Sunni and Shi ’a Terrorism: Differences that Matter


There are significant and little appreciated differences in the trajectory of Sunni extremist terrorism and that of Shi’a extremism. The differences exist across six key areas that impact American policy considerations, especially in light of steadily escalating tensions with Iran. First and foremost, Sunni radicals and Shi’a extremists differ in the overall approach and main objectives for their use of terror. The former tend to operate in a continuous, mid‐to‐high intensity manner, seeing war against infidels and apostates as a perennial condition featuring overlapping waves. Outside of an ongoing and seemingly open‐ended campaign against Israel, terrorist attacks by Shi’a groups have by and large featured discrete terror campaigns tethered to state and organizational objectives. Second, Sunni terrorists and Shi’a extremists manifest different patterns for recruiting terrorist operatives and developing terrorist missions. Shi’a terrorists, unlike their Sunni counterparts, enjoy direct state support and for that reason are far more likely to originate from Iranian embassies, consulates and state‐run businesses. Third, despite holding a minority viewpoint within the wider Sunni Islamic community, Sunni extremists, especially Salafi‐Jihadis, rely more extensively on the support of their coreligionist expatriate communities in facilitating terrorist activities. Fourth, while employing similar tactics and methods, Shi’a terrorist groups have shown a much greater propensity to kidnap innocents to barter, while Sunni extremists more frequently abduct to kill. Fifth, Shi’a terror groups exhibit a much higher incidence of targeted assassinations for specific political gain, rather than the high‐casualty killings featured in Sunni terrorism, and particularly of the Salafi‐Jihadist variant. Finally, each sect’s extremists manage publicity and propaganda differently. The Sunni approach to information management tends to feature doctrine and resources geared to take immediate credit and widely amplify a terrorist event. Shi’a terrorists, while not averse to normal media publicity and amplification, by and large take a much lower‐key approach.

Importantly, this study does not argue or imply that violence perpetrated by Sunni or Shi’a extremist groups is carried out for reasons that are inherent to one or the other tradition of Islam. There is no evidence sought or identified in this work contending that historical patterns of terrorist attacks by organizations identifying themselves as Shi’a, for example, are pre‐determined by Shi’a theology or philosophy. What this study does suggest, however, is that those Shi’a organizations that have conducted terrorism in non‐combat zones display several preferred operational patterns that contrast markedly from their Sunni counterparts.1

Even though additional research is warranted, a preliminary review of these six areas of differentiation suggests that the United States and its western allies should carefully and seriously consider the dissimilarities between Sunni and Shi’a terrorism.

Key Findings

Over the twenty‐five year period from 1981‐2006, Sunni terrorism in noncombat zones evolved in four overlapping waves. Conducted by hundreds of ideologically similar groups, Sunni terrorism has featured continuous, mid‐to‐high intensity operations viewing war against infidels and apostates as a perpetual condition.

Terrorism by Shi’a groups in non‐combat zones over the same period has been conducted in five discrete campaigns and by two main actors: Iranian state agents from special national paramilitary and intelligence services, and Hezbollah operatives.2 The rationale for terrorism by Shi’a groups over that time frame was tethered tightly to Iranian state and Hezbollah organizational objectives, especially that of state/group survival.

The six significant differences between Sunni extremist terrorism and Shi’a terrorism over twenty‐five years of practice in non‐combat zones have major policy implications for the United States and its western allies in the event of overt hostilities with Iran over Tehran’s advancing nuclear program.

The intense correlation between survival aims of Iran and Hezbollah on the one hand, and the instigation of terrorism against western overseas interests on the other, suggests that there is a high likelihood that a midto‐ high intensity terrorist campaign by Shi’a groups—along the lines of three campaigns carried out by Hezbollah and Iranian agents during the 1980s—would be initiated in response to any U.S. or Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear sites or wider regime targets.

Any new campaign of terrorism by Shi’a actors of this type could have a profound, unsettling impact on overseas American diplomats, businessmen, educators and commercial agents who would likely become the focused targets of bombings, kidnappings and assassinations.

Such a terror campaign would likely circumvent much of what the United States is presently doing to combat terrorism overseas, and greatly challenge America’s hostage negotiation and crisis management capability.

U.S. political leaders should carefully consider the differences in Shi’a terrorism and Sunni terrorism in non‐combat zone as part of a comprehensive assessment of all the costs involved in a crossing of military thresholds that would likely trigger an Iranian‐backed campaign of Shi’a terrorism in the first place.

Key Recommendations

Refocus and Better Resource Intelligence and Counterintelligence against Terrorism by Shi’a groups: America’s intelligence and counterintelligence for combating terrorism overseas must expand and extend capabilities to monitor Iranian embassies, consulates, state‐owned businesses, their key employees and suspected agents of terrorism by Shi’a actors. Our intelligence services should be resourced to step‐up monitoring and clandestine operations against Iranian officials and suspected operatives in several dozen critical countries, most notably those with weak governance; corrupt and inefficient law enforcement and legal systems; and porous borders, where Iranian embassies are located. These conditions are most attractive to Iranian agents and Hezbollah operatives, as they were among those that made Lebanon and several other states of the Arab world prime playgrounds for non‐combat zone terrorism by Shi’a groups two decades ago.

Enhance Targeted Intelligence and Law Enforcement Collaboration against Shi’a Terror: The U.S. needs to enhance its collaboration with critical partners to get a step ahead of Shi’a terrorists and Iranian agents. Many of the states most vulnerable to Iranian agents and Hezbollah terrorist operatives in the 1980s have dramatically improved their counterterrorism posture. But like America, these states have focused improvements against Sunni extremist terrorism patterns. The United States needs to establish protocols for timely sharing of national‐level information regarding Iranian agent operations and transit of allied government territory. It also needs to work with allied state intelligence and interior ministries to target and share timely and accurate information on suspected Iranian agents, operatives and front companies.

Dramatically Improve Overseas American Diplomatic Capacity to Manage Any New Terror Campaign on the part of Shi’a actors: America’s diplomatic readiness abroad requires significant improvement to bear‐up under the brunt of any future Shi’a terror campaign. We must draw greater allied law enforcement and security attention to protection of western schools, living quarters, places of worship and work places. Attention also must be paid to a much more detailed array of abduction and assassination scenarios. Our diplomats and politicians must prepare to deal with a spike in hostage negotiations. All of this must be managed in a sober and deliberate fashion, and must be properly funded to succeed.

Psychological Preparation of the Nation: Any new terrorism campaign by Shi’a groups targeting Americans in non‐combat zones would greatly increase public risk, pushing it into dimensions not confronted in the popular American psyche for nearly twenty years. Without fearmongering, our political leaders need to set general public expectations properly so that prudent precautions are taken to reduce personal risk and so that the psychology of terrorism practiced by Shi’a groups will not frustrate a public now calibrated to understand the risks from and precautions for Sunni extremist terrorism.

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