Home Mutually Exclusive Goals and Terrorist Cooperation

Mutually Exclusive Goals and Terrorist Cooperation

On the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2006, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) was appointed by al Qaeda as its affiliate in North Africa. This affiliation gave birth to what is now popularly known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Before GSPC transformed into AQIM, they were the predominant Algerian Sunni terrorist group, which was once considered an existential threat to the Algerian state. However, by 2005, it has been argued that GSPC were pursuing a cause that no longer resonated with the war-weary Algerian public as reports of group’s fighters struggling to survive on rations and living in desolate conditions started to emerge.[1] However, post-alliance, AQIM adopted al Qaeda’s modus operandi that significantly enhanced the lethality and reach of its violence. Post-alliance, it started to strike high profile targets in the heart of Algiers, which was otherwise considered secure against the group’s traditional bombings and ambushes. Additionally, AQIM expanded its safe haven and smuggling activities in the Sahel region, and members outside its traditional Algerian base started to join the group. 

 The transformation that GSPC of Algeria underwent after allying with al Qaeda goes on to show that cooperating with another terrorist organisation not only creates opportunities for groups to strengthen their operational effectiveness, range, and efficiency but also enhance their legitimacy and stature, and sometimes even allows for a re-invention of their image.[2] Terrorist cooperation spans across a spectrum ranging from high-end to low-end cooperative relationships.[3] High-end relationships include mergers, which are considered the ultimate form of cooperation and strategic partnerships. Low-end cooperation includes tactical cooperation, and at the bottom end of the spectrum there is the transactional cooperation. Affiliations of terrorist organisations are considered a prominent way for militant actors to voice ideological support for one another. The significance of Boko Haram’s 7 March 2015 pledge for bay’a[4] to Islamic State (IS) suggests that affiliation is a salient feature in the jihadist universe.[5]

The concept of ‘global jihad’ developed by Sunni radical groups gave rise to mutual felling of solidarity among variety of movements, groups, and sometimes ad hoc groupings or cells, which acted under an ideological umbrella of radical interpretation of Islam. The solidarity was primarily driven by deep hatred for a common enemy and a kind of apocalyptic perception of the struggle between divine and satanic, good and evil, or light and darkness.[6] According to Karmon (2005), global jihad in recent years has reflected solidarity based upon narrow-minded interpretations or limited Islamic principles, and a perceived confrontation with Western global conspiracy.

While global Salafist movement represents a transitional effort for religious purification through common approach to Islam, the earliest version of an Islamist terrorist network was led by Osama bin Laden. It has been argued that Osama bin Laden was interested in strengthening relations with Islamist movements everywhere. However, in the present-day discourse on terrorism predominantly dominated by IS, the emergence of IS’s concept of wilayat (provinces) have put the focus back on terrorist affiliations and cooperation. Besides inspiring individuals to carry out terror attacks all over the world, IS is said to have eclipsed al Qaeda in spawning affiliates, in establishing large number of franchises and supporters throughout the Muslim world. IS’s concept of wilayat has thus far posed serious threat to societies that they perceive as the ‘enemy’ as even private individuals are carrying out terrorist attacks against those societies, which is best described these days as “IS-inspired ‘lone wolf’ terrorist.”  These IS-inspired ‘lone wolf’ terrorist have carried out menacing terrorist attacks in the recent times.

It is important to note here that local fighters everywhere in the world are emulating the IS.[7] In Bangladesh, IS has claimed responsibility for bombings, stabbings, and shootings of Shiite and Western targets. In places where IS does not have a formal presence, foreign fighters play an important role creating and maintaining ties between the local groups and the core.[8] In other words, fundamentalist waging jihad against the ‘non-belivers’ has little or no regard for national boundaries of states in order to bring about a global forum of ideas and actions countering the effects of geographic distance and sectarian loyalty. Links between different Sunni Islamist groups all around the world were developed by 1990s influenced mainly by a Salafiyyah, sometimes also known as ‘neo-Wahhabiyyah’.[9]

Analysts have argued that terrorist cooperation or alliances diversify the mobilisation tasks, risks, and strengthen the capabilities of the organisations who decide to cooperate. It is not necessary that terrorist groups operating in a similar political space cooperate, often terrorist organisations operating in a different political space is found to have joined forces to aggregate their capabilities thereby enhancing their ability to conduct large scale terrorist attacks. E.g. terrorist groups interested in using Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) might try to ally with group in Afghanistan or Iraq with extensive practice of using them.

Cooperation between terrorist organisations are understood in the context of ‘in-depth collaborations’, wherein the resulting cooperation play a crucial role in shaping the capabilities and behavours of those groups. Examples from the 1970s to the present covering groups located around the world, from Indonesia to Colombia to West Asia, demonstrates that cooperation and alliances between terrorist groups often result in enhanced capabilities for the linked groups, leading to higher casualties when those groups carry out attacks.[10]

While there are different forms of cooperation between terrorist organisations especially in contemporary jihadi brand of terrorism – from tactical to transactional cooperation – at its core, the jihadist universe is a movement composed of various actors – individuals, loose networks, formal organisations and the like – who adhere to a common religious ideology and engage in dynamic cooperative relationships with each other. From counter-terrorism point of view, findings have highlighted that if terrorist groups function in the context of a broader universe rather than alone, then counter-terrorism strategies should be directed towards understanding, tracking, and disrupting these linkages. For international counter-terrorism mechanism to be effective against the amorphous threats posed by global jihadist groups it is of paramount importance to focus on destruction and dismantling of the alliance network structure of terrorist organisations, this can be achieved by coordinated international cooperation.

The Author is an Associate Fellow at CLAWS. Views expressed are personal.


[1]For details see Tricia Bacon (2014), “Alliance Hubs: Focal Points in the International Terrorist Landscape”, Perspectives on Terrorism, 8 (4), pp. 4-26

[2] Ibid

[3] For details see Assaf Moghadam (2015), “Terrorist Affiliations in Context: A Typology of Terrorist Inter-Group Cooperation”, CTC Sentinel, 8 (3), pp. 22-25

[4] In Islamic parlance, bay’a to the Caliph is a pledge of allegiance that, upon being accepted, formally brings the group or the individual making the pledge under the authority of the Caliph. The origin of this practice is tied to early believers that were reported to have pledged bay’a to Muhammad. For details see Daniel Milton and Muhammad al-Ubaydi (2015), “Pledging Bay’a: A Benefit or Burden to the Islamic State?”, CTC Sentinel, 8 (3), pp. 1-7

[5] For details see Zacob Zenn (2015), “A Biography of Boko Haram and the Bay’a to al-Baghdadi”, CTC Sentinel, 8 (3), pp. 17-25

[6] For details see Eli Karmon (2005), Coalitions Between Terrorist Organizations: Revolutionaries, Nationalists and Islamists, Leiden: Brill

[7] For details see Daniel Byman (2016), “ISIS Goes Global”, Foreign Affairs, 95 (2), pp. 76-85

[8] Ibid

[9] In the neo-Wahhabiyyah, takfir is considered as the main ideological principle wherein a secular Muslim society is perceived as sacrilegious. Such secular Muslim societies also became the target of permanent jihad.

[10] For details see Horowitz and Potter (2012), “Allying to Kill: Terrorist Intergroup Cooperation and the Consequences for Lethality”, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 58 (2), pp. 199-225

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