Terrorism Organizational and Communication
Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.),
gathering is the first line of defense against terrorism. Through use of
intelligence, law enforcement and military operations can be designed to disrupt
terrorist organizations and preempt their operations. Prior to September 11,
2001, most state and local law enforcement agencies viewed intelligence
gathering on global terrorist groups as the purview of the federal government.
Except for large cities like Los Angeles and New York, if state or local
agencies gathered intelligence it tended to be on domestic subversive groups.
We have since realized that some terrorist organizations have a global reach,
and that state and local law enforcement officials must broaden their view.
it is not
likely that your agency will send someone to participate in an intelligence
operation against the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front in Chile or the
Revolutionary Nuclei in Greece, it is likely that you will read and act upon
distilled intelligence. In other words, you are very likely to receive an
intelligence report that gives you information and there is an expectation that
you act. By knowing some of the methods by which terrorists organize and
communicate, you may be in a better position to judge that information and plan
for your community. Moreover, while our focus is on international terrorist
organizations, there are many domestic groups that use similar methods of
organizing and communicating. Understanding some of their organization and
communication methods may help you see evidence, information and intelligence
you might have otherwise overlooked.
Single Celled Organisms
Terrorist organizations are
often described and constructed using the biological analogy of a cell.
Biologically, a cell is the basic unit of life. While most of the organisms
with which we are familiar are multi-cell units, there are many single cell
organisms. In the realm of terrorism, the single celled organism is referred to
as the Lone Wolf terrorist or leaderless resistance. This can be a critical
concept in understanding the development of terrorist organizations. The Lone
Wolf terrorist does not receive direct instructions from a central
organization. Rather, he or she receive inspiration from an idea or perhaps a
remote subversive political figure.
Wolf terrorists have included Timothy McViegh (Oklahoma City Bomber), Eric
Rudolph (Olympic Park Bomber) and Buford Furrow (firearm attack on a Jewish
Daycare center in Los Angeles and murder of a Postal Carrier). Internationally,
there is strong evidence to suggest that some terrorist acts attributed to Al
Qaeda were not committed by the group so much as inspired by the group.
Furthermore, domestic terrorist groups such as the Earth Liberation Front (ELF)
are probably best categorized as leaderless resistance rather than a cellular
organization. This means that small cells or individual terrorists are
motivated by the groups overarching goals but not coordinated by nor in direct
communication with the larger group itself.
disconnected cellular groups have the benefit of maximum operational security
because communication is limited or non-existent. There are few, if any,
opportunities for an intelligence service to intercept communications or
penetrate the group. On the other hand, single celled or disconnected cellular
groups are also limited in their ability to carry out operations. While McViegh,
Rudolf and Furrow were able to commit horrendous acts of terrorism, their status
as Lone Wolves meant they left a long trail of evidence because they had to make
all purchases, conduct all reconnaissance, prepare all the equipment and conduct
the operation. Like any mass murder or serial killer, these terrorists did not
have the benefit of cellular specialization to mask their trail. Moreover, Lone
Wolves are limited in their ability to sustain long-term terrorist campaigns
because the evidence they leave will ultimately lead to their arrest. It takes
a much more complex organization to continue terrorist operations over the
long-term. In the instance of Lone Wolves, state and local law enforcement
officials should be aware of purchase of certain materials, suspicious actions
of individuals and devise ways to share seemingly low-level suspicious
activities with other jurisdictions.
organizations become more complex, their cells tend to specialize. As an
example, we have nerve cells, muscle cells and bone cells. Each of these cells
has developed a particular specialization so that the larger organism can be
more efficient. However, for these specialized cells to work together in the
larger organism they must communicate. With terrorist organizations, the
purpose of a true cellular organization is to increase the operational security
of the larger group and to capitalize on specialization.
a mistake to
believe that one member of the cell necessarily leads to other cells. Rather,
operational security is enhanced because most of the members of the cell do not
know anyone in the organization outside of the cell. This lack of knowledge of
the larger organization is like the cellular membrane that defines and protects
the cell. If the cell is compromised through member arrest or intelligence
penetration, only the cell is damaged and not the larger organization. . For
maximum operational security there may be only blind communication between
cells. In other words, the leader of the cell may simply receive instructions
through some blind form of communications and not in any face to face meeting.
terrorist organizations there tend to be two types of cells operational and
support. An operational cell is a self-contained, often single mission entity
designed to carry out an operation and then likely be killed or captured. The
9/11 terrorist were a single-mission operational cell.
Many terrorist organizations
also have support cells. These cells are designed to support long-term,
sustained, terrorist operations. A homicide bomber who is part of a larger,
sustained terror campaign can be supported by many types of support cells. For
a homicide bomber there could be a recruitment cell, minder cell, reconnaissance
cell, bomb-making cell and a delivery cell. Additionally, there are likely
planning and coordination cells assisting the other supportive cells. Sustained
terror campaigns like those conducted in the Middle East require this type of
specialization. Consider that bomb makers are a terrorist resource that is not
easy to replace. Because they are so difficult to replace, the bomb maker is
often insulated from operations in their own, tightly control support cell.
