TERRORISM ‘POST’-ISIS –by Prof Michael Brenner

Prof Michael Brenner

Most Americans think they know what “terrorism” is: what happened on 9/11, what happened in Orlando.  Islamic militants murdering innocent civilians out of hate and in the cause of Islamist jihad. Experience shapes how we understand the world. The Global War On Terror has been oriented accordingly.

More formal definitions of “terrorism” try to extend the term so as to encompass a wider range of violent acts. 

Here is one: Terrorism is commonly defined as violent acts (or the threat of violent acts) intended to create fear (terror), perpetrated for a religious, political, or ideological goal, and which deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants (e.g., neutral military personnel or civilians


Here is another: “Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them”
-United Nations General Assembly 1994.

These formulations strive to be objective and disengaged from individual events  - however noteworthy. Popular attitudes, the media usages and political oratory tend to revert to the entrenched, more common usage. For “terrorism: - as word and concept – is emotionally charged. Hence, the killings by Mateen in Orlando are labelled “terrorism” while the rampage of Dylan Roof in Charleston in the name of White Supremacy is just mass murder. The killing by the mentally disturbed, apolitical Michael Zehaf-Bibeau (half Bulgarian, half French-Canadian) at the Ottawa Parliament is “terrorism” while Sandy Hook is not.

Similar inconsistencies are evident in the labels attached to violent actions abroad. “Terrorism” usually is reserved for the acts of sub-national groups; governments of states are exempt even when the purpose of instilling fear is advertised in advance as in “shock and awe.” It was Iraqis, not future historians, who were meant to experience “shock and awe.” The repression of insurrectionist movements of all stripes by existing governments everywhere has a strong psychological component tied to the use of violent coercion. 

So how do we go about refining our definition of “terrorism” so that it can be used to advance understanding rather than as an epithet?

A fruitful discussion of "terrorism" requires a specification of the exercise's purpose. Is it primarily to define the term's meaning with as much precision as we can - with the companion objective of using it to delineate the various forms and modalities of its multiple manifestations? If we were to succeed, it then becomes an intellectual tool to illuminate the range of real life phenomena that exhibit characteristics associated with a more general, less precise use of the term. This is the rigorously logical approach taken in science. There, the only acceptable attitude is to seek finer and more refined classifications of observed reality so as to advance our understanding and, thereby, to lay the basis for better prediction of observed phenomena..

Many participants in the public discourse about "terror" have a quite different purpose.  It is to apply the word as a pejorative to certain acts and actors in order to stigmatize them. This is a political exercise rather than an intellectual one. Hence, the promiscuous appellation “terror” and “state sponsor of terrorism” in accusations that target Iran – however inconsistent that usage is with the terminology applied to the behavior (real or imagined) of other states e.g. Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners or Turkey.  The aim is to produce a certain emotional effect that encourages certain types of responses. In popular usage, it is akin to calling someone a "bastard" or a 'son of a bitch" as an insult without bothering to determine the legal status of his parents or his mother's temperament.

There is a third - also loose - use of the term "terror" by the media. They seek the "wow" effect. If 8 people die from the violent act of some crackpot, they are just as dead whether an anchor decides to use the word "terror" or not. Of course, were there clear organization and direction by some identifiable group with a political agenda, the designation might have some meaning. But for the MSM that usually is less important than being able to stick the terror label on an event in order to generate the most excitement and follow-on viewership. If the alleged “terrorist” has a beard, so much the better.

Few in public discourse differentiate and specify traits among a range of phenomenon as a stepping stone toward finer comprehension. Nor do they make much of an effort to expose political motives behind the use of the term "terror" – or withholding the label in other situations.

