Terrorist Organizations Research Paper

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Unlike many types of violence, terrorist attacks are frequently conceived of, planned, and executed within the framework of a group or organization rather than by isolated individuals. As a result, a key element of understanding terrorism involves understanding the groups and organizations that engage in terrorism. This research paper explores the fundamentals of terrorist organizations in a historical and global context, focusing on three general areas: definitions, data, and dynamics. First, what constitutes a terrorist organization and what implications do definitional complexities have for analysis and policy? Second, what is the current state of data and scholarly analysis on terrorist organizations? Finally, how do terrorist organizations vary on key dimensions such as formation, typologies, attack patterns, organizational structure, and evolution?

Defining Terrorist Organizations

Insofar as terrorist organizations are simply organizations that engage in terrorism, the practice of comprehensively defining terrorist organizations inherits all of the complexity that goes along with defining terrorism and then some. The elusive definition of terrorism is discussed at length elsewhere (Schmid and Jongman 1988; Schmid 2004), with the conclusion that there are many definitions used and though they share common themes, none is universally accepted. Beyond this challenging inconsistency, defining terrorist organizations is further complicated by the fact that organizations are typically multifaceted, engaging in a wide variety of legal and illegal activities. Classifying organizations as terrorist organizations requires consideration of how many acts of terrorism a group must commit before this becomes a key identifying characteristic. Further, how great of a threat must the organization pose, and to whom? Finally, groups of individuals that engage in terrorism range from very small, clandestine, informally related clusters of people, to broad networks united by “leaderless resistance,” to formally established, even hierarchical organizations that are more explicit about their existence and their objectives. This structural dimension also impacts the problematization of terrorist groups. One man’s terrorist organization may be another man’s insurgent group, or criminal gang, or even political party.

In light of these issues, identifying terrorist organizations is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. A number of international entities and nations formally designate terrorist organizations for the purpose of law enforcement and sanctioning. Many of these designations originated or expanded following the unprecedented terrorist attacks carried out by al Qa’ida in the United States on September 11, 2001. The most widely adopted list is that established by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC (resolutions 1267 (1999) and 1989 (2011)) maintains a list of “entities and other groups and undertakings associated with al Qa’ida,” which member nations are bound to sanction by (1) freezing the entity’s funds, assets, and resources; (2) preventing transit to or through their territory; and (3) preventing the supply, sale, or transfer of arms or related material. The UNSC’s list includes 68 entities, both terrorist organizations linked to al Qa’ida and organizations that provide financial and material support to al Qa’ida and related groups.

In addition to upholding the sanctions established by the United Nations, the European Union maintains sanctions against additional groups involved in terrorist activity identified through a process governed by the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). The Council Common Position 2001/931/CFSP indicates that the function of the EU’s list of terrorist groups is twofold. It combats the financing of terrorist activity insofar as the European Community will freeze the assets and resources of listed groups, and it facilitates cooperation in criminal justice matters by stating that the EU and its member states will “afford each other the widest possible assistance” with respect to police and judicial enquiries regarding the entities on the list. Until recently the list included a distinction between groups that are subject to both provisions and groups that are subject to only the latter provision regarding cooperation among states. In fact, the initial list of terrorist groups identified by the EU in 2001 included only two whose funding and financial assets were targeted: Hamas-Izz al-Din al-Qassem (the terrorist wing of Hamas) and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). The remaining groups, for which member states pledged assistance in criminal justice matters, included the Continuity Irish Republican Army (CIRA), Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA), the Anti-facist Resistance Group First of October (GRAPO), the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), the Orange Volunteers (OV), the Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA), the Red Hand Defenders, (RHD), the Revolutionary Nuclei, the Revolutionary Organization 17 November, the Revolutionary Popular Struggle (ELA), and the Ulster Defense Association/Ulster Freedom Fighters (UDA/UFF).

