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Reader riposte: Defeating terrorism, by the numbers

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COMMENTS

5 August 2008 09:07

Anton writes in response to a new RAND study we linked to last week. I've forwarded this post to RAND, and I hope we can publish a response from the study's lead author, Seth Jones:

Thanks for linking the RAND Report, 'How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering Al Qaida', which recommends a shift from a military approach to a policing strategy to defeat al Qaeda. I often read RAND reports in the course of my work and was pleased to see that this report included the full data set the authors used to come their conclusions. Unfortunately, the headline findings of this report are dangerously misleading as they are completely unsupportable from the data set used. 
 
The report bases its findings on small groups like the American Front, a right wing US terror organisation that never got its active membership to triple figures. Not surprisingly, policing is the preferred and most effective approach against organisations of American Front's size, scale and capability. Al Qaeda is clearly a very different organisation.
 
Filtering the data to compare organisations whose active membership is more than 1,000 is a far more appropriate approach and enables a simple and quick gross error check of the data. Of the 109 terrorist organisations in the data set that meet this simple criteria, only two were defeated by policing. They were the Black Panthers in the US and the Aum Shinrikyo, predominantly in Japan. The report's own data set shows that there is not a singe example of a policing approach that resulted in the termination of any terrorist organisation of equivalent size to al Qaeda outside a first world, wealthy, democratic country. Kansas isn't Kabul!

However, there were six examples of military force defeating such organisations in non-Western countries. The data demonstrates that military force is far more likely to defeat a terrorist group of al Qaeda's size than a policing approach. Therefore the military will have a very, perhaps more, important part to play in defeating al Qaeda than policing. That is not to suggest that there isn't a role for the police in that strategy, nor that the military should be the only instrument of coercive power used. 

Of these 109 terrorist groups, 55% have not been ended. When it comes to the 22 religiously motivated groups, only four have been terminated. So religiously motivated terrorist groups of this size are roughly twice as resilient as other terrorist groups, demonstrating the difficulty al Qaeda presents. Of those four, the Islamic Salvation Front (Algeria) was coopted into the political process and both the Armed Islamic Group (Algeria) and al Itihaad al-Islami (Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia) were defeated by military force. The data suggests military force is 200% more successful in dealing with religiously motivated terrorist groups anywhere and infintely more effective than policing outside the West. Military force against religiously motivated groups is also more effective than achieving compromise by enticing the terrorists into the political process. Perhaps because military force is used so pervasively against religiously motivated groups none has succeeded in achieving their aims.
 
This contrasts very strongly with left wing groups, which are far more likely to compromise and be drawn into the political process. Religious motivation seems far more resistant to political compromise than other motivations.

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