Review | Terrorist Organizations’ Innovation & Learning: What’s Next in (counter)terrorism?

In the last decades, the world saw terrorism rise and, in some cases, surpass security measures and approaches. On May 17thMay the Center for International Studies (CEI-IUL) had the opportunity to hold a lecture on terrorist organisations’ innovation and learning, with a focus on future developments in (counter)terrorism.

The lecturer was Professor Hermínio Matos who holds a PhD in History, Defense and International Relations (ISCTE-IUL), and has published several articles and book chapters, along with his 2016 publication of “Terrorism & Counterterrorism. Systems of Internal Security”.

Although this lecture was intended for higher education purposes, it was a source of information and knowledge to the civil society. The audience had the chance to learn about terrorism from its core matrix to its prevention counterterrorism management. Terrorism has its foundations on the use of violence, usually regarded as a threat, as well as political and ideological motivations. Terrorist actions can be pursued by non-state or clandestine actors who may target civilians or indiscriminate targets, also known as mass casualties. These actions are carried out for the sole purpose of delivering a message: violence. The psychological effects that come with it are what enhances institutions and organisations to take action in order to combat a global threat, as terrorism was not only targeted to the US but also Europe and other areas of the globe – 9/11 in the US and then attacks in Madrid in 2004 and in London in 2005.

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”

When you hear about terrorism what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Al-Qaeda? Daesh? Whichever it was you should know that they’re not completely different or independent from each other. Al-Qaeda brought the inspiration, radicalization and recruiting that Daesh extended with the coordination, direction and supervision of what we now know as global jihadism.

In a nutshell, Daesh emerged from a cell of the JTJ (Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad) group in Jordan along with an Iraqi faction of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). On the other hand, al-Qaeda is much more complex. Al-Qaeda in Iraq grew into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which was succeeded by the Islamic State also known as Daesh. As a consequence of being successors of one another, these organisations’ structures aren’t so different. Homegrown cells usually become self-proclaimed affiliates such as caliphates in Mali, Mauritania and Chad (Daesh) and then develop into affiliated groups. These groups can turn into regional branches of al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda’s core or, in the Daesh case, turn into organisations such Bokoharam, the Islamic State for West Africa. The main difference is efficiency – Daesh is more efficiently dangerous because the homegrown cells can be much more proficient, as we have seen in the attacks in Europe. At the same time, al-Qaeda has developed external and endogenous penetration cells, usually linked to the al-Qaeda core and inspired by it, which then evolve into homegrown cells, self-starters (auto-radicalized groups) or individual lone-wolf type of attackers.

But where does all this coordination come from? Back in the days of Osama bin Laden a plan was a made called “The 7 phases for Islamic Caliphate”. It started in the year 2000, a first phase which was meant to last until 2003 called “the awakening”, translated the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq. From 2003 to 2006 it was the “opening eyes” phase, focused mainly in the controversies and conspiracies towards the Islamic community by the western countries. The period between 2007 and 2010, “arising and standing up” put the spotlight over Syria and was then followed by the 4thphase, lasting until 2013 called “toppled hated Arab regimes”. The second to last phase (2013-2016) “declaring Islamic Caliphate” set the violence level to one not seen in many centuries. We are currently in “total confrontation” phase, meant to last until 2020, it intends to put the Islamic army and the non-believersface to face. The last phase shows no prospect of ending and it is entitled “definitive victory”. This notional map of a caliphate was envisioned by Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian pediatrician and most wanted man of 2011, as he was appointed new leader of al-Qaeda because of the death of bin Laden that same year. Al-Zawari was the man who formally bound the Egyptian Islamic jihad to al-Qaeda in the late 1990s. He is said to have been bin Laden’s right arm and inheritedhis position as a legacy honor.

The claimed achievements of these terrorist groups have their bedrocks in doctrine and structured organisations, although al-Qaeda is currently known for its decentralised action with few links among cells. In order to survive and strive there is usually cooperation among the organisations. Cooperation can mean longevity as well as lethality, which leads to effectiveness and impact resulting in visibility to the, usually western, public. Nonetheless, cooperation doesn’t always have the same level strength among groups. Low and medium level can be translated in transnational or tactical and operational cooperation while high level usually means fusion or merger integration, as well as strategic alliances. The maintenance of terrorist groups has a great focus in recruitment cycles, in this case top-down kind of recruitment. Starting off with talent spotting by young members, followed by recruitment, mobilization, radicalization, indoctrination, integration in the groups, training which usually includes the use of weapons and means of homicide practice, and ending in violent actions, also known as terrorist attacks. The terrorist decision making and target selection can occur in two forms: penetration cells, also called Hit Teams, which are customarily more heterogenous and sophisticated, prepared with combat training, easier to detect although their attacks are of low frequency and high impact, or on the other hand, homegrown cells, identified as homogenous and amateurish, with virtual training and planning, hard to detect however high frequency and low impact attacks they pursue. Notwithstanding since the attack on Charlie Hebdo (2015) there has been a rise of violence and impact of homegrown cells since their size doesn’t compare to their lethality. Fairly or highly equipped cells can cause a lot of damage.

Prof. Matos additionally attracted our attention to attack cycles

Attack cycles begin with target selection, followed by approach and surveillance as well as rehearsal, which precedes the attack and consecutive exfiltration escape and evaluation of impact and success. To make this happen terrorists resort to fake IDs and safe houses, along with disguises and counter-surveillance, rehearsals and testing the target, and in some cases address to terrorist transit and mobility resources.

The core dilemma is in doctrine and mind control. The young terrorists are lured into these organisations as a mean of making their lives count when they feel like they are not pursuing successful lives. This means that security management can hardly be fulfilled by the sole work of intelligence services. Withal counterterrorism can have a shockingly positive impact in resolving issues of this matter. The most common model of terrorist prevention and counterterrorism falls into six different points: detection, prevention, protection, response, management and recovery. But if counterterrorism is so effective how come we never hear about it? Well the attacks that actually happen are the few that were able to surpass the intelligence services and police forces action. Because of contingency restraints, the population usually only gets to know about the attacks and never the preventions, since it would put at risk other prevention try-outs and missions. There is much more being done than what the civil block of society perceive. Does this mean that the situation is bad but, well, it could be worse?

As opiniões expressas neste texto representam unicamente o ponto de vista do autor e não vinculam o Centro de Estudos Internacionais, a sua direcção ou qualquer outro investigador.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Carolina Augusta

Intern at CEI-IUL. Undergraduate student of Political Science at ISCTE-IUL.

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