ATbar Terrorist Affiliations in Context: A Typology of Terrorist Inter-Group Cooperation
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Terrorist Affiliations in Context: A Typology of Terrorist Inter-Group Cooperation

19/03/2015 | by Moghadam, Assaf (Prof.)  

First published in CTC Sentinel

Affiliation—the focus of this Special Issue of the CTC Sentinel—is a prominent way for militant actors to voice ideological support for one another. As Boko Haram’s recent pledge of bay`a to the Islamic State suggests, affiliation is a salient feature in the jihadist universe. Among jihadi actors, it is not uncommon for these rhetorical pledges of support to serve as a springboard for more tangible cooperative relationships in the logistical and operational realms. Such inter-organizational collaboration can significantly affect the capabilities, longevity, strategy, and tactics of the cooperating parties.[1]

This article offers some conceptual explorations of cooperation between militant organizations—a topic that, like affiliations, is both understudied and under-theorized. Specifically, the article offers a new typology of terrorist cooperation between established militant groups, arguing that cooperative ties between these organizations span across a spectrum ranging from high-end to low-end cooperative relationships. High-end relationships include mergers—the ultimate form of cooperation—and strategic partnerships. Low-end cooperation includes tactical cooperation and, at the bottom end of the spectrum, transactional cooperation.

The typology presented in this article has important implications for counterterrorism. As each of the four types of cooperation is driven by varying dynamics and exhibits different strengths and weaknesses, each also offers different opportunities for counterterrorist intervention.

Global Jihad and the Problem of Terrorist Cooperation

In the 2011 National Strategy for Counterterrorism, President Barack Obama described al-Qa`ida and its affiliates as “the paramount terrorist threat we have faced”—one that, he warned, has “continued to evolve.”[2]  The elusiveness of the threat posed by global jihadist groups is due in no small part to the complex, networked structure of this movement. At its core, the jihadist universe is a movement composed of various actors, including individuals, loose networks, and formal organizations. These actors adhere to a common religious ideology and engage in dynamic cooperative relationships with each other.[3] The ties that bind these jihadist actors can have long-term negative implications on international security, possibly drawing the United States and other countries into future conflicts. A recent article in the New York Times highlighted this potential problem with regard to the Islamic State when its authors argued that the group is expanding “beyond its base in Syria and Iraq to establish militant affiliates in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt and Libya … raising the prospect of a new global war on terror.”[4]

On the face of it, such new affiliates establish cooperative ties with the Islamic State. Not all cooperative ties, however, are equal. A closer examination of cooperate relationships between militant organizations suggests that such ties can have significant qualitative variations, and hence pose threats of differing magnitudes.

Towards a Typology of Terrorist Cooperation

Typologies of terrorist cooperation should account for the various domains—ideological, logistical, and operational—in which terrorists cooperate, but also for the nature of the relationship between the cooperating entities.[5] Variables affecting the nature of that relationship are, first, the expected duration of cooperation. Thus, cooperation can stretch over a considerable length of time or occur sporadically, and even on a one-time basis.[6] The second aspect is the degree of interdependence between the collaborating entities. While in a merger, for instance, the groups are fully interdependent, a simple transactional cooperation will rarely erode a group’s independence.

Third, types and qualities of cooperative relationships can differ significantly in terms of the variety of cooperative activities that groups can engage in. Looser forms of cooperation may be limited to a single domain, such as ideological or logistical support only. Formal partnerships between groups can be expected to extend to a greater number of domains, such as ideological, logistical, and operational realms.

Ideological affinity is the fourth characteristic that can help identify qualitative differences in collaborative relationships between groups. Short-term relationships established for the purpose of specific transactions can obviate the need to find an ideological common ground between the parties. Strategic alliances and mergers, on the other hand, may be dependent upon a shared world view. Finally, cooperative relationships can also be distinguished in terms of the level of trust that the parties expect to accompany that relationship.

Four prototypes of terrorist cooperation can be distinguished based on these five variables. In diminishing order of the strength of cooperative ties, they are mergers, strategic alliances, tactical cooperation, and transactional cooperation. Furthermore, these four prototypes can be grouped into two qualitative categories: mergers and strategic alliances can be considered examples of “high-end cooperation,” while tactical and transactional cooperation constitute “low-end cooperation.”

