Interview with Terrorism Expert Assaf Moghadam about Cooperation Among Terrorist Actors.


1) In your new book, Nexus of Global Jihad, you present a new innovative typology to understand cooperation among terrorist actors. In particular, you have identified four general types of cooperation. Can you provide a brief overview of the main features for each of these?

The typology I develop in my book consists of two parts which, taken together, help explain how contemporary terrorist actors cooperate. The first part of this typology involves figuring out what types of terrorist actors are cooperating. Terrorist cooperation may involve two formal organizations, but we can also have a situation where two informal networks are collaborating. When it comes to terrorist actors, we can distinguish between two basic types: organizational cooperation – the classic form of cooperation between two (or more) formal terrorist organizations - and network cooperation which involves at least one informal actor, such as an informal network or a terrorist entrepreneur.

Secondly, the typology distinguishes between different qualities of cooperation. Here, I distinguish between high-end cooperation and low-end cooperation. Each of these has two subtypes. High-end cooperation includes mergers and strategic alliances, while low-end cooperation includes tactical cooperation and transactional collaboration.

  1. Mergers are the strongest form of cooperation. It involves usually two actors that want to establish a long lasting, ideologically based unity. It is dependent on an ideological congruence between the party, who cooperate along all possible domains—the ideological, operational, and logistical domain.
  2. In a strategic alliance there is a very strong relationship between two groups that share common ideological visions. Strategic alliances are less complete than a merger because the groups do not unite their command and control.
  3. A tactical cooperation is based on common interests, although not necessarily a shared ideology. Such interests, however, are subject to change over time, which is why such tactical relations are less stable than strategic alliances or mergers.
  4. Finally, a transactional cooperation is the weakest form of relationships. It entails transaction between groups who maintain their full autonomy. For example, a group can trade weapons in exchange for money.

2) In December 2016, in an interview for the Cipher Brief, Bruce Hoffman pointed out that there is a quite strong possibility that a hard core of ISIS people might see a cooperation with al Qaeda as the only salvation of their movement and the only way to carry on the struggle, especially if ISIS’ fortunes continue to decline. On this point, Prof. Hoffman believes that a combined force would be very dangerous, especially if al Qaeda got their hands on ISIS’ external operations network in Europe. Do you agree with Prof. Hoffman? Is a cooperation between these two organizations a possible scenario? 

A cooperation between Daesh and Al Qaeda at this point in time is unlikely because of the problematic personal relations between the respective leaders. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Ayman al-Zawahiri are competing for power and primacy within the global jihad movement. Down the road, these leaders are eventually going to be replaced, which may raise the likelihood of cooperation. However, cooperation between these groups does not have to take the form of a merger or even a strategic alliance. It may take lesser, tactical forms.

Another possibility is that the jihad movement at large is going to be further decentralized. Currently, the movement is a bipolar one, but Al Qaeda or the Islamic State may eventually fragment into a collection of smaller groupings. IS, in particular, could splinter, and some of the component groupings could join Al Qaeda. Therefore, cooperation between the Islamic State and Al Qaeda may not be an either/or issue. We may see certain fragments of these organizations cooperate, with others competing with each other.

3) Shifting the conversation toward Al-Qaeda internal debate relating to Syria. (For instance Al Nusrah’s relaunch in July 2016 was blessed beforehand by Zawahiri’s deputy, but some al Qaeda figures rejected it). Which do you think is or may be the strategy of Al-Qaeda in Syria?

AQ pursues a strategy in Syria that it has developed for about a decade. It has learned the hard way that the excessive use of violence—primarily against Muslims—carried out by its former Iraq-based affiliate has been counterproductive to its long-term goals. It has since embarked on what Charles Lister has called a "long game" strategy, which involves an attempt to establish a foothold in certain areas (typically conflict areas), establishing Sharia-style governance, and following a population-centric approach by providing social services.

In Syria, Al Qaeda's strategy was to gradually expand its influence through its local affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (today known as Hayat Tahreer al-Sham). Jabhat al-Nusra cooperated with other rebel groups—including more nationally focused Islamist groups—in order to gradually become first among equals and eventually sidelining these other organizations and seize control of more and more territory. Such alliances were designed to avoid wars whenever possible, or at least to postpone conflict with other rebel groups to a later stage deemed more opportune to the group. In the meantime, Al Qaeda was also patiently waiting for the Islamic State to self-destruct as a result of its strategic overreach.

