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Book Review: Enemies Near and Far: How Jihadist Groups Strategize, Plot, and Learn

08 Mar 2023
Reviewed by Dr Christine Sixta Rinehart

In Enemies Near and Far, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Thomas Joscelyn provide a theoretical framework for how terrorist groups innovate their tactics to become deadlier and more destructive. This remarkable book addresses an area of counterterrorism that has not yet been examined in the literature.

Enemies Near and Far, which is the culmination of a decade of research, is well-sourced and could be used as a primer for those who are new to the field of counterterrorism studies. Gartenstein-Ross and Joscelyn explain how al-Qaeda and ISIS have learned, innovated, and revolutionised their approach to conducting terrorist attacks. The authors provide a critique of policymakers and their failure to understand the strategies and adaptive nature of terrorist organisations.

Chapter One — aptly titled “The Fire Next Time” — explains how the book is helping to prevent the next terrorist attack caused by a more knowledgeable terrorists, and how such organisations have learned from previous terrorist accounts. The authors highlight the consensus errors surrounding the Arab Spring Revolutions, the competition between al-Qaeda and ISIS, and the “Myth of Lone Wolf Terrorism” to explain how scholars and practitioners have wrongly examined terrorist groups as static organisations. As the authors argue, terrorist groups learn from one another to become more lethal over time.

Gartenstein-Ross and Joscelyn trace the evolution of terrorist tactics throughout history, including the use of a far-enemy strategy – attacking American interests in other countries because it was too difficult to attack the American homeland – popularised by al-Qaeda. Aviation terrorism and the inspirational role of Anwar al-Awlaki (an American imam who recruited and inspired al-Qaeda attacks) in online radicalisation are also used as demonstrative cases to track the evolution of terrorist tactics

The authors further support their argument by chronicling al-Qaeda’s use of strategic learning during and after the Arab Spring. Al-Qaeda placed less emphasis on attacks in Western countries because it was able to already use the Arab Spring uprisings to accomplish its original agenda in Muslim countries. The authors unpack this further in Chapter Seven with their discussion of ISIS and its rise in Afghanistan and Iraq. A key point is that, while ISIS was territorially defeated in the end, it excelled at organisational learning through putting ex-Baathists in its ranks, experimenting with unmanned aircraft systems, and providing public services to the local population. This shows that such groups are adaptive and increasingly efficient at it.

Chapter Eight — which is arguably one of the strongest chapters in the book — provides a comparative analysis of ISIS and al-Qaeda. The authors examine the inter-organisational competition between the two and highlight how this case study is indicative of organisational learning in all jihadist groups. Chapter Nine, by contrast, explains how al-Qaeda was able to withstand the American invasion of Afghanistan by strengthening its relationship with the Taliban. With the aid of the Taliban, al-Qaeda was able to increase its fighters, and for commanders and politicians in the United States government, the situation presented itself as a continuous attack by an enemy that never ran out of leaders.

As the book closes, it charts the evolution of terrorist group strategies, examines how these strategies have progressed because of technological advances (aviation attacks, virtual recruiting and coaching), and develops a framework for policymakers to respond to the evolution of terrorist group strategies. The authors also predict that artificial intelligence and drones will be among the next set of systems and tools to be employed in jihadist attacks.

Enemies Near and Far creates a paradigm for the counterterrorism literature that demands further scholarly examination. As a well-sourced book that is full of minute details on several jihadist terrorist organisations, the authors have done well to provide an excellent introduction to the inner workings of terrorist organisations. The writing style is not verbose and is appropriate for any audience.

The book, while full of great detail, could go further in its analysis, expanding more on the theory present in the first chapter. The facts are there, but the analysis needs further development. Along these lines, a suggestion for the next book is the creation of a model. Perhaps this is where the next round of scholars advance the framework. What is the model for organisational leadership in terrorist organisations and, most importantly, can that model be used to predict future terrorist attacks based on terrorist organisations’ ability to learn?

It is a shame that one of the authors, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, stated that this is the last book he will write. His presence within the field will be greatly missed, as will the future of scholarship on terrorist groups and organisational learning.

This is a review of Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Thomas Joscelyn’s Enemies Near and Far, How jihadist Groups Strategize, Plot, and Learn  (Columbia University Press, 2022), ISBN: 9780231195256 (paperback) 

Christine Sixta Rinehart is a professor of Political Science at the University of South Carolina (Palmetto College) located in Columbia, SC. She has published three books in addition to numerous articles and book chapters: Volatile Social Movements and the Origins of Terrorism: The Radicalization of Change, Drones and Targeted Killing in the Middle East and Africa: An Appraisal of American Counterterrorism Policies, and Sexual Jihad: The Role of Islam in Female Terrorism.

This review is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.