High-end Cooperation: Mergers and Strategic Alliances

Mergers are the most complete type of cooperation because they entail the unification of the collaborating groups’ command and control structure, the integration of their fighting forces, and the pooling of their resources.[7] The expected time horizon of groups that merge is indefinite, as the groups are essentially forming a single entity. As a result, the merging groups in essence shed their independence, while creating a new entity whose rules are binding to all members. Groups that merge cooperate along the entire spectrum of activities, from ideological to logistical and operational cooperation. Mergers are conditional upon the constituent groups sharing a common ideology. To the extent that ideological differences exist before the merger, the weaker group needs to adopt the ideological guidelines of the senior partner. Failure to do so can jeopardize the success of the merger.

Mergers can be beneficial for militant groups plagued by financial woes, mobilization problems, or identity crises. When smaller organizations merge with larger groups, these organizations can adopt a highly desirable “brand” that can positively affect the group’s efforts of recruiting new personnel.[8] As Daniel Byman has noted, mergers and acquisitions—be they in the business world or the universe of militant organizations—can help promote organizational learning as they streamline the flow of ideas and solutions within the newly minted group. As more actors can exploit innovations at a lower cost and at greater speed, research and development will have greater dividends.[9]

Mergers, however, are not free of cost, the most obvious being the full loss of autonomy, which applies especially to the weaker partner. Mergers are also no surefire way that members will establish and adopt a new identity or otherwise overcome divisions. Fractures over strategic, ideological, or tactical questions can remain and can result in a breakup of mergers. The two main Egyptian jihadist groups, Al-Jihad and Gamaa Islamiya, for example, briefly merged in 1980, only to split following the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat in October of the following year as a result of divisions over the leadership of the Blind Sheikh, Omar abd al-Rahman.[10]

The most successful mergers can result in the establishment of formidable terrorist organizations. The Lebanese Hizballah, for that matter, was the result of a merger of different factions such as members of Amal, the Muslim Students Union, the Dawa party of Lebanon, and others. As Matthew Levitt explains, the group emerged as the “product of an Iranian effort to aggregate under one roof a variety of militant Shia groups in Lebanon as an umbrella movement.”[11] The merger between Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) and Usama bin Laden’s al-Qa`ida to form a new group called Qaedat al-Jihad is an additional example.

Strategic alliances are the second type of high-end cooperation. Strategic alliances are relationships in which the collaborating groups share know-how and resources extensively and may exchange fighters, but at the same time (and in contrast to mergers) retain ownership of their respective assets as well as distinct command and control over their organizations.[12] Strategic allies expect their partnership to last for an extended period of time and, like mergers, expect to cooperate in multiple activities, spanning ideological and logistical, and frequently also operational cooperation. The large variety of cooperative endeavors calls for frequent consultations between the leaderships, even though the security environment may not be permissive of frequent face-to-face encounters. As a result of the strong bonds between strategic partners, groups in such relationships may set up specialized infrastructure or point persons to manage the relations with the strategic partner.[13]

Strategic alliances are dependent on a high degree of ideological affinity, although groups may retain slight differences of emphasis in terms of their ideological or strategic agenda. Generally, however, strategic partnerships are marked by a high degree of ideological overlap and a general agreement on strategic issues (which may have prompted the alliance in the first place). As a result of this common vision, true strategic partnerships are characterized by a relatively high degree of trust between the partners. Breakups of strategic partnerships—such as the split between al-Qa`ida and what was then called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)—are oftentimes the outcome of a gradual erosion of trust.

Contemporary examples of strategic alliances include those between al-Qa`ida (Central) on the one hand and its remaining affiliates on the other—al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Shabab, and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Low-end Cooperation: Tactical and Transactional Cooperation

Low-end forms of cooperation, which range from tactical to transactional cooperation—differ from their high-end counterparts in several respects. First, tactical or transactional collaborations typically have shorter time horizons than mergers or strategic alliances. Although some tactical alliances can endure or evolve into strategic partnerships, such alliances are usually beholden to the vicissitudes of shifting interests. Secondly, when compared to high-end cooperative relationships, partners in low-end forms of cooperation retain all or most of their independence. Thirdly, low-end forms of cooperation rarely encompass the full range of cooperative activities. More likely, such forms of cooperation involve collaborations on specific issues or domains. Fourth, in low-end forms of cooperation, pragmatism prevails over ideological similarity. Transactional forms of cooperation can occur between ideologically opposed groups, and even tactical alliances can be formed along ideologically incompatible positions, provided that other mundane interests are served. Fifth, low-end forms of cooperation are rarely characterized by the same level of trust that accompanies high-end forms of cooperation such as strategic alliances and mergers.

Low-end forms of cooperation between militant actors can be either tactical or transactional in character, with the former denoting a more committed and encompassing form of relationship than the latter. Neither of these amount to the level of a strategic alliance or merger in terms of the overall strength of the alliance.

