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

  • Smoke rises after an airstrike during fighting between the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State militants, Raqqa, Syria, August 15, 2017

    Commentary

    Tillerson's All of the Above Policy for Syria

    U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson proposed to suppress any ISIS resurgence in Syria, oust Bashar al Assad, reduce Iranian influence, continue to back a Kurdish-dominated enclave, and reassure Turkey. It's important to understand why such an “all of the above” approach would not be workable.

    Feb 1, 2018

  • U.S. President Donald Trump applauds in front of Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker Paul Ryan during his first State of the Union address in Washington, January 30, 2018

    Blog

    Trump's First State of the Union: Insights from RAND

    RAND research, analysis, and expertise provide context for the issues discussed in the president's first State of the Union address, including infrastructure, North Korea, and opioids.

    Jan 31, 2018

  • Mosul in March 2016, under Islamic State control, when nighttime lighting had fallen by 55 percent compared to its pre-ISIS levels in January 2014

    Essay

    What Life Under ISIS Looked Like from Space

    Satellite images show how ISIS attempted to govern in Iraq and Syria, the economic damage the group left behind, and what it will take to rebuild.

    Jan 9, 2018

  • Newspapers from February 2002 display a photo of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was wanted for the kidnapping and murder of U.S. reporter Daniel Pearl

    Report

    Does the U.S. No-Concessions Policy Deter Kidnappings?

    The U.S. no-concessions policy has not produced any noticeable decline in the number of kidnappings of Americans. The most important factor appears to be the fate of the kidnappers. Where they are apprehended and face stiff penalties, and their gangs and groups are destroyed, kidnappings decline.

    Jan 8, 2018

  • Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad stand in the al-Khafsa area on the western bank of the Euphrates River, Syria, March 9, 2017

    Commentary

    Where Is Assad Getting His Fighters from?

    The Assad regime's defense against insurgents in Syria's ongoing civil war is being provided by forces imported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as Lebanon and Iraq. Most of these fighters are being trained and equipped by Iran. Could this network of foreign fighters help Iran establish a greater presence beyond the Middle East?

    Jan 4, 2018

  • Periodical

    Periodical

    RAND Review: January-February 2018

    This issue highlights RAND research on life inside the Islamic State and on the economic returns of early childhood investments, plus lessons for the U.S. from Britain's approach to free child care.

    Jan 3, 2018

  • A flag of Islamic State militants is pictured above a destroyed house near the Clock Square in Raqqa, Syria, October 18, 2017

    Commentary

    ISIS Could Rise Again

    ISIS has a tried-and-true playbook for bringing itself back from near death. Just a few years ago, it managed to resurrect itself after apparent defeat. And the history of that resurrection should serve as a warning of what may be coming now.

    Dec 15, 2017

  • Multimedia

    Recommendations for a Future National Defense Strategy

    Drawing from his expertise and war-game experience, David Ochmanek provides recommendations to inform a future national defense strategy. He explains that while U.S. forces are currently misaligned with challenges from the country's greatest adversaries, including China and Russia, gaps can be overcome with investments in existing technology to protect our forward bases; reach into contested areas; and identify, track, and engage enemy forces.

    Nov 30, 2017

  • U.S. soldiers approach their transport plane on Pope Army Airfield at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, September 13, 2017

    Testimony

    Recommendations for a Future National Defense Strategy

    War games and analysis suggest that U.S. forces could lose the next war they are called upon to fight. The nation must invest in new field systems and military capabilities to create a robust defensive posture vis-à-vis China, Russia, and other adversaries.

    Nov 30, 2017

  • Smoke trails are seen as rockets are launched towards Israel from the northern Gaza Strip July 12, 2014

    Commentary

    Is Iron Dome a Poisoned Chalice? Strategic Risks from Tactical Success

    While Iron Dome's past success in defending Israel makes it a tempting solution to future challenges, it does have shortcomings. This becomes even more serious when considering using the system in Korea, where the threat posed is substantially greater, and the targeted terrain substantially harder to defend.

    Nov 29, 2017

  • Militant Islamist fighters waving flags, travel in vehicles as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014

    Commentary

    All for One and One for All: Toward a Coordinated EU Approach on Returnees

    To combat the threat posed by returning fighters, EU intelligence and police agencies will need to coordinate to find potential terrorists before they are able to conduct attacks in Europe. The return of dangerous foreign fighters to European soil should be motivation enough for an overarching review of each country’s vulnerabilities.

