Home Original iSTART: An Analytical Framework for Combating Terrorism
iSTART: An Analytical Framework for Combating Terrorism

iSTART: An Analytical Framework for Combating Terrorism

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By James Hess, Ph.D.
Professor, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University

One of the greatest challenges for analysts is providing context. Intelligence and terrorism analysts must focus on how to interpret data. In order to do that, they must understand that not all reporting is equal; data needs to be evaluated.

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Analytical frameworks are a valuable way to analyze data. As that data is inputted within the variables that assist in evaluation, the relationship between the variables is strengthened by the worth of the data.

After years of research and practice, I developed an analytical framework for counterterrorism analysis. This framework is called iSTART, which can be used to understand how specific terrorist groups operate. iSTART stands for Ideology, Strategy, Tactics, Accounting, Recruitment and Targets.

The Ideology of a Terrorist Group Needs to Be Strong Enough to Inspire Others

Ideology is the keystone of the framework. A terrorist group’s ideology informs the other variables. The ideology of a terrorist group needs to be strong enough and motivating enough to inspire others. That inspiration, stemming from the ideology, leads followers to kill or die for it.

The strategy employed by terrorists is how they plan to implement the ideology. For instance, ISIS is focused on replacing the beliefs of traditional Islam with its own interpretations. Declaring a caliphate is the method, or in this case, the strategy, to enforce the group’s changes to Islam.

Tactics are how a terrorist group meets its objective. The four waves of modern terrorism demonstrate how these tactics change according to ideology and circumstance. For instance, the first wave of modern terrorism, the anarchist wave, used assassinations as its primary tactic. Today, terrorist groups use airplanes and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), along with the occasional assassination.

Fundraising Is an Important Function for Most Terrorist Groups

Accounting, or financing, is how terrorist groups equip themselves or function as an organization. The ideology of a terrorist group needs to be viable enough for would-be donors to provide funding. Not all terrorist groups, however, are fortunate enough to have independently wealthy members such as Osama bin Laden. Therefore, fundraising is an important function for most terrorist groups.

Recruiting is, of course, how a terrorist group develops its manpower. Again, ideology is a key part of recruiting.

Another powerful tool for recruiting is the use of technology. Terrorist groups have become quite tech-savvy and able to develop significant recruiting efforts through social media groups and other internet sites.

Lastly, targets. Terrorist groups develop targets that will advance their strategies. The third wave of modern terrorism is known as the “new left wave.” Terrorist groups target symbols of capitalism. It is also very plausible that they will conduct or take responsibility for attacks they did not commit. Terrorist groups do that to remain relevant; that relevance often comes from conducting attacks to remain in the news.

It is essential for analysts to evaluate all data to have a more focused and accurate analysis of a terrorist group. The improved analysis leads to better counterterrorism strategies. By utilizing an analytical framework such as iSTART, intelligence and terrorism analysts are able to provide that improved analysis.

About the Author

Dr. James Hess is a professor at American Military University. Dr. Hess received his Ph.D. from Louisiana State University, where he studied improving analytical methodologies in counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism environments. He is also a fellow and affiliated faculty with the University of Arizona’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies where he researches Islamic jurisprudence and its impact on terrorism.

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