RAND Study Says U.S. Should Greatly Expand Efforts to Undermine Support for Terrorism

For Release

November 16, 2006

To defeat the global jihadist movement, the United States should move beyond the boundaries of conventional counter-terrorism and seek to undermine support for Islamic terrorism within Muslim nations, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

The report says this type of campaign enabled the United States to help nurture opposition to Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, culminating in the overthrow of ruling regimes and the collapse of the Soviet system.

The study by RAND, a nonprofit research organization, says a successful campaign against Islamic terrorism requires: attacking the ideological underpinnings of global jihadism; severing ideological and other links between terrorist groups; and strengthening the capabilities of front-line states to counter local jihadist threats.

The report says that if the jihadist ideology “continues to spread and gain greater acceptance in the Muslim world, it will produce more terrorists to replenish the ranks of al-Qaeda and related groups. If the ideology is countered and discredited, al-Qaeda and its universe will wither and die.”

Conventional counter-terrorism alone is not enough to defeat al-Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist groups, according to the two-volume report titled “Beyond al-Qaeda.” The first volume is subtitled “The Global Jihadist Movement” and the second volume is subtitled “The Outer Rings of the Terrorist Universe.”

“Success in the war on terror requires understanding that it is a political and ideological struggle,” said Angel Rabasa, a RAND senior policy analyst and the lead author of the study. “What inspires and sustains the global jihadist movement is an ideology that is radical and Islamist at its core, but also borrows from 20th century Western totalitarian traditions.”

“The war on terror at its most fundamental level goes to the war of ideas,” Rabasa added. “The goal here is to deny extremists the high ground of Islamic politico-religious discourse, which has been adroitly exploited by al-Qaeda to further the appeal of its own radical rhetoric.”

The report looks at four main sources of terrorist threats:

  • Al-Qaeda, including the group's strategy, ideology, operations, tactics, finances, changing character and possible future.
  • Terrorist groups that have adopted al-Qaeda's worldview and concept of mass-casualty terrorist attacks, even if the groups are not formally part of al-Qaeda.
  • Violent Islamist and non-Islamist terrorist and insurgent groups without known links to al-Qaeda that threaten United States interests, friends and allies. These include Hezbollah and Hamas, along with insurgencies in Iraq, the Philippines and other countries.
  • The nexus between terrorism and organized crime, including the way terrorists and insurgents use criminal organizations and connections to finance their activities. Such actions also tend to weaken and corrupt political and social institutions.

The RAND study acknowledges that an ideology is inherently difficult to attack by outsiders, but points out that there are weaknesses in ideologies that are susceptible to exploitation.

Al-Qaeda's goals are to mobilize Muslims for a global jihad against the West; topple “apostate” regimes, particularly in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan; and create an Islamic government spanning the Muslim world based on an ultra-orthodox interpretation of Sunni Islam that would isolate the majority of Sunni Muslims as well as Shi'ite Muslims.

But not all terrorist or insurgent groups share al-Qaeda's worldview, according to the study. For this reason, the report calls on the United States to try to sever the links between the local and global jihadist groups, in part by emphasizing the differences between the groups.

Jihadists threaten not only the West, but other Muslims, the report says.

“It is important for Muslim allies to highlight that the Islamic state envisioned by al-Qaeda would exclude the diverse streams of Islam,” the study says. “In the world of (Osama) bin Laden and (bin Laden's second-in-command Ayman) al-Zawahiri, there is no room for Shi'ites and within Sunni Islam there is no place for mainstream interpretation of the religion.”

In addition, the United States should seek to deny sanctuaries to terrorist groups and strengthen the capabilities of foreign governments to deal with terrorist threats, but in an advisory capacity by providing data collection and analytical capabilities, the report says.

Although much of the research for the study was completed in 2004, the authors have updated the information to include recent developments in Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Chechnya, Somalia and Southeast Asia.

The research was sponsored by the deputy chief of staff for the Air and Space Operations, U.S. Air Force. The study was conducted in the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE, a federally funded research program that analyzes issues of enduring concern to the U.S. Air Force.

Printed copies of “Beyond al-Qaeda: Part 1, The Global Jihadist Movement,” and “Part 2, The Outer Rings of the Terrorist Universe,” (ISBN: 0-8330-3930-X -- 978-0-8330-3930-9 and 0-8330-3932-6 -- 978-0-8330-3932-3) can be ordered from RAND Distribution Services (order@rand.org) or call toll-free in the United States 1-877-584-8642.

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