Realism and Terrorism

Political realism is a school of thought that believes that nation-states are the essential actors in the international system (not individuals, groups, or corporations) and that there are structural reasons that the world functions the way it does that are beyond the immediate influence even of world leaders and powerful nation-states themselves. Due to its focus on the "big picture" --the structure of the whole international system and the distribution of power among the nation-states within it-- many have argued that realism is becoming increasingly irrelevant in a world of asymmetric warfare with non-state actors like terrorists. Indeed, how can a model that, at its base, excludes all parties below the level of the nation-state have anything to say about terrorism?

It is true that realists have often ignored terrorism almost completely, preferring to view the problem as one of crime-fighting that can be addressed by nation-states, like ocean piracy in the 19th century (also something outside realist models). The structural realist model can be applied to terror groups, however. It simply has to be "translated" to the new environment. Doing so can yield some interesting insights and immediately suggests some policy responses (which are, luckily, already being put in place to some extent).

Reading Leah Farrall's article in Foreign Affairs, How al Qaeda Works, I was reminded of a somewhat similar article in International Security (Vol. 33, No. 2, Fall 2008) by Mette Eilstrup-Sangiovanni entitled “Strengths and Weaknesses of Networks: Why al-Qaeda may be Less Dangerous than Most Think.” These two make opposing arguments, with the former asserting that al Qaeda is stronger than ever and the latter calling this idea into question, as the title suggests. What they both agree on, however, is the way in which al Qaeda's network is structured. Farrall's article distinguishes between "franchises" and "branches" within the network, similar to the way McDonald's stores are usually owned and operated by franchisees, but are sometimes run by McDonald's directly (branches). The point is that the structure is highly decentralized. Minor established terror groups apparently apply for al Qaeda franchise status.

So what does all this have to do with realism? Translate the structural nation-state model onto the individual terror units (franchises, branches, the al Qaeda core, and other unrelated terror groups) and you have what one might call a "terror system." Crucially, the al Qaeda franchises have local goals that are generally more important to them than the sweeping, global goals espoused by al Qaeda itself. To be a franchisee, however, these groups must help out with al Qaeda's global mission. In return, they gain expertise, funding, and other support for local terror operations largely of their own choosing. As long as their interests coincide in this arrangement, we can expect cooperation between local groups and the al Qaeda core.

The realist model, however, provides many insights into the formation of alliances and the reasons why groups' divergent interests may drag them away from cooperation, quite possibly in spite of their professed wishes for such cooperation. The point is: we must find ways to bring franchisees' interests out of alignment with those of al Qaeda, thus weakening the entire network.

This has apparently already been done in at least one case: against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) of the Philippines. American and Filipino authorities worked to change incentives for the MILF, punishing it more heavily for working with al Qaeda, while using carrots to encourage it not to do so and to come to talks with the government about its local goals. Al Qaeda operatives have apparently stopped using the MILF's training camps in the Philippines. This was the successful application of a realist, divide-and-conquer deterrent strategy, one known since at least Roman times. This is also the topic of my coming PhD dissertation. More to come in about three years...


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