Terrorist Organizations

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Terrorist organizations have long threatened the security, infrastructure, and citizens of nations and communities throughout the world. Since the early 1970s, RAND has explored the structure and activities of terrorist organizations—most recently ISIS and its offshoots—to understand their motivations, their recruitment and training methods, and why some are more successful than others.

  • Two Air Force F-22 Raptors fly over Syria, February 2, 2018, while supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, photo by Staff Sgt. Colton Elliott/Air National Guard

    Report

    Airpower Was Indispensable to Defeating ISIS

    Feb 5, 2021

    Some argue that airpower could have been applied more vigorously in Operation Inherent Resolve to have more quickly defeated ISIS. Airpower was essential, but ground forces led by Iraqi and Syrian partners were needed to destroy the Islamic State as a territorial entity.

  • Smoke superimposed over a mass grave of ISIS fighters found in 2017 near Fallujah, Iraq, photos by Iraqi ministry of defence and Marina/Adobe Stock; design by Peter Soriano/RAND Corporation

    Report

    Who Are America's Jihadists?

    Sep 11, 2020

    U.S. residents who plotted to carry out jihadist attacks at home and those who traveled or attempted to travel to join jihadists abroad represent two dimensions of the terrorist threat. But both types are driven by internal motivations and circumstances as much as they are inspired by external groups.

Explore Terrorist Organizations

  • A member of the Peshmerga forces inspects a tunnel used by Islamic State militants in the town of Sinjar, Iraq

    Commentary

    Islamic State May Be Down, but It's Far from Out

    The Islamic State's loss of territory, money, and recruits would seem to demonstrate significant progress by the U.S.-led coalition. But if there is one accepted truism in the battle against the group, it is that its leaders intend to fight to the death to establish an Islamic caliphate.

    May 23, 2016

  • News Release

    News Release

    Declassified Documents Provide Insight into Origins of the Islamic State and How to Defeat the Group

    Looking at more than 140 recently declassified documents from the predecessors of the Islamic State, it is evident that the group has been operating for years with remarkable continuity in its philosophy, methods, and goals, including the long-standing aspiration for creating a caliphate.

    May 19, 2016

  • Silhouettes of militants atop currency and a map of Iraq

    Report

    Foundations of the Islamic State

    A thorough examination of the Islamic State's history and practices is useful for designing a coordinated and effective campaign against it — and for understanding why the group might be able to survive such an effort and sustain itself in the future.

    May 18, 2016

  • The Sinjar Resistance Units, an offshoot of a leftist Kurdish organization, and Abdulkhaleq al-Jarba, a Arab tribal militia, have opened up a new front against Islamic State militants in northern Iraq, April 30, 2016

    Commentary

    Partitioning Iraq: Make a Detailed Case, or Cease and Desist

    The mostly non-Iraqi voices who want to divide the country into three ethno-sectarian cantonments—Shi'a, Sunni, and Kurd—owe the Iraqi people extensive, detailed clarification. If neither the Iraqi Arab polity nor Iraq's most powerful political factions seek three-way partition, then the case should be closed.

    May 16, 2016

  • Iraqi security forces hold an ISIS flag that they pulled down at the University of Anbar, in Anbar province, July 26, 2015

    Commentary

    In the Event of the Islamic State's Untimely Demise...

    If they haven't already, the Islamic State's leaders will soon formulate a contingency strategy, a “Plan B” that the West will then be forced to contend with.

    May 11, 2016

  • People react to the death of Osama bin Laden in Times Square in New York City, May 2, 2011

    Commentary

    Five Years After the Death of Osama bin Laden, Is the World Safer?

    What effect did killing bin Laden have on al Qaeda's ability to pursue its jihadist goals? Does high-value targeting contribute to counterterrorist strategy more broadly? Does killing terrorist leaders work?

    May 2, 2016

  • Afghan security forces keep watch after a suicide car bomb attack on a government security building in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 19, 2016

    Commentary

    The Taliban's Persistent Threat

    The United States and its NATO allies have been scaling back their military commitment in Afghanistan. The Taliban, in response, have been scaling up their operations, inflicting unprecedented heavy casualties on Afghan government forces and gaining increased control over much of the countryside.

    Apr 21, 2016

  • News Release

    News Release

    Countering Islamic State Requires a Stronger U.S.-Coalition Strategy

    While the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has degraded the group by targeting its leadership and retaking a portion of territory, achieving lasting defeat of ISIL in Iraq and Syria will be elusive without local forces capable of holding territory.