I. Is it not more productive from a policy perspective to do the following:

  1. Identify and specify various categories of violent behavior that fall broadly under a loose conception of "terror" – assigning certain traits to each.
  2. Use the resulting taxonomy as the basis for understanding the whys and hows of each instance.
  3. Make a determination of what might be the most effective way to address them - from a given government's perspective, NOT from the perspective of some abstract standard of crime and illegality.
  4. That response may logically include an attempt to mobilize resistance by stigmatizing a given action as "terror." But that in itself is not a legal exercise or a valid intellectual exercise.
  5. As to outlawing it - good luck. People have tried to outlaw war and other forms of inter-state and sub-national violence for a few centuries. It won't and can't work.
AXIS ONE: Perpetrators
  • Individuals: classic anarchists; recent American episodes -  Tsarnaev brothers, Omar Mateem
  • Small Bands: Red Brigades – Italy & Germany circa 1970s; Aum Shinryaku (Japan); Shining Path (Peru)
  • Movements:  al-Qaeda, ISIS, Ahrar-al-Sham; Social Revolutionaries in Russia); PKK (Turkey); Mudjahidin-e-Khalq – MEK (Iran) PLO;  FARC, anti-FARC militias; Taliban circa early 1990s and today

Assassination of political figures; mass attacks on civilians; symbolic bombings (Al ‘Askarī Shrine SAMARRA); attacks on security forces:, seizure of territory or sites. 

AXIS THREE: Connection to State(s)
  • Inspired/instigated: Communist movements; al-Qaeda, ISIS, Ahrar –al-Sham; Hezbullah; Northern Alliance (Afghanistan)
  • Armed: al-Qaeda, ISIS, Ahrar –al-Sham; Hezbullah; Taliban; FLN (Algeria); al-Khalq (Iran);
  • Tamil Tigers (Sri Lanka)
  • Directed: Contras (Nicaragua);  UNITA (Angola);
  • Agents Of:  Colombian antiFARC Militias; Serb Militias (Bosnia)
  • Undermine existing authority/popularity of existing government;
  • Thereby, to either weaken an enemy or to pave the way for friends/allies to take power; To divert from domestic problems - among elites or among general populace;
  • To instill fear/respect from other possible targets or enemies (most insurgencies and counter-insurgencies)
  • To open a gulf between the Islamic world (ummah) and the West

Dynamic between 'terrorism' undertaken by insurgents and 'terrorism' undertaken by counter-insurgents (state authorities and/or external parties). The latter may do many of things noted above as tactics in suppression, containment or deterrence. 


ISIS is dead – so declare American officials leading the War On Terror and Trump’s flacks. ‘No so fast’ declare some commentators; the remnants of ISIS have dispersed but they are still capable of launching terrorist campaigns in the Middle East, in Europe (committed by returnees from Syria) and even in the United States (as the neo-cons and Israelis hope). Neither position can be judged as right-or-wrong without first defining what ISIS was/is.

ISIS stands out for its having had multiple identities. It started out as a conspiratorial group drawn from the resistance to the American occupation of Iraq. Its core leadership bonded in Camp Cropper where they had been incarcerated by the U.S. Army in a prison directed by General Stanley McChrystal. They inherited the dormant al-Qaeda apparatus that had spearheaded the insurrection – adding to its ranks disaffected Sunnis who previously had contested the jihadis along with a select number of former officers in Saddam’s armed forces and Intelligence agencies.. In the terms set in our typology outlined above, they progressed from being a congeries of small units committing terrorist acts to a movement to a full-scale guerilla organization to an army to a political organization capable of holding and administering territory that encompassed large cities. A mini-state. Violence was their hallmark throughout – most of it directed at civilians, except in battle.

Their financing shifted accordingly. Originally, the largest part came from donors in the Gulf: governments and wealthy private individuals. Over time, the latter provided a growing share. Turkey provided a base of operations and some material support. Arms arrived by clandestine roots from the Gulf, from the Balkans (with the indirect assistance of U.S. contacts) and the world arms bazaar. Almost all escorted into Syria and Iraq by Erdogan. Once their embryonic Caliphate was established, ISIS was in a position to reap tax revenue, to size liquid assets from banks, to loot and to invest in legitimate businesses in Iraq with the complicity of avaricious local companies.