Tactical cooperation differs from strategic cooperation in that strategic alliances are expected to last for a relatively long time, whereas no such expectation is inherent in tactical alliances. Tactical alliances are based on shared interests, as opposed to a combination of shared interest and common ideology that underlies strategic alliances. Since the interests of groups are far from static, tactical alliances can shift, and even end abruptly as the interests of the parties diverge. Tactical alliances may even be established with the express knowledge that such alliances are not likely to endure, provided the parties identify areas of mutual gain in the short term.

Tactical alliances are particularly common between militant groups involved in civil wars and insurgencies, when transitory overlapping interests can result in a temporary “marriage of convenience” that can bring together groups that have divergent ideological orientations. Following the U.S. led invasion of Iraq starting in March 2003, for example, deposed Baathists and jihadists formed a tactical alliance that had the immediate objective of ending the occupation.[14]

Strategic and tactical alliances between groups differ in the strength of the relationship in part because the former involves ideological affinity (e.g. common adherence to Marxist or jihadi ideology), whereas tactical alliances are not predicated upon ideological agreement. This is exemplified in the off-and-on, tactical collaboration between Sunni al-Qa`ida and Shiite Hizballah.[15]

At the lowest end of cooperative relationships between militant groups are transactional relationships. Such transactions can be material or ideological in nature. As far as the material transactional relationships are concerned, the time horizon can vary from short, one-time exchanges to regularized transactions as part of a contractual relationship. Generally speaking, there is no expectation of a longer-term mutual relationship, because cooperative activity is specific to certain exchanges. In such transactional relationships, the cooperating organizations maintain their full autonomy and usually cooperate on a single domain, often involving logistical cooperation such as the transfer of weapons. Actors involved in transactional relationships of the material variety do not need to share similar organizational goals or ideologies, and may not even share a common enemy.

Transactional relationships can involve formal contract relationships, which can specify the regular supply of a specific good or service. Likely more often, transactional forms of terrorist cooperation involve informal arrangements on the exchange of goods. In such barter relationship, one party provides a certain kind of good or service in exchange for the other party providing another kind of good or service.[16] The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of Sri Lanka are a good example of a militant group involved in various transactional relationships. At its height, the LTTE became an international arms seller and also offered advice on weapons handling to a variety of groups.[17]

Pledges of allegiance that do not (yet) involve further logistical or operational collaboration—such as Boko Haram’s pledge to the Islamic State—can be considered an ideological variant of transactional relationships. Unlike the more tangible goods that are being exchanged in a material transactional relationship, such ideological cooperation revolves around the exchange of immaterial goods. A pledge of general support can be reciprocated, for example, by the pledging group’s ability to adopt the brand of the senior partner. A further difference between material and ideological transactional cooperation is that ideological cooperation sends a stronger signal about the groups’ intentions to engage in higher forms of cooperation in the future.

Counterterrorism Implications

The above discussion suggests that affiliations can lead to a variety of cooperative ties between groups. Consequently, not every pledge of allegiance necessarily results in a full-fledged strategic alliance between the newly associated groups. This article presented four ideal types of terrorist inter-group cooperation in order to illustrate some of the basic differences between how terrorist and insurgent groups collaborate. There should be little doubt, however, that terrorist cooperation takes many additional forms not covered here. In fact, even the present typology is inherently limited in that it considers only a specific type of actor—formal organizations—that employs terrorism. A more comprehensive typology of terrorist cooperation should acknowledge the fact that terrorism is increasingly carried out by a diversity of actors—including self-starters and loose networks.[18] Future typologies should account for this “privatization of terrorist cooperation,”[19] rather than limit the scope of analysis to organizations only.

The benefits of a more nuanced approach to analyzing terrorist cooperation, however, are apparent even from the organization-centric typology introduced above. Identifying different types of terrorist cooperation can provide a useful tool for the counterterrorism analyst who seeks to identify insertion points to weaken inter-organizational bonds.[20]

Mergers, strategic alliances, tactical and transactional cooperation all have different characteristics that counterterrorism practitioners can seek to exploit. Mergers, for example, are predicated on a relatively high degree of ideological affinity and agreement over strategy. As a result, they may be most vulnerable to personality rifts, especially between the leaderships of the two merging groups. Strategic alliances usually involve a shared world view but, as the example of strategic alliances between al-Qa`ida and its affiliates suggest, such alliances may feature ongoing divisions over strategic and tactical choices, in addition to possible personality rifts or agency problems. Strategic alliances might therefore be broken up most effectively by deepening strategic and tactical rifts among their enemies.

