The Dynamic Terrorist Threat: An Assessment of Group Motivations and Capabilities in a Changing World

The Dynamic Terrorist Threat: An Assessment of Group Motivations and Capabilities in a Changing World

by Kim Cragin, Sara A. Daly, R. Kim Cragin

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Analyzes the motivations and capabililties of terrorist organizations and prioritizes the threat these groups pose to the United States.See more details below


Analyzes the motivations and capabililties of terrorist organizations and prioritizes the threat these groups pose to the United States.

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The Dynamic Terrorist Threat

An Assessment of Group Motivations and Capabilities in a Changing World
By Kim Cragin Sara A. Daly

Rand Corporation

Copyright © 2004 RAND Corporation
All right reserved.

Chapter One



On September 5, 1972, eight Palestinians entered the dormitory of Israeli Olympians in Munich, West Germany, and kidnapped nine athletes. By conducting this attack, the terrorists hoped to obtain the release of 236 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, catapult their cause into the international spotlight, and make the presence of Palestinians felt at a gathering that had ignored them. After hours of negotiations, the terrorists were allowed to move the hostages to a West German air base and planned to fly to Egypt for a prisoner exchange. But German police forces attempted to rescue the hostages, opening fire on the terrorists as the helicopters arrived. The rescue attempt failed spectacularly: All nine hostages were killed in subsequent firefights between the terrorists and police. Yet despite the loss of their hostages, the Palestinians and other terrorists learned two lessons: Terrorist attacks can be successful even if they fail to obtain their primary objective (which, in this case, was the release of Palestinian prisoners), and terrorist acts galvanize support, which, in turn, can strengthen terrorist organizations. Indeed, to many terrorism analysts, the events of September 1972 marked the advent of a period that Brian Jenkinsdescribed aptly in 1975 as "terrorism as theatre."

Today, more than 30 years after Munich, the U.S. government finds itself engaged in a war on terrorism. This war is ambitious, targeting not only al Qaeda but also other affiliated groups scattered throughout the globe. Furthermore, it now appears that the basic terrorism aphorism-a lot of people watching and listening, but not a lot of people dead-has changed. As an example, al Qaeda has articulated that one of its primary objectives is to kill as many Americans as possible. Thus, the U.S. policymaking community is determined to reduce the overall threat that terrorism poses to the United States. Indeed, statements from the White House have implied that the war on terrorism may eventually extend to other terrorists of global reach-that is, groups not connected to al Qaeda but those that have the capability to attack the U.S. homeland. Such a war will likely require substantial military and diplomatic resources, lasting for at least several years. Moreover, the U.S. government will wage this war while pursuing other goals and protecting other interests on the international scene. This will surely create competition among national security objectives. It is essential, therefore, that the U.S. government prioritize its counterterrorism activities and conduct the war on terrorism as efficiently as possible.


The purpose of this report is to help the U.S. government, particularly the Department of Defense and the intelligence community, identify the most immediate, as well as emerging, terrorist threats and to provide some insights into how best to defeat them. Historically, U.S. intelligence and security communities have taken an "intuitive" approach to evaluating the relative threat posed by terrorist groups. To do this, analysts have ranked terrorists from most to least threatening based on the number of attacks they have carried out against U.S. and other Western targets within a specific time frame. Alternatively, analysts have assessed the strengths and weaknesses of a specific group according to its modus operandi, number of fighters, and degree of support, but have not systematically compared it with the threat posed by other terrorist organizations. Although ranking groups in this way appears the most logical in the short run, it does not provide the policymaker with a sense of how terrorist group capabilities change over time. Similarly, such an approach does not take into account, for example, the threat posed by groups that have not recently carried out an attack against U.S. targets but rather have spent time deepening the anti-U.S. sentiment of its members and supporters. We argue that these seemingly inactive groups might pose a more significant threat to the United States in the medium-to-long term.

This report intends to reveal the dynamic between capabilities and intentions of terrorist groups as well as what this means to the United States. Furthermore, we attempt to develop a systematic approach that policymakers can use to assess terrorist threats over time. Finally, we hope that the report will provide insight for policymakers as they determine if and when the U.S. government should intervene in the development of a terrorist group in order to interrupt its expansion.