What we are seeing now is a devolution toward the initial phase of acting as a loose association of insurrectionist groups – now held together by a collective identity, residual loyalty to the leadership that uses access to financial assets to fund activities, and a skeletal organizational structure.

  1. Individual and Small Group Violent Attacks

This is the easiest threat to state. It also is the most difficult to execute a strategy for preventing. For we know that it is primarily a police and Intelligence operation, facilitated by transnational assistance. Organizing and implementing such a strategy demonstrably has proven a formidable challenge. The number of possible perpetrators overwhelms police resources. Potential targets are infinite. Moreover, compiling a list of persons of interest is complicated by the relative short timeframe in which a person might be radicalized, recruited and take action. This holds true both in Islamic countries and Western countries.

Breeding grounds and conducive conditions may be readily identified: the partially assimilated residents of immigrant communities in the West. However, the numerous ideas and programs for mitigating the kind of ‘alienation’ that can lead to terrorist violence have yet to be distilled into effective, workable formulas. The reflux of ISIS fighters returning to their native counties greatly exacerbates the problem.

  1. Organizational Formation

Most of the terrorist groups in the West are small cells composed of people who have known each other or inhabit the same neighborhoods. Often, they are relatives. These units defy identification, penetration and monitoring.

Larger movements are quite a different matter. Once a terrorist group has acquired an organization structure and embraces hundreds if not thousands if persons, it is hard to conceal. Al-Qaeda subsidiaries, ISIS, Ahrar al-Sham, the multitude of other outfits that are part of the jihadist bloc in Syria, the diverse Libyan, Yemeni and Egyptian insurgents who use terrorism as a standard weapon vary in size, field of operation and resources. Their existence and broad contours should not escape  discernment  by reasonably competent Intelligence and security services. Gaining more refined knowledge of leadership, of personnel, of competence, of sources of support obviously requires abilities of a higher order.

From experience in the Greater Middle East since 2001, there are some general lessons that can be drawn-
  1. American Intelligence at the tactical level is at times impressive; at the strategic level it is poor. Information gathering about persons and tribes by the Army in Iraq, for example, demonstrated an ability to map the insurrectionist elements with considerable skill and accuracy – at least during the later stages of the occupation. That led to the effective strategy of bribing tribal allies of al-Qaeda to part company with the latter with whom relations already were strained.

    Yet, by contrast, American understanding of the larger political game was deficient. We never mastered the intricacies of the rivalries among Shi’ite factions. We did not recognize the key role played by Iran in brokering a truce between Prime Minister Malaki and Muqtada al-Sadri in 20O7 or recognize the longer-term implications. We missed entirely the regeneration of al-Qaeda that was facilitated by Sunni disaffection from the Baghdad government. We underestimated or ignored the convergent plans of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Turkey to provide encouragement and tangible support to al-Qaeda, the breakaway ISIS group, and other jihadist factions. We underestimated or ignored the crucial part played by Turkey is providing training facilities, refuge and transit assistance to all those groups. Subsequently, we overlooked the progressive subordination of the early non-jihadist opposition represented by the Syrian National Coalition to al-Qaeda and other jihadist formations insofar as combat forces are concerned. The former early on was reduced to a conduit to obtain Western arms and support for the latter.

    In addition, U.S. Intelligence failed to see the important role played by former officers of Saddam’s army in turning ISIS into a powerful fighting force. Similarly, it misjudged fatally the capabilities of the Iraqi army that Petraeus had nurtured and whose quality was heralded by the Pentagon as one of the great successes of the occupation.

    The failings of tactical Intelligence were compounded by the more significant failures of strategic Intelligence. Erdogan’s ambitions in Syria never were accorded their full weight. The ambitions of Saudi Arabia and the Gulfies to pursue the Sunni-Shi’ite war in Syria, companion to their mortal combat with Iran, never were accorded their full weight. These failures of strategic intelligence, in turn, were at once a contributory cause and reinforced effect of the Obama administration’s lack of a coherent Middle East strategy, the absence of which led to Washington’s being led by the nose by Israel, Saudi Arabia and occasionally Turkey.

