Al Qaeda and ISIS as Fighting Organizations

Understanding how the extremists are organized is just part of the picture. To fully grasp the problem we face, we must also see what these groups are as military forces.

There are two different answers to this question: The extremists are either terrorists organized into terrorist groups or insurgents organized into insurgent groups.

  • A terrorist group is small and secretive and cannot hold territory, impose governance, or recruit widely. It also uses terrorism almost exclusively as its means of forcing change. Terrorist groups have been defeated through attrition—that is, killing or capturing the members of the group. Nations that have been successful have generally used law enforcement means and methods in their fight with terrorists rather than the military.
  • Insurgent groups are larger and more open, hold land, impose governance, and recruit widely. Insurgents also use terrorism, but just as one tactic among many, and tend to use guerrilla warfare to achieve their objectives. Unlike terrorist groups, insurgents are rarely defeated through sheer attrition, since they are able to recruit enough fighters to replace all those lost. Instead, successful nations have used some version of counterinsurgency and a combination of military and law enforcement personnel to defeat the guerrillas.