The that make terrorist teams work

By Matthias Spitzmuller

Acts of terrorism are harrowing and can cause extensive damage and tragic deaths, and they have been occurring with alarming frequency over the last decade. Scholars, governments and analysts have spent a lot of time exploring individual motivations of terrorists. However, terrorist activities are typically performed by groups, not isolated individuals. Examining the role of team dynamics in terrorist activities can elucidate how terrorist teams radicalize, organize and make decisions. There is a common misconception in the West that leaders of terrorist groups are recruiting and brainwashing people into giving up their lives to establish a new political order. This is an incorrect that has been vastly exaggerated in the media, based on a Western understanding of leadership.

Acts of terrorism are harrowing and can cause extensive damage and tragic deaths, and they have been occurring with alarming frequency over the last decade.

On Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida executed a series of coordinated attacks against the United States, killing close to 3,000 people and injuring over 6,000. On March 11, 2004, an extremist Islamist group bombed four commuter trains in Madrid during morning rush hour, killing 191 people and injuring another 2,000. On July 7, 2005, Islamist suicide bombers attacked London’s public transport system, killing 2 people and injuring more than 700 others. The list goes on.

From 2000-2016, global deaths from terrorism increased eight-fold. Seventy-seven countries experienced at least one death due to terrorism in 2016, more than any year since 2000.

Scholars, governments and analysts have spent a lot of time exploring individual motivations of terrorists. However, terrorist activities are typically performed by groups, not isolated individuals. Examining the role of team dynamics in terrorist activities can elucidate how terrorist teams radicalize, organize and make decisions.

There is a common misconception in the West that leaders of al-Qaeda and, more recently, Daesh (ISIS) are recruiting and brainwashing people into giving up their lives to establish a new political order. This is an incorrect model that has been vastly exaggerated in the media, based on a Western understanding of leadership.

My recent research with Guihyun Park of Singapore Management University seeks to provide a better understanding of what motivates terrorist teams and how they make their decisions. How do terrorist teams combine their local identity with a global mission? How do they organize themselves and coordinate attacks in the presence of this fluidity, yet maintain a high level of cohesiveness?

Islamist terrorist teams
Conceptualizing terrorist teams as loosely coupled structures can help us answer these questions. The term loosely coupled systems refers to structures in which the entire system represents a holistic unit, while still preserving the unique identity of the components that make up the entire system.



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