Counterterrorism is a complex field which is still emerging and coming into its own as an area of academic enquiry in its own right, whilst also facing a rapidly evolving terrorist threat environment to which it is expected to formulate appropriate remedies. It is often bemoaned by some that the West is struggling with terrorism because it has no overarching grand-strategy. These accusations are usually hurled by less-than-expert journalists, who know that security services make a point of not commenting on such matters and cannot offer a rebuttal. In this piece, Simon Schofield of the Human Security Centre examines the disaggragation strategy in the fight against transnational terror groups and whether a new approach may be needed going forward.


Major strategic problems often need grand strategies to address them. The Cold War was fought by Western powers following the strategy of Containment articulated in George F. Kennan’s now famous 1946 diplomatic cable ‘The Long Telegram’. Without diving into too deep analysis of containment here, Kennan outlined in the Telegram that:

“Soviet power, unlike that of Hitlerite Germany, is neither schematic nor adventuristic. It does not work by fixed plans. It does not take unnecessary risks. Impervious to logic of reason, and it is highly sensitive to logic of force. For this reason it can easily withdraw—and usually does when strong resistance is encountered at any point.”

In a further article ‘the Sources of Soviet Conduct’, published in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym ‘X’, Kennan argued:

“In these circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”

A little over half a century later, the grand strategy being pursued today is somewhat less famous than containment, and seems to have very little profile at all outside of security circles. Kennan’s spiritual successor is the self-effacing and thoughtful David Kilcullen, an Australian national who participated in interventions in East Timor and Bougainville inter alia, and became a key strategist, forming a crucial part of the team that produced the White Paper ‘Transnational Terrorism – the Threat to Australia’. Following this, Kilcullen published an article in the Small Wars Journal entitled ‘Countering Global Insurgency’. Here he put forward a new strategic approach to global terrorism, which would set the tone and direction of Western governments’ counterterrorism and counterinsurgency practice for years to come.

The core of Kilcullen’s argument was that most terror groups had local grievances with their local governments, but that transnational groups like al Qaeda had been able to carefully coordinate them together in the service of broader, global aims. This was particularly clear in the attacks of September 11th, where Bin Laden, a Saudi national, authorised Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a Pakistani, to go to Hamburg, Germany, to plan the attacks with Yemeni Ramzi bin al Shibh, which were subsequently carried out by nineteen jihadist hijackers including Egyptian Mohamed Atta, Emirati Marwan al-Shehhi, and Lebanese Ziad Jarrah. Bringing together different jihadist groups gave al Qaeda numerous advantages, including a greater pool of recruits to choose from; a disparate network, which facilitated operational security and resilience, and more resources to put into planning the attack. As such, the theory was that the only way to stop al Qaeda or similar global insurgents from reaping the benefits of this ‘aggregation’ was to attack the links between these local groups, eventually with a view to eroding their coherence, collapsing them back into local groups with a local focus, which could then be mopped up by their respective governments’ domestic counterterrorism programmes.

This theory is clearly in evidence in what is now sometimes known as the Obama Doctrine, of using armed drones to strike key actors in al Qaeda’s global network. Whilst George W. Bush was the first US President to make use of armed drones to reach terrorists when larger airstrikes were too risky and special operations raids too impractical, President Obama took this policy to new heights, ordering more drone strikes in his first year than Bush did in his entire presidency, and eventually carrying out ten times as many strikes as Bush authorised. The overall intention of the Obama-era strategy was to target al Qaeda’s central command by capturing senior figures where practical, killing them where it was not, and more generally forcing commanders to focus on their own operational security and survival than in coordinating between the al Qaeda franchises. This strongly disrupted al Qaeda’s central command, reducing them to a largely symbolic role of issuing fatwas and messages from Bin Laden and later (post-Abbottabad) Zawahiri to bolster fighters. Their ability to carrying out their aggregating function had been compromised, and to date this seems to have been successful insomuch as there is little evidence of coordination between al Qaeda’s various franchises in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and elsewhere.

