Complex Adaptive Systems Theory and Counterterror Strategy

Terrorist organizations Al Qaeda and Daesh (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) have declared a holy war against Shiite Muslims, America, and her international allies. To win the war, the United States Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies field manual (2014) accentuates the need for a counterterror strategy that reflects and resolves the dynamics and drivers of terrorism, including the interrelated psychological, social, religious, political, economic, and technological factors. Despite this insight, current counterterror strategy does not reflect these dynamics. Rather, counterterror tactics are driven by a strategy focusing solely on the use of military force and national security to eliminate the symptoms of terrorism. This strategy discounts the drivers of terrorist behavior and has consequently perpetuated the rise of terrorist organizations, their innovation, and their violence, which is reflective in the past fifteen years of War on Terror intervention. The following is a qualitative analysis of terrorism and counterterrorism through the fine and broad scopes of Complex Adaptive Systems Theory, which highlights the interrelated psychological, social, and organizational dynamics that drive terrorist behavior. The results call for family, community, and humanitarian based interventions from the field of Social Work that aim to prevent and resolve the drivers of terrorism.

Understanding Terrorism as a Complex and Adaptive System 

Complex adaptive systems are open, evolutionary systems, whose components, or agents, are dynamically interrelated and who are cooperatively bonded by a common purpose (Werhane, 2011, pg. 115). Viewing terrorism accurately requires the lens of complex adaptive system (CAS) theory, a modern, holistic, interdisciplinary, scientific approach which attempts to understanding how the influence of interrelated dynamics drives a system’s behavior. A complex adaptive system cannot be understood using the standard scientific reductionist model, which believes by understanding a single part of a system, one can understand the whole system, discounting the interrelationships of the other dynamics effecting that system. CAS theory is used in the fields of computer science, mathematics, biology, ecology, economics, political science, and sociology (Chen, Shu-Heng 2011 pg. 190). CAS theory gives insight to explain how disease and information propagate and diffuse in society, and also to predict the complex behavior of the weather and the stock market (Patton, Michael, 2014). The current counterterror approach uses the reductionist model more than it does the complex adaptive systems model. A successful counterterror strategy necessitates the modernized lens of complex adaptive systems theory in place of the outdated reductionist lens currently used by the U.S. military.

For an accurate understanding of a terrorist’s behavior, terrorism needs to be viewed through both an organizational perspective and through the perspective of an individual, which requires that terrorism be viewed as a complex adaptive system. It means zooming out and learning that members of terrorist organizations are interacting and driven by interrelated systems other than and larger than themselves including: family, community, government, military, state, internet, economy, religion, culture, society, and the environment. Having gained a broader perspective we must now zoom in and analyze the inner workings of the organization: hierarchies, networks, subgroups within subgroups, sleeper cells, families, friendships, and lone wolves. And lastly, and of critical importance is zooming into each individual’s psychology to analyze what drove them to jihad, and as to why they are willing to kill and die for their organization. In attempting to eliminate an organization through the use of military force and tightened security, current counterterror strategy ignores these dynamics

How Current Counterterror Strategy Discounts Terror’s Dynamics

A strategy was defined as a plan for imposing a predetermined outcome on a complex system at a U.S. military “Forging a Grand Strategy, Securing a Path through a Complex Future” (Ronis, S.R, 2013). The current strategy to prevent terrorism is military and police force, meant to detect, track, capture, or kill every terrorist to prevent them from acting. Pioneering complexity scientist J. Doyne Farmer comments on the current counterterror strategy:

If there is one thing I have learned in my twenty five years of trying to predict chaotic systems, it is this: It is really hard, and it is fundamentally impossible to do it well. We should think carefully about similar situations, such as the drug war: As long as people are willing to pay a lot of money for drugs, no matter how hard we try to stop them, drugs will be produced, and smugglers and dealers will figure out how to avoid interception. We have been fighting the drug war for more than thirty years, and have made essentially no progress. If we take the same approach against terrorism we are sure to fail, for the same reasons” (Fellman, Phillip, 2015).