    American Intelligence agencies, most notably, somehow managed to miss totally Russia’s preparations for and deployment in Syria. Hence, no contingency plans of any kind (wise of unwise) were in place.

    Inadequate and distorted Intelligence resulting in counter-productive policies also has been evident in Yemen and Libya.

  2. American military interventions since 2001 have been the main contributor to the growth and expansion of terrorist groups whose reach now extends into Europe. Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia did not exist at that time – even on paper. Neither did Al-Qaeda in North Africa. AL-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular was a small outfit ; now – thanks to the chaos created by the U.S. backed, Saudi-led civil war, they are a potent force. ISIS itself was conceived in the U.S. Army’s Iraqi prison camps.  

    Elsewhere, the overthrow of Ghaddafi produced the chaos that has marked Libyan politics for the past seven years and allowed for a variety of jihadist groups to put down roots there.

    The repeated displays of hypocrisy put on by American diplomacy and military actions has greatly diminished our standing across the region and undercut our influence. The negative consequences tower over the supposed loss of confidence among autocratic leaders in the Gulf who are disappointed that we did not go to war with Iran on their behalf.
  3. The United States has been unnaturally inhibited about confronting those governments that inspire, instigate and/or provision terrorists groups. Saudi Arabia’s massive, long-term program of establishing a network of Wahhabi schools (Madrassas) and mosques throughout the Islamic world is the major reason for the spread and intensification of fundamentalist creeds. They have been an incubator for both the founders/leaders of jihadi groups (e.g. al-Qaeda) and a source of foot soldiers. Other Gulf states have played a complimentary role.

    AL-Qaeda, and then its ISIS offshoot, were fostered as instruments of a Sunni alliance, led by the KSA, dedicated to putting Shi’ism in its (inferior) place “once-and-for-all” – as stated by Prince Bandar who directed the campaign in Syria and Iraq. Washington never has had the backbone to confront the Saudis (and others) directly over this activity – much less to hold out the prospect of imposing costs. Now, the Trump administration ceremoniously welcomes Mohammed bin-Salman as a close ally in the joint struggle against terrorism. Yet, there are no signs of a significant reorientation of Saudi thinking or behavior.

    Turkey is another case in point. There is abundant evidence that Turkey, too, has been a godfather to al-Qaeda & Assoc. as well as ISIS in Syria/Iraq. The thousands of volunteers from abroad almost all passed through Turkey unimpeded if not facilitated. So, too, did their arsenal of arms. ISIS controlled oil was carried through Turkey in truck convoys. The principal company involved had Erdogan’s son as a senior partner. As a matter of elementary logic, it is only possible for an organization and military force of the ISIS and al-Qaeda’s size to take shape where there is territory available to train, to plan, to deploy and to take refuge. Turkey provided that. To this day, the United States has refused to insist that Erdogan cease and desist.

    It is inconceivable that the War on Terror can succeed against organized groups when America’s so-called partners are pursuing their own interests which dictate actions diametrically opposed to Washington’s aims and purposes.

  4. One cannot effectively conduct a war on terror while in practice subordinating it to other purposes. In Syria, the objectives of unseating Assad, of thwarting Iranian influence, of placating the Saudis engaged in their own parochial campaign, of avoiding estranging Turkey, of keeping Russia marginalized (if not humiliated) together led to policies that compromised the fight against ISIS and also gave al-Qaeda & Assoc. a free pass. In Yemen, Washington has participated in the Saudi-led military campaign that ignored the growing strength of AQAP and the implantation of ISIS due to the priority given reassuring the Saudi leaders that we would stand by them after we offended Riyadh by signing the JCPOA with Iran. Indeed, at times AQAP units fought alongside the forces of nominal President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi who has been the Saudi puppet.

    Then there is the Israeli factor. One cannot make any sense of the United States’ disjoined, perverse actions in the Middle East without reference to Washington’s deeply ingrained habit of viewing issues through the optic of Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist government.

