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An Introduction To Terrorist Organisational Structures

An introduction to conventional hierarchy, cells, networks and leaderless resistance.

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[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t is generally considered that there are four forms of structure employed by terrorist groups: conventional hierarchy, cellular, network & leaderless resistance. The decision to employ one of these formats is grounded in the security/efficiency trade-off of each; conventional hierarchy providing the most efficient and least secure, leaderless resistance the opposite: highest security, least efficiency. It is worth stating in advance that certain terrorist groups prohibit us from placing them into just one category; the term ‘fuzzy boundaries’ is used to describe those organisations that transgress the stated demarcations. For example, Hezbollah utilize a conventional hierarchy in Lebanon whilst maintaining networks in the West. It is the purpose of this piece to briefly explain these structures and provide some examples of how they have been implemented by various groups (N.B. the security/efficiency numerals presented after each variant are purely indicative).

Conventional Hierarchy (Security: 1, Efficiency: 4)

Audrey Cronin has argued that all terrorist groups would, in an ideal world, utilize the conventional hierarchical structure, thus attempting to cross the border into full-blown insurgency. Such a structure equates to the mimicking of the hierarchy employed by modern-day military forces: the pyramid shape is populated at the bottom by footsoldiers (privates), managed by their officer (corporals) and so on until the top of the pyramid and the high command (generals).

Employing such a structure provides an organisation with the greatest efficiency (this format aids the specialization of units in, for example, intelligence, recruitment, finance and support), ease of information transfer, and allows it to enforce a coherent long-term strategy. With regard to ideology-based organisations, it aids ideological unity among its members – an important issue given the need to maintain such unity within these groups. The weaknesses of this structure have been ably discussed by Beam (an American white nationalist), albeit with reference to the subversion of the American State. Beam argues that such a system is extremely dangerous when utilized against a state, especially in this era of electronic surveillance: should the state infiltrate or otherwise compromise the organisation at the higher echelons of command, the whole entity is compromised. Similarly, should the high command be killed or captured, there is a very real possibility of the group disintegrating. Thus, a more subversive organisational construct is of greater use for a terrorist group that seeks to remain in existence in the face of the “War on Terror”. The early Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) provide good examples of the use of this structure.

Cellular (Security: 2, Efficiency: 3)

The cell structure incorporates a network within a hierarchy. Each cell (generally comprising three to ten individuals) possesses one member (‘X’) – usually the leader – who maintains contact with the organisation’s high command. Often only one element of the command will have contact with X, and X will generally have no knowledge of other cells, or other members of the high command. Should X be compromised, the information that she is able to provide is distinctly limited: whilst her cell will likely be rendered inoperable, she is unable to provide details of other cells, nor is she able to provide details of the high command other than the commander that she has dealt with. Similarly, if a member of X’s cell is compromised, the only information they can provide is that of their cell and X.

Whilst the high command is removed from contact with their footsoldiers, this structure suffers from the same problem with that of the conventional hierarchy: should the high command be compromised the entire organisation could topple. Beam writes that “the efficient and effective operation of a cell system … [is] dependent upon central direction, which means impressive organization, funding from the top, and outside support”. The central command must maintain their hold on each individual cell in order to maintain strategic unity and thus remove the possibility that cells will act alone, thus potentially damaging the organisation as a whole (for example, say that a renegade AQ cell was responsible for 9/11. The United States would likely still have responded with an attack against the entire AQ infrastructure, even if the attack had not been initiated by the high command).

Network (Security: 3, Efficiency: 2)

An organisational network structure comprises numerous nodes/cells connected/interconnected in differing ways. Variations of such a network, each with different levels of security & efficiency, can include:

1) Chain
A linear trail: A – B – C – D – E. For a message to get from A to E it must pass through B, C & D.

2) Hub
One node acts as the hub for all other nodes: A is connected to B, C, D & E. B through to E have no connection with each other. Should B wish to send a message to E, it must go through A. This does not equate to A being the lead cell, simply the hub cell.

3) Star
The same as for the hub network, but each cell has contact with its two neighbouring cells in addition to A (the central node). So, aside from A, B would connect with E & C; C with B & D; D with C & E, and; E with D & B.

4) All-Channel
Each node is connected to every other: A is connected to B, C, D & E; B to A, C, D, E; C to A, B, D, E; etc.

Such structures result in the decentralisation of decision-making, permitting initiative from each cell and thus making it impossible to topple the organisation in one go. As Arquilla, Ronfeldt & Zanini explain, such an organisational structure can appear to be acephalous (headless) & polycephalous (multi-headed) at the same time. The points of the network with greater connectedness indicate their importance (so, for example, if a hub network was in position as per the example above, targeting A would provide for the greatest effect on operational capability).

Network structures, whilst benefiting from far greater security than conventional hierarchy/cell structures, suffer from low efficiency given the difficulties in getting a message out to all members of the network, with clear implications for organisational unity and strategic coherence. This, however, does not detract from the danger that such a structure poses.

Leaderless Resistance (Security: 4, Efficiency: 1)

The last structure that this piece will analyse is the most secure and the least efficient. An Environmental Liberation Front (ELF) recruitment video describes it perfectly: “Remember, the ELF and each cell within it are anonymous not only to one another but to the general public”. In the truest form of leaderless resistance there is no contact between cells and/or the central command. However, given the spread of the internet and the ease of international communication, such a finite requisite has been watered down (see Pantucci’s lone wolf classifications).

Such a structure (or, more appropriately, a lack of) poses the greatest difficulties to counter-terrorist agencies given the minimal connection between the organisation (or the propagandist of the ideology), and the actor committing the terrorist act (the subscriber to the ideology). As with networks, this form of structure is incalculably aided by developments in information technology (the transformation of terrorism from ‘old’ to ‘new’, see Neumann).

Such a structure is highly secure; it is almost impossible to know which viewers of a website have been radicalised and whether they would ever come to commit an act. But the lack of control over such actors can be incredibly damaging. Should an act be committed by a member of an ideological network in the name of a specified group, resultantly negatively affecting said group’s public support, the group cannot disassociate itself from the act, regardless of its lack of participation in, or support for, the act. Further, given that the organisation propagating the ideology has no control over its ideological movement, such a movement may well disintegrate owing to a lack of developments: these sleeper cells may never wake from their slumber.

An example of leaderless resistance actor would be Roshonara Choudhry.

[toggle title="Sources & Related Texts"]

Arquilla, J. & Ronfeldt, D. (2001), Networks and Netwars

Beam, L. (1983), Leaderless Resistance

Cronin, A. (2006), How al-Qaida Ends

Hoffman, B. (2006), Inside Terrorism

Neumann, P. (2009), Old and New Terrorism

Pantucci, R. (2011), A Typology of Lone Wolves: Preliminary Analysis of Lone Islamist Terrorists

Sageman, M. (2004), Understanding Terror Networks
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