Of course, the military and national security play a role in preventing and responding to terrorist attacks, but when the drivers of terrorism are not fully understood, their strategies may be counterintuitive.

Military force has not prevented or eliminated further terror attacks. The U.S. Counterinsurgency field manual (2014) suggests that when an assessment of a strategy determines that the possible negative side effects outweigh the possible positive side effects that may result, an alternative strategy should be made. The U.S. Military journal Strategos (2010) states, when a state threatens another state, that state is likely to react with a strategy to neutralize or counterbalance the threat of the first state, leaving no state more secure than when the process began (Allen, Charles, 2013). This is reflective of the past fifteen years of U.S. intervention in the Middle East.

The consequences of the U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, in retaliation to the terror attacks against American civilians on September 11, 2001 are correlated to the rise of Al Qaeda and Daesh; also to the dramatic growth in the use of suicide bombing (Pape, Robert, 2005). The Middle East has since seen a fivefold increase in the amount of terrorists since September 11, 2001, with over 48,000 recorded terrorist attacks in the Middle East that have claimed over 107,000 lives (Global Terrorism Index, 2014).

The November 2015 terrorist attacks by Daesh in Paris, France, and targeting of a Russian jet, came just weeks after the nations of France and Russia announced that they would being military airstrikes in Syria to eradicate the terrorist network. In a propaganda video released by Daesh after the Paris attack, a terrorist announced to Europe and America, “We are coming, coming with booby traps and explosives, coming with explosive belts and silencers. You will be unable to stop us because today we are much stronger than before” (The Washington Times, 2015).

Key Conclusion: Reactionary military strategy does not resolve terrorism. Assessment of the current reductionist counterterror strategy calls for a new strategy designed through the lens of CAS theory.

Identifying the Dynamics of Terror

Resolving terrorism requires understanding its dynamics and drivers. According to U.S. Army lieutenant colonel Antulio Echevarria II, an important element of conceptual military planning for the past 25 years is Prussian military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz’s Center of Gravity Analysis (Morton, M, 2015). The center of gravity is important in understanding the enemy, it is the source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act.  The Global Terrorism Index Report (2014) found many significant drivers of terrorism: social hostilities between different ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups; lack of intergroup cohesion; high levels of group grievances, lack of political legitimacy, and the presence of state-sponsored violence. The state of the nation’s economy was not seen to be significant according to the report.

By resolving the dynamics that generate terrorism, terrorist organizations would have no source of power. A counterterror strategy should then reflect the significant drivers discovered by the Global Terror Index Report (2014). A deep look into these significant dynamics and drivers are necessary in order to design a successful strategy able to counter and resolve terror. To do so, I have chosen to investigate the following through a complex adaptive systems theory lens:

  1. The origins of the psychology of a terrorist; as Cognitive Behavior Theory states that the cognition of a terrorist often determines the emotions and behaviors of a terrorist. By examining the factors that drive an individual’s cognitive process, we may be able to control future emotions and behaviors.
  2. The social dynamics that drive the rise of the terror organization Daesh; as individuals and organizations participating in Daesh’s actions do not live in a vacuum, they are constantly interacting with and influenced by their environment. By examining which factors have driven the rise of Daesh, we may be able to control any further rise.
  3. The organizational components of a terrorist organization that constitute it as a complex adaptive system, that are able to adapt and survive the force of the U.S. military. By examining the evolution of terrorism we may be able to inhibit the networks further sophistication.


