Editor’s note: The following is a white paper submitted by Dr. Jason Thomas, PhD. Jason is a friend of SOFREP and specializes in field-based assessments in complex operating environments. —Desiree


The proposition that counterterrorist and counterinsurgent strategy and tactics may be contributing to the natural selection of terrorists and insurgents requires real, as opposed to theoretical, investigation. According to the theory of natural selection proposed by Charles Darwin, a species learns to adapt, evolve and improve its capacity to survive when faced with challenging environmental conditions. The last thing governments need is their own strategy and tactics contributing to terrorists and insurgents becoming harder to detect, disrupt and defeat. The synergy of terror, technology and a borderless network may even accelerate this process.

This paper focuses on the Salafi-Jihadi global insurgency as currently perpetrated by al Qaeda and the so called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. It will use Darwin’s theory of natural selection as the lens through which to critically analyse if Western counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies and tactics are contributing to the improvement in terrorists and insurgent’s tactics, techniques and procedures. While the evidence is anecdotal, this paper concludes by recommending field-based research to test this hypothesis so lessons can be learned about how to better shape the environment that enables terrorists and insurgents to be defeated more quickly on the battlefield or within our own society.


Following Salafi-jihadi inspired or directed terrorist attacks in Western countries conventional commentary and analysis often focuses on the ordinariness and lack of paramilitary training of the attackers or remain puzzled at the absence of a direct command and control connection to al-Qaeda (AQ) or the so called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In addition, when an insurgent leader is removed through a capture and kill mission or a drone strike the mainstream evaluation can overlook the cause and effect of this act can have on the evolution of that terrorist or insurgent organisation. Simultaneously, counter measures put in place by authorities tend to be focused on countering the terrorist attack or failed attack that just took place rather than critically analysing the next two or three evolutions of the terrorists tactics and implementation.

In fact each imperfect act of terrorism, foiling of a terrorist attack or indeed each removal of a terrorist or insurgency leader could be contributing to the evolution of terrorism or a Darwinian form of adaptation first described in On the Origin of Species. If neither the terrorist, the insurgent or the counterterrorist and counterinsurgent evolves and adapts then they will not remain a viable force into the future. In his critical analysis of different concepts and theories from science, mathematics, engineering, physics and biology, COL. John Boyd (1927 – 1997) referred to Darwin by saying, “in addressing any questions about conflict, survival, and conquest one is naturally led to the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.” (1)

Significantly for counterterrorism, Darwin determined that it was different or unusual traits of an individual within a species that enable it to be more resilient in the face of environmental threats. The proposition in this paper is that terrorists who survive counterterrorism operations and drone strikes evolve to become more resourceful and innovative. Similarly, insurgents such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as al Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) evolve to become better when confronted by Special Operations Forces.

The application of Darwin’s theory of evolution to social phenomenon is not new and neither is it a novel line of inquiry when it comes to terrorism. Hodgson and Knudsen (2010) explain, “Darwinism as such provides no single model or axiomatic system. Instead, it is a meta-theoretical framework that stimulates further inquiry and provides a repository for contingent auxiliary theories and models.” (Hodgson and Knudsen, 2010, p. viii). In other words, it is not confined to a closed system of analysis. In relation to this paper Johnson (2009) also applies Darwin’s principles to terrorism in the context of asymmetric warfare2 while Sagarin (2010) applies the theory of natural selection to security and risk management3. In an examination of the works of AQ strategists Abu Bakr Naji and Abu Musab al-Suri, Jackson and Loidolt (2013) explore how AQ innovates and adapts (4). When critically examining all these contributions, it’s almost as if we need to get ahead of the ‘counter’ in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. However, these contributions do not explore how to counter the natural selection of terrorism and insurgency by through a field-based level of examination whose results can then be applied to strategy, tactics, training and preparation of Special Operations Forces.

