The Nature of International Terrorist Organizations 

By Stefan Sandor  

The nature of international terrorist organizations have become more complex in our time enabling them to survive and surpass the challenges and pressures of governments, either regional or further remote.  Therefore, in contradistinction to the classical approach of combating terrorist organizations by treating them as complicated systems, I argue that governments should combat terrorist organizations from a complex system approach. This would entail the proliferation of nonprofit organizations and networks,  with emphasis in disseminating humanitarian ideals, and providing access to resources and economic support to disenfranchised groups.

I. Complex systems

Throughout the natural and artificial world one observes phenomena of great complexities.  Complex system is a concept that is very well known in the disciplines of physics and biology.  Extensive research, in these disciplines, have shown that although the basic components of many systems are quite simple, in the aggregate the system displays complexity and a vast amount of spontaneous behavior.  In contradistinction to the second law of thermodynamics which implies that initial order is progressively degraded as systems evolve, many systems exhibit quite the opposite behavior, transforming initial simplicity or disorder into greater complexity. Thus, a complex system is a group or organization which is made up of many interacting parts. In such systems the individual parts, or agents,  and the interactions between them often lead to large scale behavior which are not easily predictable (if they are at all) from a knowledge only of the behavior of the individual agent. Unlike in a complicated systems where much of its characteristics are predictable, linear and reducible to cause and effect, the components of a complex system interact in ways that defy a deterministic, linear analysis.

II. Hezbollah and ISIS as complex systems

Hezbollah is known as  the most organized and business savvy terrorist organization that relies on global groups engaged in drug, arms, counterfeit trafficking and money laundering for funding and support.  With globalization, Hezbollah, and many other terrorist groups have “internationalized their support and operations, brokered formidable alliances, and present complex transnational threats that put security and prosperity at risk around the world”(1).  According to the article The Terror-Crime Nexus by Celina B. Realuyo, Hezbollah has significant support, beside the land of its inception, i.e. Lebanon, in Iran and Syria. From its infancy, Hezbollah obtained substantial amounts of financial aid and support from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Furthermore, according to the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Counterterrorism,  Hezbollah operates terrorist cells in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  According Realuyo, there is a nexus between Hezbollah global facilitators of terrorism and crime. These facilitators can be individuals, groups, and even institutions. The used car trade-based money laundering scheme is an example where one finds the three agents mentioned above, i.e. individuals, groups, and institutions. The scheme operates in the following manner. Money from within  Latin America, is sent to Colombia where it is used to produce and grow coca plants. Cocaine is sent from Colombia to European markets via Africa. The drugs are sold in Europe. Proceeds are mixed with legitimate used car sale profits (used cars shipped from U.S.) in Africa and sent to Lebanese banks through exchange houses.  Some money from these exchange houses are diverted to Hezbollah and some are sent to Lebanese banks, from where once again some are sent to Hezbollah and some are returned to the U.S. to purchase more used cars to be shipped to and sold in Africa, where the cycle continues on.  Thus, the acceleration in technology, in telecommunication, the internet, transportation,  combined with globalization resulting from accelerated changes on all fronts, political, economic, social,  has allowed for the convergence of terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and terrorist-crime networks to capitalize on global resources, markets, capital, and “facilitators” which in turn have allowed them to pursue their political and profit agendas, respectively.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) is also among the converging terrorist-crime networks ( more specifically it is an insurgency that nevertheless acts as most converging terrorist-crime network) that capitalize on global resources, supply chains, markets, and facilitators. Like Hezbollah, the scope, pace, and impact of ISIL’s activities is not limited to the Levant and Iraq region, but focuses on international objectives, i.e. on activities that endanger national security and prosperity across the world. Its aim is to establish a global caliphate through a world wide war. It is also clear that its main objective is to acquire territory, i.e. a caliphate can only exist if it holds territory. We can say that its raison d’etre is to sustain itself and expand. ISIL cannot exist underground, territorial authority is a must and a requirement. Arguably, if you take away its command of territory most of its oath of allegiance would not be binding, its would lose its legitimacy among the islamic extremists.

If we look at its financing it is similar to other terrorist-crime networks. ISIL’s major source of revenue comes from illicit oil smuggling, donations from deep pocket donors in the Gulf and elsewhere, kidnap-for-ransom payments, efforts to access the antiquities black market to sell looted ancient artifacts, and more (2). ISIL financing also crosses international borders and leverages the international financial system, e.g. the formal financial sector, banks, and alternative financial transfer mechanisms. Similar to Hezbollah, ISIL uses pre-existing crime networks to facilitate its aims and goals.

