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Photo by FADI AL-HALABI/Getty images

Terror Groups Face Challenges

​Sometimes, the shocking nature of terroristic violence can give the impression that nothing can sufficiently counter such evil. Whether it be an ISIS execution-by-beheading video, or an account of Boko Haram slashing through an African village and killing at will, these grisly episodes can make one think that terrorist groups are nearly unstoppable.

But behind the violence, the global terror picture is a more complex one. Three of the largest and most violent groups—ISIS, Boko Haram, and al Qaeda—all face short- and long-term challenges to their operations, according to recent research and expert opinion. And while these challenges are not quite interlocking parts, they each potentially affect the other in terms of funding, allegiances, and cooperation. 

The most recent research issued by the United Nations (UN) Security Council’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team paints a global picture of terrorism continually in flux, with ISIS and al Qaeda wreaking particularly violent havoc.

“The human cost of al Qaeda- and ISIS-related attacks in recent months has been enormous, and includes major bombings, assassinations, and the exploitation of several million people in Iraq, the Syrian Arab Republic, and, to a lesser but no less significant extent, populations in parts of Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen,” the report says. “This includes rape and sexual violence, used at scale by ISIS.”

And through violent means, ISIS can now claim it has achieved something al Qaeda has not: the building of a territorial entity, the report adds.  

ISIS is causing great alarm in the virtual world as well. The group has had success in what the report calls “high-definition digital terror—the use of increasingly horrific propaganda, such as videos of beheadings—to spread fear and to promote extreme ideologies.” 

The group has also been adept at using social media to connect ISIS militants with sympathizers tuning in from all around the world (even though mission recruitment still requires direct human contact in most cases). 

This has helped ISIS cultivate a diverse set of global supporters, and the group’s use of social media “has strategic implications for how the threat will evolve in the future, not least among the diverse, dispersed, and not necessarily demobilized diaspora of foreign terrorist fighters,” the report says.

Given ISIS’ abilities in the virtual arena, U.S. officials have recently been emphasizing that counter-messaging ISIS’ propaganda will be a crucial strategy to try to defeat the group. But so far, U.S. officials have also conceded that ISIS is far more nimble in spreading its message than the United States and its allies have been in their efforts to blunt it.

Still, for all its early successes, ISIS also has its share of challenges, says Jacob Shapiro, associate professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University and author of The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations

One of its biggest challenges is that, as a controller of territory, ISIS is akin to a state that is trying to maintain a military campaign on a declining tax base—a practice that is inimical to economic growth and productivity, Shapiro says.

“That just doesn’t work in the long run. You literally cannot do that,” Shapiro tells Security Management.

ISIS is trying to fund its multifront war with resources it can draw from the territory it controls. But those resources are steadily declining, Shapiro explains. Oil production is slowing, and people are not clamoring to open up businesses there—if anything, most are trying to escape if and when they can. And contributions from wealthy donors are not nearly enough to compensate for the declining revenue, he adds.  

Meanwhile, ISIS faces deepening opposition: military actions by Iraq, Syria, and Turkey; aerial attacks by the U.S.-led multilateral coalition; and international efforts to hinder its supply of foreign terrorist fighters.

“It remains to be seen whether ISIS can sustain its presence and strategy in the medium to long term in the face of a concerted set of efforts to confront it,” the UN report says.

Given these challenges, and assuming continued containment by the opposition, Shapiro says that he sees two potential future scenarios for ISIS resulting from the declining revenue picture. One is that ISIS would be forced to scale back its military operations. The other is a common organizational dynamic—the worsening fiscal situation creates more internal conflict and dissension within its ranks. “Scarcity creates uncomfortable tradeoffs,” Shapiro says.

Long-term uncertainty may also be in the cards for another violent group, Boko Haram. In its base country of Nigeria, Boko Haram’s attacks have heightened in intensity and cruelty, with a growing scale of killings and damage. It has conducted more frequent and more deadly incursions in neighboring countries, such as Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. And at the beginning of this year, the group controlled roughly 7,700 square miles in northeastern Nigeria, an area comparable in size to the state of Maryland. 

However, its ability to maintain long-term control over a terrorized population and dominate a fixed territory is in question, says Don Okereke, a Nigeria specialist for Phoenix Acumen, a global intelligence network of local experts providing geopolitical risk analysis.

“Granted, Boko Haram controlled a vast expanse of territory at the peak of its reign. But the reality is that Boko Haram has been substantially reined in,” he says. “And I doubt it will be able to replicate its hitherto blitzkrieg and expansionist streak.”

This is because the military has had success in cutting off some of the group’s supply routes and access to weaponry, and has been taking back some of its territory, Okereke says. And while Boko Haram announced an allegiance to ISIS earlier this year, the connection has been “largely symbolic and has not in any way given Boko Haram any advantage,” he adds.

Still, the group’s vicious attacks will likely continue. “Boko Haram is still very much a threat and should not be waved aside yet. Since the sect cannot hold territories any longer, its best bet is some kind of guerilla warfare.”  

The challenges al Qaeda faces are a bit different from those faced by Boko Haram and ISIS. According to the UN report, when it comes to fundraising, al Qaeda is in danger of being overshadowed by ISIS (the group it splintered off from), given the latter group’s recent short-term success and the media attention that it has attracted. “Al Qaeda’s financial position remains precarious compared with that of ISIS,” the report says.

In addition, a balance of power shift within al Qaeda continues. Core al Qaeda, in some respects, is “receding,” the report says.  But affiliates like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have been ramping up. AQAP continues to pose a threat in Yemen, where it is trying to exploit the current political crisis and fuel fighting between the government and rebels.

A chilling reminder of AQAP’s broader reach came last January, when AQAP-trained French nationals murdered 12 people in Paris in an attack that targeted the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

“The Paris attacks illustrate once again that AQAP remains actively involved both in planning external attacks,” the report says, “and in supporting others who wish to carry out such attacks.”