By analyzing 648 groups that existed between 1968 and 2006, this monograph examines how terrorist groups end....most groups have ended because (1) they joined the political process or (2) local police and intelligence agencies arrested or killed key members. Military force has rarely been the primary reason for the end of terrorist groups, and few groups
within this time frame achieved victory.
Al Qa’ida’s resurgence should trigger a fundamental rethinking of U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Based on our analysis of how terrorist groups end, a political solution is not possible. Since al Qa’ida’s goal remains the establishment of a pan-Islamic caliphate, there is little reason to expect that a negotiated settlement with governments in the Middle East is possible. A more effective approach would be adopting a twofront strategy.
First, policing and intelligence should be the backbone of U.S. efforts. In Europe, North America, North Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, al Qa’ida consists of a network of individuals who need to be tracked and arrested. This would require careful work abroad from such organizations as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), as well as their cooperation with foreign police and intelligence agencies. Second, military force, though not necessarily U.S. soldiers, may be a necessary instrument when al Qa’ida is involved in an insurgency. Local military forces frequently have more legitimacy to operate than the United States has, and they have a better understanding of the operating environment, even if they need to develop the capacity to deal with insurgent groups over the long run. This means a light U.S. military footprint or none at all. The U.S. military can play a critical role in building indigenous capacity but should generally resist being drawn into combat operations in Muslim societies, since its presence is likely to increase terrorist recruitment.
A key part of this strategy should include ending the notion of a war on terrorism and replacing it with such concepts as counterterrorism, which most governments with significant terrorist threats use. The British government, among others, has already taken this step and abjured the phrase war on terror. The phrase raises public expectations—both in the United States and elsewhere—that there is a battlefield solution to the problem of terrorism. It also encourages others abroad to respond by conducting a jihad (or holy war) against the United States and elevates them to the status of holy warriors. Terrorists should be perceived and described as criminals, not holy warriors. Our analysis suggests that there is no battlefield solution to terrorism. Military force usually has the opposite effect from what is intended: It is often overused, alienates the local population by its heavy-handed nature, and provides a window of opportunity for terrorist-group recruitment. This strategy should also include rebalancing U.S. resources and attention on police and intelligence work. It also means increasing budgets at the CIA, U.S. Department of Justice, and U.S. Department of State and scaling back the U.S. Department of Defense’s focus and resources on counterterrorism. U.S. special operations forces will remain critical, as will U.S. military operations to counter terrorist groups involved in insurgencies.
There is reason to be hopeful. Our analysis concludes that al Qa’ida’s probability of success in actually overthrowing any government is close to zero. Out of all the religious groups that ended since 1968, none ended by achieving victory. Al Qa’ida has virtually unachievable objectives in trying to overthrow multiple regimes in the Middle East. While Osama bin Laden enjoys some popular support in much of the Muslim world, this support does not translate into the mass support of the sort that other organizations enjoy, such as Hizballah in Lebanon. This is not surprising, since there are few al Qa’ida social welfare services, hospitals, or clinics (a problem of which al Qa’ida’s leaders are aware). In addition, al Qa’ida continues to expand its list of enemies. It now includes all Middle Eastern governments, Muslims who do not share al Qa’ida’s views, western governments, Asian governments (including those of Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan), the United Nations, and international nongovernmental organizations. Making a world of enemies and having unachievable objectives is not a winning strategy.
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