Non-State Actors And The Many Meanings of “Terrorism”

For Millennials, perhaps no other international affairs issue carries more immediate weight than the question of al-Qaeda. Having been just old enough to have some grasp on what had taken place on 9/11/2001, al-Qaeda has become the non-state actor to define non-state actors, and the terrorist organization to define terrorist organizations. Therein lies the problem: The so-called “War on Terror” and the broad definition of what terrorism itself is has led to a lack of understanding of what al-Qaeda is, conflating it with other groups across the region despite important distinctions. While in the news consistently since 2001, the question of what we’re talking about when we talk about non-state actors is one often pushed to the side in public discourse, resulting in policy that falls short and mass discussion that often misses the mark.

So, what are we talking about when we talk about non-state actors?

For our purposes, we’ll focus on four: al-Qaeda, ISIS, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood. These non-state actors, with widely differing power, structure, and end-games, are often tied together with loose rhetoric that obscures important differences. All difficult to address and all with populist appeal that feeds their base of influence, they could be called the Big Four in the Middle East.


By al-Qaeda, we really mean two things. Therefore, we will use two terms. One is Core al-Qaeda (Core AQ), which refers to the primary group that identifies as al-Qaeda. The other is al-Qaeda Affiliates (AQA), referring to the huge web of groups that, while connected to al-Qaeda, function under different names and with differing agendas. It’s key to understand that al-Qaeda does not function as a centralized organization, but rather a coalition of sorts, sometimes loosely tied together and other times acting in concert.

Al-Qaeda draws inspiration from the writings of Qutb, who argued for a return to traditional Islamic society for the Muslim world, condemning the influence of Western philosophy and lifestyle. The rejection of religions outside of Sunni Islam make the group a threat not only to Western interests, but followers of Shia Islam as well.

With the goal of returning the Muslim world to society as it was during the time of the Prophet Muhammad, a time seen as more authentic to Islamic character, forcing the U.S. and allies out of the region is key. So is the overthrow of non-theological governments, thus AQA’s activity in Syria and other unstable political situations. For that reason al-Qaeda has few regional allies, although the Pakistani government has been seen as largely complicit with Core AQ’s presence in country.

The iconic image of Core AQ is the one time leader, Osama bin Laden. Before his death, bin Laden was the ideological and strategic leader of the group, a figure capable of rallying an ever dwindling number of anti-Western extremists to his cause.

Without the charismatic leadership of bin Laden, many felt al-Qaeda was done. But Core AQ was always very small, favoring decentralized regional groups with some level of connection to the primary group over a tightly interwoven organization. Core AQ has been largely isolated by international efforts in Pakistan, with close monitoring by the intelligence community making secret communication extremely difficult. This makes the centralized planning of another large scale attack on U.S. soil nearly impossible, but does not mean the larger web is similarly crippled.

The web of groups affiliated with al-Qaeda is wide and difficult to fully comprehend due to the fluid nature of these relationships. While some groups are believed to be closely connected to Core AQ and fly the black flag of the group, others are only loosely affiliated. Boko Haram is an example of an affiliated group that functions largely autonomously, but still has connections to Core AQ. Al-Qaeda brings name recognition and a network of recruitment and training that smaller terrorist organizations can tap into, although differences in tactic and overall agenda make these relationship volatile.


Formerly the Iraq and Syria-based branch of al-Qaeda, ISIS went rogue earlier this year when the group began taking cities in Iraq. Now controlling a large swath of territory spanning the Syria-Iraq border, ISIS is surrounded by enemies but still growing stronger. Foreign nationals from Western states, including the United Kingdom, have traveled to the Middle East to fight with ISIS, and videos of journalist beheadings have been released regularly by the group. With mass executions of Muslims, Christians and religious minorities, as well as allegations that the group is kidnapping women to sell as wives to fighters, the international community is scrambling to find ways to check ISIS power.

ISIS broke with al-Qaeda over the brutal tactics the former employed in Syria. Core al-Qaeda wanted them to reign back, but instead al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, went full-force. The well disciplined and seasoned fighters were able to capitalize on the instability in Syria and the disillusioned Sunni population in Iraq to quickly consolidate power in captured territory, and have since declared a caliphate that is not recognized by Muslim leaders.


