On the Structure of Terrorist Movements

There is an understandable but harmful tendency to view a diffuse terrorist movement as homogenous. When attempting to manipulate or defeat such a movement, it is essential to understand and anticipate the motivations and responses of members of the movement, which in turn depends on the ability to identify classes within the movement.

Classes in a Terrorist Movement

The basic classes within a terrorist movement I will label "Leaders", "Soldiers" and "Sympathisers".

The Leaders are the public figures at the head of the movement. Fundamentally, they are politicians with political ambitions, both corporate (advancing the movement's agenda) and personal (obtaining power and prestige). In as much as they have power and prestige in the organisation or organisations that make up the movement, the protection and growth of those organisations become goals in their own right.

The Soldiers are the members that actually carry out the acts of violence. They are motivated by fanatical devotion to the cause, by desire for revenge, by the excitement of participating in an armed conflict, or by the opportunities for power or wealth that can become available. The Leaders usually come from this group, so individual Soldiers might be aiming to become Leaders in the movement and share the Leaders' motivations.

The most numerous class is the class of Sympathisers. An urban terrorist movement (unlike a true guerrilla army) requires a small number of Soldiers but a very large body of Sympathisers. The role of the Sympathiser is to keep quiet about what they see of the terrorist movement, provide intelligence to the terrorists on enemy activity, provide money or materials on a small scale, provide supporting services such as safe houses or message passing, and to be the base for recruitment of Soldiers and possibly politicians.

Sympathisers can be motivated by the goals of the movement, but more often by loyalty to their community, or by desire for revenge against present or past oppressors. Once the number of Sympathisers in a community reaches a critical level then anyone who does not support the movement will be subject to moral opprobrium and physical intimidation, and as a result the proportion of sympathisers approaches 100%. The critical level depends on the power of government or anti-terrorist forces in the area: in an isolated and backward area a handful of Soldiers can coerce large populations into an effective base.

Common Motivations

The separate motivations for individuals in different classes of the terrorst movement described above are in addition to motives that are common across the movement.

Sharing the official political goals of the movement is not an important one of these. In particular, the bulk of sympathisers are likely to set their sights lower than the leaders.

The key motivations are loyalty to the community as a whole, ("Supporting Our Boys"), peer pressure, a sense of grievance, a desire for revenge, and pride an unwillingness to personally or collectively lose face.

It is significant that these are, intellectually, not very good reasons. The fact is that terrorist movements rarely improve the lives of those they claim to represent, and rarely achieve their political goals. Peaceful political activism, or a more conventional coup d'etat, are usually more likely to succeed than terrorism.

Successes and Failures

There are two measures of success that can be applied to a terrorist movement. Political success is progress towards achieving the goals of the movement. Operational success is success in carrying out particular attacks, where the intended damage is done to the targets selected and the operatives are not killed or captured (or their death or capture is planned).

It can be seen that operational success does not guarantee political success. From the wide range of factors motivating the various classes of the movement, it is also evident why a terrorist movement can function for a long period generations even without much evidence of political success. The leaders can continue their lives' work and enjoy the power and prestige that comes from it, the Soldiers can take pleasure in violence and the excitement of combat, as well as what perks come their way, and the supporting populace can take pride in being undefeated and in solidarity with the heroes who are carrying out their vengance. If lack of political progress causes them to question the value of the continuing struggle, they must contemplate the shame of admitting defeat, the betrayal not only of "Our Boys", but also of the memory of the fallen who have already sacrificed everything, and, for the active soldiers and politicians, the abandonment of the institutions and mode of life that they are used to.

Lack of operational success, however, has a much more immediate impact. Leaders and Soldiers who are incapable of striking effectively at the oppressors are not deserving of loyalty and sacrifice, and the humiliation of aquiescence is less unthinkable when set against the humiliation of losing in the field. Failed operations are acceptable when other operations bring successes to be celebrated, and one spectacular coup can balance a large number of embarrassing damp squibs, but a long series of symbolic defeats will sap at every level of the movement.

Counter-Terrorist Strategy

A terrorist movement is most vulnerable to undermining of its base of sympathisers. It needs only a few Leaders and a small number of Soldiers, and will usually have little difficulty replacing casualties or defectors, but it is dependent on having bases where the population is generally sympathetic. The sympathisers usually suffer as a direct result of the conflict and have relatively little to gain from the movement. Their motivation is mainly emotional, and detaching them from the movement depends on satisfying or modifying their emotional attitude as well as their rational assessment of their position. The prerequisite is to make a rational case that continuing the struggle will not benefit them. Once that is achieved, the key move is to offer a settlement that is not humiliating. The danger is that an offer of compromise can look like weakness and encourage further resistence.

The least vulnerable class is the Soldiery. These individuals are most attached to a "Death or Victory" attitude, and most likely to have structured their lives around the ongoing conflict. They will keep fighting until they are demoralised by constant operational failure, or until there are no longer volunteers to replace casualties. Normal security measures can make operations more difficult, and thus cut down on the number or scale of operations, but the success rate can only be cut to demoralising levels through intelligence, and intelligence of the necessary quality can only be reguarly obtained through informers. Recruiting sufficient informers depends on changing the attitude of the Sympathising base. Once that has been done, the terrorists can be defeated in a war of attrittion.

The Soldiers can continue to fight without Leaders, but the Leaders have influence on the Sympathisers. Capturing or killing Leaders will, through the central motivations of loyalty and revenge, strengthen the movement's base. Reaching a compromise with the Leaders, even one which is not acceptable to the Soldiers, will help turn the Sympathisers against continuing violence. The Soldiers will in such circumstances find themselves new Leaders, but the new ones will have less influence over the base than the established ones.