Tactical and Technical

Understanding the Operational Landscape: The Pros and Cons of Mapping Terror Groups

By Lewis Benbow August 9, 2021

Mapping has significantly enhanced the ability of government agencies to track terror groups globally. Terror is the use of violence, specifically against civilians, to further a political message (Akbarzadeh & Baxter 2018). For this article, terror will be isolated to non-state actors, that show a reasonable degree of organisation and command. In this article, the case study of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) will be discussed as the primary case study. This is critical for Australian military members to understand, as often the most important battlefield information is passed through mapping.

ISIS and the use of thematic mapping
ISIS began as an al Qaeda affiliate; however, were able to establish a caliphate in Iraq and Syria in 2014 (Akbarzadeh & Baxter 2018). Throughout this time, the group continued to commit acts of terror against individuals in Iraq and Syria, but small factions were also mobilised to commit terror attacks within the western world (Hashim 2014, p.69). Globally, ISIS was heavily tracked using thematic mapping. Thematic mapping adds additional information as a layer of context to a map, which is highly specific to the map’s purpose. For example, thematic mapping is popular for weather broadcasting, showing temperature or weather systems. In the context of terror, and specifically ISIS, thematic mapping was used to display territory controlled by ISIS during their occupation (BBC 2020). The progression of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) has had a major impact on cartographers, as the prevalence of open-source data has allowed everyday users to progress their influence in the world of mapping, increasing the number of thematic maps available for analysis. GIS is a system for information gathering, as well as visually representing this information through mapping (ESRI 2005).
Iraq’s Ability to Combat Terror and the Ring Road in Afghanistan
The use of mapping to track terror groups and their area of operation has dramatically increased governments’ effectiveness in combatting terrorism. During the ISIS occupation in northern Iraq and Syria, thematic mapping was heavily used. This included showing which provinces the group controlled, which could then be elapsed over time to show the group’s gradual reduction in territorial gain. The same premise can track terror attacks in isolation. In 2001 when US and allies entered Afghanistan, their priority was to link the country globally using the Ring Road (Akbarzadeh & Baxter 2018). By uniting the country, the US hoped to improve the national gross domestic product (GDP), which is highly correlated with effective counterterrorism (Angstrom 2011). As the occupation continued, the number of terrorist attacks continued to increase. Using thematic mapping, the US was able to map terrorist attacks, concluding that the Ring Road was being targeted (Cutter et al 2003). This strategic use of thematic mapping is a positive aspect of the Afghan and Syrian conflicts. In Syria, the ability to use thematic mapping to track the progress of the Islamic State from a territorial perspective allowed analysts to determine if the current strategies were having the desired effect (BBC 2020). By utilising thematic mapping, security advisors could also determine which indigenous forces were best located to combat the Islamic State. This may have encouraged the pursuit of a US-Kurdish relationship, which ultimately was the key to defeating ISIS. In Afghanistan, the use of thematic mapping allowed analysts to understand the main strategy of the terror group, which gave them an advantage in conflict. Through analysing thematic maps, the US was able to increase security in areas with regular attacks and effectively counter-attack al Qaeda strongholds (Akbarzadeh & Baxter 2018). Despite the positive effects thematic mapping has had in these two situations, it can be ineffective when tracking terror holistically.
What are the Downsides To Tracking Terror Groups?
Despite obvious benefits, there are limitations to thematic mapping and its effectiveness on tracking acts of terror. During the Islamic State occupation in Iraq and Syria, the group was not isolated to their area of land that was heavily publicised on thematic maps. The groups had small sects spread globally, culminating in terror attacks in Paris, Brussels and in the US (Akbarzadeh & Baxter 2018). This speaks to the concept of terror as an ideology, rather than a physical place as is often shown on terror-themed maps. Just as one cannot map religion or language in detail, one cannot map ideas or ideologies (Angstrom 2011). Although the presence of ISIS was rooted in Iraq and Syria, their true influence was much broader due to the use of propaganda and marketing. An over reliance on thematic mapping to track terror