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Understanding the Internal Structure of Terrorist Organisations

Bombarded with stories of bloodshed, barbarity and brutality, executed by Islamic State, it is difficult to conceptualise terrorist organisations as highly rational actors, who are calculating in their use of tactics and administrative structures. However, terrorist groups are not haphazardly arranged, nor do they choose their administrative structures in a vacuum.

Typically, terrorist organisations will arrange themselves on a scale, ranging from bureaucratic hierarchies to decentralised networks or solitary “lone wolves”. But these decisions are heavily influenced by a variety of factors. External influences, such as the security of the group, its geographical location and state sponsorship all play a role in the group structure. By understanding the external environment in which a terror group operates, intelligence and policing agencies are able to gain vital insights into the structure of the organisation.

Importantly, there is a trade-off within a group’s structure between its security and efficiency of goal completion. While hierarchies are more adept at completing goals, they also sacrifice the ability to operate clandestinely, making the risk of detection or elimination far greater.


After the events on September 11 2001 and the subsequent launching of the U.S.-led “War on Terror”, there has been a growing focus on the elimination of violent non-state actors. This has seen an increased threat environment for terror groups, dramatically reducing the ability for groups to have formal, centralised structures. In response, terrorist organisations have moved to a decentralised structure. Although decentralised networks can assume many different forms, these groups are characterised by their multi-directional communications, durability, lack of central command and independent decision making faculties.

Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, a jihadi strategist, published a volume on global jihadist military theory advocating the establishment of “individual jihad and small cell terrorism”. Listing a series of successful small cell or individually executed operations, al-Suri was methodical in his assessment that “it is no longer possible to operate…through the ‘secret-regional-hierarchical’ organisations” and that the small cell jihad was the organisation of preference into the future.

State sponsorship and location

The type of organisational structure that a terrorist organisation assumes is also contingent upon the level of external support they receive. In the case of groups that are the recipients of state sponsorship (passive or active), they can operate more ‘freely’ and often arrange themselves in the optimal hierarchical structure. Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, enjoyed passive support within Pakistan, allowing them to develop into a highly trained, well-organised group, with the ability to stage the catastrophic attacks in India.

The ability to have a physical base can also influence a group into arranging itself hierarchically. As seen by Islamic State, their ability to control territory has enabled them to arrange themselves into a highly disciplined and organised bureaucracy, complete with generals and departments covering a wide range of functions, including media, legal issues, finance and military.

Despite these exceptions, the environment for terror groups changed dramatically after 9/11. State sponsorship is far less likely due to the global pressures and mobilisation against insurgent groups, which saw many terrorist organisations decentralise due to reduced state support and increased security measures. It is far more likely that terror groups will adapt to a decentralised model or embrace a leaderless resistance. This is due to the constraints and security compromises that come with basing an illegal organisation in a physical location.


The breadth of a group’s objectives also has a significant influence on its organisational structure. Groups with specific, narrow goals such as territorial claims – or like Hamas and the Irish Republic Army are purported “governments in waiting” – are likely to be hierarchical to effectively pursue discrete and concrete outcomes. When a group’s objective is a broad, abstract ideological goal (for example, the establishment of a global caliphate), it benefits the group to adopt a decentralised structure. Having small cells conducting individual operations globally in pursuit of an ideological outcome is more effective than a locally based organisation. By definition, a locally based group will be less likely to achieve global influence than a network of cells pursuing those goals around the world.

Despite the widely promulgated premise that terrorists are “psychopaths”, their choice of organisational structure is something that is deliberated upon and highly considered. Depending on a variety of factors, these groups arrange themselves in the most effective structure to mitigate security threats, accomplish their goals and make use of state sponsorships.

Joel Paterson is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email for more information.

Image credit: Day Donaldson (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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