Psychological Dynamics of a Terrorist

A terrorist’s perceived religious and political behaviors have cognitive origins. Understanding the minds of past terrorists can help predict and control future terrorist behavior. A psychological theory of terrorism is that it derives from envy being turned into resentment, turned into anger, and anger turned into violence (Ross, 2015). Randy Borum, director of the Psychology of Terrorism Institute states that “When people identify themselves or others as victims of injustice, it is assumed that someone else is at fault for that condition” (2004). It is this identified other who becomes a target for the accumulated resentment. Terrorists destroy the objects they truly desire, in order to convince themselves that they do not. (Piven, Jerry, 2004)

These theories are strengthened through psychiatrist Dr. Colin A. Ross’s post-death analysis of Osama bin Laden (2015), a Sunni Islamist from Saudi Arabia, founder of Al Qaeda, which states that bin Laden desired the love and acceptance of his family, culture, government that had rejected him, as well as America. Psychoanalyst Salman Akhtar (2008), suggests the same saying that bin Laden seemed to harbor unconscious childhood resentments. This theme is reflective throughout bin Laden’s behavior.

According to CAS research, systems may act on a belief-desire-intention model to guide their behavior (Yang, A, 2008). Often terrorists carry out a terrorist act with the primary purpose of enticing counterinsurgents to overreact (Forest, James, 2009).

Resentment is not the only psychological driver of terror. A terrorist can be considered to be a rational political actor with a set of values and beliefs. The take part in a battle prophesized 1,400 years earlier is a strong motivator; so too is to die as a martyr (Barret, Richard, 2015). Religiously motivated terrorist groups tend to be more willing to inflict mass casualties and are better able to ensure commitment from their followers (Johnson, Roger, 2015). However the many and increasing cases in which children are brainwashed to become terrorists and suicide bombers in the name of the terror, this should not be considered a rational political choice. (Caplan, Bryan, 2009) However there are many occasions that family give consent to their child to join jihad, for economic, social, and religious reasons (Asal, Victor, 2008)

Another psychological influence of terrorism is due to the psychological reward received through the media’s portrayal of terror. International media underestimates the impact of their own actions. The 9/11 Commission Report (2011) states that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), plotter of 9/11, was inspired by the instant notoriety of the 1995 WTC bomber as a “mastermind” to plot his own attack in the U.S. The 9/11 Commission report then accredits KSM as the “mastermind of 9/11” (pg. 147). International media outlets granted the title to the designer of the attacks in Paris on November, 13, 2015. The title’s portrayal may be driving terrorists hoping to be recognized as the next mastermind.

Individuals known to have gone to Syria or who have self-identified as foreign fighters, range from 18-29 years of age, though there were 15-17 year olds, as well as of people in their 30s (Barret, Richard, 2014). This makes the average age rather younger than in the earlier years of terrorism, where the typical foreign volunteer was 25-35; following a general trend since the mid-2000s (Barret, Richard, 2014). Enlisting females and children to be terrorists is now an organizational strategy as they are less expected by security forces to be wearing a suicide vest (Martin, Melissa, 2009).

Key Conclusion: Whether justified or not, resentment towards family and society may drive terrorist behavior. Propaganda is used to exploit and influence the cognitive process of a child into becoming a terrorist. Rewarding recognition by media may be a significant driver of terrorism. Acts of terror may be made to exploit the enemy’s reaction. 

Social Dynamics of Daesh (ISIL)

Remembering that the dynamics of a complex adaptive system are interrelated, the consideration of the psychological drivers of terrorism alone, and not also the social influences would be a costly error. A terrorist was not born with resentment, nor with the will to die as a martyr. The environment in which an individual belongs strongly determines their future cognitive process and behaviors.

To secure the Middle East from terrorism and to prevent attacks abroad, The U.S. constructed detention centers in the Middle East to detain anyone deemed a terroristic threat by the U.S. military. Daesh is led by 44 year-old Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, PhD in Islamic Studies, Iraqi citizen, who credits his radicalization to his time spent in U.S. detention camps, Camp Bucca and Camp Adder, which are known to be terrorist breeding grounds (Walker, Hunter 2015). As a citizen detainee, Baghdadi was not yet a member of a terrorist organization and was not considered a serious threat, but was held for security reasons. Upon his release after one year in the camps in 2009, Baghdadi told U.S. soldiers, “I’ll see you guys in New York” signaling his radicalization during his detention (Walker, Hunter, 2015). 