ISIL is also orchestrating well through the information and communication technology in its different means. Despite all the efforts to curtail their influence it still remains strong in YouTube, Facebook, and especially on Twitter. Through these social media tools and other websites ISIL is able to send its message world wide. ISIL’s expected goals are,  to show their religious beliefs and to justify their attacks religiously, to show their strength virtually and on the ground, and to recruit more followers. Perhaps, one way to counteract this is to proliferate social media with negative images of ISIL and related groups, e.g. atrocities committed by ISIL, territorial loses, humiliating defeats of ISIL, and the like.

It is clear that terrorist groups have become more network-centric and complex where the predictability of the interacting parts and their relational behavior has become very difficult.

Moreover, ISIL and other terrorist-crime networks will soon start recruiting private military contractors and consulting firms. One such contractor is Malhama Tactical a jihadi private military contractor and consulting firm that seems to be going global (3). A heavily armed and expertly equipped group of men, with body armor and ballistic helmets that promote their battles across online platforms, a relentless marketing scheme that seems to have paid off. The outfit’s fighting capabilities and training programs have become renowned among the jihadi admirers, e.g. Syria, Iraq, and abroad. This is but another component of the vast and complex system of terrorist-crime networks interacting in ways that defy a deterministic, linear analysis.

 It is clear that terrorist groups have become more network centric and complex where the predictability of the interacting parts and their relational behavior has become very difficult. The urgency is how do we combat these complex terrorist-crime networks with somewhat indeterminate predictable behaviours.

III. Insufficiency Of  Past Approaches To Terrorist Groups

Most of the approaches in dealing with terrorist organizations have been concentrated at finding and eliminating the leader of these organizations. Furthermore, in response to the threats posed by terrorist groups, the CIA and other intelligence agencies have simply enhanced the existing hierarchical structures. The most significant organizational change made, by the intelligence agencies within the US government since 9/11, was to add yet another vertical layer to the existing hierarchy by creating a directorate of national intelligence.  The intelligence community’s policy has been to create an entity that would wield ever greater central control to combat the complex system of international terrorist organizations.  This approach to combatting terrorist organization has shown to be deficient in predicting the trajectories of these terrorist-criminal networks and their behavior. The failure is due in part to the fact that these terrorist-crime network are complex systems and therefore, are not predictable in a mechanistic way indicative of complicated systems. The behavior of these inter-related nods of networks are unpredictable. The bulky hierarchies and massive sizes of the intelligence agencies, the slow decision process representative of such hierarchical agencies, their necessary inflexibility, and their bureaucratic behavior undermines their ability to successfully deal with complex systems of networks where quick decision making is needed and resilience to cope with unexpected outcomes is necessary. What is needed is a more nuanced approach in dealing with the complexity and indeterminacy of terrorist-crime networks.

IV. New approach

In order to deal with complex systems governments must employ an approach that is efficient, effective, and resilient, i.e. an approach which has the ability to cope with strategic shock and is quick at adapting to rapid and turbulent changes. Thus, resilience is one of the most important prerequisite for governments to operate effectively in a complex environment. In dealing with complex systems a government ought to be proactive in shaping the future, rather than trying to estimate the cumulative effects of complex systems and predict them.

The Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli in his work The Prince could not have said it better when he wrote “it has appeared to me more convenient to go after the effective truth of the thing rather than the imagination of it” (4). In effect Machiavelli argued for the shaping of habits which are conducive to freedom form chance and nature, and hence the effectual truth is in the results they produce.  By approaching the complex global environment from a Machiavellian perspective, governments will be more apt in dealing with the complex systems of terrorist-crime organizations and networks. The best way to approach the complexity problem is through international governmental and nongovernmental organizations and networks. The building of networks by governments will allow them to shape the behavior and outcomes of complex global environments, while international organizations, more specifically the non-governmental organizations, will deal with the unsuspected changes and strategic shocks arising from the complex nature of terrorist-crime networks.