To do this, we first assess existing terrorist threats to the United States, utilizing an analytical framework that allows us to compare the motivations and capabilities of terrorist groups against each other. We developed this framework, outlined further in Chapter Two, by starting with an examination of historical patterns of terrorist activities. For example, from 1991 to 2000, the RAND Terrorism Chronology and RAND-MIPT Terrorism Incident Database recorded approximately 3,800 international terrorist attacks. We used this database to examine the modus operandi and capabilities of various terrorist groups (this information can be found in the Appendix). However, relying on historical data presents a problem to the counterterrorism analyst: Not all terrorist groups that have been active since 1991 pose a threat to the United States, nor do many of the weapons and tactics used by these groups pose a particular challenge. In addition, historical trends cannot necessarily be used to accurately predict future terrorist attacks. To address this difficulty, we overlay the historical patterns discovered with our evaluation of emerging terrorist trends.

Chapter Two then rates 22 terrorist organizations on two dimensions: their overall capabilities for violence and the degree of their hostility toward the United States. Rating these groups by no means provides a complete picture of terrorism to the reader; rather, we chose groups that represent a range of both capabilities and intentions vis-à-vis the United States. We then highlight three groups that, according to the framework, present the greatest threat to the United States and its interests.

Having established a framework for comparing the threats that various terrorist groups pose to the United States, we provide in Chapter Three a more comprehensive analysis of terrorists' capabilities. Chapter Three examines what terrorist groups need to sustain or increase their capabilities and, by doing so, also identifies potential targets for U.S. counterterrorism activities. To do this, we divide the groups' needs into organizational and operational tools: what terrorist groups need to exist and what they need to effectively conduct attacks.

The division of existing and conducting attacks has a significant impact on U.S. counterterrorism policy objectives. For example, any government's use of media campaigns designed to reduce public support for terrorism and therefore future recruits actually targets terrorists' organizational requirements or their existence. Such policies may have an impact on terrorist groups' abilities to conduct attacks, but only because they threaten the very existence of the organization itself. In contrast, policies that attempt to limit terrorists' access to chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) materials are targeting terrorist groups' operational capabilities, not their actual existence. Either policy can be effective, but each has different results. After dividing terrorist groups' needs into organizational and operational requirements, we use observations drawn from four groups-Northern Ireland's Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA), the Palestinian group Hamas, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and al Qaeda-to illustrate how these requirements might change as groups attempt to increase the sophistication and impact of their attacks.

Chapter Four adds a final dimension to our analysis by examining how terrorists react to dynamics within their own organizations as well as in their surrounding environments. The chapter provides insight into potential shifts in the current terrorist threat environment. To do this, we use four additional case studies-the Philippine Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Peru's Shining Path (or Sendero Luminoso [SL]), Lebanese Hizballah, and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ)-to demonstrate how the motivations, objectives, tactics, and targets of terrorist groups might change. Indeed, the primary conclusion we draw from Chapter Four is that, as terrorist groups go through periods of transition, they exhibit unique vulnerabilities, which can then be exploited by U.S. counterterrorism activities.

Chapter Two


This chapter develops a framework for evaluating the threats that various terrorist groups pose to the United States, using the twin criteria of intentions and capabilities. To do this, we first establish five degrees of anti-U.S. sentiment, our measure of particular terrorist groups' desire to attack the U.S. homeland and U.S. interests overseas. Similarly, we also articulate five different capability indicators for militant organizations that conduct terrorist attacks. By understanding terrorist groups in this framework, policymakers can compare the relative threats that such groups pose to the United States. Finally, we apply this framework, evaluating 22 terrorist groups according to their hostility toward the United States and their overall capabilities.


Our analytical framework has three logical components. The first component is its overall structure, which ranks metrics of intent and capability against each other. Although terrorism analysts have not historically used such a systematic approach to evaluate threats, this is, in fact, the traditional manner of evaluating threat in strategic studies and defense planning. Thus, the first component simply represents an adaptation of more-traditional defense analyses to the world of terrorism studies.

The second component of the framework is the actual metrics themselves: anti-U.S. sentiment for intent and demonstrated and perceived attack skills for terrorist capability. Of course, terrorist groups represent a wide range of potential motivations, decisionmaking, modus operandi, and operational environments; this variety has always been the most contentious element in comparing the threats that terrorist groups pose to the United States against each other. We chose these particular metrics because we believe that they are specific enough to provide measurable criteria and yet still allow us to capture the variety of different militant organizations that engage in terrorist activities. Notably, we designed these metrics to highlight terrorist threats to the United States, not international terrorism in general. We acknowledge that there may be other ways of measuring intent and capability: The value of the framework is not as much tied to the metrics used as to the fact that there are identifiable metrics.

