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 man holds up a sign in memory of U.S. journalist James Foley during a protest against the Assad regime in Syria in New York City, August 22, 2014

    Commentary

    Why the U.S. Swaps Prisoners but Doesn't Pay Ransom

    Reports that the United States refused to pay ransom for journalist James Foley, only weeks before it released Taliban prisoners in exchange for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, have caused confusion about U.S. policy. On the surface, it may seem inconsistent. Why release prisoners but not pay ransom?

    Sep 2, 2014

  • Members of the United Nations Security Council vote on a resolution about the ongoing crisis in Iraq at UN headquarters in New York

    Commentary

    Foreign Fighters Are a Global Threat

    The threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters cannot be resolved by the United States, or any ally, working alone. It calls for broad international cooperation on law enforcement, intelligence sharing and other areas for many years to come. The road ahead will be hard, but it's best to begin now with action by the UN Security Council.

    Aug 25, 2014

  • Smoke rises during clashes between Kurdish peshmerga troops and militants of the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIL, on the outskirts of Sinjar, August 5, 2014

    Commentary

    Disrupting Terrorist Safe Havens

    Disrupting the terrorist safe havens in Syria and Iraq would require a balanced approach that makes the business of terrorist planning and training difficult without entangling U.S. forces in new conflicts and angering the very populations the United States seeks to assist.

    Aug 18, 2014

  • Syrian refugees walk amid damage and the remains of tents that were burnt in the fighting between Lebanese army soldiers and Islamist militants in the Sunni Muslim border town of Arsal, August 9, 2014

    Commentary

    To Fight ISIS, Make Peace with Syria's Assad

    To disrupt al-Baghdadi's advance, the United States and its allies should start by addressing the source of the problem — the conflict in Syria. They can begin by negotiating a truce with President Bashar Assad to stop the fighting in Syria.

    Aug 14, 2014

  • Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from the Islamic State, walk towards the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain, August 11, 2014

    Commentary

    What's Going on in Iraq?

    While the United States could embark on a much wider war in Iraq, there's little reason to think it will rush to do so or that using airpower to help defend the Kurds will make such an escalation inevitable.

    Aug 14, 2014

  • A man purported to be Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State, allegedly in what would be his first public appearance at a mosque in Mosul, Iraq

    Commentary

    Hitting ISIS Where It Hurts: Disrupt Its Cash Flow in Iraq

    President Obama's decision last week to conduct airstrikes against ISIS and send humanitarian aid will help buy time for both Iraqi and Kurdish forces to regroup. But Baghdad needs a strategy that aligns the political and economic interests of all Iraqis to hit ISIS where it hurts: its war chest.

    Aug 13, 2014

  • U.S. soldiers on patrol in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, April 24, 2012

    Commentary

    Iraq's Lessons for Afghanistan

    The successes of ISIS and other Sunni groups have raised important questions about the wisdom of America's decision to withdraw U.S. military forces from Iraq in 2011. They raise equally significant questions about the U.S. decision to exit Afghanistan in the future.

    Aug 4, 2014

  • A militant Islamist fighter films his fellow fighters in a parade in Syria's northern Raqqa province, June 30, 2014

    Commentary

    An Evil Wind

    The threat of global terrorist enterprises has been enhanced by Western fighters joining al Qaeda offshoots like the Islamic State. With the terrorist threat evolving, the United States has little choice but to evolve with it.

    Jul 31, 2014

  • Soldiers entering building

    Testimony

    Jihadist Sanctuaries in Syria and Iraq

    The large number of Western violent extremists in sanctuaries like Syria and Iraq requires the adoption of policies and practices in the U.S. homeland and overseas to ensure that these extremists are detected if they return to the West and, more broadly, to reduce the flow of foreign fighters from the West.

    Jul 24, 2014

  • Shi'ite volunteers, who've joined the Iraqi army against militants from the radical Islamic State, take part in weapons training, July 18, 2014

    Commentary

    Defeating the Islamic State: Crafting a Regional Approach

    While ISIL may achieve temporary tactical gains from declaring the caliphate, it made the strategic error of declaring all other Sunni political actors illegitimate. This may provide an opening to build a coalition that can create and implement a regional strategy to attack ISIL.