The EU list is reviewed and updated regularly, however, and as of January 2011, it has changed considerably. It now includes 26 groups that are all fully covered by the provisions of Common Position 2001/931/SCFP. Furthermore, the organizations on the list are far more geographically diverse than the originally designated list, including groups not only from Europe and the Middle East but also Latin America (e.g., the revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Shining Path), Asia (e.g., Aum Shinrikyo, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)), and Africa (e.g., Gama’a al-Islamiyya).

Other international organizations have not engaged in explicitly designating terrorist organizations to the extent the European Union has. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has released declarations affirming its commitment to combating terrorism in 2001 and 2003 (2012). They pledge to uphold UN anti-terrorism resolutions and, among other things, enhance the sharing of information on terrorist organizations and their movement and funding but stop short of formally designating particular organizations for investigation. In 2009, however, ASEAN established a “Comprehensive Plan of Action on Counter Terrorism” that includes the following provision:

10.2 Introduce a system for the designation/proscription of terrorists/terrorist groups, without prejudice to domestic law and in accordance with international standards, and share such information with other ASEAN Member States in order that they may take the appropriate action, including, inter alia, monitoring and deterring terrorist movement, freezing assets/property, and preventing recruitment. (2012: 72)

Likewise, the African Union has resolved to strengthen its capacity and that of its member states to address the problem of terrorism (2004). Despite the fact that the AU is actively involved in combating the al Qa’ida-linked militant group al Shabaab in Somalia, thus far it has only officially designated one terrorist organization, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) based in Uganda. This designation took place in 2011, according to a November 2011 Reuters report.

Individual states have unique protocols for designating terrorist organizations as well and typically focus on those that are specific threats to the interests of the country or its allies. For example, the United States Department of State (2012a) describes its practice of “listing” Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) as follows:

  1. It must be a foreign organization.
  2. The organization must engage in terrorist activity or terrorism or retain the capability and intent to engage in terrorist activity or terrorism.
  3. The organization’s terrorist activity or terrorism must threaten the security of US nationals or the national security (national defense, foreign relations, or the economic interests) of the United States.

There are several legal implications of a US Department of State FTO designation. It is illegal for a person subject to the jurisdiction of the United States to provide material support or resources to the FTO. Also, members or representatives of the group who are not US citizens are not allowed to travel to the United States. Finally, US financial institutions are required to freeze any funds known to belong to designated FTOs. The Department of State notes several informal sanctions that come with an FTO designation, namely, the potential deterrent impact on donations and financing for FTOs and the stigmatization of the organizations, signaling to the public and to other nations the United States’ view of them as a threat to national security. As of September 12, 2012, the United States designates 51 organizations as FTOs.

A number of other countries follow similar protocols for identifying and sanctioning terrorist organizations, with similar implications of sanctioning. For example, the United Kingdom’s Home Office maintains a list of proscribed terrorist groups that, as of July 2012, includes 45 “international terrorist organizations” as well as 14 proscribed Northern Irish groups (Home Office 2012). Likewise, the Australian government (2012) officially identifies 17 organizations that have been designated either by a court in the context of a prosecution for a terrorist organization offense or “listed” by the government under the Criminal Code Regulations. Under Canada’s Anti-Terrorism Act, the Governor in Council has established a list of entities that have participated in or facilitated terrorist activity. This list, which is reviewed every 2 years, currently includes 44 entities. India’s Ministry of Home Affairs maintains a list of 34 banned organizations declared as terrorist organizations, in addition to the al Qa’ida and Taliban-related organizations designated by the United Nations Security Council pursuant to resolutions 1267 and 1989.

Listing and delisting terrorist organizations can be contentious and influenced by many factors, often including political considerations. For example, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) is an anti-government Iranian group currently exiled in Iraq that has carried out numerous violent attacks since the 1970s. The MEK has recently been successful in its controversial campaign to be delisted by a number of states. A 2012 background report on the organization published by the Council on Foreign Relations indicates that the MEK engaged a number of advocates, including many paid high-profile officials, to lobby on its behalf claiming that it is no longer a terrorist threat. As a result, the MEK has been delisted by the European Union, the United Kingdom, and most recently the United States. The United States, which initially listed the MEK in 1997, cited the group’s “public renunciation of violence, the absence of confirmed acts of terrorism… for more than a decade, and their cooperation in the peaceful closure of Camp Ashraf, their historic paramilitary base” in its decision to remove them from the FTO list in 2012 (Department of State 2012c).