Key Conclusion: U.S. detention centers may provide security to the world while an individual is contained, but the story of Baghdadi is evidence that U.S. detention centers may incubate radicalized terrorists with the potential to form an organization such as Daesh.

Now, looking at the Daesh organization as a whole, Daesh’s mission to create a Sunni Islamist militant state across the Middle East and parts of Africa, is accomplished by spreading fear through the means of: extremist propaganda, slavery, murder, rape, ransom, forced taxation, and other forms of brutality against innocent civilians. Daesh has seized territory and established control of populations and resources across Syria Iraq, and Africa including oil fields and advanced American weaponry.

In 2010, the Obama administration conducted the removal of U.S. ground troops in Iraq. In order to secure the new Iraqi government from terrorism in the absence of American forces, the U.S. supplied the Iraqi military with hundreds of millions of dollars of high-tech military equipment (Bender, Jeremy, 2015). Daesh capitalized on America’s withdrawal by launching several offensives against the Iraqi government and taking over the cities of Mosul, Ramadi, and Fallujah in May 2015. Iraqi soldiers fled, abandoning their new American M-16 rifles, tanks, and Humvees. The Iraqi government reported in June 2015 that it lost 2,300 Humvees to Daesh (Bender, Jeremy, 2015).

Key Conclusion: U.S. military technology may attempt to secure a foreign nation’s army, but it may also create an opportunity that empowers terrorist organizations and enables them to become more powerfully dangerous.

Terrorist Network Dynamics

We have analyzed the outside forces that influence the rise of Daesh, now let us look inside the inner workings of a terrorist organization. A terrorist organization is an entity in itself, meaning the value, beliefs, and behaviors of united terrorists, can be examined as a single unit. However, as complex adaptive theory states, it is a costly mistake to discount that the organization is made up of autonomous individuals psychologically and socially motivated, as we have already analyzed. Not only is it crucially important to examine the structure of the organizations as a whole, it is essential to analyze the sophisticated networks that drive terrorist behavior from within the organization.

A CAS is characterized by adaptability and resilience (Sadananada, Ramakoti, 2006). A CAS undergoes the process of adaptation when decision making in anticipation of or in reaction to external stimuli and stress (Nelson, DR, 2007). Despite this important insight, the U.S. military continues to design strategies that involve airstrikes that destroy terrorist infrastructure and capital, and to capture and kill terrorist leaders.

Al Qaeda

Al Qaeda’s core has shown resilience and adapted to even the most consequential countermeasures directed against it for fifteen years. Crises are a source of creativity. Counterterrorism efforts drive some organizations toward autonomy while compelling others to adopt bureaucracy (Helfstein, Scott, 2009). Evidence suggests that many terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda have evolved since 9/11 and adopted a more decentralized, horizontal network structures when compared to the previous period’s tight hierarchy (Jones, Calvert, 2006). Bin Laden structured Al Qaeda to encourage ownership and individual innovation. (Maghadam, Assaf, 2013)

Airstrikes in the Middle East have destroyed terrorist infrastructure, however, the attacks in Paris demonstrate the terrorist organization’s latest adaptation, that is, sleeper cells. Terrorist sleeper cells are made up fighters who leave their home nation to train with ISIS and return home to plan and help carry out attacks. Over 12,000 foreign fighters have gone to Syria since the 3-year conflict began. Foreign fighters have gone to Syria from at least 81 countries and from all parts of the globe, about 3,000 foreign fighters are from Western countries (Barret, Richard, 2015). U.S. authorities have charged at least 66 men and women with Daesh related terror plots on American soil – including a handful of refugees (Ashford, Ben, 2015).

