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Terrorist attacks are on the rise, but that's not the whole story. militant and jihadist groups are also evolving—shifting into more decentralized configurations and operating more independently.

Since 2010, there has been an increase in the number of attacks perpetrated by al Qaeda and its affiliates, and a rise in the number of Salafi-jihadist groups and fighters, particularly in Syria and North Africa, says a new report issued by the RAND Corporation’s National Security Research Institute. Salafi jihadists follow a version of radical Islam that promotes violent resistance.

“First, and most important, the United States faces a serious and growing Salafi-jihadist challenge overseas,” author Seth Jones writes in the report, A Persistent Threat: The Evolution of al Qa’ida and Other Salafi Jihadists. Besides the rise in attacks, the sheer number of attackers has also substantially increased. The number of Salafi jihadists more than doubled from 2010 to 2013, the report finds, with the war in Syria constituting the single greatest attraction for jihadist fighters. 

In 2013, the most recent year for which full data is available, most of the al Qaeda-related violence was perpetrated by four separate groups. Topping the list of four is the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS, which accounted for 43 percent of the violence, according to the report. This group eventually left al Qaeda but continued its violent ways in Iraq, where it has continued to capture territory. 

Rounding out the top four are al-Shabaab, in Somalia, accounting for 25 percent of the violence; Jabhat al-Nusrah, which operates in Syria and Lebanon, at 21 percent; and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, at 10 percent.

Organizationally, the report finds that the overall Salafi-jihadist movement has become more decentralized, generally among four tiers: core al Qaeda in Pakistan, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri; formal affiliates, such as al-Shabaab, that have sworn allegiance to core al Qaeda and are located in Syria, Somalia, Yemen, and North Africa; a panoply of Salafi-jihadist groups, including the Islamic State, that are not allied with al Qaeda but are committed to establishing an extremist Islamic caliphate; and individuals, such as the Tsarnaev brothers, the alleged perpetrators of the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

Given this decentralized structure, the level of threat that these groups pose to the United States varies widely. “Some are locally focused and have shown little interest in attacking Western targets,” Jones writes. “Others, like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, present an immediate threat to the U.S. homeland, along with radicalized individuals like the Tsarnaev brothers.” In the middle are Salafi-jihadist groups like al-Shabaab, which pose a medium-level threat because of their desire and ability to target U.S. citizens and facilities overseas, such as U.S. embassies. 

Another recent report, conducted by the International Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism (START), finds that the most active perpetrator group in 2013 was the Taliban, with 641 attacks. Next on START’s list was ISIS/Islamic State, with 401 attacks; Boko Haram, with 213 attacks; the Communist Party of India-Maoist, with 203 attacks; and al-Shabaab, with 195 attacks. 

The Taliban, like al Qaeda, has shown clear signs of decentralization in the last few years, according to a third report, by the United Nations Security Council’s Taliban Monitoring Team. According to this report, smaller “start-up” groups, called fronts, are spinning off from the main organization and establishing their own activities, websites, and social media. “These fronts developed in the field, and over time acquired sufficient direct control over funding to behave with increasing autonomy vis-à-vis the Taliban central command,” the report finds. 

Although terrorist attacks in 2013 occurred in 93 different countries, the majority were heavily concentrated geographically. About 57 percent of all attacks occurred in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, with the highest number of attacks taking place in Iraq, according to the START report. 

This concentration pattern was especially true for al Qaeda-affiliated groups. According to the RAND report, approximately 99 percent of the attacks by al Qaeda and its affiliates in 2013 were against “near enemy” targets in North Africa, the Middle East, and other regions outside of the West. “This suggests that [al Qaeda] and its affiliates have deliberately chosen to focus on the near enemy for the moment, found it increasingly difficult to strike ‘far enemy’ targets in the West, or a combination of both,” Jones writes. 

This does not mean that the threat to the United States has passed, according to Tom Kean, the former cochair of the 9/11 Commission who now heads the homeland security project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “The terrorist threat is evolving, not defeated. Al Qaeda’s various spinoffs are, at the moment, enmeshed in their own local conflicts, but hatred of the United States remains a common thread,” Kean told the House Homeland Security Committee at a recent hearing on terrorist threats.  

Given this, what should U.S. policy be regarding these groups? Jones argues that the United States should calibrate its counterterrorism actions so that it takes direct action, such as raids and drone strikes, only when the capacity of the local government where the terrorists are based is low. In other cases, Jones advocates for a “forward-partnering” strategy. Under this approach, the United States may deploy small numbers of military forces, intelligence operatives, and other governmental personnel for training local security forces. Outside of that, U.S. forces would not directly become involved.
“In sum, the terrorist threat has evolved, but it is still very real and very dangerous. The absence of another 9-11-style attack does not mean the threat is gone. As 9-11 showed, a period of quiet can be shattered in a moment by a devastating attack,” Kean said.