Through critical analysis and synthesis of available textual peer-reviewed papers and anecdotal sources such as the adaptation of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), this paper will consider whether our own tactics contribute to the evolution or natural selection of terrorism, making them harder to deter, detect and defeat. If this is the case, novel approaches to terrorism and insurgencies need to be developed that shape the environment to engineer the terrorists’ extinction or alternatively better mask our strategy and tactics. For example, how deep into an organisation do capture and kill operations need to go into order to engineer complete internal entropic failure within a terrorist or insurgent organisation? The effects based objective is a better understanding that can help design new, adaptable approaches that counter the natural selection of terrorists and insurgents. Nevertheless, it may be that the current terrorism phenomenon always find ways to regenerate given the application is held within the minds of those who support the Salafi-jihadi global insurgency. As Boyd (1987), emphatically declared people fight wars, not machines, and they use their minds.

While this paper is based on anecdotal evidence it suggests future research be undertaken to collect qualitative evidence from a significant sample of special operations forces from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada who have directly engaged insurgent groups to determine at what point those SOF units recognised that the enemy were indeed benefiting from the very fact that they were against a tier-1 opponent.

Darwinism and Imperfections

Darwin’s theory of evolution laid in “The Origin of Species” provides a framework to explain how a species, an organisation or even a company can survive when it adapts to competition or threats in a continually changing environment. As Mayr (2009) explains natural selection requires a diverse population and is a two-step process,

Another perspective is that adaptation or the evolutionary process occurs because of a particular trait; it could even be an imperfection that gives an individual within a species an advantage in an environment. Darwin described this as “descent with modifications.” In other words an individual within a species does not need to be a perfect specimen in order to survive in particular environments. They just need to be suited to surviving and adapting to an environment with peculiarities that allow them to out maneuver.

The production of abundant variation is followed by the elimination of inferior individuals. This latter step is directional. By adopting natural selection, Darwin settled the several thousand-year-old argument among philosophers over chance or necessity. Change on the earth is the result of both, the first step being dominated by randomness, the second by necessity. (Mayr, 2009, November 24)

As Sagarin (2012) describes in a fish versus shark narrative, a fish does not need to be the ultimate or “perfect predator-avoidance machine,” it only needs to be good enough to survive and reproduce itself (6). Discoveries in science, engineering and many industries often spring from observing or creating a ‘quirky’ mismatch with a previously held heuristic, or fixed, mental image. In his 1920 essay on guerrilla warfare, T E Lawrence described how “nine-tenths of tactics are certain, and taught in books: but the irrational tenth is like the kingfisher flashing across the pool…” (7) It is the “irrational tenth” that opened Boyd’s mind to measuring energy maneuverability. In the context of terrorism it creates the shoe-bomb, the ink cartridge bombs, IEDs, or the use of a truck.

Following a terrorist attack government authorities are expected to react and establish counter measures, in a continual cycle of preparing to defeat the last terrorist tactic. In fact, a simple act doesn’t even have to succeed. Take Richard Reid, the infamous shoe-bomber on American Airlines Flight 63. He failed and yet his simple act of failure has resulted in a global airport security head-ache for passengers, an increase in entropy and costs for governments and the next evolution in low-grade terrorist tactics. Even so once international airports required every passenger to remove their shoes for screening, as Sagarin (2012), explains AQ shifted to using liquid-based explosives, and then explosive powder in underwear. This Darwinian paradigm also occurs in war, as Max Boots (2013) explains in Invisible Armies, where he describes how in the history of nation states fighting guerillas, Western militaries continued to see themselves fighting a mirror image (8). Counterterrorism strategies need to avoid this close-systems perspective.

It could be argued this paper is merely an alternative perspective on the age old approach of asymmetric warfare. Exploiting an adversary’s weaknesses while exploiting one’s own strengths is at the heart of the art of war. As Hammond (2001) explains, in the history of conflict “[t]hose who adapt will survive; those who do not, die.” (9) Those who fail to build anything from when working through Boyd’s infamous Snowmobile mind experiment, are perhaps the ones you do not want with you in a conflict. In an insightful paper by Dominic Johnson (2009), he describes how:

Applied to asymmetric warfare, Darwinian selection predicts that, counter-intuitively, stronger sides may suffer a disadvantage across all three conditions: (1) Variation—weaker sides are often composed of a larger diversity of combatants, representing a larger trait- pool and a potentially higher rate of “mutation” (innovation); (2) Selection—stronger sides apply a greater selection pressure on weaker sides than the other way around, resulting in faster adaptation by the weaker side; (3) Replication—weaker sides are exposed to combat for longer (fighting on the same home territory for years at a time), promoting experience and learning, while stronger sides rotate soldiers on short combat tours to different regions. (Johnson, 2009, p.89) (10)

The authors of the blog site Fabius Maximus describe this continual cycle of adaptation in the face of a superior opponent as the “Darwin ratchet” (11). The Fabius Maximus blog describes the analogous cycle that takes place with bacteria and antibiotics and suggests that the Western government’s military strategy and tactics drove the insurgency during the recent wars Iraq and Afghanistan:

An insurgency brings into play a “Darwinian ratchet,” in which the government in effect drives the insurgency. The security services cull the pack of insurgents. They eliminate the slow and stupid, clearing space for the “best” to rise in authority. That is, those most able to survive, recruit, and train new ranks of more effective insurgents. An insurgency with shallow roots can be destroyed. If not destroyed, then evolution takes place: the more severe the efforts at exterminating the insurrection, the more capable the survivors. (Fabius Maximus, 19 April 2011)

During the recent U.S.-NATO war in Afghanistan, Coalition forces engaged in conflict with opponents who used the tactics of asymmetric warfare every day. They did this probably with no intellectual or academic framework of asymmetrical warfare as a concept; they just did it as a matter of survival. Perhaps the traits for survival exhibited in tactics of asymmetrical warfare depend as much on a mindset as they do on how limited resources are utilised. Ahmed Rashid (2008), suggests that the devastation and hardship of the Soviet invasion, along with the subsequent civil war, influenced the Taliban’s ability to survive (12). It could be that the simplicity and hardship of life is a camouflage for their ability to prevail against threats such as climate, environment, the terrain and a history of fighting a never-ending series of foreign armies and invaders. Each generation of Afghan fighting-aged males who survived, learned to evolve and regenerate.

In his exploratory work, “Countering the New Terrorism,” Ian Lesser (1999) explains how there appears to be a “Darwinian process of natural selection” whereby each new generation of terrorists learns from the last (13). Using Germany’s Red Army Faction (RAF) as an example, Lesser describes how, according to German security officials, members of the RAF used to comb through court transcripts to learn how German police were able to gather evidence against them. The evidence was often presented in open court proceedings whereby Police outlined their procedures, such as how they collected fingerprints.

Active RAF members then adapted their techniques to thwart the Police’s ability to gather evidence in the future. In the West we are notorious for our inability to keep secrets. An obsession with transparency over national security, by many in politics and the media, just for a good story or political point-scoring regularly reveals our own tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) to the enemy. For example, a large amount of Western military doctrine, strategy and planning approaches can be freely downloaded from the internet. In August 2016, the U.S. government released declassified documents that show how President Obama prepared and selected drone targets. All this presents a perfect combination of evolution out of necessity and adaptation and out of a weakness within the West’s democratic system.

Terrorists Evolving, Regenerating, and Surviving

A glance at the evolution of terrorist attacks since September 11, 2001 (9/11) points to a potential natural selection of evolving, regenerating and surviving. This does not mean the evolution of terrorism strategy and tactics all began on 9/11. In the context of the current terrorism phenomenon it is an applicable starting point for the purposes of this paper. Since 9/11, large-scale attacks in Western countries, whereby AQ sent members to those countries, the modus operandi has evolved to recruiting Western- born Muslims and converts (e.g. London 7 July 2005), through to inspiring physically unconnected, unexceptional individuals with social disenfranchisement issues to carry out attacks against cafes, churches, magazine publishing firms and family events. One of the masters of this strategy is AQ’s Abu Mus’ab al-Suri (real name Mustafa Setmariam Nasar), author of Call to Global Islamic Resistance, referred as the Mein Kampf of the Salafi-Jihadi global insurgency. As Cruickshank and Ali (2006) explain, Setmariam’s new strategic concept was that “individual terrorism” needed to replace the hierarchically- orchestrated terrorism of AQ (14). Setmariam emphasized continually adapting how attacks take place.