Likewise, there is often great deal of debate about which groups should be added to sanctions lists. For example, in 2012 media sources including the Wall Street Journal and the Jerusalem Post reported that representatives from several governments, including the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands, have applied pressure to the European Union regarding the absence of the Lebanon-based group Hezbollah from the EU’s list of designated terrorist organizations. The EU, citing a lack of consensus, diplomatic concerns, and lack of tangible evidence of Hezbollah’s involvement in acts of terrorism, has long resisted this pressure. A more recently emerging group, Boko Haram, is reportedly responsible for the deaths of over 1,000 people in Nigeria since 2009, leading US authorities to consider designating it as an FTO. However, the International Business Times reports that despite ongoing violence against Nigerian targets, Nigerian officials are concerned that doing so would have unintended negative consequences for travel and trade between the United States and Nigeria.

Given the many special considerations that produce such disparate and incomplete lists of officially defined terrorist organizations, scholars interested in systematic analysis of terrorist organizations may seek a more comprehensive solution to establishing this problem space. One alternative is to define terrorist organizations empirically, based on an objective definition of terrorism that is exhaustively, rather than selectively applied. Analysts have increasingly turned to terrorism incident databases, which are discussed in more detail below, to establish a comprehensive record of terrorist organizations insofar as they are simply those organizations identified as perpetrators of terrorist attacks. This approach is not without limitations. For example, its all-inclusiveness provides a rather poor initial assessment of a group’s potential threat outside of the basic question of how many attacks it has executed and the severity of those attacks. Activity related to the preparation, planning, funding, or material support for violent attacks is rarely accounted for in such sources. However, this post hoc approach certainly avoids the inherent biases that exist in governmental strategies to define terrorist organizations.

Data On Terrorist Organizations

Despite the typically clandestine nature of terrorist organizations, an impressive amount of information about them exists in unclassified literature, though the level of detail is not uniform for all organizations. Due to terrorists’ reliance on the media to disseminate their message, primary media sources have proven to be fruitful sources of information on the activities of terrorist organizations. In addition, court documents pertaining to the prosecution of terrorism often include information about groups and organizations. In certain cases, researchers have been very successful at obtaining valuable information through archival documents or interviews with members or former members of terrorist organizations.

There are several general types of data or information on terrorist organizations. These include in-depth case studies, narrative profiles compiled into reference volumes or online portals, structured data on terrorist organizations, and structured data on terrorist activity. Each of these contributes a unique and important perspective on terrorist organizations, and together they provide a more complete understanding of the nature and dynamics of organizations that engage in terrorism.

Case studies offer in-depth analysis of the motivations, structure, and functions of terrorist organizations, covering the entire spectrum of their violent and nonviolent activity such as recruitment, planning, strategy, financing, activism, communication, and criminal activity. They typically take a broad view of the organization, placing it in a broader historical and political context. Case studies typically focus on a particular group or conflict, such as Wright’s (2006) chronicle of the history of al Qa’ida, WickhamCrowley’s (1992) comparative study of guerrilla groups in Latin America, or Sayigh’s (1997) exhaustive account of the Palestinian National Movement. Each of these covers approximately half a century of events in great detail, drawing on archival records, published documents, and personal accounts to illustrate the inner workings of terrorist organizations. Others compile case studies on contrasting organizations, typically with the aim of identifying common patterns of activity. Examples of this include Crenshaw’s (1995) edited volume, Terrorism in Context, which includes chapters on terrorism and terrorist organizations in Europe, Russia, Italy, West Germany, Argentina, Peru, Ireland, India, Spain, Algeria, Israel and Palestine, and Iran. Ross (2006) seeks to illuminate the causes and consequences of political terrorism using case studies of three key organizations, al Fatah, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), as well as a review of terrorism and various terrorist groups active in the United States.

