7.3.3 International Terrorism

International terrorism is defined in this book as a campaign waged by non-State actors operating in several countries to achieve political objectives by frightening people into submission.  No single country can bring it to an end, either by force or by negotiation.

The most striking example to date is Islamic terrorism.  An Economist article, Men of war, summarises what motivates it: 

“For the likes of al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) real jihad is fighting for the sake of Allah. …It is the ultimate means of defending and exalting Islam; an obligation upon the individual, with no need for higher authority.”

The article reviewed a book, Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea, which showed how selected Islamic teachings have been used to radicalise Muslims.

Al-Qaeda has its origins in Osama Bin Laden’s resentment at the American presence in the Middle East, although it subsequently supported other conflicts with its expertise.  It was ambitious, as Mary Habeck pointed out in her Templeton lecture, Attacking America: Al Qaeda’s Grand Strategy in Its War with the World.  She pointed out that Al Qaeda had articulated a “grand strategy” to create a caliphate which would encompass all the parts of the world which were previously parts of Muslim empires, and which would enforce a particular interpretation of Shariah law.  She compared this quest for purity with Hitler’s Nazi ideals.

ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) is an offshoot of Al-Qaeda.  It is also known as IS (the so-called ‘Islamic State’), ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), or Da’esh (an Arabic acronym that sounds like words for crushing and discord).  The Independent article, Who are ISIS?, explains that it is a Sunni Muslim group that has been waging war in Iraq and Syria, and has been carrying out acts of terrorism all over the world.  This can be seen as a resentful reaction to Western power – colonialism, followed by military intervention and commercial dominance – and the Sunni Muslims’ loss of status: as exemplified by an Al-Jazeera report, Iraq Sunnis rally against Shia-led government, following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

A Guardian article, Mindless terrorists? The truth about Isis is much worse, describes how its recruitment strategy is to target frustration in today’s young Muslims with an attractive offering:

“what inspires the most uncompromisingly lethal actors in the world today is not so much the Qur’an or religious teachings. It’s a thrilling cause that promises glory and esteem. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious, cool – and persuasive.”

Membership of a group of like-minded people confers a personal identity and a feeling of security (  The success of this recruitment strategy speaks for itself: a CNN report, ISIS goes global: 143 attacks in 29 countries have killed 2,043, shows how much the organisation had expanded by February 2018.

International terrorism is Hydra-headed: when leaders are killed others spring up to replace them, as the CNN report shows.  If it is driven out of one place it can simply move to another.  A war cannot, therefore, remove the risk it presents – so the ‘war against terrorism’ is a misnomer and a fatally flawed conception.  The Authorization for Use of Military Force, on 18 September 2001, gave the US President the authority:

“…to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

These sweeping powers give a President freedom to act, but they were not used wisely.  American drone strikes inspired the recruitment of more terrorists than they killed (

Technology has increased the threat posed by international terrorists:

  • They have been able to use the Internet to communicate with numerous cells of activity: providing propaganda, training materials, guidance and coordination.
  • Terrorists may hack into computers to gain access to secret information about targets.
  • They may also gain access to the knowledge to make weapons of mass destruction.
  • The Internet enables them to pool their knowledge and to innovate rapidly.

The implications of these capabilities are so serious that the whole approach to international security needs to be re-examined.  Collaborative policing and the sharing of intelligence will be necessary to ensure that governments are at least as agile as those who oppose them.

Counter-terrorism actions, although they are essential, can only address the symptoms of underlying problems.  David Kilcullen’s article, Countering Global Insurgency, described how Al-Qaeda was able to absorb and re-brand numerous local conflicts to create what he called a “global Islamist insurgency”.  These conflicts have been festering for a long time and could be separately addressed by each of the States concerned, so he proposed a policy of “disaggregation” which would operate at two levels:

  • It would provide a realistic political path towards resolution of the problems in each country.
  • It would marginalise a jihad whose aims have nothing to do with those problems.

It should be possible to win a war of words with Islamic terrorism because it is killing innocent people, and there are many Muslim leaders who disagree with its approach, but the long-term solutions would come from each of the country-specific negotiations.  The existence of meaningful negotiations in a country should de-legitimise terrorism there.

It is also advisable to ensure that Islamic terrorists aren’t provided with any further evidence to support their assertion that they are waging a ‘just war’.  The Quran recognises the Golden Rule (, and it urges “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (, but it does permit the use of force to defend Islam.  Reza Aslan, in his book No god but God (p. 84), describes the Quran’s position on jihad, saying “the doctrine of jihad was its outright prohibition of all but strictly defensive wars” and quoting the Quran (in his own translation):

“do not begin hostilities; God does not like the aggressor” (2:190);

“permission to fight is given only to those who have been oppressed” (22:39).

it is therefore important that actions against terrorists should not be capable of being construed as attacks against Islam as a religion.  It is important to use language which condemns their crimes and avoids demonising all Muslims.


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This is a current page, updated since publication of Patterns of Power Edition 3a.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/733b.htm