    In Libya, the United States has labelled the Benghazi government as a beyond-the-pale rival to our pro-Western pretender to the throne even though General Hafter has been in constant combat with ISIS and other jihadi groups – unlike the feeble Tripoli figureheads.

    ISIS now has slipped officially to the Number 3 slot on the table of American enemies despite its direct threat (and other jihadi groups: al-Qaeda) to the Europeans - and implicitly to ourselves – is greater than ever. This belated admission can be seen as a small step toward confirming what long has been true in practice.

  5. American officials are only comfortable with simple two-player geo-political games. The Cold War conformed to, and reinforced that mental disposition. Few of the situations in the Greater Middle East associated with the jihadist phenomena display that characteristic. Most foreign policy officials and nearly all politicos paint the world in primary colors. Shadings are beyond them. Consequently, their ‘intellectual’ maps are drawn in stick figures and colored by the numbers.

    The complexities of Afghanistan eluded us back then and continue to elude us today. In Iraq, it took years to acquire an appreciation of the multiple elements that composed the anti-American insurrection and the intersection with the country’s tribal map. The intricate mosaic of relations with Iran, too, has been beyond us. In Syria, the same incomprehension is an unsurmountable obstacle to formulation of even a half-way coherent strategy. There, we cannot as much as figure out what our interests and ends are.

    In Libya, our intellectual confusion matches confusion on the ground. We are wedded to an ersatz pseudo-government in Tripoli whose writ doesn’t run much beyond certain quarters of the city, has no legitimacy in the rest of the country, and whose security (such as it is) depends on the cynical calculations of militias (some Islamist) who see the connection as way to ward off enemies in the East and thereby to advance their own influence. General Hafter’s Benghazi based government is stigmatized as a bunch of bad guys even though he is actively supported by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar who all are ‘good guys’ in our book. The fact that Hafter fights the local ISIS affiliate, along with other jihadists, cuts no ice in Washington. Nor does the fact that Qatar has backed some of those jihadists groups and still maintains connections with them.

    It is a telling sign of our confused and irresponsible thinking that the noble New York Times can devote several thousand words to the Libyan conundrum and never once as much as hint at these contradictions and complications. For the heavy thinkers on West 43rd Street, it’s all about the malevolence of Russia disrupting the best laid plans of a peaceable, selfless America for bring concord to the troubled natives of that ill-starred land.

Instead of striving to master these complexities, and to fashion policies that are informed by them, three American administrations have reverted to the simple-minded approach of more-or-less arbitrarily assigning white hats and black hats. Among the former are the jihadist fanatics of Ahrar al-Sham in Syria, the genocidal Mohammed bin-Salman who recently kidnapped another Washington favorite – Prime Minister of Lebanon Rafic Hariri, the PKK/YPG on even numbered days and Erdogan’s Turkey on odd numbered days, ISIS escapees from Raqqa, along with ISIS tribal auxiliaries, the Pentagon are using to block the Syrian government’s moves to regain control over oil fields on the East bank of the Euphrates. Still more prominent as points of reference are the ‘black hats.’ They compose a long and growing list: Iran, Assad, Hezbullah, Hamas (Sunni), Yemen’s Houthis (who aren’t even recognized as Shi’ites by Iranian clerics and never have done harm to a single American), al-Shaabab in Somalia, assorted thugs in the Congo. Now with fanfare, RUSSIA returns to the top of the list after a quarter century off the charts.  The Kremlin was designated as enemy Number One last week by the Pentagon. Quite an event for the nostalgia buffs around Dupont Circle and ‘K’ Street.

RUSSIA we remember from the last movie. We’ve trotted out all the old costuming, the rhetoric, the paranoid imagery and the instinct to blame Putin’s Russia for everything and anything. This is convenient. It spares Washington official’s the need to think, to strategize with sophistication, to conduct diplomacy instead of issuing demands and commands – in short to face up to realities that defy the caricatures upon which the American worldview has been constructed.