These are just a few examples of the use of case studies to compare, contrast, and better understand the organizational nature of terrorist activity. There are certainly many other studies that synthesize a great deal of information about particular organizations, both large and small. The studies mentioned above tend to aim at providing exhaustive accounts of the organization’s existence, but others may isolate a particular dimension of interest. For example, a compilation of case studies written by a team of researchers at the RAND Corporation (Jackson et al. 2005) analyzes five terrorist groups: Aum Shinrikyo, the Radical Environmentalist Movement, Hezbollah, Jemaah Islamiyah, and the Provisional Irish Republican Army, focusing specifically on exploring their aptitude for organizational learning and adaptation. Others use the case study method to investigate how terrorist organizations decline (Alterman 1999; Crenshaw 1991; Cronin 2009; Jones and Libicki 2009; Ross and Gurr 1989). While the richness of case studies has obvious benefits for understanding how terrorist organizations operate, they do sacrifice breadth for depth. Case studies generally focus on a small number of high-profile groups that are not necessarily representative of the global landscape of terrorist organizations. In fact, more inclusive sources of information on terrorist organizations tend to indicate that these high-profile groups, while responsible for a great deal of terrorist violence, are actually quite atypical.

Compilations of narrative profiles of terrorist organizations provide a far more comprehensive, though less detailed, source of information. Several of the official listings of terrorist organization discussed above include narrative descriptions of the groups in question that serve as justification for their designation as terrorist organizations (e.g., United Nations 2012; US Department of State 2012b). There are a number of reference texts that are far more inclusive, however, such as the “World Directory of Terrorist and Other Organizations Associated with Guerrilla Warfare, Political Violence, and Protest” compiled by Albert Jongman in collaboration with Alex Schmid (Schmid and Jongman 1988). This directory is based on information from a variety of journals, newspapers, and magazines and includes profiles of approximately 3,000 groups, parties, movements, and organizations worldwide that have engaged in violence, including state agencies that have engaged in gross human rights violations.

Similarly comprehensive reference resources on terrorist organizations include Janke’s (1983) Guerrilla and Terrorist Organizations: A World Directory and Bibliography, Jessup’s (1998) An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Conflict and Conflict Resolution 1945–1996, Hill’s (2002) Extremist Groups: An International Compilation of Terrorist Organizations, Violent Political Groups, and Issue-Oriented Militant Movements, Kushner’s (2003) Encyclopedia of Terrorism, and Atkins’ (2004) Encyclopedia of Modern Worldwide Extremists and Extremist Groups.

More recently, several online portals including information on terrorist organizations have been developed. Perhaps the first and most well-known of these, the Terrorism Knowledge Base (TKB), was developed and maintained by the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT). The TKB included narrative profiles and basic structured information on aliases, bases (countries) of operation, date formed, group size, ideological classification, sources of funding, key leaders, related groups, and official designations for over 800 organizations. Although the TKB was discontinued in 2008, these profiles were transferred to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) where they are published online in their original form under the name Terrorist Organization Profiles (TOPs) (2008). Similar resources have since been developed, including the Violent Extremism Knowledge Base (VKB) at the Institute for the Study of Violent Groups (ISVG) and Crenshaw’s Mapping Militant Organizations project at Stanford University (Crenshaw 2012; ISVG 2012). The VKB contains profiles of over 150 groups and organizations around the world. The Mapping Militant Organizations project, though currently limited to Global al Qa’ida, Iraq, Italy, North Caucasus, the Philippines, Somalia, and Pakistan, includes both general profiles and indepth timelines documenting the complex evolution of dozens of organizations in these contexts.