4) What do you think International community should do to effectively counteract al Qaeda and ISIS network? Which are the key steps?

Terrorism is a highly complex phenomenon with no simple solutions. It requires many tools in the toolbox. Military efforts are one such tool, but it needs to be weighed against its consequences, and mixed with other, softer tools such as prevention and efforts to counter radicalization. Given the transnational nature of terrorism, counterterrorism must, by definition, also involve international cooperation between states affected by this problem. Another element of counterterrorism and countering violent extremism (CVE) is engagement with Muslim communities. After all, jihadism not only targets non-Muslims, but also Muslims. Western countries must view local Muslim communities as crucial partners in the fight against the hateful religious ideology that is Jihadism.

5) After the Paris attack which took place in November 2015, suicide attacks occurred in Europe more frequently (Bruxelles, St. Peterburg and Manchester). How do you explain this new trend? What is changed?

There are two main reasons that come to mind. First, Daesh is an armed group that relies on both guerrilla and terrorist tactics. As its efforts as an insurgent movement waging guerrilla warfare are failing in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, it steps up terrorist attacks, both in the West as well as in its areas of operations in the Middle East and North Africa. Remember also that suicide bombings are a traditional jihadi tactic—one that Al Qaeda has helped proliferate to many corners of the globe.

On the other hand, we have to consider the creeping increase in militant Salafism across Europe. Some of these groups, like al-Muhajiroun, have provided a gateway for terrorism. The rise of militant Salafism in Western Europe is one of the most worrisome trends. These groups often know how to stay within the limits of legality, yet at the same time they sow the seeds for militant jihadism over the long term. In extreme cases, some of these groups have facilitated the movement of foreign fighters to battlegrounds in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.

6) What is the most important advice you could give to young scholars who are starting their careers and want to focus their research on terrorism and political violence?

First, I think its important for aspiring scholars to broaden their methodological skills. The study of terrorism and political violence has gotten more sophisticated over time, and it is important that young graduate students acquire the tools to conduct cutting edge research. I am not only talking about quantitiative methods. In recent years, many advances have been made in qualitative methodology, and rigorous qualitative study will remain of great importance.

Secondly, I suggest that students of terrorism will study terrorism in its broader context. Terrorism is not a self-standing phenomenon. It occurs, in most cases, as part of a broader conflict, including civil wars and insurgencies. Terrorism scholars should interact more with civil war, insurgency, and strategic studies scholars—and vice versa.


Prof. Assaf Moghadam, a nonresident fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point, is Associate Professor at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, Israel, and Director of Academic Affairs at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), also at IDC. Prof. Moghadam previously served in a variety of positions at the CTC, including Director of Terrorism Studies. At West Point, Prof. Moghadam was also an Assistant Professor at the Department of Social Sciences, teaching courses on terrorism and international relations.

Prof. Moghadam’s research examines the dynamics in terrorist organizations. His forthcoming book, Dangerous Liaisons: Global Jihad and the Evolution of Terrorist Cooperation (Columbia University Press, 2015), examines empirical and theoretical aspects of cooperative behavior between terrorist entities. Prof. Moghadam is the author of two books, The Globalization of Martyrdom: Al Qaeda, Salafi Jihad, and the Diffusion of Suicide Attacks (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008/ Paperback edition 2011) and The Roots of Terrorism (Chelsea House, 2006). He is the editor of Militancy and Political Violence in Shiism: Trends and Patterns (Routledge, 2012/2013) and co-editor (with Brian Fishman) of Fault Lines in Global Jihad: Organizational, Strategic, and Ideological Fissures (Routledge, 2011/2013). Two of Prof. Moghadam’s books are listed among the top 150 books on terrorism in the journal Perspectives on Terrorism.

Prof. Moghadam held pre-doctoral and post-doctoral fellowships at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and at the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard. He holds a Ph.D. in international relations and a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy (MALD), both from The Fletcher School at Tufts University, and a B.A. in political science from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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