Terror organizations have a high level of order and inner-group cohesiveness which allows the group to adapt (Bacon, Tricia, 2014). Al Qaeda’s bylaws state the group’s goals, principles, voting laws, processes for airing grievances, the importance of reports, details on organizational structure, members’ duties, leadership responsibilities, financial policies, budgetary requirements, and policies. Employment contracts, which are signed under oath, describe membership duties, holidays, salaries, travel details, rewards, and punishment. Al-Qaida has also kept membership rosters of martyred individuals (Jordan, Jenna, 2014).

The U.S. National Military Strategy field manual (2015) suggests that understanding the relationship between groups and individuals within groups is an essential part of the overall intelligence preparation and understanding mission variables. Several members of the terrorist cell that attacked Paris on November 13, 2015 were brothers (Frasier, Isabelle, 2015). The sense of loyalty stemming from familial or matrimonial bonds makes it less likely that one of the members would inform on the others; the betrayal of the group is made much worse by obligations to the family (Barret, Richard, 2014). 

Key Conclusion: Decapitation of leadership, and destruction of infrastructure may be helpful in disturbing terrorist plans momentarily, but as counterterror tactics, the actions are counterintuitive as organizational strategies are no longer concentrated in central leadership positions; membership has strong level of cohesiveness; and by adapting to crises, the sophistication of terrorist networks advances their abilities to communicate and innovate.

Implication for Future Counterterror Strategy

Acceptance of Syrian refugees  

Families in the Syria are struggling to survive in over-crowded refugee camps at home and in neighboring countries. National security must screen individuals to prevent terrorist organizations from exploiting good will, but innocent refugees must be provided shelter inside free countries. Discrimination will inspire further resentment, radicalization, and terrorism.

Family based Intervention

An initiative undertaken by Algeria, which has a long experience of dealing with violent extremism dating back to the start of the 1990s, is to engage the family of a fighter from Algeria as soon as it is known that he is in Syria. Families discuss with the authorities why he might have gone and what should be done when he returns. There is also a focus on family support structures in the development of reintegration programs in Europe, including on issues concerning de-radicalization (Barrett, Michael, 2015). 

Stop media’s positive portrayal of terrorism

The media needs to choose a new work to describe a terrorist carrying out an attack on innocent, unarmed civilians other than “mastermind”. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), plotter of 9/11, was inspired by the instant notoriety of 1995 WTC bomber as a “mastermind” to plot his own attack in the U.S. The 9/11 Commission Report (2004) then accredits KSM as the “mastermind of 9/11.” International media outlets granted the title to the designer of the attacks in Paris on November, 13, 2015. The title’s portrayal may be driving creativity and innovation from terrorists hoping to be the next mastermind.

Using credible messengers

A returning fighter will have a great deal of credibility in radical circles at home, and if he argues against participation in the war, and against the al-Qaeda or ISIL narrative more generally. Community members would learn from those who have decided to leave terrorist organizations (Barrett, Michael, 2015). Islamic religious leaders also play a crucial role as credible messengers, as they have the ability to deter individuals at risk of radicalization from using violent means by educating and demonstrating to them how Islam stands for peace.

Raising social awareness

The European Union is planning a web-portal that informs people of the humanitarian organizations involved in providing relief to Syria. More could be done along these lines to highlight the alternatives to violence and so help re-channel the energies of the well intentioned away from fighting (Barret, Michael, 2015).

Humanitarian effort

Operation Blessing, is reaching Syrian refugees in places like Hungary, providing critical supplies, including food and plastic tarps, to help meet their most urgent needs. Teams are working to provide the help families need (Operation Blessing International, 2015).


Strategy can influence terrorism’s trajectory. Policies must emerge from an understanding of the significant drivers of terrorism. CAS theory is a powerful tool for bringing the insights of social work to bear in both analyzing and preventing terrorist activities. Military strategy can be useful in countering terrorism, but communities are best placed to resolve it. It is important therefore, that society works together to address the challenges posed by terrorism.



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