The Role of Terrorism in Great Power Competition

The Role of Terrorism in Great Power Competition

Confronting major powers, especially Russia, to say nothing of smaller powers like Iran, also requires counterterrorism tools, but what that means in practice differs considerably from the fight against non-state groups.


Such wars, however, regularly witness deliberate attacks on civilians, political assassinations, and other tactics that terrorist groups also use. At times this is just due to trigger-happy forces, as may have occurred with the Malaysian airline over Ukraine. In other cases, attacks on civilians are a way to demonstrate that the enemy government cannot protect its people and to force people to flee, shifting the local demographic balance in favor of Russia’s allies. Relatedly, assassinating figures like Shapoval is logical as a way to weaken the enemy of Moscow’s Ukrainian proxies and to intimidate other leading Ukrainians into cooperating, or at least not actively opposing, Russia.

Russia also uses ties to a range of minor extremist groups in the West, including some that use violence, as part of its foreign policy. Russian military intelligence has ties to the Night Wolves, a biker gang with a presence in several European countries, including Germany and Latvia, and it may have even been involved in an attempted coup in Montenegro. The nationalistic and white supremacist Russian Imperial Movement provided paramilitary training to a host of individuals on Russian soil. This included two of the neo-Nazis behind the bombing of refugee shelters and a cafe frequented by leftists (both in Sweden) who were linked to the Nordic Resistance Movement. Groups like the Russian Imperial Movement are private actors, but they could not act without Putin’s implicit blessing.


Russia’s information campaigns also try to polarize Western societies, with violence as one logical consequence. Portraying political opponents as fundamentally evil, whipping up conspiracy theories, and similar rhetoric may inspire some weak-minded individuals to take matters into their own hands. Rather obliquely, the 2019 Department of Homeland Security Strategic Framework warned that “foreign states” are trying to polarize American society and foment strife, and even to “spur vulnerable individuals or groups to commit acts of violence.”

For Russia, this sort of violence is part of a much broader campaign. Shapoval’s assassination was accompanied by a massive cyberattack that downed numerous Ukrainian critical infrastructure systems, including banking, the power grid, and airport computer networks. Russian “volunteers” added more traditional conventional military power to Russia’s operations in Ukraine, and in Syria, airpower was the most effective form of Russian intervention, greatly augmenting the power of groups like Hezbollah. Ties to terrorist groups, attacks on civilians, and other behavior that can be put in the terrorism bucket are often part of these broader efforts. Even ties to far-right groups in the West are part of broader Russian disinformation and subversion attempts that seek to polarize Western countries, and in Europe, they are backed by threats to energy supplies if European states resist Moscow’s aggression.

IN THE face of great power support for terrorism, counterterrorism tools and methods developed in the struggles against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State can help, but only so much. These tools must be adapted to address how great powers use terrorism.

Perhaps the most important counterterrorism tool is global intelligence coordination, an unglamorous but vital way of disrupting terrorist activity. Information gleaned from spies, interrogations of suspected terrorists, intercepted communications, and other sources often reveal links between cells in different countries. When the involved countries’ intelligence services cooperate, they can unearth and roll up entire networks. In addition, such cooperation may reveal the identity and locations of senior terrorist leaders, enabling them to be arrested or, if they are hiding out in remote parts of countries (as is often the case in places like Pakistan and Yemen), targeted with drones.

Intelligence cooperation is even more important, though harder and less effective, when great powers are added to this equation. Terrorists trained by state intelligence services are likely to have better operational security and otherwise are usually better able to hide their tracks: Hezbollah, for example, has a sophisticated counterintelligence capability, often uses encrypted communications, and otherwise displays a high degree of professionalism, in large part due to Iranian training. In addition, the masterminds may be safely living and plotting from the soil of the great power itself. When leaders cannot be targeted, stopping potential violence will involve more defense and less offense, identifying and picking off various local operatives but being unable to go after the core of the network—a constant, and constantly frustrating, game of cat and mouse where the mouse always has a bolt-hole.