Structured, quantitative datasets on terrorist organizations are extremely resource intensive to collect and therefore are quite rare. Due to the large number of terrorist organizations active worldwide, along with their clandestine and continually evolving nature, it is difficult to systematically collect reliable, comprehensive data on these groups. Certain group-level datasets do exist, though they are somewhat limited in scope either by time or place. For example, the Big Allied and Dangerous (BAAD) Lethality database collected by Asal, Rethemeyer, and Anderson contains data on organizational ideology, location, size, structure, funding, and relationships to other groups for those organizations that were active worldwide between 1998 and 2005 (2009). Likewise, the Profiles of Perpetrators of Terrorism in the United States (PPT-US) database collected by Miller and Smarick (2011) contains over 100 variables regarding the organization’s history, structure, and violent and nonviolent activity for 142 groups that have carried out or attempted to carry out terrorist attacks in the United States between 1970 and 2010.

The final piece of the data puzzle for understanding terrorist organizations is incident-level data. In order to fully understand the dynamics of terrorist organizations, one must consider their patterns of activity, including the location, timing, tactics, and lethality of their attacks. With the increased availability of incident-level datasets on terrorist attacks, analysts are able to aggregate data on the perpetrators of these attacks to first identify the universe of perpetrator groups and then conduct analysis on any of these dimensions of activity. Several such global datasets are currently available, including the RAND Database of Worldwide Terrorism Incidents (RDWTI) (RAND Corporation 2012) and the International Terrorism: Attributes of Terrorist Events (ITERATE) dataset (Mickolus 1982). The ITERATE dataset, distributed by Vinyard Software, now includes structured data on international terrorist attacks from 1968 through 2007, and the RDWTI includes data on international terrorist attacks from 1972 to 1997 and both international and domestic attacks from 1998 to 2008.

For a complete account of an organization’s terrorist activity, it is important to consider both international and domestic attacks. The Global Terrorism Database (GTD) is maintained by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START 2012). The GTD, which includes over 104,000 domestic and international terrorist attacks that occurred worldwide from 1970 to 2011, identifies names of over 2,000 organizations as perpetrators of the attacks.

Dynamics Of Terrorist Organizations

Ultimately, it is extremely challenging to establish a “ground truth” universe of terrorist organizations, given many divergent interests that influence official designations and various methodologies for collecting data on these groups. It is critical that researchers make appropriate inferences with this in mind. Nonetheless, drawing on the variety of sources described above, analysts have built a considerable body of research on the dynamics of terrorist organizations, how they form, what drives them, how they evolve, and how they ultimately end. The common theme in much of the literature is that terrorist organizations are extremely diverse with respect to many of these dimensions.

How Terrorist Organizations Begin

Martha Crenshaw (2001) contrasts two theoretical paradigms of terrorism, one instrumental and the other organizational, both of which have important implications regarding how terrorist organizations form and begin to engage in violence. An instrumental approach is entirely goal based, suggesting that everything an organization does, including choosing to engage in violence, is decided because it is in the best interests of achieving the group’s stated goals. The organizational framework suggests that the stated ideology or goal of the group is actually secondary to its true objective: simply continuing to exist, even as political purpose evolves over time. In this scenario, insofar as the potential for grievance is universal, the formation of potentially violent organizations becomes critical to understanding and combating terrorism.

A number of factors influence the formation of terrorist organizations. Crenshaw suggests that the necessary components include skilled, committed leaders who are able to attract and incentivize other members, a demand for the organization among an actual or potential constituency, available mobilizable resources, and a salient purpose marked by ideas that legitimize violence. Likewise, Oots (1989) explores the importance of not only entrepreneurial leadership, recruitment of members, and political and financial support but also a group’s ability to form coalitions with other groups, internal and external competition, and internal cohesiveness. The salience of these factors with respect to terrorist organizations suggests that in many ways they are not unlike other types of organizations, particularly other political organizations.

Research on the experiences of group members indicates that the incentives to join a terrorist group often have little to do with the group’s objectives (Crenshaw 2001; Sageman 2004). Crenshaw highlights the importance of factors like personal daring, social rebellion, action, and feelings of belonging, acceptance, solidarity, and contribution. Furthermore, Sageman observes that the key to understanding modern Salafi jihad terror networks is not found in conventional wisdom about “top-down” recruiting efforts and brainwashing. Instead, it is frequently the case that adopting an alliance with al Qa’ida and forming a terrorist cell is about social relationships involving friendship, kinship, discipleship, and worship. That is, terrorist cells are formed among personal acquaintances within social circles as a “bottom-up” phenomenon.


