Potter: The Death and Life of Terrorist Networks

How Alliances Help Militants Survive

ISIS fighters in Raqqa, Syria, June 2014
ISIS fighters in Raqqa, Syria, June 2014

The Islamic State (or ISIS) is quietly “rising from the ashes” in parts of Iraq and Syria, but this is not the first time that it has recovered from a near-death experience. Its predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, also reconstituted itself after nearly being defeated in 2007–8. ISIS has demonstrated extraordinary resilience; about half of all terrorist organizations fail in their first year, but it has survived for the better part of two decades despite fighting against an international coalition assembled to defeat it. 

This resilience may seem surprising, but it should not. Over recent decades, militant groups with the kind of vast international network of affiliates, allies, and supporters that ISIS has assembled have proved difficult to defeat. Alliances have helped ISIS expand and gain influence in good times and have relieved pressure by deflecting attention toward affiliates in bad times. Without defeating this whole network, accordingly, it will be hard to fully finish off the core group.

The value of alliances in geopolitical competition between states has been frequently noted in the past few years. It turns out alliances are just as important to often-stateless militant groups. The difference between a terrorist group with ideologically aligned allies and a terrorist group without them can mean the difference between survival and defeat—as the ongoing fight to destroy ISIS is making all too clear today.


In an analysis of militant group behavior over the past 70 years, we compiled every known alliance between armed groups since 1950. Using an extensive array of open-source information, we identified the incidence, location, and content of cooperative relationships. Were groups sharing equipment and materiel or exchanging funds? Were they coordinating attacks? Or was cooperation merely rhetorical, involving pledges and other public statements but little in the way of physical exchange?

The resulting data—the most comprehensive account available of worldwide networks of terrorist, rebel, and insurgent organizations—reveal several important patterns. First, between 1950 and 2016, militant groups developed much broader networks than is commonly appreciated. We have identified nearly 15,000 instances of cooperation between 2,613 different armed organizations, undercutting the common belief that armed groups operate primarily in isolation. Second, these networks have become more extensive over time, increasing in number but also in geographic breadth. The number of active alliances grew steadily from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, going from just under 50 to nearly 175, corresponding with a wave of European decolonization and the rise of communist movements in Western Europe, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. After a brief lull in the late 1980s, alliances surged again until reaching a peak around 2010. Linkages among armed Islamist groups, many of them motivated by the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, dominated this latter wave. Many involved the exchange of tangible goods, such as guns, explosives, and other equipment, and efforts to help armed groups smuggle resources into Afghanistan and Iraq to sustain their fight against coalition forces.

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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