The 2011 civil war in Syria attracted thousands of fighters from at least seventy countries to join the Islamic State. Al-Shabaab carried out large-scale attacks on civilian targets in Uganda and Kenya as retribution for the deployment of peacekeeping forces in Somalia. In this report, Martha Crenshaw considers the extent to which civil war and foreign military intervention function as a rationale for transnational terrorism, and how understanding the connections between terrorism, civil war, and weak governance can help the United States and its allies mount an appropriate response.

Two men walk through a heavily damaged neighborhood in Raqqa, Syria, on April 4, 2019, more than a year after the city’s liberation from the Islamic State. (Ivor Prickett/New York Times)
Two men walk through a heavily damaged neighborhood in Raqqa, Syria, on April 4, 2019, more than a year after the city’s liberation from the Islamic State. (Ivor Prickett/New York Times)

Summary

Transnational terrorism poses a threat to all countries but is of immediate concern to the U.S. government. After key losses of territory by insurgents and the subsequent withdrawal of U.S. troops, forces of the self-styled Islamic State have regrouped in Iraq and are developing safe havens in war-torn Syria, accompanied by the stepped-up use of social media for recruiting and propaganda purposes.

The response of the United States and its key security partners should be coordinated not only across governments but across the agencies of a specific state. The U.S. response, for example, should entail policy coordination of defense agencies, humanitarian aid provision, the development of effective communications strategies, a well-thought-out plan for the use of force, if needed, and advance planning of postconflict stabilization strategies.

Mounting an appropriate response requires first understanding the complex interlinkages among civil war, transnational terrorism, and weak governance. Conflicts in Mali, Chechnya, Syria, and other fragile states disrupted by civil war and facing actions from global terrorist networks suggest the different ways in which these factors may interact and the different paths to a solution, including bi- or trilateral negotiations that include extremist groups at the negotiations table. However, governments supporting weak states need not wait for critical events entailing loss of life to occur before offering multidimensional assistance.

Recognizing the conditions under which extremist threats emerge allows governments to take defensive and mitigating measures before a crisis takes shape. Patience and adopting a long view of regional developments greatly aid in assessing and responding to global jihadist threats; governments should not overpromise results or exaggerate threats.

About the Report

Drawing on an extensive review of the recent literature, this report considers the extent to which civil war and military interventions by foreign powers function as drivers of and rationales for transnational terrorism. The research was supported by the Policy, Learning, and Strategy Center at the United States Institute of Peace.

About the Author

Martha Crenshaw is senior fellow emerita at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University, and professor emerita of government at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Explaining Terrorism, a collection of her essays on the causes, processes, and consequences of terrorism, was published in 2011. She is the author (with Gary LaFree) of Countering Terrorism (2017).

Related Publications

What to Watch in 2023: India’s Pivotal Year on the Global Stage

What to Watch in 2023: India’s Pivotal Year on the Global Stage

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

By: Sameer P. Lalwani, Ph.D.;  Daniel Markey, Ph.D.;  Tamanna Salikuddin;  Vikram J. Singh

One month into 2023, and India is well underway with preparations for a pivotal year. In the coming 11 months, India is expected to surpass China as the world’s most populous nation (and by some estimates already has), and to continue on a trajectory of rapid economic growth. In assuming the presidencies of both the G-20 and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), India is set to host leaders from across the globe as the country prepares for its own general elections in 2024. With all eyes on India, New Delhi may be increasingly sensitive to global perceptions of how it handles possible shocks — external or internal — ranging from escalation on its borders to incidents of communal violence.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

EconomicsGlobal Policy

Enormous Earthquakes Exacerbate Syria’s Humanitarian Crisis

Enormous Earthquakes Exacerbate Syria’s Humanitarian Crisis

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

By: Mona Yacoubian

A powerful earthquake, registering 7.8 on the Richter scale, struck Türkiye and Syria early Monday morning, with a 7.5 magnitude tremor and other aftershocks felt by countries around the region. Initial figures suggest that in Türkiye as many as 2,921 were killed and 13,293 injured, with 5,600 buildings collapsed. All told, the death toll in Türkiye and Syria stands at 4,300 but is likely to continue to rise. The epicenter of the quake was Türkiye’s southern city of Gaziantep, home to nearly half a million Syrian refugees forced from their homeland amid Syria’s devastating civil war. While the international community mobilized quickly to pledge assistance, aid delivery to Syria — already dealing with massive humanitarian challenges in both rebel- and regime-held areas — will be particularly complicated given the country’s ongoing conflict.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Policy

Can Blinken’s Beijing Visit Help Build Bilateral Trust?

Can Blinken’s Beijing Visit Help Build Bilateral Trust?

Thursday, February 2, 2023

By: Carla Freeman, Ph.D.;  Adam Gallagher

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned visit to Beijing next week is unlikely to see breakthroughs in the tense U.S.-China relations. However, his visit — the first to China by a U.S. secretary of state since Mike Pompeo’s in 2018 — provides an important opportunity for him to take up a range of issues with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang and China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi. There is no doubt that the bilateral relationship is severely strained, but Blinken’s visit is an important follow up to the meeting between President Joe Biden and General Secretary Xi Jinping on the sidelines of November’s G-20 in Bali and a sign that both sides see the need to stabilize ties.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Policy

Four Takeaways from Treasury Secretary Yellen’s Trip to Africa

Four Takeaways from Treasury Secretary Yellen’s Trip to Africa

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

By: Edward A. Burrier

Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen’s recent 10-day trip to Africa kicks off a year of sustained, high-level U.S. engagement, aimed at demonstrating that the Biden administration is “all in on Africa, and all in with Africa” following December’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. With trips from the president, vice president, and other cabinet secretaries in the works, this “super-charged” U.S. diplomacy is moving beyond the typical secretary of state visits. A close look at some of the issues encountered by Yellen on her trip demonstrates that showing up on the continent may be the easy part of going all in with Africa.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

EconomicsGlobal Policy

View All Publications