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January 12, 2007
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Global Security
One Size Does Not Fit All: A Strategy for Counterterrorism Policy

Hamas. Al-Qaeda. Lashkar-e-Taiba. Though bound by their Islamic identities, not all terrorist groups have the same agendas. The United States must improve its counterterrorism efforts by differentiating between the goals of ethnic and religious terrorist groups, according to global security analyst Justine A. Rosenthal, a visiting fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. Her analysis is published in the journal The National Interest.

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Believing that all Islamic terrorist groups have a universal agenda is a dangerous mistake for U.S. counterterrorism strategists, according to a global security analyst at Brown University. In the journal The National Interest, Justine A. Rosenthal asserts that the United States may actually be advancing the Al-Qaeda agenda by battling all terrorist groups in which Islam plays a role.


Justine A. Rosenthal, visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies, distinguishes ethnic terrorist groups from more globally oriented terrorist groups. They pose different threat levels and require different approaches.

Rosenthal is a visiting fellow in the Global Security Program at Brown University’s Thomas J. Watson Jr. Institute for International Studies and director of the Atlantic Monthly Foundation, home to the Council on Global Terrorism.

“Only slightly less frightening than Islamic terrorism itself is our incorrect understanding of exactly what is going on, and the inappropriate and potentially counterproductive policies ensuing from our misinterpretations,” Rosenthal argues.

In her analysis, Rosenthal first distinguishes ethnic terrorist groups, such as Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Chechen rebels, from far more globally oriented groups like Jemaah Islamiya and Al-Qaeda. “These types of Islamic terrorist groups behave differently, pose different threat levels to the United States and require divergent counterterrorism strategies because they have dissimilar goals,” she says.

Rosenthal argues that states can – and should – engage with the ethnic groups, whose goals are usually to establish a nation of their own. Successful political outcomes will only result from negotiation. The ethnic groups have little interest, if any, in the United States, and “whether or not Islam provides an identity, their goals are not apocalyptic.” On the other end of the spectrum, religious terrorists are “looking to rearrange the global order, instigate the now-infamous clash of civilizations and create a Muslim caliphate that spans continents, all while bringing the West to its knees.” Rosenthal says these groups’ goals are too vast and amorphous for negotiation.

“The danger in thinking about it as an all-or-nothing war is twofold: First, that we will miscategorize these state-centered groups and so create inappropriate counterterrorism strategies; second, that by doing so we will push groups that have constrained goals toward the pan-global agenda of Al-Qaeda, creating the very threat we fear most.” This outcome is most dangerous when it comes to groups at risk such as Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan, various Filipino groups, and terrorists in Algeria, where the violence continues to escalate and the focus is becoming increasingly international. Even Hezbollah and Hamas colluded in the recent war in southern Lebanon.

So, what is the United States to do? Rosenthal says we should encourage state-centric terror groups to return to the negotiating table, in order to “reinforce their nationalist impulses and lessen the attraction of forming a common front with Al-Qaeda.” The United States also needs to engage “full-force in the battle over ideology central to destroying the appeal and spread of Al-Qaeda. ...” That means encouraging the rise of moderate interpretations of the religious tradition, as well as respecting the possibility of religion playing a significant role within the political system.

Another critical aspect of the strategy to defeat extremism is to lessen anti-Americanism, argues Rosenthal. She suggests increasing the publicity around social welfare packages as well as the publicity surrounding them. She also mentions U.S. assistance in the wake of recent natural disasters in Indonesia and Pakistan, and cites a poll in which 78 percent of Pakistanis said American earthquake relief made them think more favorably of the United States. Similarly, following the American aid to tsunami victims in Indonesia, Rosenthal says confidence in Osama Bin Laden plunged from 58 percent to 23 percent, while unfavorable views of the United States decreased from 83 to 54 percent.

“Aid packages can help create positive views of the United States and eat away support for terrorism – the population just has to know it’s happening,” Rosenthal says.

The Global Security program at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies integrates theory and policy to analyze the most pressing threats and significant vulnerabilities of global security. The prevention of violence, the mitigation of war, and the construction of peace constitute the program’s major concerns. Critical security issues are investigated not only as conflicts among states, but also as effects of new global actors, transborder flows, and complex networks.

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