In the modern security environment, insurgency is the strategy of choice for violent extremists. Even so, the United States insists on clinging to an outdated concept of insurgency steeped more in the anti-colonial struggles of the Cold War than the fluid battlefields where movements like the self-declared Islamic State (IS), Boko Haram and the al-Qaida affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa lurk.
During the Cold War, the most dangerous insurgencies blended a leftist ideology with nationalism. This combination gave revolutionary insurgency its reach, appealing to more supporters and recruits than either leftism or nationalism alone could have done. Because nationalism was integral to revolutionary insurgents, the local government and the insurgents competed for the same turf—in most cases, important cities and productive economic regions. For the U.S., counterinsurgency meant making the government strong enough to win this competition.
Frustrated by 50 years of failed nationalism, today’s most dangerous insurgents rely instead on a transnational ideology drawn from religion and history. For them, success does not depend on controlling a specific piece of territory. Turf is instrumental rather than integral. If the extremists were to seize control of a nation, they would not stop there, but would use their new power to spread their ideology to other countries. These features of today’s violent extremist movements suggest something very important about how to counter them: The only way to defeat adaptive transnational extremists is through resilient transnational counter-extremist networks.