Unlike the three other groups in this article. Hamas could be considered a “state” actor. The Palestinian organization, which has both a political branch and a military branch called the Al-Qassam Brigade, has governed the Gaza Strip since 2006, when it was elected over the less controversial Fatah. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and Western allies due to frequent conflict with Israel and a militant charter.

Hamas is a difficult situation separate from ISIS and al-Qaeda. The group is allied with states like Iran, although their relationship is tense at best, but does not share ISIS or al-Qaeda’s extremist Sunni ideology. Hamas exists for one reason: Palestinian resistance to Israel. The group is popular in the Gaza Strip, despite regular rocket fire exchanged with Israel and resulting in wide-spread death and destruction in the Palestinian territory. The popularity of Hamas cuts to the heart of why this and other non-state actors become influential; in the case of Hamas, a group that is able to stand against Israel’s ongoing siege and provide in some way for the people without cowing to Western demands has appeal to a people who have long lived in the shadow of occupation. It’s this populist appeal — the draw of the little guy standing up to injustice — that many non-state actors are able to rely on to gain followers. Whether it’s Hamas in Gaza or ISIS among Iraqi Sunnis, there is never a dearth of people who feel cheated by the system who may be prime for radicalization.

 The Muslim Brotherhood

Another group that appealed to a population held under the thumb of an oppressive government is the Muslim Brotherhood, which has operated in Egypt for decades. After being a primarily underground operation for many years, the Muslim Brotherhood saw an opening after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, and the well organized group quickly dominated Egyptian politics. But the group wasn’t able to enjoy their influence for long. In 2013, the military ousted Muslim Brotherhood member and President of Egypt Muhammad Morsi, and the Muslim Brotherhood was quickly banned once again.

The Muslim Brotherhood went from populist movement to underground resistance to center of power to underground resistance again. It’s a trajectory that Israel no doubt wishes Hamas would follow, but unlike the strong support Hamas enjoys, the people were quickly disillusioned with Morsi’s government after allegations that he was favoring fellow Muslim Brotherhood members. In the aftermath of revolution, the tide quickly turned against someone seen as consolidating power in a way much like Mubarak.

Not All Terrorism is al-Qaeda, Not all Non-State Actors are Terrorists

Let’s be clear on one thing: There is no universally agreed upon definition of terrorism. This is not a good thing, as it allows the term to be applied very generally and often masks complex political situations and power structures. Governments are able to label political groups as terrorist at will, legitimizing their hold on power in the face of popular uprisings or movements. In many cases, the difference between “terrorist” and “freedom fighter” depends on what side of the fight you are on. In Ireland, Sinn Fein and the IRA were considered terrorists by the British and allies, but were recognized by the people as legitimate political forces. Nelson Mandela and the ANC in South Africa are another example of the blurred line between terrorist and freedom fighter, and how public opinion can shift over time. The use of “terrorist” to describe non-state actors has largely lost meaning because of this broad application, used more to drum up fear than any other possible, useful objective.

It’s important to keep that in mind, because terrorism and al-Qaeda have become largely synonymous. As such, when we label a group as terrorist, many times we associate the group wrongly or rightly with Core AQ. In reality, many groups oppose al-Qaeda, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas– although often thrown into the same tent by pundits. Policy makers aren’t immune to these generalizations either, and policy suffers. Treating all non-state actors like al-Qaeda, and dealing with the threats posed by using brute force, is short-sighted and often bolsters the group’s influence by playing into the “hegemonic superpower” image used to rally opposition to U.S. action.


The result of this kind of conflation is the masking of complicated political relationships. It can also justify violence used to repress political organizations with legitimate public backing, giving governments a banner to wave as they crackdown on citizens. When we aren’t clearly drawing necessary distinctions, we’re ignoring regional history, political structure, and local support. As such, policy fails to address this interwoven relationship and often creates more problems than it addresses.


View Comment (1)
  • Belief this article is a little misguided on the actual meaning of non-state actor. The term has nothing at all to do with the big four. A non-state actor is basically any group that is not a Member State or recognized under the U.N. Charter or IHL.

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