In a tactical cooperation, on the other hand, the survivability of cooperation is conditional upon the cooperating groups’ ongoing perception that the tactical partnership continues to serve the militant groups’ core interests. This suggests that states trying to break up tactical alliances may succeed by trying to influence the cost-benefit calculation of groups to remain in such alliances. States may consider both positive incentives and negative sanctions in trying to influence these groups’ ongoing rationale for maintaining such a tactical relationship. Transactional cooperative relationships differ in terms of their threat potential. Some material transactional forms of cooperation may be of minuscule importance. Not so some ideological affiliations, such as Boko Haram’s pledge of bay`a to the Islamic State, which constitute a greater potential threat, and may therefore best be addressed by responses similar to those that apply  to higher forms of cooperation.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

[1] See, for example, Ely Karmon, Coalitions between Terrorist Organizations: Revolutionaries, Nationalists and Islamists (Leiden; Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 2005); Tricia Bacon, “Strange Bedfellows: Why Terrorist Organizations Ally” (Ph.D. Dissertation: Georgetown University, 2013); Michael Horowitz and Philip Potter, “Allying to Kill: Terrorist Intergroup Cooperation and the Consequences for Lethality,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 58:2 (March 2013); Brian J. Phillips, “Terrorist Group Cooperation and Longevity,” International Studies Quarterly 58:2 (June 2014); and Victor Asal, Gary Ackerman, and R. Karl Rethemeyer, “Connections Can Be Toxic: Terrorist Organizational Factors and the Pursuit of CBRN Weapons,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 35:3 (2012).

[2] “National Strategy for Counterterrorism, 2011 (Washington, DC: The White House, 2011), p. 1.

[3] Assaf Moghadam, “The Salafi Jihad as a Religious Ideology,” CTC Sentinel 1:3 (February 2008).

[4] Eric Schmitt and David Kirkpatrick, “Islamic State Sprouting Limbs beyond its Base,” New York Times, February 14, 2015.

[5] Karmon’s typology of terrorist cooperation distinguishes between ideological, logistical, and operational cooperation. Karmon, Cooperation between Terrorist Organizations, p. 49. For a typology that accounts for the nature of the relationship, see Bacon, “Strange Bedfellows,” p. 756.

[6] See also Phil Williams, “Cooperation among Criminal Organizations,” in Mats Berdal and Monica Serrano, eds., Transnational Organized Crime and International Security: Business as Usual (Boulder, CO; London: Lynne Rienner, 2002), p. 73.

[7] See also Bacon, “Strange Bedfellows,” pp. 753-754. Bacon refers to these relationships as “pooled relationships.”

[8] Daniel L. Byman, “Buddies or Burdens? Understanding the Al Qaeda Relationship with Its Affiliate Organizations,” Security Studies 23:3 (2014).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Steven Brooke, “Jihadist Strategic Debates before 9/11,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 31:3 (2008), pp. 205-207.

[11] Matthew Levitt, Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013), p. 11. See also Nicholas Blanford, Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty Year Struggle against Israel (New York: Random House, 2011), pp. 46-48.

[12] Compare Bacon, who terms these relationships “integrated relationships.” Bacon, “Strange Bedfellows,” p. 754.

[13] This also characterizes strategic partnerships between criminal organizations. See Patrick L. Clawson and Rensselaer Lee III, The Andean Cocaine Industry (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996). Quoted in Williams, “Cooperation among Criminal Organizations,” pp. 72-73.

[14] Mohammed M. Hafez, Suicide Bombers in Iraq: The Strategy and Ideology of Martyrdom (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2007), pp. 52-54.

[15] National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, The 9/11 Commission Report (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.), pp. 240-241.

[16] Compare Williams, “Cooperation among Criminal Organizations,” p. 70; pp. 74-75.

[17] Shanaka Jayasekara, “Tamil Tiger Links with Islamist Terrorist Groups,” in Boaz Ganor and Eitan Azani, eds., The Global Impact of Terrorism 2008 – 8th World Summit on Counter-Terrorism (Herzliya, Israel: International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, 2010); and Cynthia Balana, “Tamil Rebels Sent Arms to Abus–Sri Lanka Exec,” Inquirer, August 4, 2007.

[18] Assaf Moghadam, Dangerous Liaisons: Global Jihad and the Evolution of Terrorist Cooperation (New York: Columbia University Press, forthcoming).

[19] Assaf Moghadam, “The Privatization of Terrorist Cooperation,” Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the International Studies Association (ISA), New Orleans, LA, February 20, 2015.

[20] This is assuming that the counterterrorism practitioner has concluded that breaking the bonds between terrorist and insurgent organizations serves the counterterrorist’s interest. This is an important question that is beyond the scope of this article.

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