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Commentary: The secret group dynamics that fuel horrifying terror attacks

Focusing on how terrorist teams work and how they make their decisions, rather than fixating on the individual motivations of terrorists, will help counter-terror efforts, says Matthias Spitzmuller at Queen's University.

Commentary: The secret group dynamics that fuel horrifying terror attacks

More than a year after Islamic State-linked fighters seized the southern Philippine city of Marawi, the terrorist threat is as potent as ever, Singapore's defence minister says AFP/Ted ALJIBE

ONTARIO: 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 Sep 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda executed a series of co-ordinated attacks against the United States, killing close to 3,000 people and injuring over 6,000. On Mar 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 Jul 7, 2005, Islamist suicide bombers attacked London’s public transport system, killing 52 people and injuring more than 700 others. The list goes on.

A total of 52 people were killed when four suicide bombers targeted rush-hour commuters using London's transport network on July 7, 2005. (Photo: AFP/Dylan Martinez)

READ: Blurred lines and new means - terrorism’s alarming new dimensions, a commentary

From 2000 to 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 radicalise, organise and make decisions.

There is a common misconception in the West that leaders of Al-Qaeda and, more recently, Islamic State 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 organise themselves and co-ordinate attacks in the presence of this fluidity, yet maintain a high level of cohesiveness?


Conceptualising 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.

In other words, team members enjoy a great deal of autonomy, without losing sight of the objectives of the team as a whole. Terrorist teams as systems demonstrate both loose vertical coupling — self-management — and loose horizontal coupling — little interdependence between team members.

Loosely coupled systems bear a number of advantages: They allow individuals to retain their own identity and self-determination; they are highly effective at sensing and responding to changes or opportunities in the environment; and they are better able to respond to breakdowns in the subcomponents of the system.

An Iraqi firefighter works at the site of a suicide car bombing claimed by the Islamic State group on July 3, 2016 in Baghdad's central Karrada district (Photo: AFP/Sabah Arar)

Our research focused on extremist Islamist terrorist attacks from the last 15 years and built on previous work conducted with researcher John R Hollenbeck. Drawing on the theories of American organisational scholar Karl Weick, we looked at the literature on group behaviour and team decision-making and leveraged the theories of “loose coupling” in terrorist teams.


An emergent rather than top-down leadership structure is a defining structural feature of extremist Islamist terrorist teams. 

Scott Atran and Marc Sageman’s analysis of the 2004 Madrid train bombings which killed over 190 people and injured another 2,000 shows how random the leadership structure was among the affiliated terrorist network.

The individuals that gravitated toward a leadership role in the network simply emerged as being the most effective in facilitating the logistics and communication demands of the group. The social system determines the objectives and missions, not the individual leaders.

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The strength of terrorist teams does not reside in their leaders, but rather in their complexity. Despite a high degree of familiarity among some team members, connections among the larger network are typically quite loose.

In the case of the terror attacks on four commuter trains in Madrid, a diverse group of individuals was ultimately involved, from the Islamist terrorist team that carried out the attacks and its wider social support network, to petty criminals, Spanish miners and two police informants.


The fluid nature of terrorists teams, together with their lack of a traditional leader, make their activities hard to combat. Loosely coupled terrorist teams have a tremendous ability to adapt to local circumstances.

For example, prior to the 2004 Madrid train bombings, Spanish authorities knew the terrorist group involved had been discussing and praising extremist operations worldwide. They also knew the same group had voiced their intent to conduct their own attack on Spanish soil. 

The 2004 train bombings in Madrid killed 191 people and remains the worst extremist attack in Spain's history (Photo: AFP/Christophe Simon)

However, because no ties to Al-Qaeda could be established, none of the team members were brought in and detained. This suggests that counter-terrorism efforts should focus less on external ties to terrorist organisations and more on the actual operations of terrorist teams.


The ways in which terrorist teams organised themselves represent one of the best examples we’ve seen of loose coupling. Many of these same principles can be applied to organisations seeking to be more agile and innovative.

An organisation, for instance, could assemble a team that has no formal leader. Team members would step up, but then also step back when they may not be the best individual to lead the group in a particular initiative. 

Establishing fluid boundaries, which let in resources and information from outside the group, could also prove effective, as well as bringing together people from different parts of the organisation.

Thankfully, the majority of terrorist teams fail. They either disband before they launch an attack, are discovered during preparations, or the attack itself is not successful. 

READ: Don't win the battle against terrorism but lose the war on radicalisation, a commentary

That said, violent group actions have had a profound effect on our world over the last 15 years. Thus, their impact cannot be evaluated by looking at the successes or failures of individual teams, but rather the potential success of the combined attacks.

Matthias Spitzmuller is Associate Professor and Toller Family Fellow of Organisational Behaviour at Queen's University in Ontario. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.

Source: CNA/nr


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