    Jul 22, 2014

  • Followers of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who fought U.S. troops under the banner of the Mehdi Army during the 2003-11 occupation, have returned as Sadr's new "Peace Brigades"

    Commentary

    Iraq Makes Strange Bedfellows

    In seeking to quell the unrest in Iraq, the United States must balance its own interests with those of a diverse cast of players that includes Iraq, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, an unpredictable and violent jihadist front and others.

    Jul 15, 2014

  • Members of Shi'ite group Asaib Ahl al-Haq carry coffins of fighters killed in clashes with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), July 7, 2014

    Commentary

    The United States Must Remain Cautious About Intervening in Iraq

    It is difficult to see how the United States can favorably affect the situation in Iraq without making a costly and risky investment. But that does not mean doing nothing. An immediate objective is to contain the conflict.

    Jul 14, 2014

  • Mehdi Army fighters loyal to a Shi'ite cleric march during a military-style training in Najaf, June 18, 2014

    Commentary

    A Long-Term Strategy for a Democratic Iraq

    Unfortunately, no strategic option for a unified, democratic Iraq has a good chance of success. But any well-considered option that doesn't involve ineffective killing or risking U.S. lives is preferable to simply allowing Iraq to disintegrate and feed broader regional instability.

    Jun 30, 2014

  • Members of Iran's Basij militia march during a parade to commemorate the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war, September 22, 2010

    Commentary

    The Fallacy of Iranian Leverage

    Rather than helping Iran in the nuclear negotiations, Iran's battle against the ISIS could actually hurt it. The broader strategic dynamics were already working against Iran, and the situation in Iraq has only made that more true.

    Jun 27, 2014

  • Afghan security forces leave the site of burning NATO supply trucks after an attack by militants near the Pakistani-Afghan border, June 19, 2014

    Commentary

    Is Afghanistan the Next to Crumble?

    Amid the stunning rout of Iraqi forces in northern Iraq, many have asked whether a similar reversal of American foreign policy goals is possible in Afghanistan. The answer is a qualified yes. Now is the time for the United States to understand Afghanistan's coming struggle, and to help Afghans build a path to stability.

    Jun 24, 2014

  • A burnt vehicle belonging to Iraqi security forces at a checkpoint in east Mosul, one day after radical Sunni Muslim insurgents seized control of the city, June 11, 2014

    Commentary

    On the Fall of Mosul

    Despite the belief that liberal democracy is the best system of government, America's own history clearly demonstrates that the path to it can be long and painful.

    Jun 19, 2014

  • Volunteers, who have joined Iraqi security forces to fight against militants from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), gather in Najaf, June 18, 2014

    Commentary

    Iraq Observations

    Will the Obama administration be blamed for losing Iraq if it does not order military intervention? Or will history judge the president wise for keeping U.S. forces out of war? As Americans debate assisting Iraq, including the possibility of military intervention, here are 10 things to keep in mind.

    Jun 19, 2014

  • Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, June 11, 2014

    Blog

    With More Opportunities for Recruitment, the ISIS Threat Could Grow

    As the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) rolls through northern Iraq, taking two cities, Mosul and Tikrit, in as many days last week, experts are concerned not only about territory and resources seized by the militants, but also about growing opportunities for ISIS to bolster its ranks.

    Jun 18, 2014

  • Northrop Grumman test pilots with arm-mounted controllers after successfully launching a drone combat aircraft on the USS George H. W. Bush, May 14, 2013

    Commentary

    Will U.S. Air Power Work in Iraq?

    There are many key questions regarding deployment of U.S. air power to Iraq to halt the progress of the Islamic State. How effective would it be? Would it cause a lot of civilian casualties? Is air power alone enough to achieve U.S. objectives?

    Jun 18, 2014

  • Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) stand guard at a checkpoint in Mosul, Iraq, June 11, 2014

    Commentary

    Obama's Iraq Dilemma

    On the surface, President Obama faces a classic foreign policy dilemma: The Iraqis are asking for U.S. military assistance to halt ISIS's dangerous offensive, but Obama has long promised the American people that he would withdraw the U.S. military from involvement in Iraq.

    Jun 17, 2014