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Why Are Terrorist Organizations So Difficult to Destroy?

The White House’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism (White House, 2018) summarizes the struggle against terrorism and terrorist organizations as follows:

“The United States and our allies face an increasingly complex terrorist landscape, populated by a diverse array of actors employing new technologies and tactics to advance their agendas. The terrorist threat to the United States is growing more dynamic and diffuse as an increasing number of groups, networks, and individuals exploit global trends, including the emergence of more secure modes of communications, the expansion of social and mass media, and persistent instability across several regions.”

There can be no argument that terrorism is and will continue to be a major threat to the world. The fight against large terrorist organizations such has been ongoing for decades, even before the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001. Today, Al Queda, the Islamic State (ISIS) and their affiliated groups are the United States’ main adversaries, although certainly only the only ones.

The White House’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism (White House, 2018) states succinctly the goal of our nation and our allies in defeating terror: “Since September 11, 2001, we have learned that winning the war on terrorism requires our country to aggressively pursue terrorists. We have also learned, however, that we must do more than merely kill or capture terrorists. We must dismantle terrorists' networks and sever the sources of strength and support that sustain them (emphasis added), that allow them to regenerate, and that permit them to adapt. To secure a lasting victory, we must also maintain sufficient pressure on terrorist organizations to prevent them from reemerging.”

If we have been fighting terrorist organizations for so long, why are we experiencing difficulty in destroying them? The answers are many. However, one main reason is the decentralized structure of these organizations as opposed to a traditional hierarchal structure common in governments and most legitimate organizations.

The Move Toward a Decentralized Structure in Terror Organizations

In their book Weapons of Mass Destruction and Terrorism, Forest and Howard (2013) make the argument that the main goal or principle of every terrorist organization is survival of the organization. The group’s survival depends on maintaining covert membership, ensuring operational security, preventing the infiltration of the group from outside, punishing those that betray the organization, and limiting damage to the group and its ability to operate. In this regard, Al-Qaeda was one of the first groups to see the advantages of a less hierarchal structure and imitate an international business model where the structure is pyramidal and not a strict hierarchy meaning it is relatively loosely run. Although it is decentralized it is still connected and able to assemble and disseminate resources where needed and to coordinate operations. They are more of a network as opposed to a strict, centralized, pyramid. Being a network provides numerous operational benefits. For example, they can quickly learn, adapt, and be very resilient.

One reason for terrorist organizations to shift to a more loosely organized network structure as opposed to a strict, traditional, hierarchal structure is that terrorism has moved from local cells typically supported by a state sponsor to becoming more transnational and global. Also, terrorists have moved from being politically motivated with more local or regional aspirations to becoming religiously motivated with global goals and objectives. Therefore, terrorist organizations have moved from a strong centralized organization to networks of autonomous cells and inspired but not controlled by charismatic leaders (Forest and Howard, 2013).

Another advantage of a decentralized network is it makes it more difficult for outsiders to penetrate the organization. As counterterrorism capabilities improved and governments began to cooperate more, terrorist organizations were forced to move to a flatter, more loosely affiliated group of cells that has allowed groups like al-Qaeda to operate with great secrecy and security (Forest and Howard, 2013).

Shapiro (2005) also credits pressure from government efforts in counterterrorism as one motivating factor to move from a centralized, closely controlled model to a network and points out additional benefits to a decentralized network. Members of the network can freely form local coalitions wherever they happen to be and access a wide variety of local skills. Furthermore, decentralization may make it harder for governments to uncover and exploit links between individuals and among groups.

Fighting the Long War

As nations struggle to fight and destroy terrorist organizations specifically and terrorism generally, it becomes incumbent on individuals and organizations to take a measure of responsibility for their own safety?

Do you, as an individual, take necessary precautions to reduce your personal risk? Do you know what to look for and what questions to ask? Do you “say something” when you “see something”? You may not be able to stop an incident, but you can do much to reduce your personal risk and even mitigate potential effects of an incident.

If you lead an organization, whether I be a school, house of worship, service organization or private business, are you taking the responsibility to continually evaluate your risk and identify potential threats? Are you implementing practices and procedures to ensure the safety of your employees and assets?

As the government continues to fight at the macro level, are you doing what you need to do at the micro level to protect yourself and everything important to you?


  • Forest, J. J., & Howard, R. D. (2013). Weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

  • Shapiro, J. N. (2005). "Organizing terror: hierarchy and networks in covert organizations". Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Marriott Wardman Park, Omni Shoreham, Washington Hilton, Washington, DC, December 17, 2013.

  • Retrieved from, April 23, 2019.

  • The White House (2018). National strategy for counterterrorism. Washington, DC; The White House.

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