Despite of what appears to indicate a major step towards the crushing of terrorism, voices from the academic community and experts on the ground call for caution, urging policymakers to adopt a more nuanced understanding of the evolution of the terrorism landscape and the nature of the threats that come with it. At the time when the ‘War on Terror’ was launched, organizational fragmentation was viewed as analogous with the decline of the terrorist group – and therefore often was the explicit goal of counter-terrorism operations – while it is now increasingly acknowledged within academic circles that while organizational fragmentation may well deprive a group of its capacity to execute a sophisticated, coordinated attack such as that of 9/11, it also suggests the formation of new threats each in their own right.
Organizational fragmentation in the cases of both the IS and AQ may, in fact, be viewed as a deliberate survival strategy by which the groups have increased their resilience in the face of intense attack: by dissolving hierarchical structures and devolving into decentralized networks whose loosely connected nodes spread across the globe, groups reduce their attack surfaces so as to ensure that interception and exposure of one node does not endanger the survival of the network as a whole. In the West, for example, ‘lone wolf’ terrorists with barely any material connection to the organization in whose name they act have become a major security concern, while somewhat larger nodes have been able to embed themselves in conflicts or lowly governed territories across Africa and Asia, where lack of effective law enforcement allows them to evade counter-terrorism operations. Globalization, and especially the availability of communication technologies with near-unbreakable encryption, thereby has aided the decentralization process as it allows the nodes to rally supporters and coordinate their actions across national borders, thus allowing networks to spread out.
In the light of the fast pace by which globalization is accelerating, it is likely that the model of networked terrorism, as a system with proven merits, is there to stay. What is key for policy-makers, thus, is to find an appropriate response to this elusive threat. Traditional counter-terror measures, such as financial sanctioning or military attack, are clearly less effective now than they were in the heydays of neatly organized, top-down hierarchical terrorism. In the long run, the proliferation of radical Islamism and transnational terrorism can only be addressed sustainably through a strategy that finds the right balance between the cautious, targeted use of force and such measures addressing the drivers of radicalization in the respective local context through diplomatic engagement, capacity-building and financial assistance with the goal of rebuilding weak and/or failed States and their institution.