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Dr Farhan Zahid





Dr Farhan Zahid

Counter-Terrorism and Security Analyst (Pakistan).





Terrorists, in most of the cases, learn from their environment. This is one reason that terrorism mostly remains a local phenomenon. It appears that the terrorist facilitation environment is the product of different factors such as : state patronage, weak or fragile states which could not govern their own territories, external factors influencing the state's internal dynamics, and finally terrorist organizations capabilities to learn.

There may be involvement of other social, demographic and economic factors as explained by Thomas et alii in their analysis of violent non-state actors.


Figure 1: Thomas et al. Model of Violent Non-State Actors System Analysis


Investigating the terrorist learning at tactical, strategic, and operational levels

The above mentioned reasons may be studied at different levels i.e. tactical, strategic and operational. There may be some similarities in understanding the overall terrorist learning modes but above all it remains subject to local ground circumstances. This is another reason terrorism has hitherto remained a complex and complicated phenomenon to comprehend. For understanding terrorist learning models, we may capitalize on exponential growth of terrorist organizations in Pakistan. Currently, more than 60 terrorist organizations operate in Pakistan. Keeping in view of such nature of real threats, we may study the terrorist learning model of Pakistan. It is apt to study, analyze and assess the Islamist terrorist organizations in Pakistan linked to Al-Qaeda with such angle.


Tactical Level

Pakistan is the birth place of Al-Qaeda, and the country allowed us to study the origins of Islamic State of Iraq and Sham[1] (ISIS) as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi first moved to Pakistan from Jordan to reach out to his mentor Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi and both joined hands with Osama bin Laden in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 1998, in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda provided tactical training to a wide plethora of Islamist terrorist groups in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The sound tactical level of Al-Qaeda that allowed the Tanzim to provide such level of training was developed during the course of Afghanistan War (1979-89) after the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. With the beginning of Operation Cyclone[2] (CIA-ISI cooperation to fight Soviets), the CIA ran a training program for Pakistan Special Forces trainers in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, during the early 1980s. The highly specialized training modules allowed Pakistani trainers to impart quality training to Afghan Mujahedeen groups at scores of camps established at Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas. Maktab ul Khidmat wal Mujahideen-e-Arabia (Services Bureau for Arab Holy Warriors), which was a precursor to Al-Qaeda and headed by Palestinian cleric Abdullah Azzam (representing Saudi GID), also capitalized on the available training facilities as hundreds of future Al-Qaeda leaders and trainers received training at the same camps.

The training modules remain the same as curricula are still the same, and the Afghan Taliban, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Punjabi Taliban groups and other international organizations first stationed in Afghanistan and later in Pakistan (after the fall of Taliban in 2001) benefitted from the training. Therefore we say that at tactical level the Pakistani and Afghan Islamist terrorist groups may be well understood by analyzing the training modules. French sleuth Omar Nasiri wrote in his book Inside Jihad that how he witnessed US Special Forces training manuals used by Al-Qaeda trainers at training camps, contextualizing the skill level of Al-Qaeda-trained operatives. 

Strategic Level

The strategic level of Pakistani and Afghan Islamist terrorist groups may be understood on the basis of their mission statements i.e. by understanding their regional jihadi ideologies and stated goals. Here, the Al-Qaeda and Afghan Taliban start developing differences. Afghan Mujahedeen groups established prior of Soviet invasion of Afghanistan with tacit support of Pakistani government of Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto as he wanted to increase Pakistani influence in Afghanistan against the pro-Soviet Afghan regime of President Daud Khan came into power in 1973. It was on the directions of Bhutto that Pakistani paramilitary force - the Frontier Corps - started training dissident Islamist groups (anti-Daud regime) in Pakistan in mid-1970s. The same model of training continued with massive US support after the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in early 1980s. General Zia ul Haq, who had overthrown Bhutto in a coup d'Etat in 1977, took the role of Bhutto in a more formal and organized manner. Afghan Mujahedeen groups were the result of the combined Pakistan-US efforts. The inherent strategic level was no more than the liberation of Afghanistan and driving out Soviet forces. Afghan Taliban were the descendent of Afghan Mujahedeen[3] and many of them had fought by the side of different Mujahedeen factions. Al-Qaeda on the other hand had a different perspective of jihad. Therefore the strategic learning level is different albeit the same ideological and politico-religious agendas against minorities, women and social setting. 

Operational Level

The operational level is more difficult to understand as the terrorist organizations keep adapting to different operations-related situations. Terrorist organizations shift their targets from security forces to general masses with the hardening of government/security installations. This does not mean that terrorist organizations only target soft targets ; in fact because of the shift from hard to soft targets make them lose some level of public support which they try hard not to lose.

Micro, Meso and Macro levels 

Learning of terrorist groups at micro, meso and macro levels require different approaches. Terrorists' adaptation, either by learning by experience or learning from others or competing with other terrorist franchises, remains pivotal in maintaining negative entropy. Hence a terrorist group is at best when it is able to adapt. Hence in order to understand the terrorist learning environment it is quint-essential to study the organization at meso and micro levels. Another way is to understand terrorists' adaptation: niche construction and its antidote, the niche destruction.

Niche Construction

Thomas et al borrowed the term "niche construction" from environmental biology. The concept relates to adaptability of species in an alternative environment. While adapting to the environment, the species also changes the environment. The whole process is called niche construction.

According to Thomas, Casebeer, and Kiser, "[T]he more radical insight, however, has been to note that organisms can affect more than just their local ecology; their attempts to change their environment influence the very forces of natural selection that shape their future evolution as a species. The process is called niche construction."[4]

Niche Destruction

Islamist violent non-state actors also undergo niche destruction. Making the environment conducive for destruction is government's task. The state has to win back hearts and minds of locals accused of providing base to the terrorist organizations. This is state's ability to deny the terrorist organization a favorable environment to grow and cultivate and it is the flip-side of the niche construction.

A good example of niche construction and destruction is of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and subsequent ouster of Saddam regime, the Al-Qaeda Central had directed its rank and file to join insurgency against the U.S. and allied forces in Iraq. In the following years, the insurgency was touching its zenith; thousands of U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians lost their lives in brutal IED and suicide attacks. The Al-Qaeda in Iraq was thus quite successful in niche construction. Most of Al-Qaeda's militant were either Iraqi Islamists or foreign radicals from other Arab countries like the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zawarqi, who led al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Anbar Awakening (‘al-Sahawa Movement') turned the tables in favor of the US and Iraqi forces.






Studying the case of Pakistan, a country with such large cluster of Islamist terrorist organizations, may allow us to evaluate and analyze the learning aspects of terrorist organizations at micro, meso and macro levels. The growth of Islamist terrorist groups is spread over 3-decades. The Islamist terrorist groups splintered out of Islamist political parties and first they did not have any experience of managing their affairs i.e. these organizations apparently learned from their own mistakes; secondly these started learning from other successful groups such as PLO, IRA, Muslim Brotherhood... and finally the same groups embroiled in competition.

  • [1] ISIS is splintered out of Al-Qaeda's Iraq chapter, as it used to be Al-Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers and led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
  • [2] Cf. Dr Farhan Zahid, Research Paper n°12, Operation Cyclone and its consequences, August 2014 (
  • [3] Initially the Afghan Mujahedeen were also called Taliban or students of religious madrasas. It was only later that they started calling them Mujahedeen as the word has much more significance in religious terms than students. Saudi regime also issued a Fatwa of jihad against the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1980.
  • [4] Thomas, Casebeer and Kiser, p. 80.

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