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How Terror Evolved: Tricia Bacon Talks Al Qaeda and ISIS

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Before coming here, SPA professor spent many years working in counterterrorism at the State Department.

Across two presidential administrations, Tricia Bacon spent more than a decade working in counterterrorism at the State Department. She developed a firm understanding of the intricacies of terrorist networks, and she’s honed that expertise through her research at American University. Bacon, who came to AU in 2013, is an assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs. Her upcoming book, slated for release in 2017, deals with why terrorist groups ally.

For the 15th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Bacon spoke with University Communications about Al Qaeda, ISIS, and how terrorism has evolved since that destructive day. On September 8, she’ll be part of a panel discussion in Letts Formal Hall on terror since 9/11. The following interview was edited for publication.

GS: How has terrorism evolved since 9/11?

Bacon: “9/11 was an event that brought a lot of groups into common purpose, temporarily. Of course, with Al Qaeda being at the center of that. To some degree it was how governments viewed the threat. They sort of viewed everything as Al Qaeda, or in terms of a group’s relationship to Al Qaeda. Sometimes more so than actually existed in reality. I think we are now in a period of decentralization. We have kind of a bipolar, Sunni Jihadist movement, with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS). And then we have a ton of decentralization amongst the other organizations. In a way, that’s a return to where they were pre-9/11. But it does make for a diffuse, decentralized threat at the same time.”

GS: Has ISIS surpassed Al Qaeda as a threat to the U.S.?

Bacon: “I think it’s a different threat. Al Qaeda’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness was that it was always going for the large scale attack. Its view was that the U.S. was a paper tiger, and with a few huge hits, it could bring the U.S. to its knees. So it didn’t go after attacks like shootings at nightclubs. As Al Qaeda became weaker, it became more receptive to smaller scale attacks. But, by and large, Al Qaeda wanted these large scale kinds of operations. ISIS is not hung up on that. It’s much more opportunistic. So as a consequence, you see a lot more small scale attacks, and that has its own terrorizing impact. It’s more like death by a thousand cuts, and a lot depends on government’s ability to manage that threat. In some ways, government is much more organized to deal with the large attacks. But these onesies and twosies, people who are under the radar, who don’t have a ton of connections or a ton of training, that’s a different kind of threat. And that requires more societal resilience and community involvement than penetrating networks and penetrating organizations.”

GS: Do you believe Al Qaeda and ISIS are in competition with each other?

Bacon: “I do. I think both of them want to lead the movement. The Islamic State on paper is clearly in a better position. But Al Qaeda has a legacy and cachet from its years of doing this. Al Qaeda is sort of down but not out. And I think one of the things that terrorism analysts and experts learned is that it is very dangerous to count an organization out, like we did with the Islamic State. We thought they were defeated, and then they were able to launch those kinds of comebacks. So people who are writing Al Qaeda’s obituary are probably getting ahead of themselves.”

GS: ISIS seems to be inspiring attacks by lone wolfs. Is there now less of a need to have a direct tie between, say, a terrorist operating in the U.S. and an ISIS leader in Syria?

Bacon: “There’s been some geographic variation in that. In Europe, we still see people with contacts with the organization. We see people being recruited with friends and through social networks. Whereas in the United States, when you look at the map of people who have been arrested for trying to join ISIS, or being in some way inspired by them, it’s much more disparate. You have a lot fewer actual relationships and contacts. So the threat that we face is in some ways very different from what they face in Europe. They also have a much more connected Islamic network operating. Here, we’re still in the ‘he pledged allegiance in a video or online’ phase, but there doesn’t seem to be much behind it.”

GS: How has social media and technology changed the way a group like ISIS can operate?

Bacon: “This gets at, I think, the Islamic State’s willingness to be more risk acceptant than Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda wanted to do things in chat rooms. It wanted to carefully manage the message. It wanted much more control over when its name was used. Whereas the Islamic State has seen it as more beneficial to allow anyone to use its name, and conduct attacks in its name. It’s much less concerned about its reputation. Which, of course, was a point of tension between the two organizations when they were allied. Al Qaeda had concern that the Islamic State, then AQI, was too violent, and too unconcerned with its reputation. Whereas Al Qaeda—not to say it wasn’t quite violent itself—wanted a much more carefully managed form of violence. So I think the timing of the social media evolution has been very fortuitous for the Islamic State. Because it fed into the approach that it had anyway, which was to cast this really wide net.”

GS: How long do you think a war on terror could last? Al Qaeda has always played the long game and seems to have a long memory.

Bacon: “We don’t think in the same time frames as they do. And you’re absolutely right that Al Qaeda has played the long game. And that’s one of the reasons why I think it’s premature to count the organization out. I think a group like the Islamic State can self-implode. You take on too many enemies at once. You’re too violent. You turn against anyone who’s not on your side. It’s a model we’ve seen implode elsewhere. That tends to not be as long term of an enterprise. Having said that, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State may get hung up on their differences, but their ideologies are really, largely the same. And the fact that the Islamic State has had this kind of appeal suggests that the ideology is still alive and well. So defeating the organizations is not defeating the movement. The movement still has a fundamental appeal and attraction. It’s not bringing in large percentages of Muslims, but significant numbers. Small percentages and significant numbers.”

GS: How has ISIS been able to recruit so many people from the West? And there are thousands of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq.

Bacon: “I think it’s an interesting combination. There’s no doubt that it’s a conflict that has a lot of appeal, on a lot of different levels. They have a narrative that weaves it into kind of Koranic, End of Days prophecies. Al Qaeda’s desire to put the U.S. first was always something of a struggle for it. Because a lot of the other organizations wanted to go after the ‘near enemy,’ which is the Syrian government, the Iraqi government, the Egyptian government. Al Qaeda has always tried to get its allies to look at the United States. Whereas the Islamic State seems to accept, ‘Let’s fight both. Let’s fight everybody.’ That creates more appeal for it, but as I say, I think it’s more dangerous for it in the long term. Al Qaeda was also very careful about Westerners. It managed Westerners much more carefully, it seems, than the Islamic State has. And that gets at, I think, the difference between the two organizations. The Islamic State has always been a mass organization, where Al Qaeda is an elite organization. And so some of that reflects who they’re willing to bring on board and accept, and allow into the inner circle.”

GS: A 2015 study reported a large number of terrorist attacks from domestic, right-wing extremists. Should we be more focused on those homegrown threats?

Bacon: “I would say that there will be an increasing focus on that, because it’s a movement that appears to have been awakened in the current political climate. But I think the report flew under the radar, for the most part. Now that that movement seems to be pretty awakened, and seems to be pretty self-confident, we may be entering a phase where that really emerges as a major threat again. And it’s a cycle, too. You have a threat from Islamic extremism, which reacts to the right-wing groups. The right reacts, too. And then the Islamic extremist threat reacts, because they dislike each other.”

GS: Is it possible that Al Qaeda could launch another large attack?

Bacon: “Like a 9/11 scale attack?”

GS: Yes.

Bacon: “It’s really hard to imagine that, if you just think about that time period. Terrorism was a niche issue in 2000, right? Whereas now it’s probably the largest enterprise, in terms of counterterrorism. And there’s so much more vigilance to our counterterrorism efforts. It’s hard to imagine something on that scale. Smaller scale, absolutely. I think there is an unrealistic expectation that we can bring the threat down to zero. That’s not going to happen.”