So long as we indulge these childish impulses of an insecure nation, our war on terror will falter. The burden placed on security services will grow weightier. Our feelings of being endangered will vastly exceed the actual dangers that threaten us. And therein lies a prime source of what ails the American Republic.

Prof Michael Brenner is a recognized authority on risk assessment & management, American foreign policy, and geopolitics. He is a "Fellow" of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin and a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations SAIS-Johns Hopkins.  He also is Emeritus Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. He was the Director of the International Relations & Global Studies Program at the University of Texas until 2012.

His record of publication on a broad span of international issues is complementary to his extensive activities in the policy realm. He has been an advisor to the United States government, a consultant to global corporations, a prominent participant in the programs of leading Washington think tanks and a prolific commentator on public affairs.  He contributes essays regularly to the Huffington Post, the National Journal, and the Pakistani Spectator and also has written for al-Arabiya. Prof Brenner’s consulting includes the United States Departments of State and Defense, the Foreign Service Institute, Westinghouse Corporation and Mellon Bank.

Professor Brenner has worked in the energy field for 30 years. He directed a project on International Energy & Natural Resource Issues sponsored by the Exxon Educational Foundation that produced a series of 20 case studies. He contributed studies of the Persian Gulf Reflagging Crisis, Oil as a Coercive Instrument in the 1970s, United States – China Bilateral Nuclear Accord, and US-France Dealings in Nuclear Energy. In addition, he organized the Pittsburgh Energy Seminar while at the Graduate School of Public & International Affairs, was Rapporteur for the Conference on Technology Transfer: Government & Industry in the Energy Sector at M.I.T. In the environmental policy field, he has conducted research on environmental management issues at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography (La Jolla), Natural Sciences Research Council (London), and the Center For International Affairs (Harvard University). He is the author of America’s Environmental Dilemma (Lexington Books) and The Scientific Advisory Function (Scripps Brenner is the author of numerous books, and over 70 articles and published papers on a wide range of topics.   His most recent works are:; Democracy Promotion and Islam; Fear and Dread In The Middle East (also translated into Arabic);; Toward A More Independent Europe  (Royal Institute of International Relations), Brussels), Narcissistic Public Personalities & Our Times..  His writings include books with Cambridge University Press (Nuclear Power and Non-Proliferation), the Center For International Affairs at Harvard University (The Politics of International Monetary Reform);  Institute of International Affairs at Cornell University (The Functionalist Theory of European Integration); the Brookings Institution (Reconcilable Differences, US-French Relations In The New Era) and publications in major journals in the United States and Europe, such as World Politics, Comparative Politics, Foreign Policy, International Studies Quarterly, International Affairs, Survival, Politique Etrangere, and Internationale Politik. Prof Brenner has directed multinational research projects with colleagues in France, England, Germany and Italy supported by grants from the Ford Foundation, NATO and the Commission of the European Union.

Brenner is an invited lecturer at major universities and institutes in the United States and abroad, including Georgetown University, UCLA, the National Defense University, the State Department, Sorbonne, Ecole des Sciences Politiques, Royal Institute of International Affairs, International Institute of Strategic Studies (London), King’s College of the University of London, German Council on Foreign Relations, Konrad Adenauer Foundation, and Universita di Firenze.

Brenner has held previous teaching and research appointments at Cornell, Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Brookings Institution, University of California – San Diego, University of California – Berkeley, and Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the National Defense University.  He also has been a Fellow of the Center on France & the United States in Paris.

His memberships include: APSA, ISA, IISS, Forum du Futur (Paris).

Prof Brenner is proficient in French and English.

  • Ph.D. Political Science, University of California, Berkeley
  • M.A. Political Science, University of California, Berkeley
  • B.A. Political Science, Summa Cum Lauda, Phi Beta Kappa , Brooklyne College – CUNY
  • Certificate, International Relations, Stockholm University, Sweden
  • About the author



    Leave a comment: