Next January a new US president will take office. One of his or her central foreign policy concerns will be managing ISIS. How can they do it? Social science research on ending and degrading terrorist group capabilities and longevity suggests a number of avenues.

One thing we know is that terrorist groups, like restaurants, fail quickly. If they do survive, however, they tend to last a long time. Related, research I’ve done with Laura Dugan, shows that when there are a lot of competitors, groups fail more quickly. Figure 1 shows these results from a database we developed of over 2200 groups from 1970-2010. The groups that do survive go on to become top dogs and harder to degrade or destabilize. Enter ISIS.

Figure 1: Kaplan-Meier Survival Function for 2,223 Terrorist Organizations, 1970-2010

Figure 1

Graph from: Young, Joseph K., and Laura Dugan. “Survival of the fittest: why terrorist groups endure.” Perspectives on Terrorism 8.2 (2014).

In the current Syrian war and Iraqi milieu, ISIS has grown from the ashes of Al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) to the vanguard of the global jihadist movement. With reports of endless streams of foreign fighters and revenue from taxes, oil, and the sale of antiquities, the news seems pessimistic about eventually managing or ending this situation.

Research that I’ve done with Michael Findley shows that a majority of terrorism occurs in the context of civil war. Even more, these attacks occur most often in the zones where the civil war is being fought. Figure 2 shows geo-located terrorist events before, during, and after civil war in Peru. Additionally, this map shows the civil war zones or the place where battles were fought. Clearly, most terrorism events happened during the war in the contested zones. At times, scholars and observers have considered terrorism and civil war to be separate events that have distinct causes and solutions. This research suggests the connection between these forms of political violence.


Figure 2: Terrorism Events During Civil War

Figure 2

Map from: Findley, Michael G., and Joseph K. Young. “Terrorism and civil war: A spatial and temporal approach to a conceptual problem.” Perspectives on Politics 10.02 (2012): 285-305.

A deceptively simple suggestion for reducing terrorism within and outside of Syria is to end the civil war. Of course, this requires a multiparty solution, including the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and others to agree to support an end to hostilities. Many pundits focus on stemming the number of foreign fighters, increasing human intel (HUMINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT), and re-education programs. These may work at the margins, but many of these solutions treat symptoms of the problem rather than the source: civil war in the region.

Short of ending a five-year multiparty civil war, there are actions government can take. Leadership decapitation, a favored tool of the Obama administration, has a decidedly mixed result in empirical studies. Patrick Johnston, argues that it works against insurgent organizations by deterring future insurgents, reducing future attacks and reducing the lifespan of the group. His data suggests, that decapitation can be useful against what are conventionally considered insurgent organizations.

Jenna Jordan, takes a more mixed approach and finds that sometimes it works on terrorist organizations and sometimes it does not when the group is more resilient, religious, old, and large. Given ISIS’s size and religious bent, this research suggests there was a time when decapitation might have been useful early on but not now.

Drones are an important technology to implement the decapitation tactic. Again, Patrick Johnston finds that their use in Pakistan has led to less lethal future terrorist attacks and less selective targeting of tribal elders. By contrast, Jim Walsh finds that drone strikes against Al-Qaida internationally have no effect on the group’s ability to generate propaganda for recruitment.

In the discussions of how to deal with ISIS, we sometimes are left with pundits and politicians arguing for policies based on whim and capriciousness. I’ve offered some options based on social science research. In the same way that I conduct my analysis of foreign policy, Janus Analytics focuses on using rigorous data collection and the most advanced political methodology to provide policy makers evidence that is not based on political ideology or public sentiment, but instead high quality evidence.


Joseph Young is an associate professor in the School of International Service and School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington DC. His work has been featured in journals like Journal of Politics, Perspectives on Politics, and International Studies Quarterly. His commentary has appeared in outlets, such as the National Interest, Huffington Post, Chronicle of Higher Ed, and USA Today. Along with Barbara Walter, Will Moore, and Erica Chenoweth, he co-edits the blog, Political Violence @ a Glance.