In their description of the innovation of AQ, Jackson and Loidolt (2013) examined both Setmariam and Abu Bakr Naji, who wrote Management of Savagery. In their paper on terrorist groups and innovation, they explain:

Change in group practices can result from intentional action but can also be unintentional (e.g., an idiosyncratic circumstance can cause changes that are replicated through habit rather than intent). Intentional change can be stimulated by a variety of causes; for example, the group sees a way to do something it already does better, encounters a problem that must be solved, or experiences a change in its environment. (Jackson & Loidolt, 2013, p. 286) (15).

The cases of terrorist attacks since 9/11 are illustrative of a Darwinian evolution in tactics – from the use of passenger filled planes, bombs in sneakers and underpants (Richard Reid & Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab), explosive soft drink mixtures, the use of cargo planes, printer ink cartridges and pressure-cookers (Boston Marathon), to the use of cars, shotguns, axes, knives and now trucks. This suggests that the TTPs are not only becoming simpler but also what could be described as ‘civilianised’. (6) Some may find this terminology problematic however this is merely an attempt to reframe the descriptive language of this kind of terrorism in that they do not represent any complex military-style attack and like many terrorist acts in the past are carried out by simple, every-day, DIY household, tools and equipment.

One could argue that this evolution is no different to the adaptation of the Molotov cocktail, alarm-clocks and video recorders (VCRs) and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). At a conference in Leicester, United Kingdom, organised by the radical Al-Muhajiroun faction in October 2002, Abu Hamza al-Masri told followers, “We need to resist, we need to fight, even alone. And you can’t go now to learn in Afghanistan or Eritrea as before. A lot of skills you need for the frontline, you can learn from here […] Where are you? What can you do in your area?” (16) Ever since the use of a truck as a weapon in Nice, France on Bastille Day 2016, the simple method of attack can also be a course of adaptation.

Most will be familiar with the well-cited reference to ISIS’ spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani (now believed to have been killed August 20, 2016) who called on Muslims in Western countries to find an infidel and “smash his head with a rock, poison him, run him over with a car,” or “destroy his crops.” This is another example of the adaptation and regeneration of terrorism. Irrespective of a sophisticated approach or one reverting to simpler tactics, the synergy of terror, technology and a borderless, globalised network of cadres opens multiple avenues down which the natural selection of terrorism can traverse and survive. The coordinator of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was certainly a survivor who could coordinate logistics, tactics and people across multiple countries with a computer, smart phone, cash and a network of hosts.

One of the most modestly insightful military-academics, Dutch Air Commodore Dr. Frans Osinga, argues that “the current Western mode of thinking and waging war, which is founded on Clausewitzian principles, is giving rise to non-Clausewitzian styles of warfare, with obvious consequences for the state of strategic theory.” (17) There are times when technological superiority may be too much of a good thing. An attachment to Clausewitz has not benefitted Western strategic approaches to what William Lind (1989) described as “fourth generational warfare” against technologically weaker, non-state actors (18). This Clausewitzian mindset may have resulted in the slow recognition and acceptance of alternative conflict paradigms, whereby the predominant game is not the physical destruction of the enemy. In contrast it may also suggest the West needs to recognise that the centre of gravity is not the same for our opponents whose centre of gravity appears to be metaphysical. The late COL. Boyd would have colorfully insisted the need to engage the terrorists along a moral, mental and physical continuum of war. A simultaneous application along these lines of operation may be key in shaping the environment to engineer the terrorists’ internal entropic demise (7).

Insurgents – Targeted killing and IEDs

The targeted kill or capture of insurgent leadership (whether by drones or Special Operations Forces) as well as the use of IEDs provide anecdotal evidence of a Darwinian model of natural selection. Especially when considering that in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the border areas of North and South Waziristan in Pakistan, the enemy is in a contest against a technologically superior and highly trained opponents.

