The Adaptive Dynamics That Make Terrorist Teams Tick

The fluid, responsive tactics that guide terrorist groups may have implications for organizations looking to become agile
The Adaptive Dynamics That Make Terrorist Teams Tick

The essentials

  • Terrorist teams act as “loosely coupled” systems. These systems allow individuals to operate with some autonomy within the group while simplifying coordination among group members.
  • Terrorist teams are able to maximize learning in unpredictable and complex environments and quickly adapt when circumstances change or team members are arrested.
  • They also feature an emergent rather than top-down leadership structure.
  • Organizations seeking similar agility should avoid imposing formal structures on team members; bring employees together from different parts of the organization; and cultivate fluid boundaries that allow in new resources and information from outside the group.

Matthias Spitzmuller wants to make one thing very clear: he does not support terrorist activity or the destruction it has reaped worldwide in recent years. As an associate professor of organizational behaviour at Smith School of Business, however, he is fascinated by the ways in which terrorist groups have organized themselves in order to achieve their goals.

In a new paper, co-written with Guihyun Park of Singapore Management University for American Psychologist, Spitzmuller explores the notion of terrorist teams as “loosely coupled systems.” A concept advanced by organizational theorist Karl Weick, loosely coupled systems exhibit the advantages of a system in which people are both intimately connected to one another while existing more independently. These teams have been described as having increased resiliency and adaptability, making them flexible, unpredictable, and uniquely positioned to wreak havoc.

Spitzmuller says that while a great deal of research has been done on the what motivates individual terrorists, much less has been done in the context of group dynamics. This is problematic since the larger the attack the more likely it is that a large group of people were involved at some point.

“We can develop a much better understanding of terrorist activities,” he says, “if we bring the literature on group behaviour and team decision-making to understand, for example, how they make decisions and what motivates them.”

Flexible and Responsive Networks

Loosely coupled systems not only allow individuals to operate with some autonomy within the group; they also simplify coordination among group members, enabling teams to respond nimbly to seize opportunities. Spitzmuller points out that in the case of terrorist teams, many members share a common view of the world that comes from having grown up in the same neighbourhoods and communities.

“There is an intimacy and mutual understanding there that doesn’t require much explanation,” he says. “What that means is that they can live relatively independently from one another for extended periods of time because they understand each other’s role. They just need a little bit of communication to coordinate and get going because they already have a very shared interpretation of the world.”

This approach means interaction among members in plotting a terrorist attack can be infrequent, with individuals only needing to know enough to participate. Spitzmuller gives the extreme example of the 9/11 attacks in which some terrorists did not even know everyone involved in the plot.

Learning From Unpredictability

Spitzmuller and Park, who looked at the 9/11 attacks, the London bombings, the Madrid train bombings, and the attack of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh as part of their research, describe loosely coupled systems as being able to “maximize learning in unpredictable and complex environments.” In the aftermath of 9/11, for example, major financial institutions froze the assets of organizations that had played a role in financing them. Terrorist teams responded by identifying alternate funding models, mostly by engaging in low-profile criminal activities in their neighbourhoods as a means of raising money for the attacks.

This same model played out to support the Madrid  train bombings, which, they say, were financed entirely by petty criminality. “The financing of the attack occurred without central planning, attesting to the spontaneous, adaptive nature of organizing activities within a terrorist team acting as a loosely coupled system.”

An emergent rather than top-down leadership structure is also key to the success of terrorist teams. Though the media may picture terrorist leaders such Osama Bin Laden brainwashing recruits, Spitzmuller says it is an incorrect model based solely on a Western understanding of leadership. “Osama Bin Laden was much more a person who planted seed funds when he saw innovation that was worth funding,” he says, “but then he left the ideas to their own development.”

Spitzmuller says terrorist groups also typically see members stepping in when needed but then stepping out to the periphery of the group as circumstances require, while continually receiving input and new members from within the community. “It’s very, very fluid,” he says. 

Implications for Counterterrorism

That fluid nature and the lack of traditional leaders make it difficult for authorities to track the activities of terrorist teams or disrupt their communication channels. Able to adapt swiftly to changing circumstances, including the loss of team members, terrorist teams operating as loosely coupled systems are also uniquely positioned to evade arrest in the lead-up to an attack.

In the case of the Madrid train bombings, for example, Spanish authorities were aware that an attack was being planned but unable to establish connections to Al-Qaeda or take anyone into custody before it happened.

“This failure suggests that counterterrorism efforts should focus less on external ties to terrorist organizations and more on the actual operations of terrorist teams,” the researchers say.

Agile Organizations

Spitzmuller says the ways in which terrorist teams have organized themselves provide some of the best examples he has seen of loose coupling, with many utilizing the principles of the agile organization long before the concept entered the management lexicon.

He says many of the principles can be applied to any organization seeking more agility or wanting to cultivate an innovative work environment that features self-emerging leadership and fluid boundaries.

“Such principles include letting people step up but then letting them take a step back again if they’re not the best ones to lead a group at a certain point in time,” he says. “Also, fluid boundaries to the outside, which let in resources and information from outside the group. And then bringing people together from different parts of the organization who were previously not known to one another, a practice known as bridging.”

Spitzmuller also stresses the importance of managers not interfering too soon when a team is coming up with interesting ideas.

“What you should not do is give team members a very formal structure or say ‘this person is the leader and these are your goals and if you achieve those goals you get a performance bonus’. In doing that, you take away all the intrinsic drive and the creative potential of that complex network.”

Meredith Dault

Smith School of Business

Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

Follow us on:

Queen's logo