February 2018

Terrorism is not an entity; it is a method. Even confining ourselves to militarist Islamic groups, the divisions are frequently more significant than an outsider is likely to assume. Individuals, groups, causes, and ideologies all come and go. Following the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, al Qaeda and its associated groups underwent a profound transformation, one that led to the rise of ISIS – the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The players and the stages of the movement both diversified and became more fragmented. This month Cato Unbound is pleased to welcome renowned counterterrorism expert Ali Soufan, who has written a lead essay discussing the changing face of these violent organizations.

Joining him to discuss are the Cato Institute’s own Christopher Preble and Seth G. Jones of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Comments are open through the end of the month, and we welcome readers’ feedback.

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Lead Essay

  • Ali Soufan recommends dismantling the ideological appeal of groups like al Qaeda and ISIS. He argues for several measures he believes will help, including defusing regional conflict; pressuring the governments of Muslim allies, notably Saudi Arabia, to abandon extremist proselytizing; and replacing pro-terror messages in Islamic education with nonviolent ones that stress particularly those messages that local communities will find appealing. He laments that U.S. actions have done little to further these goals.

Response Essays

  • Seth G. Jones agrees that understanding terrorists’ recruiting tactics is important, as is the need to understand their worldview and motivations. He recommends several steps beyond Ali Soufan suggestions, including taking a much harder line against online jihadist content, which he recommends aggressively removing from social media.

  • Christopher Preble agrees that current U.S. antiterrorism strategy has failed. Yet he despairs of using better education to counter terrorist narratives: Not only does the United States commonly lack the credibility and nuance needed to deliver better messages, but many Americans also share all too much of the jihadists’ own beliefs: that Islam is violent, and that the West is correct to fight against all of it.

The Conversation

Coming Up

Conversation to follow through the end of the month.

Related at Cato

Policy Analysis: Terrorism and Immigration: A Risk Analysis, Alex Nowrasteh, September 13, 2016

Commentary: Why We Shouldn’t Exaggerate the Scale of Terrorism, John Mueller, November 2, 2017

Video: Emma Ashford discusses the threat of global terrorism on Al Jazeera English July 19, 2017