However, this strategy has failed thus far to fully defeat the forces of transnational jihadism. Kilcullen himself makes the argument that in retrospect disaggregation was a flawed strategy in his book ‘Blood Year’, which analyses the rapid rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and its wilyat (provinces) abroad, as well as its mobilisation of foreign fighters from European states and beyond. In ‘Blood Year’ Kilcullen observes that this strategy has produced a number of phenomena in response, which has made Islamic State all the deadlier.

Firstly it has brought about a process of atomisation, where Islamic State’s various networks have dispersed and hierarchies have flattened ever further, which makes effective intelligence work incredibly difficult.

Secondly it has brought forth a new style of terrorism using a model of ‘leaderless resistance’ where Islamic State acts as a central focal point and informs and advises followers of the best methods to carry out terror attacks through magazines such as ‘Dabiq’, but leaves the actual details of operational planning to its followers. This presents intelligence agencies with a great challenge, as there is no longer a core organisation of key individuals planning, resourcing, and carrying out attacks, while anybody radicalised through the internet could be carrying out these functions.

Thirdly it has brought increased emphasis on ‘low tech’ terrorism, as first seen in Israel by Palestinian fighters who, deprived of access to firearms and explosives, have made great use of everyday weapons such as cars and knives which cannot be practically banned. Whilst it is likely that Islamic State and al Qaeda both still have an interest in procuring weapons of mass destruction and carrying out high risk-high reward spectacular attacks, there is now an ongoing series of these low tech attacks grabbing headlines regularly despire their typically low casualty rates.

As the Islamic State has adapted its strategy in light of the successes of disaggregation, so too do Western governments need to vary their approach now that atomisation is scoring regular successes against counterterrorism agencies. Law enforcement, military, and both foreign and domestic intelligence agencies should step up information sharing and cooperation between each other and partners abroad. This joint action should be used to carry out a global campaign along the lines of General Stanley McChrystal’s successful special operations campaign following the “Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, Analyze, Disseminate” (F3EAD) method. This would help roll up what remains of Islamic State propagandists, financiers, operational experts, theologians, and other key actors who facilitate and encourage the wider leaderless resistance model. Where necessary this should be supplemented with the sparing use of further drone and airstrikes to remove key actors for whom apprehension is not a viable option, although this should be tempered with a requirement for absolutely zero civilian casualties, as these are used to great effect by propagandists to further recruit.

However, military action must be supplemented by political action. The required political actions fall broadly into four key areas:

  • Making the positive case for immigration to citizens, to immunise against right wing nationalist radicalisation
  • Integrating new arrivals into the culture in terms of articulating our values and expectations
  • Building resilience by educating citizens in how to spot suspicious behaviour and how to report it, developing psychological resilience, and teaching how to respond in the event of a terrorist attack, to create a greater sense of security
  • Continuing to fight the radicalising influence of militant Islamism through programmes such as the UK’s PREVENT strategy, which involves politically attacking radical interpretations of Islam, prosecuting those who incite to murder, and broadly making the case that liberal democracy delivers better outcomes, particularly for Muslims, than the kind of Islamist theocracy promoted by jihadist groups.

Disaggregation has largely achieved what it set out to do and it has prevented a repeat of 9/11, however, it is beginning to outlive its usefulness and must be replaced by a new doctrine of F3EAD and political action to combat the new low-tech model of atomisation and leaderless resistance. Unfortunately in the age of border walls, Brexit and nationalism, it appears that we are disaggregating ourselves much to the advantage of our extremist adversaries.


Simon Schofield is a Senior Fellow and Acting Director at the Human Security Centre, where he researches a broad range of security issues from terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and human rights issues. He has served as a geopolitical consultant for numerous news outlets including the BBC, RTE, and the International Business Times.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.


Photo credit: US Air Force

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