    Nov 28, 2017

  • An armored personnel carrier on a highway after President Rodrigo Duterte announced the liberation of Marawi in Lanao Del Sur, Philippines, October 28, 2017

    Commentary

    Is the Philippines the Next Caliphate?

    The Philippines is a long way from the Islamic State's birthplace in the Middle East. But the jihadis have already seized and held a city there for three months. Even if the Philippines doesn't become a major node in the Islamic State's network, it will likely remain fertile ground for supporting the group and its violent agenda.

    Nov 28, 2017

  • Protective barriers are placed along a bike path near a memorial for the victims of the October 31 attack in New York City, November 3, 2017

    Commentary

    America Is Great at Fighting Terrorism, but Terror Is Alive and Well

    When terrorists adopt a strategy of pure terror, it's hard to prevent attacks like those in Nice, Columbus, London, Barcelona, or New York. Instead, strategies are needed to counter terrorism's ultimate aim—to instill fear—and to remove some of the incentives of potential attackers.

    Nov 16, 2017

  • Somali fighters belonging to Ahlusunah warjama, a moderate sect fighting against the hardline Al-Shabaab insurgents, display weapons during a parade in Mogadishu, July 31, 2010

    Commentary

    Why Africa Could Provide an 'ISIS Renaissance'

    ISIS has been one of the most formidable and well-organized terrorist groups in history and it would be naive to assume that ISIS will simply cease operations in the face of recent losses. More likely, the group, along with its many followers, will attempt to disperse to a new base, and parts of Africa are likely targets for a new caliphate.

    Nov 15, 2017

  • Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces dance after liberating Raqqa from Islamic State militants, Raqqa, Syria, October 18, 2017

    Commentary

    The Future of Counterterrorism Efforts in Syria

    It is time for the U.S.-led coalition to figure out what its next counterterrorism steps should be, even as it continues to work toward stabilizing the country and navigating the path toward a political settlement with the other major powers involved.

    Nov 15, 2017

  • Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends the first working session of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 7, 2017

    Testimony

    Russia's Approach to Counterterrorism and Counterinsurgency

    The United States and Russia have both suffered at the hands of Islamic militants. But any attempts by Moscow to compare its campaign against jihadists with America's war on terrorism are inaccurate. Russia's brutal methods have often made things worse, so the United States shouldn't view Russia as a viable counterterrorism partner.

    Nov 7, 2017

  • Syrian Democratic Forces fighters ride atop of military vehicle as they celebrate victory in Raqqa, Syria, October 17, 2017

    Commentary

    Why the Fall of the 'Caliphate' in Syria Will Not Ease Western Security Concerns

    A Syria and Iraq free of ISIS do not, unfortunately, free the West from the ISIS threat. Instead, ISIS is likely to either disperse, with its followers prepared to carry out a range of further attacks, or attempt to regroup in the fragile states of Africa.

    Nov 3, 2017

  • Police look toward the scene of a pickup truck attack on West Side Highway in Manhattan, New York, U.S., October 31 2017

    Commentary

    Terrorism Fatigue

    By continually staking claim to big and small terrorist attacks, regardless of target selection or casualty count, ISIS has attempted to instill a sense of omnipresent and unpredictable danger. And in the process, terrorism fatigue may be setting in around the world.

    Nov 1, 2017

  • Iraqi security forces stand guard in an oil refinery, north of Baghdad, in Baiji, Iraq, October 16, 2015

    Q&A

    Oil, Extortion Still Paying Off for ISIS

    ISIS's oil revenues declined from a peak of $40 million per month in 2015 to $4 million per month as of early October 2017. Despite the massive reduction, it's still a substantial amount of money for a group whose expenditures decrease with the size of the population and territory it controls and decreased recruitment.

    Oct 27, 2017

  • Members of al Qaeda's Nusra Front move toward their positions near al-Zahra village, north of Aleppo city, November 25, 2014

    Commentary

    The Moderate Face of Al Qaeda

    Al Qaeda in Syria cut ties with its parent organization to portray itself as a legitimate, capable, and independent force in the Syrian civil war. The group appears dedicated to helping Syrians prevail, and now that ISIS has lost its capital in Raqqa, al Qaeda may be the only group viewed as militarily capable of challenging the Assad regime.

    Oct 24, 2017