Analysts frequently organize terrorist groups into typologies to provide a framework for understanding the groups and their activities. These typologies are most frequently based on the groups’ ideology or goals (Ganor 2008; Merari 1978; Schmid and Jongman 1988). The motivational underpinnings of terrorist groups may be political, religious, social, economic, philosophical, practical, or a complex, shifting combination of many of these. Although ideology is frequently the basis for classification of terrorist groups, it is not the only basis and it has certain limitations. For example, in some cases, the group’s ideology is held universally, and in other cases, it may be largely immaterial to the violent activity of members. Likewise, it can be challenging to articulate a meaningful classification scheme when the organizations themselves are often complex.

For example, the dominant ideology variable in the Profiles of Perpetrators of Terrorism (PPT) database is a fairly typical ideological classification of perpetrator groups based on the following five categories: Extreme Right-Wing, Extreme Left-Wing, Religious, Ethnonationalist/Separatist, and Single Issue. Variations on this scheme may disaggregate these categories further; however, even at this fairly high level of abstraction, certain groups fall into more than one category, compromising the mutual exclusivity of the typology. Often these complexities contribute to rifts within groups that lead to the development of factions or splinter groups. For example, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) is a Muslim group based in the Philippines that sought for decades to establish independence for the Moro people. Because the Moro people are Muslim, the MNLF is frequently classified as Religious/Nationalist-Separatist, despite the fact that their ideology is generally secular and somewhat left leaning, guided principally by the goal of Moro nationalism (ISVG 2012; Tan 2007). In contrast, however, MNLF splinter groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) have adopted a far more “overtly religious” radical Islamist ideology, establishing links with the global jihadist movement and al Qa’ida (Tan 2007, pp. 13, 34).

Fitting groups like this into a typology based on ideology can be challenging and, as Merari (1978) suggests, not particularly useful with respect to forecasting a group’s strategy or tactics or the efficacy of counterterrorism measures. Instead, Merari recommends a two-dimensional typology that classifies terrorist groups based on (a) whether they fight against a foreign or domestic government, organization, or population (“xenofighters” vs. “homofighters”) and (b) whether their base of operations is domestic or abroad relative to their constituency. Merari’s typology of terrorist organizations focuses particularly on their operational goals and how they relate to group behavior. For example, he suggests that xenofighter terrorist groups tend to adopt more indiscriminate tactics and are more likely to harm innocents or use weapons of mass destruction because they do not rely on the target population for support like homofighter groups do. Likewise, in Merari’s typology, homofighter groups are more likely to use targeted tactics such as assassinations or kidnappings of key figures.

Ganor (2008) articulates an exhaustive list of typological dimensions that extend beyond an organization’s motivations. He suggests that violent groups vary meaningfully with respect to targets of violence (military vs. civilian), size, extent of public support, characteristics of the decision-making process, degree of independence or subordination with respect to sponsor states, financial strength, arena of operations (rural vs. urban), geographic range, control of territory, demands, seniority, place in organizational development, activities, and structure. Ganor recommends concentrating in particular on the two elements that are most likely to impact an organization’s activity: degree of motivation and degree of operational capability. Although any number of these dimensions might individually or in combination provide insight regarding an organization’s capabilities and threat, it is often difficult to comprehensively and systematically classify groups because reliable information on these characteristics is typically scarce and the characteristics themselves are often dynamic. Consequently, the application of typology-based strategies for understanding terrorist organizations is poorly developed.

