Dispersed or dangerous?

ResearchBlogging.org If a good deal of the research into terrorism and violent non-state actors is to be believed, the trend towards such groups acting in a dispersed, networked fashion makes them highly effective but largely invulnerable to interdiction or counter-attack by the sluggish, unwieldy, hierarchically structured forces of the state arrayed against them. Such assertions are particularly frequently made with reference to ‘al-Qaida’ – which, depending on your view, is (or at least was) the deadliest terrorist group in history, a loose correlation of aspirational cells, a rallying point, a mythology or just a ‘bunch of guys’ in a cave in Pakistan with a good sense of PR and a video camera.

Calvert Jones presents an alternative viewpoint to the inherent superiority of the networked group in a 2006 article in the Cambridge Review of International Affairs. Jones points out that, in theory, networks provide fast, reliable access to the right people and resources (p. 563), but that in dispersed networks with poor or blocked lines of communication, this may not occur, preventing those with the intent or motivation to carry out some form of violent attack from getting hold of the necessary knowledge, skills or material.

Being removed from the control of an organisational hierarchy potentially allows small cells to innovate (what Jones calls exploratory learning) and that this may lead to the development of new and innovative means of conducting attacks. A good empirical example of such experimentation arose from the Operation CREVICE plot, in which the cell members discussed a variety of ways of undertaking an attack. including poisoning beer at football matches. [1] However in the end they opted for a more conventional approach – a car-bomb. However, the cell was discovered and arrested – largely due to poor operational security practices on their part.

This highlights Jones’s, for me, key point. That being dispersed may allow such groups and cells to stay below the radar and plot ever more ingenious ways to cause mayhem, but if they lack the skills and resources within the cell to fulfill their ambition, and are unable to access them from the network to which they may or may not belong, ‘they are likely to become less professional in their improvised attempts at participation’. (p563) In other words, they are quite likely to fail.

Being ‘less professional’ is a good description of the vast majority of the plots which have been discovered in the UK over the last few years. Examples include: the 21 July attacks which failed because the bomb-maker lacked the maths skills to calculate ratios of ingredients properly; the man who tried to bomb a restaurant in Exeter but managed to get locked into a toilet cubicle while preparing his device, which then went off and injured him; the Glasgow airport attack, which succeeded in only killing one of the bombers (who had earlier placed two car-bombs in London, but had constructed faulty detonators); and the 2006 airlines plot, which was thoroughly penetrated by the authorities – unsurprising given that at least one of the plotters had been approached by the Security Service but persisted in his involvement in the plot.[2]

Jones points out that while such cells and individuals may have access to large quantities of potentially useful information via the internet, this does not necessarily mean that they have the ability to turn this into exploitable skills and resources in order to conduct an attack. In other words, despite what some would have us believe, reading a book about how to manufacture a bomb, or how to conduct counter-surveillance does not necessarily mean you will be able to do it competently.

A final point is that of learning and organisational memory. Groups build up skills and capabilities over time, through both learning and doing. Even the most professional of terrorist groups, such as the Provisional IRA, made some glaring mistakes in their early days (one individual mixed the ingredients for explosives on a stone floor with a metal shovel. A spark caused the mixture to explode mortally wounding the bomb-maker, who survived long enough to pass on his discovery to his comrades). As Jones states:

Organisational memory is a key component of learning, dealing with how organisations encode, store and retrieve lessons of history, despite the turnover of personnel and passage of time. It matters especially for the exploitation aspect of learning, which relies on cumulative maintenance and refinement of capabilities. [p563]

It appears that for the most part members of the dispersed jihadist network(s) in the UK have a low level of capability in the essential skills required to fulfill their aspirations, and, given that their plots and, if they get that far, attacks are a one-shot capability, there is little opportunity to learn and pass on lessons from experience. This is compounded by the fact that the one successful cell (the 7 July 2005 bombers) wiped itself out in a single attack, thereby removing its members from the jihadist gene pool and denying their fellow travelers the benefit of their effective skills and experience.


Jones, C. (2006). Al-Qaeda’s Innovative Improvisers: Learning in a Diffuse Transnational Network Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 19 (4), 555-569 DOI: 10.1080/09557570601003205


1. Chris Summers and Dominic Casciani, ‘Fertiliser bomb plot: The story’, BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/6153884.stm, accessed 10 September 2009.

2. Profiles: Operation Overt, BBC News, 8 September 2008, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/7604808.stm accessed 14 January 2008.


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