Structures, Motivations, and Qualities of Terrorist Groups

Determining and understanding the structures and dynamics of terrorist groups is no easy task, and can sometimes lead to erroneous conclusions. Besides, DeAngelis (2009) highlight that considering the complexities associated with terrorist organizations, the psychology of terrorism largely revolves around theory and opinion and not good and valid research. Nonetheless, a number of researchers are starting to collect, analyze, and present reliable data, which is useful in understanding the structures, motivations, and qualities of terrorist groups.

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Understanding the way terrorist groups are organized is an important component in confronting and defeating these groups. Ideally, terrorist groups can be small organizations existing in a country but with an outreach in several countries. Additionally, some terrorist organizations are networked spanning beyond international borders. Consequently, because networks are complex it becomes harder to control although they enjoy more flexibility. In this case, most networked terrorist groups are usually sub-divided into smaller groups – hub-spokes. More specifically, as Kilberg (2012) elaborates using a coding for organizational structure, a terrorist group can be a bureaucracy like the Hezbollah, a hub-spoke like Al Qaeda before 2001, an All-Channel like the Abu Sayyaf Group, or a market like the Earth Liberation Front.


Research indicates that human beings possess compassion-driven psychological restraints against inflicting harm on others. In light of this, understanding what motivates terrorists to commit their extremely injurious acts can be difficult at first glance. Nonetheless, research on terrorist groups’ motivations provides the following. Some terrorist groups are motivated by a need to influence political change. Terrorists are likely to commit terror acts as a way of getting the attention of the government and to force them to affect a political change they want. Some researchers propose that members of terrorist also use a variety of moral disengagement techniques to justify their heinous acts such as blaming the victim or downplaying the severity of their act. Some individuals may view murder as morally justified if they believe that they are working towards a greater good. Other individuals are motivated by patriotism and commit terrorist acts as a service to their country. Others, especially the suicide bombers give up their life to benefit their group or to be remembered as a hero. Individuals who commit terrorist acts based on this motivation believe that their small-scale attacks merit the larger political gains that may result in the future. 

Qualities of Terrorist Groups

Understanding the qualities of terrorist groups is an important element in the prevention, preparedness, and response to terror threats. Some dynamic characteristics of terrorist groups include period features such as irregularities in communication patterns (Li, Sun, Li, & Li, 2018). Another characteristic include correlation between network and behavior, which is often affected by the internal structure and interactions. 


DeAngelis, T. (2009). Understanding terrorism. American Psychological Association, 40(10), 60.

Kilberg, J. (2012). A basic model explaining terrorist group organizational structure. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 35(11), 810-830.Li, Z., Sun, D., Li, B., Li, Z., & Li, A. (2018). Terrorist Group Behavior Prediction by Wavelet Transform-Based Pattern Recognition. Discrete Dynamics in Nature and Society, 2018, 1-16.

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