Transitioning from machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) and basic light rocket launchers to drones, guided munition and ballistic missiles, armed groups branded as terrorist by the United States and other countries have become more widespread, technologically savvy and much better armed since the start of the global war on terrorism 20 years ago. The transformation was not limited to military capabilities for some but to their very nature from non-state actors to state actors.
When the United States launched the Global War on Terrorism right after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the focus was on al-Qaida, a relatively small, Sunni terrorist organization led by Osama bin Laden and based in Afghanistan with some cells in neighboring countries. But the US would expand its counter-terrorism horizons to include another major player in international terrorism: the Shia militant group Hezbollah, based in Lebanon and supported by Iran.
At the time, both groups were armed with the basic Soviet-era weapons for guerrilla warfare such as rifles, machineguns, RPGs, early generation wire-guided anti-tank missiles and 107-mm and 122-mm rockets and some basic radio communication systems.
But in the two decades since, al-Qaida splinter groups like the recently defeated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) used drones, encrypted communications and even social media to recruit, plan and fight against the world’s most powerful militaries. Al-Qaida’s former host in Afghanistan, the Taliban, has gone from militant group dominating some tribal areas to the seat of power in Kabul.
Hezbollah, meanwhile, is equipped with state of the art weapons, some of which are US-made, like M-113 armored personnel carriers and M4 rifles. Its infantry units are reportedly armed with laser guided anti-tank missiles like the Russian Cornet, and anti-ship cruise missiles like the C-802 and about 150-thousand missiles of various caliber mostly built by Iran that are believed to include ballistic missiles.
Hezbollah’s area of operations has expanded through dispatching trainers and advisors to Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and its early warning and communications capabilities have become more sophisticated with an arsenal of drones, low-band and high-band radios and a state-of-the-art fiber-optic network covering all of Lebanon. Its operatives and trainers went on to help Iran establish militias in Iraq and Syria — groups that the US has added to its of terrorists’ list.
Experts told Breaking Defense that basically three developments have driven the evolution of terrorist organizations since 9/11: Easy access to dual-use technology, partnerships with transnational organized crime, and the shift of focus of some groups from undermining the state to trying to become it.
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Abduallah Sayed Al-Hashemi, former assistant undersecretary at the United Arab Emirates’ Ministry of Defense, places much of the blame for the resiliency of terror groups at the feet of the US.
“The US-led war on terrorism lacked a clearly-defined strategy and engaged in futile military conflicts in Iraq and other places that resulted in the rise of new terrorist groups and the empowering of others with help from actors such as Iran,” he said.
But technology too progressed in parallel with the War on Terrorism, and while it benefited the militaries and law enforcement agencies of the world, it also benefited insurgent and terrorist groups worldwide.
“Commercial drones and satellite imagery allow groups with minimal expertise to observe and attack secure facilities, and the internet allows small groups to dispatch commands and orders around the world instantly and at negligible cost,” said David Des Roches, professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at National Defense University in Washington. “Because these are mostly commercial capabilities modified for battle, virtually every terrorist group in the world has access to them. So now security services have to think in three dimensions instead of two.”
Although a lot of the new technology is easy to access by terror groups, other more sophisticated and more lethal technology and weapons could only be accessed through states, and in this case Iran — which can mean, by extension, Hezbollah and many others.
“Iran has provided terrorist groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen with attack drones, ballistic missiles and command and control systems,” said Al-Hashemi. “The poor leadership of the global war on terrorism has allowed this proliferation of such weapons to these groups.”
Many scholars have acknowledged the increased collaboration between terrorist groups and organized crime in many regions — a consequence of US and allied success in clamping down on terrorists’ traditional financing networks. The anti-money laundering laws and sanctions on companies and charities that funded terrorist groups have compelled the latter to seek new partners and means to secure funds and be able to smuggle weapons and operatives.
“The presence of organized crime helps terrorism because it erodes law and order and facilitates the trafficking of things terrorists need, such as weapons and explosives. Individuals have been known to work in both terrorist and criminal organizations, especially in conflict areas,” said Des Roches.
Then there’s the equipment and technology the US unintentionally provided.
Al-Qaida’s original ally in Afghanistan, the Taliban, has recently regained control of the country and captured a large arsenal of U.S.-made weapons that were supplied to the Afghani military. In stark photos and videos following the collapse of the Afghan government, some of the Taliban own “special forces” fighters were seen dressed and equipped like modern-day crack-troops armed with M4 rifles and equipped with night-vision goggles. The Taliban also now reportedly has access to sensitive biometric data.
The Afghan Taliban, which was never formally declared a terrorist group by the US even if it’s sister organizations were, is the most recent, and successful, example of what Mohammad Baharoon said was an evolution in militant strategy.
“The modern-day terrorist groups are not just seeking to export ideology but are seeking to rule countries,” said Baharoon, director general of B’huth think tank in Dubai.
ISIS, for instance, did manage to briefly establish its own “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, with its own dull bureaucracy, before being beaten back. The most complicated example is Hezbollah, which has been a political entity in Lebanon for decades.
In this new era of quasi-legitimacy, there appear to be differences between Washington and some of its European and Asian allies on which groups should be regarded as terrorists and how to deal with them.
The United States, Britain and Germany regard Hezbollah in Lebanon as a terrorist group and have subsequently imposed sanctions on its leadership and entities affiliated with it. However, France and the EU regard Hezbollah as a Lebanese political party and its officials hold talks and meetings with the Party’s leadership on state level.
During President Donald Trump’s administration Washington regarded the Iranian-backed Houthi group in Yemen a terrorist organization. But President Joe Biden reversed this decision.
Now that the Taliban has taken control of Afghanistan and the international community is debating whether to recognize it as the legitimate ruler of the country.
Pointing to the cases of Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas, Baharoon said, “Terrorism has been politicized and it has become difficult to countries such as the United States and the EU not to deal with some of these organizations as political actors… and not as radical groups carrying out systematic terror attacks under the banner of resistance.”