Intelligence cooperation is also a form of currency that is useful for cultivating allies. As former U.S. counterterrorism coordinator Nathan Sales contends, counterterrorism cooperation “can cement relationships with existing and potential partners.” He also points out that counterterrorism support is important to help manage the inevitable ups and downs of bilateral relationships, serving as a reminder of the rewards of cooperation. For example, despite the many problems today in the U.S. relationship with Turkey, Ankara and Washington both work together to fight ISIS. Moreover, as Sales argues, U.S. counterterrorism efforts often try to build the rule of law in vulnerable countries, which can make allies more resilient to authoritarian disinformation campaigns such as those pushed by Russia and China.

Already, counterterrorism cooperation is emerging as an area of competition between the United States and other great powers. Russia uses a state-linked mercenary group, the Wagner Group, to provide security assistance in the Middle East and Africa, among other places, as an alternative to U.S. assistance. Indeed, if the United States neglects counterterrorism assistance to potential partners and instability grows, it creates a vacuum that Iran, China, Russia, and other powers can fill.

Financial tools may also play a role in fighting both regular terrorists and those sponsored by great powers. “Following the money” proved one important way to identify terrorist cells and operatives in the War on Terror, and it works against state paymasters too, helping reveal disinformation networks and proxy relationships as well as terrorism links. In addition, the United States and its allies often apply financial sanctions against individual terrorists, countries, and entities within them (e.g., a bank involved in payments or an intelligence agency), which can complicate terrorist operations by making it harder for groups and individuals to move money and at times denying dangerous actors the funds they need to conduct more operations.

MUCH OF the counterterrorism playbook, however, will not work against state-sponsored groups. If the supporting major power provides the group a haven, leadership decapitation and other efforts to strike at the core of the group cannot be done without great risk to the operators and a significant chance of escalation. International cooperation via the United Nations, as was done to stop Al Qaeda and ISIS financing, will be blocked by major powers with a veto on the UN Security Council. Special operations forces expert Jack Watling points out that, against actors like Russia and China, special operations forces cannot count on operating from secure forward bases, monopolizing reconnaissance and surveillance over their areas of operations, and otherwise enjoying superiority in capacity across every dimension: states can hit back with drones, missiles, and their own covert operators, as well as employing their own reconnaissance capabilities to assist their proxies.

Coercing major powers to stop their support for terrorists will prove difficult. Even against mid-level countries like Iran, the mix of military, economic, and diplomatic pressure the United States and its allies wielded achieved at best limited success. Weaker countries like Libya were vulnerable to pressure, though even then it took many years for the impact of sanctions and isolations to be felt.

Terrorism-related condemnation does not achieve much unless it is accompanied by a much broader set of punishments, with allies joining as well, but getting allies to sign on will also prove difficult. In contrast to the Libyas, Syrias, and Irans of the world, Russia and China have the muscle to push back against economic pressure by increasing subversion against those who stand up to them by, for example, disrupting gas supplies to European states, blocking trade, or hindering investment in their domestic markets. It took a massive and highly visible Russian invasion of Ukraine for the world to act; Moscow’s less-visible actions over the years through proxies met far less opposition.

The context of counterterrorism will also change with the United States involved in proxy wars and competitions. In contrast to the United States, Russia is comfortable operating in the so-called gray zone between open war and peace. Ukraine, for example, may emerge as an arena where U.S.-backed insurgents battle Russian forces or a Russian puppet government that claims sovereignty over all or part of Ukraine. Here, many of the skills the United States and its allies gained over the last twenty years in working with warlords, militias, and other substate actors against terrorists will be helpful, but it will require recognizing that success will remain elusive and the purpose is often to use local actors to undermine the influence of rival powers rather than defeat a discreet terrorist enemy.

One of the biggest changes needed to U.S. counterterrorism efforts is to prepare for escalation during counterterrorism campaigns. China, Russia, and important regional powers like Turkey can use cyberattacks, economic pressure, and, of course, their own conventional military operations in order to back their proxies. Thus, limited back-and-forths between proxy groups can escalate into something much bigger. In some cases, perhaps many, the risk of escalation will outweigh any small advantages that come from working with proxies or attacking those of rival powers.