-first century insurgents produce their own media and are able to rely on less dramatic and less deadly attacks to gain attention. Instead, they perpetrate more shocking types of attacks, not only suggesting but also advertising their brutality.