Advances in information technology have empowered leaderless groups unified more by pursuit of a common goal than any kind of central goal.  These networks are particularly helpful in shaping  outcomes and facilitating movements, as seen in the overthrow of Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi where networks played a significant role. Governments should build networks that tie together civilian and military personnel from United States and other democratic governments that support the fight against terrorism. Civilian and military personnel can work together to promote humanitarian goals and ideals. In countries where illicit actors, e.g. Hezbollah, ISIS, etc. seek out governance gaps, socio-economic vulnerabilities, and other character weaknesses to conduct their nefarious activities,  military personnel can help and ensure completion of civic improvement projects, e.g. school building, roads, provide medical and disaster relief facilities.  Thus, military and civilian interactions, complemented by the aforementioned actions and by reaching out to civilians in these areas with niches coveted by terrorist, will ultimately give rise to a proliferation of social networks and physical networks which will more than likely endorse democratic ideals. Arguably, these networks will not only shape the outcomes of the parts within the complex interrelated system of networks but will also improve the response time to attack, the intelligence-process, and overall relation with the populace.

One of the weaknesses of intelligence community is its inability to deal with strategic shocks and sudden changes due in part to its bulky hierarchical structure and slow decision-making process. International organizations, especially non-governmental organizations, have the ability to reach further than governments can. According to Kim D. Reimann, numerous studies have shown that NGOs are an ideal alternative to approaching international problems because their “ability to reach poor communities directly, their cost-effectiveness, their more flexible, and innovative approach to problems, their ability to increase popular participation in projects and their emphasis on self-help” (5). Not only are NGO effective at reaching communities directly and more flexible, but they are also in a better position to perceive changes in environment symptomatic of terrorist-crime exertion. The peculiar nature of NGOs can be joined together in a symbiotic relationship with government agencies to deal with problems that arise from the complex interrelated behavior of terrorist-crime networks, and ultimately eliminate such networks. This would imply, not only that governments should endorse a more emphatic pro-network policy but also a decentralization of power to other multiple agencies within the government. This would require the intelligence community to change from a vertical structure where power is concentrated at the top, to a more horizontal structure where decision-making power is given to multiple agencies, with different degrees and nuances of power in the decision making process. If more power is given to military personnel working in conjunction with NGOs to deal with problems arising at ground level.  This approach encourages greater initiative at all levels of command. In World War II German military adopted with great success this approach to decision-making. Junior officers in the German military were empowered to make decisions on the spot, because they had a better and more direct feel for the situation on the ground.  This meant that every officer had to understand not just the orders but also the intent of the mission. Thus, this approach, i.e. the network’s ability to shape outcomes and to penetrate societal levels along with NGOs reach in communities, joined with government agencies,  will be able to deal with the complexity and chaos of  terrorist-crime networks and organizations.  

These are not without possible negative effects. Attempting such an approach accountability becomes more difficult especially in a world where human beings  seek accountability. People want to know who is responsible for certain actions and who should be accountable for the consequences of those actions. In this approach where greater access is given to more individuals in the decision-making process pinning down how is responsible accountable for actions taken on a global scale becomes more difficult. Perhaps, we should ask ourselves if this is a worthy payoff, i.e. to sacrifice some accountability for greater security and peace. Another possible outcome to this approach is that as accountability becomes more difficult to determine responsibility will decrease. People will be less likely to take responsibility for certain actions since they are less likely to be held accountable for those actions. These are possible outcomes we must take into consideration. Nevertheless, this new nuanced approach should be complemented with an approach that empowers Islamic women.

V. Empowering Muslim Women

Muslim women are a key element in strengthening counterterrorism efforts. According to our recent Council on Foreign Relations report, research shows that women are well-positioned to detect early signs of radicalization because their rights and physical integrity are often the first targets of fundamentalists.

To see more on this see the following article which lays out a pretty convincing argument to empowering Muslim women.


(1)  Realuyo, Celina B. “The Terror-Crime Nexus: Hezbollah’s Global Facilitators” Prism 5.1 (2014): 116-29. Print.

(2) Levitt

(3) Foreign Policy “Jihadi Private Military Contractor”

(4) Machiavelli, Niccolo, trans. Angelo M. Codevilla. The Prince. New York: Vai-Ballou Press. 1997. Print.

(5) REIMANN, KIM D. “A View from the Top: International Politics, Norms and the Worldwide Growth of Ngos.” International Studies Quarterly. 50.1 (2006): 45-68. Print.

NATO Publication