Attack Patterns

Although it is difficult to obtain systematically collected data on many of the more clandestine attributes of terrorist organizations, information about their attack patterns is more readily available from incident-level databases like the Global Terrorism Database (GTD). The most widely recognized terrorist organizations are long lasting and either highly active, highly lethal, or both; however, a comprehensive analysis of the perpetrator groups identified in the GTD indicates that while some groups endure, the vast majority (74 %) last less than one year and are associated with only a few attacks (Dugan 2012). Not surprisingly, given this high proportion of short-lived groups, Dugan’s analysis also indicates that 26 % of terrorist organizations identified in the GTD are responsible for over 93 % of all attacks for which a perpetrator was identified.

The attack patterns of terrorist organizations are quite diverse and multifaceted. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Northern Ireland are both nationalist/separatist organizations among the most active and longest active groups between 1970 and 2007, yet the LTTE is nearly twelve times as lethal on average than the IRA. Conversely, al Qa’ida is responsible for the most lethal terrorist attacks in history on September 11, 2001, but is not among the most active terrorist organizations, though several al Qa’ida-linked groups are, such as al Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI).

The most recent version of the GTD indicates that between 1970 and 2011 there were 91 groups that carried out suicide attacks. Although the Taliban and the LTTE are the most frequent perpetrators of suicide attacks, this tactic represents only 9.8 % and 6.5 % of their attacks, respectively. Among groups that have carried out more than ten attacks, several adopt suicide tactics in more than one third of their attacks, including the Haqqani Network (71.8 % of attacks), al Qa’ida in Iraq (40 % of attacks), and al Qa’ida (36.8 % of attacks).

The GTD also indicates that perpetrator organizations attack a wide variety of targets. Although some of the typologies discussed above seek to classify terrorist organizations based on target selection, terrorist organizations vary considerably with respect to both targeting practices and diversity of target selection. For example, among perpetrator groups that have carried out at more than ten attacks between 1970 and 2011, only one organization attacked exclusively military targets, the 16 January Organization for the Liberation of Tripoli which attacked 24 Syrian military targets in Tripoli, Lebanon throughout 1989. A far more prevalent pattern of attacks involves a wide variety of target types including military, police, government, business, and private citizens and property. The GTD includes 21 different types of targets and over half of the perpetrator groups that have carried out more than ten attacks have attacked more than seven different types of targets.

How Terrorist Organizations Evolve

Just as the activity of terrorist organizations is highly variable, the organizations themselves are not static but rather dynamic and often subject to extensive evolution over time. Careful examination of the perpetrator attribution data in the Global Terrorism Database reveals that terrorist organizations do not exist in a vacuum, but instead they frequently splinter, create factions, merge with other groups, or form coalitions or umbrella groups. They often change names, key personnel, base of operations, or even ideology. Terrorist organizations may form strategic alliances or partnerships with each other or rivalries that lead to further violence. The evolution of terrorist groups and the often scarce information about their organizational development have important implications for analysis. Naming conventions alone, and the extent to which they reflect meaningful shifts in group identity, can pose critical challenges for the analysis of terrorist organizations. Consider, for example, the following narrative about Devrimci Halk Kurtulus Partisi/Cephesi (DHKP/C), the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front, from the Terrorist Organization Profiles (TOPs):

The DHKP/C (Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front) is a Marxist, anti-Western splinter group of the Turkish terrorist group Devrimci Sol (Dev Sol). Dev Sol originated as a splinter group of Devrimci Yol (Dev Yol) which was itself a splinter group of the Turkish People’s Liberation PartyFront (THKP/C). The THKP/C was an offshoot of the broader Revolutionary Youth movement (Dev Genc) within Turkey.

In the early 1990s, infighting within Dev Sol resulted in the emergence of two factions. Dursun Karatas, who founded Dev Sol by combining splintered factions of Turkish radical leftist groups in 1978, changed the group’s name to DHKP/C in 1994. Bedri Yagan, also a founding member of Dev Sol, broke from the Karatas faction and created a new faction, THKP/C (not to be confused with the original THKP/C). Confusingly, the Yagan faction of DHKP/C is still often referred to as Dev Sol.