    Apr 20, 2016

  • Saudi Defense Minister Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (center) poses with chiefs of staff of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism in Riyadh, March 27, 2016

    Report

    A Saudi-Led Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism Could Benefit U.S. Interests

    A military alliance of Muslim-majority nations to fight terrorism poses no danger to U.S. interests. In fact, the Saudi-led initiative could be helpful in several ways beyond current levels of cooperation.

    Apr 19, 2016

  • Peshmerga soldiers provide security during react-to-contact training near Irbil, Iraq, October 2015

    Report

    Countering ISIL Requires a Stronger U.S.-Coalition Strategy

    While the campaign against ISIL has degraded the group by targeting its leadership and retaking a portion of territory, achieving lasting defeat of ISIL in Iraq and Syria will require increased effort by the U.S. to help train local forces to hold territory. Also, political agreements must be forged to resolve key drivers of conflict among Iraqis and Syrians.

    Apr 19, 2016

  • People carry belongings they collected from their damaged houses as they walk near Syrian army soldiers in Palmyra, Syria, April 9, 2016

    Commentary

    Get Ready: Syria Will Need Peacekeepers

    For regional security and to deprive ISIS of what is still its most compelling and important sanctuary in the world today, the U.S. needs a new strategy for Syria that includes willingness to contribute to a substantial postwar military operation to stabilize the country.

    Apr 11, 2016

  • Syrian army soldiers inspect the site of a two bomb blasts in the government-controlled city of Homs, Syria, on February 21, 2016

    Commentary

    A New Kind of Battlefield Awaits the U.S. Military — Megacities

    Megacities are urban areas that seep into one another and have more than 10 million inhabitants. To counter violent non-state actors operating in megacities in the future, the U.S. military will have to be able to piece together a comprehensive and actionable intelligence picture, and under enormously challenging circumstances.

    Apr 6, 2016

  • U.S. sailors assigned to Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command monitor, analyze, detect, and respond to unauthorized activity within U.S. Navy information systems and networks

    Commentary

    The Online Fight Against ISIS

    To prevail against ISIS in cyberspace, the United States and its cyber soldiers will have to be capable of reacting quickly, while being guided by an overarching strategy. Secretary of Defense Carter urged U.S. Cyber Command to intensify the fight against ISIS but it would also be wise to recruit civilian volunteers.

    Apr 1, 2016

  • Iraqi girls gesture peace signs after Iraqi security forces entered the town of Amerli, September 1, 2014

    Commentary

    Inciting Peace: Elevating Alternatives to ISIL's Message

    Malicious ideas, ideologies, and narratives (such as those promoted by ISIL) cannot just be eliminated — they need to be replaced.

    Mar 30, 2016

  • A street memorial outside the Maelbeek subway station following Tuesday's bombings in Brussels, Belgium, March 24, 2016

    Commentary

    What It Was Like Being in Brussels During the Terrorist Attacks

    Bearing witness to a terrorist attack was a startling and surreal experience, one that tragically drove home the need for an expanded knowledge base on terrorism and radicalization.

    Mar 28, 2016

  • People gather around a memorial in Brussels, Belgium following terrorist bombings, March 22, 2016

    Commentary

    Terror Attacks in Brussels: Insights from RAND Experts

    RAND experts weigh in on the timing of the deadly bombings in Brussels, why the attack was inevitable, Salah Abdeslam's arrest, and more.

    Mar 22, 2016

  • Map showing Syria and surrounding region

    Commentary

    How Real Is the ISIS Threat?

    In less than two years, ISIS's black flag has flown in a dozen countries outside of Syria and Iraq. And terrorist attacks have been carried out in its name in the West, including in America. But how serious is the threat that ISIS's brand of jihad will spread on a global scale?

    Mar 18, 2016

  • Protesters carry Al-Qaeda flags during an anti-government protest in the town of Marat Numan in Idlib province, Syria, March 11, 2016

    Commentary

    Could ISIS and Al Qaeda, Two Giants of Jihad, Unite?

    It could take a change in leadership in both Al Qaeda and ISIS and perhaps some compromises on mission and strategy, but there are enough points of confluence to make a united jihadist front a realistic and frightening possibility.

    Mar 14, 2016

  • An ISIS militant waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa, Syria, June 29, 2014

    Commentary

    Deterring ISIS's Ambitions

    Western leaders cannot discount the possibility that ISIS may attempt a chemical attack within their borders. They should look to the robust alliances, treaty regimes, and international organizations to which most of them already ascribe as one way to address this threat.

    Mar 7, 2016

  • An Islamic State flag is seen in this picture, taken February 18, 2016

    Commentary

    The Islamic State's Money Problems

    ISIS now faces considerable money problems. But despite the success of the coalition's counter-terrorist finance measures, it's too early to dismiss ISIS financially.

    Mar 5, 2016