While the debate and application of leadership decapitation (kill or capture of insurgent leadership) is not original, President Obama made drone strikes targeting terrorist leaders a key platform of the US-led counterterrorism strategy. As Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institute explains, “whereas President George W. Bush oversaw fewer than 50 drone strikes during his tenure, Obama has signed-off on over 400 of them in the last four years, making the program a centerpiece of the US counterterrorism strategy.” (19)

For example, according to various open-sources President Obama is said to have personally authorized the drone strike that killed Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in May 201620. However, through a process of terrorist natural selection, it is possible the new Taliban leadership evolves and regenerates into an even deadlier foe for the Afghan government. This may not be in a straight forward manner. It could be the new leader is more ruthless, less willing to negotiate, avoids the introduction of any new members to his inner circle, stops using his cell phone or a range of least expected adaptations. As Malevich (2010) describes in a U.S. counterinsurgency blog:

There is no doubt that the capture/kill of an insurgent leader deals a blow to the insurgency and creates an IO opportunity for the home team. But, how much of an effect remains to be seen. Obviously we’ve been going after insurgent leaders for a while and what has happened? The insurgency got stronger. In fact, some had mused that the amateurs were cleaned out and the professionals took over. (Malevich, 4 March 2010) (21).

There is anecdotal evidence for this natural selection phenomenon, whereby each time a terrorist leader has been removed the next leader appears more cunning, better networked and more brutal. That appeared to be the case in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan following the elimination of Pakistan Taliban commanders whose great-grandfathers fought Winston Churchill and General Biden Blood’s Malakand Field Force (1897). In The Way of the Knife, Mark Mazzetti (2013) describes how each time a Pakistan Taliban commander was removed, the effect was to engineer the rise of a new leader better than the last (22). And when a drone strike missed, the incumbent’s kudos within the population increased even further. An example of this insurgent natural selection is Maulana Fazlullah, who is responsible for the 2014 attack on a Peshawar school that killed 141 children and teachers. Throughout his rise as an insurgent in the Swat Valley area the more he was able to evade the Pakistan military, the more his notoriety and bloodthirsty violence grew.

A 2008 study by Jenna Jordan looked at 298 incidents of leadership targeting to determine how effective this strategy was at degrading and engineering the decline of a terrorist organisation (23). Jordan found leadership decapitation does not increase the likelihood of organizational collapse beyond a baseline rate of collapse for groups over time. In fact, older and larger religious and separatist-based terrorist organizations were found to be resilient to a counterterrorism strategy based on leadership decapitation. Audrey Cronin’s (2009) work on defeating AQ describes how the impact from eliminating the leader of a terrorist organization is, on the whole, inconclusive on its own as a tactic for defeating a terrorist group (24). An earlier piece of work by Daniel Byman (2006) found, Israel’s targeting of Palestinian terrorist groups and Hamas leadership, had little impact on reducing the effectiveness of the terrorist organization’s capability to conduct attacks25.

Alternatively, researched by Bryan Price (2012), a major in the U.S. Army and former Assistant Professor of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy, found the opposite, but for religiously motivated terrorist groups. In fact Price’s own extensive database analysis determined that of the 34 religious based terrorist groups whose leadership was targeted, 20 remain very active (26). Further research could be conducted to investigate whether targeting the leadership actually aids the natural selection of insurgent leadership. The leader who survived the attempted drone strike may adapt to become harder to find, more infamous and more ruthless.

Is this actually the case or can we only rely on anecdotal evidence? Or even if the leader is killed, then the organization morphs into a new version that takes all the lessons learned from the previous iteration and applies them to the new entity. It may be that kills and capture operations need to penetrate deep enough into an organisation so that only the idiots and least committed are left. Similarly, the terrorist organisation whose leader is killed or captured disperses and decentralized. AQ has evolved by perpetually regenerating itself through a globally dispersed audience – you can be a solider whether on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq or in the streets of Paris, New York or Sydney. As T E Lawrence realised when contemplating how best to orchestrate the various unpredictable and cantankerous Arab tribes against the Turkish, the kingdom was in each man’s mind. This is not to be interpreted as a reason to allow terrorist leaders to be let off the hook but points to the need for a deeper, field-based analysis of the most effective combination of approaches to defeating their process of natural selection (9).