leaves the western world susceptible to complacency, as often these maps depict the issue to be occurring far away. This contributed to the French authorities not prioritising ISIS as a true security threat as ISIS was often depicted as a distant issue and confined to the physical realm (Akbarzadeh & Baxter 2018). For this reason, thematic mapping in relation to terror should always be combined with solid, actionable intelligence, and the maps be used as a resource or indicator of performance. Much like state actors, many terror groups fight over disputed borders drawn on maps. In a state such as Afghanistan, where there are hundreds of terror groups operating, an obsession with who owns which land can further exacerbate conflict (Smith et al 2008). This issue has been accelerated by the US during the invasion, as they begun mapping which groups 'owned' which land. This furthered conflict, as the maps were often inaccurate and the true connection of terror groups to land is weaker than their binding ideological ideals (Angstrom 2011). The use of GIS software can improve the intelligence process and improve the actionability of resources.
Tracking Terror and GIS Software
GIS software has enhanced the capability of tactical counter-terrorism elements through preparation and training. GIS software has allowed creators to produce cartography using high-powered machinery that has only recently been able to be utilised in portable, easy-to-use fashion. The ability for governments to update maps with new features, recreate buildings, bunkers and bases has allowed for seamless rehearsal when undertaking counter-terrorism operations (ESRI 2005). The ability for administration elements to recreate a terrorist organisation’s base of operations in the technological realm has increased the combat effectiveness of tactical teams through training and planning. With these models, commanders can more comprehensively plan operations down to the smallest detail, including likely breaching points, as well as using topographic elements to determine appropriate landing zones for helicopters, or entry points for vehicles (ESRI 2005). Consequently, the success rate of kill or capture missions on high value targets is incredibly high (Akbarzadeh & Baxter 2018). For example, during the Osama Bin Laden raid in 2011, the US government used thematic mapping and GIS to recreate Bin Laden’s bunker and surrounding neighbourhood. This was also used during the Al Baghdadi raid in the Islamic State. This has increased the confidence governments have in military teams and saved civilian lives as a consequence of the abandonment of drone capabilities, that often resulted in a high degree of collateral casualties.
In summary
The use of thematic mapping and GIS technology has increased the ability of governments to counter terrorism. By tracking attacks or areas under enemy control using thematic mapping, governments can analyse the strategy being employed by terrorists, and can counter this through sensible policy decisions. However, it is important to remember that terror is ideological, rather than physical, and hence these thematic maps should primarily be used as a performance indicator. GIS has allowed tactical teams to be more efficient on the ground, in turn saving civilian lives through the replacement of drone capabilities.
  • Akbarzadeh, S. and Baxter, K 2018, Middle East Politics And International Relations.
  • Angstrom, J. (2011) ‘Mapping the Competing Historical Analogies of the War on Terrorism: The Bush Presidency’, International Relations, 25(2), pp. 224–242 
  • BBC News 2020, ‘Islamic State And The Crisis In Iraq And Syria In Maps’, BBC News, viewed 26 October 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27838034
  • Cutter, S, Richardson, D, Wilbanks, T (eds) 2003, The Geographical Dimensions of Terrorism, Routledge, UK.
  • ESRI 2005, GIS for Defence and Intelligence, report, viewed 26 October 2020, retrieved from Google Scholar.
  • Hashim, A 2014. The Islamic State: From al-Qaeda Affiliate to Caliphate. Middle East Policy, vol.21 no.4, pp.69-83.
  • Oberg, D 2019, ‘Exercising War: How Tactical Operational Modelling Shape and Reify Military Practice’, Becoming War, vol.51, pp.137-154.
  • Smith, C, Cohren, J, Roberts, P, Damphousse, K 2008, Geospatial Analysis of Terrorist Activities, US Department of Justice, Washington.



Lewis Benbow


Lewis Benbow is an Infantry Solider who studies International Relations at University. The focus of his submissions on The Cove will be the operational environment that surrounds the ADF while we conduct operations at home or overseas. He aims to provide a wider picture of the broader social, political and environmental issues that are relevant to commanders and soldiers alike and wishes to start a discussion on how these issues may impact the ADF

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.


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