By Jean-Luc Marret (for Safe Democracy)

Jean-Luc Marret analyzes the logisitics of terrorism and defines it as a complicated mass of machinery and discusses its organizational dynamics, networks, rapid transmission of decisions, and finally draws upon Abu Nidal’s Fatah as a present day illustration of such a structure. As stated by Marret, the structure is geared in two directions: the relationship maintained by leaders and is influenced by the constraints of security. He adds that terrorist networks are dependent on four elements: membership numbers, theater of operations, place of origin, and logistical support, and explains it.

Jean-Luc Marret is a researcher at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique in Paris and has concentrated on Islam and terrorism for over ten years. He is a doctor in political science, and teaches international relations and political science at University of Paris XIII, as well as the foreign policy of the United States at the Ecole Spéciale Militaire at Saint-Cyr.

TERRORISM IS PARTICULARLY VISIBLE IN ITS spectacular consequences and media coverage, in its manifest results. Nevertheless, it is as much a long and painstaking process as it is a sudden, brutal and spectacular act. Terrorism is a complicated mass of machinery, a latent process.

Terrorist group structure is: 1) geared to the relationship maintained by leaders, i.e., terrorist groups may be democratic when leadership is collective and attuned to the rank and file; and 2) influenced by the constraints of security. As for any non-terrorist political organization, terrorist groups gear their
structures to attaining common goals.

The organization, the embodiment of functions in these groups, shows a special culture. Thus, in their day, European extreme-left groups borrowed the Marxist-Leninist jargon or the vocabulary of WW II resistance movements for labeling their different structures. Furthermore, in a terrorist group as in any other, the organizational method depends on how far each member is willing to go. Clearly, the individual price of a commitment to terrorism –and, hence, motivations– are multiplied by the immense danger this plunge into violence represents.
For all these reasons, the organizational dynamics of terror groups vary, as do the sources of their financing.

Terrorist networks depend mainly on the number of members of the political organization employing terrorism, their theater of operations, their place of origin, and, finally, their logistical support.

Terrorist group structure is usually organized in a pyramid, of the military chain of command type or in small cells, or both at the same time. For their action, the fighting cells adopt varied names (“Islamic Jihad”, “Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine”, “Revolutionary Justice Organization”, “Organization of the Oppressed on Earth”, etc.) and split up or rename themselves right after the attack.

Theoretically, the pyramidal structure allows rapid transmission of decisions. Experience has shown, however, that the structure is fragile and does not stand up well to police investigations. Another limitation, characteristic of any political organization, is a strong and concrete leadership, with visible practices and privileges. This situation often leads to conflict, rivalry or opposition. As in traditional political organizations, the guiding members of a terrorist group may begin competing to impose their views and their interests. In his writings on guerrilla warfare, Mao Ze-Dong theorized about this kind of centralized leadership.

The cellular structure offers more flexible use, especially, if the cells are functionally autonomous and if –acting towards a common goal like the establishment of a Caliphate– they are independent.

A mixed organization can manage to reconcile the advantages of both organizational systems provided the hierarchical levels are sufficiently partitioned.

Abu Nidal’s Fatah – Revolutionary Council was split into two leaderships in the mid-1980s:

-A political leadership responsible for propaganda, the financial support of members and the raising of funds. Its headquarters were in Damascus until the middle of 1985 and then in Tripoli, so as to follow the state sponsorship typical of that period. Arrested, some of its members claimed that leadership was collective—as per the “Arab Socialist” ideological influence that characterized this group.

-A military leadership responsible for recruiting and training active members, set up in late 1986 in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon and on the Lebanese coast (near Sidon—specifically, in Beddaoui–the largest Palestinian camp in Lebanon–and in Mar Elias in the suburbs of Beirut). This leadership took charge of actions in southern Lebanon, as well as special operations in Europe or in the Middle East. It organized actions against the leaders of the PLO, which was the outgrowth of political competition between Arafat and Abu Nidal.

-The group only claimed responsibility under its own name for actions against Jewish or Israeli targets. Generally, such claims were made by telephone or by means of a letter to a press agency or newspaper.

-The underground cells of this organization were comprised of three to seven members. They were compartmentalized so that only active members knew members of other cells. Any cell sought and received instructions and information about its target for several weeks notably, concerning the method to be used and the way of covering their escape once the operation was executed. Each member was given an alias and knew his comrades only by their aliases. They kept the number of their meetings and phone calls to a minimum; if the cell had to meet, it did so in a public place. Messages were transmitted by reliable couriers and were encoded. The leader of the cell had several responsibilities; he was intelligence officer, quartermaster and in charge of logistics (He had to organize transportation, store weapons, send and receive messages, handle finances for the cell, etc.).

For its part, the Al Jihad group of Egypt –an Islamist group– was organized in the following way in 1982: a strategic leadership connected to the functional equivalent of a government’s legislative branch; a consultative assembly on religious questions commanded a staff in charge of carrying out terrorist actions.

But another division concerning terrorist groups must be added to this breakdown borrowed from traditional political organizations: The militants may or may not be clandestine, regulars (fulltime) or irregulars (mercenaries of terrorist political commitment), temporary, legal (if they have kept their authentic identity papers) or illegal (if they use a false identity).