The evolution of DHKP/C described here represents only a small segment of the broader Turkish Left and is not particularly atypical. Many organizations with different names in some way represent the same broader entity and often organizations with the same name are actually different entities. Furthermore, individual membership to a group is rarely a discrete status and various groups with similar interests share members. These qualities frequently make it difficult to determine where one terrorist organization ends and another begins.

The Mapping Militant Organizations project led by Martha Crenshaw at Stanford University is an extremely useful resource that chronicles the family trees of terrorist groups that are part of the global al Qa’ida network, as well as those that have been active in specific countries and regions. It includes a web-based application that graphically displays relationships between key organizations, including alliances, affiliations, mergers, rivalries, splits, and umbrella organizations. The “maps” illustrate clearly the complex reality of terrorist group dynamics and allow analysts to understand how interrelated these organizations are.

How Terrorist Organizations End

For many years research on terrorist organizations concentrated primarily on how they form and their attack patterns; however, recently scholars have devoted more attention to the question of how terrorist organizations decline and ultimately end. Many of these studies focus primarily on articulating and evaluating typologies of reasons for decline among terrorist organizations (Alterman 1999; Crenshaw 1991; Cronin 2009; Ross and Gurr 1989). In addition, several scholars have used statistical analysis of terrorist organizations and terrorist attacks to help understand patterns of decline (Blomberg et al. 2010; Jones and Libicki 2009; Miller 2012).

The proposed typologies include a range of factors, such as success or achievement of goals, perhaps coinciding with a transition to the legitimate political process; loss of popular support; and repression by the state. Various frameworks share in common the contention that organizational desistance from terrorism results from both internal influences (e.g., organizational breakdown) and external influences (e.g., military intervention) and likely results from several factors operating simultaneously. Scholars also observe that an effective strategy for countering one terrorist organization might have unintended negative consequences for countering another terrorist organization, depending on various factors. For example, killing or capturing a key leader of a group may lead to its decline or its resurgence, depending on the group’s organizational structure.

Statistical analysis of how terrorist organizations decline and end has been growing increasingly sophisticated and accountable to the complexities of terrorist organizations. The first large-N quantitative analysis of how terrorist groups end classified 648 groups as either active or inactive and then described the reason for decline among those groups that had ended (Jones and Libicki 2009). Although groundbreaking, this strategy oversimplifies both the status of terrorist organizations and the factors that impact decline. Subsequent efforts have improved upon the analysis by using statistical tools like duration modeling which accounts for the entire length of an organization’s life span (Blomberg et al. 2010) and group-based trajectory analysis which accounts for the organization’s level of activity across its life span (Miller 2012).

General findings from this body of research suggest that the effectiveness of counterterrorism policies remains largely untested with respect to the goal of bringing about organizational decline. Reasons for decline appear to be varied and politicization and suppression are equally common. The cause and rate of decline may be influenced by key characteristics of the group, such as ideology, size, organizational structure, or attack patterns. It is important to note that these findings are not yet robust enough to fully account for the complex evolution of organizations within a broader movement as discussed above. Rather than signifying the death of a terrorist organization, cessation of activity under a particular group name may indicate organizational splintering, merging, or simply a change of name. Future research on the decline of terrorist organizations must take into account a realistic appreciation for the complex and vague boundaries between groups.


The fact that terrorist attacks are frequently planned and executed by groups and organizations presents important challenges to understanding both terrorism and counterterrorism. The task of identifying terrorist organizations is subject to numerous influences and interests, leading various sources of data to produce widely divergent accounts of the prevalence and activity of terrorist organizations. A number of useful data sources exist, however, including in-depth case studies on particular groups, narrative profiles or structured data on a wider range of groups, or incident-level data that can be aggregated to provide details of organizations’ activity. Each of these has strengths and limitations but contributes an important perspective to the landscape of knowledge about terrorist organizations. From these sources of information, we know that terrorist organizations are extremely diverse with respect to many dimensions such as lethality, tactics, targeting practices, ideology, and organizational evolution. Existing research reveals complex relationships between terrorist organizations that analysts must take into account in order to fully understand patterns of terrorist activity.


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