Bomb makers rarely deliver or detonate their own devices. They dont recruit
the bomber, survey the target nor take on the role of a minder (the person(s)
who monitor the bomber between the period of recruitment and employment). Bomb
makers may not even procure their own components.
Complexity and Chatter
organization becomes more specialized and cellular, its communications scheme
becomes more complex. Think about a law enforcement operation that was planned
in advance. Perhaps a major convention was coming to your community. Six
months prior to the event there were telephone calls, memos and meetings to
begin the planning process. As the convention neared, the communications
between participants likely increased in their frequency and intensity. Then,
the communication likely peaked the day or so before and operational
communications began. There was a natural build-up, peak and then operational
drop in communications.
reports that speak of an increase in chatter are reflecting the same build-up,
peak and then drop. In the intelligence world this is referred to as signals
intelligence or SIGNIT. Because of the natural cycle of pre-operational
communications, SIGNIT does not necessarily have to understand the signals. As
a predictor, SIGNIT doesnt necessarily have to know what is being said; only
that a predictable pattern of communications is increasing. Moreover, because
the location of likely command and control, support, and operational cells is
known or can be presumed, the increasing cycle and the flow of communications
between geographic regions provides additional evidence that a terrorist
operation is likely.
They Know What We Know
multi-cell organisms, terrorist organizations are learning organizations.
Indeed, to survive over the long-term they must adapt their methods and there is
some evidence to suggest that they modify their message as they age and change.
As learning organizations, they know about the predictive value of chatter and
are likely developing new methods of communication that reduces the raw SIGNIT
value. One way to reduce the susceptibility of their communications to
interception and interpretation is to disguise their communications.
years there has been talk about the use of Stenography as a means of disguising
communications. Stenography is the hiding of a message, particularly an image,
within another message or image. In the digital world a photograph is
transmitted by reducing it to a computer code. You have seen this computer code
files of photographs JPEG, GIF, etc. At its simplest, inside those files
there is room to insert other lines of code which could contain a message.
However, to-date, there have been no public reports of terrorists using this
well-aware of the United States capability to intercept cellular telephone
traffic. In addition to reducing their use of this mode of communications, they
are likely taking advantage of pre-paid cellular telephones. This allows
greater anonymity and the flexibility to change cellular numbers and service
providers easily. While there have been no confirmed reports of terrorist using
pre-paid cellular, there is significant information to suggest that other
criminal organizations, like gangs and narcotics traffickers are taking
advantage of this technology. Law enforcement officials should be sensitive to
any reports of suspicious or large purchases of pre-paid cellular telephones.
An interesting place to see
how terrorists are using the Internet is the Search for International Terrorist
Entities, or the
SITE Institute. This organization monitors terrorist websites and
provided global and instantaneous communications. There has been quite a bit of
news about how the government can monitor Internet communications. If you sent
an email with certain key words you could expect the message to be flagged for
human review. Indeed, it is very likely that if you sent an email from certain
geographic regions, through certain Internet Service Providers and it contained
certain key words it would be monitored.
tried to mask or disguise their use of email by having relatively anonymous
accounts provided free by various services. But, any message you send over the
email account is susceptible to interception. Terrorists devised a way to
minimize decection by using anonymous email accounts not for transmission, but
as holding files. As an example, Terrorist A wants to send a message to
Terrorist Cell B. Terrorist A logs onto an email account, drafts a message and
saves it as a draft. Terrorist Cell B is told through some other means that an
email account will be established and the password. Terrorist Cell B
periodically logs onto the same account and reads the drafts and changes them
with a confirmation message. The draft is saved and never sent. This logging
on and drafting prevents interception because the message is never sent. It
remains one of millions of unsent messages.
are using technology to communicate it is likely that they are mostly relying on
time-tested spy tradecraft like dead drops. A dead drop is a pre-determined
location where messages or material are left so that cell members do not have to
meet face to face. Or, in areas where there is significant social support for
their movements, face-to-face meetings. Whatever their means of communication,
as the complexity of their cellular structure grows, so does the complexity of
their communication schemes and the likelihood of interception. As learning
organizations we can expect terrorist cellular groups to learn how law
enforcement discovers them and then devise new means of covert, secure
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster,
LAPD (ret.), MPA is the author of numerous books and articles on policing,
technology, terrorism and leadership. His book Police Technology (Prentice
Hall, July 2004) is used in over 100 colleges and universities. His next book
to be released is schedule to print in September 2007 Leadership: Texas Hold
em Style. Raymond can be reached on the Criminal Justice Forum at
www.criminaljustice-online.com or via email at