On Christmas night, 1802, fire ripped through the city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, destroying a seaport that was a crucial outlet for commerce in newly founded America. A few weeks later, Congress implemented the first act of federal disaster relief in American history. “What did the federal government do? It did what it would do for the next 200-plus years—it wrote a check,” says Brad Kieserman, acting assistant administrator for recovery at FEMA’s Office of Response and Recovery (ORR). “We’ve been doing one version or another of that ever since. We haven’t been particularly innovative.”

But now, innovation is sorely needed. Officials say that the current model of relying on federal largesse for relief and long-term recovery is not sustainable. According to a recent study by the Center for American Progress, the government spent $136 billion from fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2013 on disaster relief.  

“The federal government can’t fix it all. The federal government is not an endless pot of money,” says Daniel Craig, chairman of the Disaster Recovery Contractors Association. 

Craig, Kieserman, and other disaster recovery experts came together recently to discuss ideas for a new model of response and relief at “Expert Voices–Future Innovations for Long-Term Disaster Recovery,” held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The event was moderated by Admiral Thad Allen, a former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard who is now senior vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton.

To bring more innovation to disaster relief, experts agree that a new paradigm must be established so that the roots of a strong recovery are planted before the event occurs. “My message to you is: Recovery doesn’t start after the disaster. It doesn’t start in the response phase. It starts well before the response phase,” said Joseph Nimmich, associate administrator at ORR.

Such a new paradigm would use predictive data on weather patterns to anticipate storm cycles and their likely effects. “We need to take that data and look at where the projections from science are and what the weather changes are going to be, and then we need to have our community and city planners plan ahead of time,” Nimmich advised. 

“So we are not arguing at the time of the event, but we know—these houses can’t be built back up. And we are telling the people that, when a flood occurs, you’re going to be bought out,” says Nimmich. “We’re planning that buy-out long before the event ever occurs,” he said. 

In addition, government can be more proactive in signing contracts with private companies for services that will be needed after a disaster, such as temporary housing. This type of up-front investment and preparation makes it easier for the government to control costs, and it is ultimately cheaper than a massive post-disaster aid package, such as the $60 billion Congress approved in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, experts say. 

And from the private sector side, such advance agreements are often welcomed because they allow a company to ensure that they will have clients during challenging times. “When no one else is buying the service because the community is devastated, I can guarantee that the government, or the utility, or someone else, will,” Kieserman said. 

Contracts and relationships with nonprofit groups can also be forged before a disaster occurs. These connections can be important, experts say, because nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) offer a range of resources that are sometimes underused. 

One of the primary strengths that NGOs bring to the table is flexibility—they can tailor service delivery based on circumstances on the ground, and they don’t require a presidential declaration to act, according to Jeff Jellets, territorial director of emergency disaster services for the Salvation Army. Moreover, NGOs are grassroots organizations, arising from the communities they serve. “They know the unique characteristics of those communities,” Jellets said. NGOs offer a variety of services, including health care, meals, shelter, reconstruction, and other resources.

However, those looking to better leverage NGOs in disaster relief efforts need also be mindful of a few challenges, Jellets added. The wide range of services they offer can make managing and coordinating them difficult. NGOs can also be dependent on fundraising.  

Preevent preparation is critical because it is often difficult to make progress on long-term measures after a crisis, according to Glenn Cannon, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. “It’s hard to get a community to think about long-term planning implications…or how to build resilient flood-resistant structures when they still are reeling from the impacts of that catastrophic disaster event,” Cannon said. 

Allen, who directed the federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, agreed. He emphasized the importance of short-term efforts in the aftermath of a disaster that focus on helping private sector businesses get up and running again. “When you have a devastating event, you have loss of continuity of government...but you also lose the continuity of society. And that includes all the economic transactions that take place that actually drive the revenue base and let the city recover. So it’s really essential that you open the Walmart, the Home Depot, the Lowe’s—even the Waffle House becomes very important,” Allen said. 

In the end, experts say that what is needed for a more innovative disaster response system is a change in mindset. The idea of greater focus on strategic predisaster preparation must gain currency in the minds of more Americans. Similarly, more people—such as those living in areas where rising coastal waters make some waterfront housing unsustainable—must move away from the idea that the object of a relief program is always restoration. 

“At every level, we need to change our thinking, if we are going to move forward in the future,” Nimmich said. “At the personal level, when you go through a disaster, the expectation has become somebody will help you get back to exactly the way it was before. That’s not what a disaster is. A disaster is a life-changing moment.”