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Al Qaeda, the jihadist network personified by Osama bin laden, seeks a restored caliphate free of Western influence. It uses terror as its means. But how does terrorism serve the ends of al Qaeda? Understanding its strategic logic might suggest what U.S. targets it may seek to strike and why.

This monograph posits four hypotheses to link means and ends. The coercion hypothesis suggests that terrorists are interested in causing pain, notably casualties, to frighten the United States into pursuing favorable policies (e.g., withdrawing from the Islamic world). The damage hypothesis posits that terrorists want to damage the U.S. economy in order to weaken its ability to intervene in the Islamic world. The rally hypothesis holds that terrorism in the United States would be carried out to attract the attention of potential recruits and supporters. The franchise hypothesis argues that today’s jihadists pursue their own, often local, agendas with, at most, support and encouragement from al Qaeda itself.

Each of these four hypotheses was examined using an analysis of 14 major terrorist attacks, a structured survey given to terrorism experts, and an analysis of statements by al Qaeda.

The monograph concludes that the coercion and damage hypotheses are most consistent with prior attack patterns, expert opinion, and the statements. The rally hypothesis appears to have weaker explanatory power. The franchise hypothesis coincides with the majority of post-9/11 attacks, but, unless such franchises are active in the United States, may not indicate what the next attack here might be.

This research was sponsored by the United States Department of Homeland Security and was conducted under the auspices of the Homeland Security Program within RAND Infrastructure, Safety, and Environment.

This report is part of the RAND monograph series. RAND monographs present major research findings that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND monographs undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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