Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World is the fourth installment from the National Intelligence Council led project identifying potential and probable key drivers and developments that may shape world events a decade or more into the future. This is only a part of that report examining the future current terror groups and their potential for further affronts to civil order.
Why al-Qa’ida’s “Terrorist Wave” Might Be Breaking UpThough not mentioned in this report, it's important to recognize that no purely terroristic movement has ever succeeded in all of recorded history. Every terror movement has, like old soldiers, just faded away. There is no doubt the current al Qaida franchised terrorism will also fade away. Senator John Kerry, former Democrat presidential candidate, was the wrong messenger and stated the case with annoying nuance, yet was quite right when he said that terrorism is a manageable nuisance. Terrorism will probably always be part of normal life as the world's people become more intertwined, but it can be managed at an acceptable level of violence, like gang warfare is in Los Angeles.
As al-Qa’ida celebrates its 20th birthday, most experts assert that the struggle against it will continue indefinitely, the so called “long war.” Other experts who have studied past “waves” of terrorism believe that al-Qa’ida is an “aging” group by terrorist standards and suffers from strategic weaknesses that could cause it to decay into marginality, perhaps shortening the lifespan of the Islamic terrorist wave.
A wave of terror is a cycle of activity—which can last up to 40 years—characterized by expansion and contraction phases: rise, floodtide of violence, and ebb. The wave of terror concept was developed by UCLA Professor David C. Rapoport and provides a basis for the comparative analysis of terrorist movements. In each wave, similar terrorist activities occur in many countries, driven by a common vision—such as anarchism, Marxism, nationalism, or Islamic extremism. Terrorist groups who form the crest of each wave usually dissolve before the entire wave does, and their decay contributes to the breaking of the wave. Al-Qa’ida’s weaknesses—unachievable strategic objectives, inability to attract broad-based support, and self destructive actions—might cause it to decay sooner than many people think.
Research indicates that terrorists’ strategic objectives fail on two fronts. Objectives that pose a threat to the existing political order court tough counterterrorism measures, while objectives that are seen as neither achievable nor relevant to solving problems have little appeal to elites or the general populace. The two primary strategic aims of al-Qa’ida—the establishment of a global Islamic caliphate and the removal of US and Western influence so that “apostate” regimes can be toppled—are clearly threats to many existing Muslim governments and are resulting in stronger counterterrorism measures.*There is little indication that the vast majority of Muslims believe that such objectives are realistic or that, if they could come to pass, would solve the practical problems of unemployment, poverty, poor educational systems, and dysfunctional governance.Despite sympathy for some of its ideas and the rise of affiliated groups in places like the Mahgreb, al-Qa’ida has not achieved broad support in the Islamic World. Its harsh pan-Islamist ideology and policies appeal only to a tiny minority of Muslims.* According to one study of public attitudes toward extremist violence, there is little support for al-Qa’ida in any of the countries surveyed—Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. The report also found that majorities in all Arab countries oppose jihadi violence, by any group, on their own soil.The roughly 40-year cycle of terrorist waves suggests that the dreams that inspire terrorist group members’ fathers to join particular groups are not attractive to succeeding generations. The prospect that al-Qa’ida will be among the small number of groups able to transcend the generational timeline is not high, given its harsh ideology, unachievable strategic objectives, and inability to become a mass movement.
* Al-Qa’ida is alienating former Muslim supporters by killing Muslims in its attacks. Recent scholarly research indicates that terrorist groups that kill civilians seldom accomplish their strategic goals. Although determining precisely the number of Muslims worldwide who have died in al-Qa’ida attacks is difficult, examination of available evidence suggests that at least 40 percent of the victims have been Muslims.
In relying almost exclusively on terrorism as a means to achieve its strategic objectives, rather than transforming into a political movement like Hizbollah or Hamas, al-Qa’ida is using a stratagem that rarely is successful. Recent academic research indicates that only 6 percent of terrorist groups active in the last 40 years have achieved their proclaimed strategic objectives. Al-Qa’ida’s lack of success in executing attacks against the “far enemy” could portend a period of operational futility leading to increased frustration, decreased organizational élan, and inability to attract new members.
Because history suggests that the global Islamic terrorist movement will outlast al-Qa’ida as a group, strategic counterterrorism efforts will need to focus on how and why a successor terrorist group might evolve during the remaining years of the “Islamic terrorist wave.”
The life of Indigo Red is full of adventure. Tune in next time for the Further Adventures of Indigo Red.