Finally, the third component is a set of ten thresholds we established within the two metrics to indicate multiple degrees of intent and capability. We based the thresholds on trends in terrorist activities over the past 30 years, overlaying this historical analysis with our assessment of more-recent and emerging patterns (see the Appendix for more details). Like the previous component, the purpose of these thresholds is to create a structured analytical model while still being flexible enough to account for the diversity among terrorist groups. Once again, we do not expect the reader to necessarily accept our specific thresholds: Their true value lies in the fact that they are clearly defined and exist along a measurable continuum.

The following sections further outline and apply these thresholds to the current and emerging terrorist threat environment.

Indicators of Terrorists' Intentions

We chose "anti-U.S. sentiment" to measure the intentions of terrorist groups vis-à-vis the United States. Of course, some groups do not articulate or demonstrate any anti-U.S. sentiment. For example, Kach is a right-wing Israeli terrorist group accused of conducting terrorist attacks on Palestinians in Israel and has not articulated grievances against the United States or U.S. strategic interests overseas. For the purposes of this report, therefore, the first threshold within the metric anti-U.S. sentiment is the next level above nothing. Accordingly, the following section describes five anti-U.S. sentiment thresholds that build on each other and are listed in ascending order.

The first threshold is anti-U.S. rhetoric and/or a stated goal of destabilizing important U.S. partners. By itself, this threshold indicates relatively low degrees of anti-U.S. sentiment. Indeed, many terrorist groups espouse hatred for the United States and yet do not attack U.S. citizens, businesses, or interests overseas. For example, the Nepalese Maoists form a left-wing militant organization that uses anti-U.S. "imperialist" and "capitalist" rhetoric, but they only attack local Nepalese targets. Thus, terrorists within this threshold (like the Maoists) have not followed their anti-U.S. rhetoric with attacks on U.S. targets, which logically places them lower on an "anti-U.S. sentiment" continuum than the groups that do attack U.S. targets.

The next threshold is an association with another terrorist group that specifically seeks to target U.S. citizens and institutions. We established this as a distinct threshold, which is primarily based on the model of training and support that al Qaeda has provided to other, more regionally focused, terrorist groups in recent years. Although such terrorist organizations as the PLO, Spain's Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA), and the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) have historically maintained informal relationships, this pattern of training and sponsoring other terrorist groups is relatively new and at this point unique to al Qaeda. Despite al Qaeda's support, however, many of its affiliates do not attack U.S. targets. Instead, they provide logistical support or sanctuary to al Qaeda members. As such, this association appears to represent a higher degree of anti-U.S. sentiment than simple rhetoric but not as much as if the affiliated group specifically targeted the United States. For example, although the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) is an Algerian Islamist group affiliated with al Qaeda, it has not attacked U.S. targets. It is therefore logical that the GSPC poses a greater threat to the United States, solely in regards to intentions, than the Nepalese Maoists do. However, the GSPC is still not as threatening as a terrorist organization that specifically targets U.S. citizens or businesses.

Similarly, the third threshold is an explicitly anti-Western ideology and/or a history of significant attacks on important U.S. partners. Some terrorist groups, such as the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), do not attack U.S. targets but do present a clear and immediate danger to important U.S. partners. Notably, just as U.S. national security interests adjust over time, so also may the terrorist groups that fall above this threshold. In the context of the war on terrorism, Pakistan is a strategic ally. Therefore, terrorist groups that have a history of significant attacks on Pakistan would rate higher on our intent metric than a group like the Algerian GSPC or the Nepalese Maoists.

The fourth threshold consists of groups that target U.S. citizens and/or property in pursuit of their local agenda. Some terrorist groups specifically attack U.S. targets but do so to promote a local agenda. FARC, for example, has launched multiple attacks on U.S.-owned oil pipelines as part of its campaign to destabilize the Colombian government. These attacks are not necessarily aimed at the United States, yet they still demonstrate a higher degree of anti-U.S. sentiment than simple rhetoric or attacks on important partners.


Excerpted from The Dynamic Terrorist Threat by Kim Cragin Sara A. Daly Copyright © 2004 by RAND Corporation. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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