The adaptation from command-and-control directed through a core leadership to a complex, network- based, almost crowd-funding approach, is the kind of evolution al-Suri envisaged. In addition, synthesizing this symbolism-laced narrative with pornographic violence and slick social media to inspire the bored, disgruntled and mentally ill to use their imagination in their home country – no problem if you can’t come to Syria – meant the whole world became the battleground. In fact, in its Dabiq magazine, ISIS describes this as “operating behind enemy lines.” Encryption technology and rapidly changing communication platforms make it harder for cyber-intelligence. However, perhaps the bigger fear is when terrorists switch back to verbal person-to-person communications.

The use of IEDs in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq is a particularly relevant source of anecdotal evidence in the relation to the adaptation and natural selection of insurgents. In a 2007 USA Today column, Peter Eisler describes how the then U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at a congressional hearing. “As soon as we … find one way of trying to thwart their efforts, (the insurgents) find a technology or a new way of going about their business.” Following interviews with returned veterans from Iraq, Eisler explains how, “the evolution of IEDs in Iraq parallels the evolution of the tools the Pentagon has used to combat them. The placement of the IEDs, the ways they’re triggered, the explosives they employ — all of that has changed time and again as U.S. forces have tried different ways to detect, disable or protect themselves against the device.” (Eisler, USA Today, 16 July 2007) (27). The challenge is of course that not revealing our own tactics and techniques, particularly in relation to counter-IED technology, risks lives.

A 2009 Stratfor article describes how a kind of “tactical Darwinism” that evolved in Iraq and Afghanistan flowed into the bomb making terrorist and insurgent training camps in the Waziristan area of Pakistan. The article explains how the effect of the superior firepower in Iraq and Afghanistan weeded out the most inept jihadists and only the strong, cunning and most competent insurgents remained. “These survivors have created new tactics and have learned to manufacture new types of highly effective IEDs.”28 While there is anecdotal evidence in relation to targeting insurgent and terrorist leaders and the adaptation of IEDs, it is hard to find similar evidence in relation to insurgents being engaged by Special Operations Forces. It would be advantageous to know exactly how and when this occurs. (10)


Neutralizing how terrorists and insurgent leaders evolve through a process of counterterrorism assisted natural selection may be critical developing new approaches to training and action for Special Forces Operations. Valuable effects based outcomes could be gained from getting ahead off the ‘counter’. Perhaps some terrorist and insurgent leaders should be left in play. Then we identify weaknesses, exploit vulnerabilities and cultivate the group’s demise through diminishing the effectiveness and cult-like status of the leader. Indeed Boyd thought of conflict occurring along a moral, mental and physical continuum, but our political leadership is not prepared to test and exploit the moral asymmetric weakness of our opponents. Either way, as the 9/11 Commission concluded, counterterrorism requires imagination or contemplating the least expected. At the same time, that strategy not only needs to evolve ahead of the terrorists in anticipation of the next phase of potential TTPs, but also determine how better to shape the environment that depletes terrorists of the factors they require to survive and thrive.

One way of creating an innovative crucible for future counterterrorism strategies and tactics is to consider how we would fight if our forces were stripped of technological and asset superiority – back to the bare minimum. What are the least expected things we could do; not less likely or highly likely? Think about our pioneering ancestors. Separated from their Colonial base of money, power and equipment, especially as supply lines were stretched, the pioneers had to adapt with minimal resources to survive the environmental and physical terrain challenges, let alone any engagement from local antagonists. In the West we are so spoilt for wealth, technology and complicated solutions that many have forgotten our ability to be adaptable and resourceful. And that does not always mean complicated, elaborate solutions. Simple, not complicated, may be the key when it comes to asymmetrical strategy, operations and tactics to prevent the natural selection of terrorists and insurgents. Those traits of an individual within a species which Darwin identified as providing an edge to survival were not complicated.

What we do need is field-based research by working with a range of like-minded Special Operations Forces and other imaginative defence and military practitioners that have directly engaged terrorists and insurgents to determine how and if they saw the enemy evolve and adapt because they were fighting a superior opponent. Gathering, analyzing and synthesizing this data could be highly informative for future operations.

Featured image courtesy of the-levant.com


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