In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Terrorist Group Strategies

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Outcomes
  • State Relations: State Support and State Counterterrorism
  • Network and Alliance Structures
  • Technology Innovation
  • Gender
  • Political Strategies and Choices of Violence
  • Specific Strategies: Suicide Terrorism
  • Specific Strategies: Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear
  • Finance

International Relations Terrorist Group Strategies
Victor Asal, Corina Simonelli
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 June 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0156


Since 11 September 2001 the subject of terrorism, and specifically the organizational behavior and strategy of terrorist groups as an academic research topic, has become more mainstream. There are now more resources devoted to understanding why and how terrorism is used as a strategy and how it succeeds or fails to achieve certain goals. This increase in interest has spurred the creation of a variety of resources and data as well as theoretical debates that did not exist in the 20th century. At the same time, certain academic arguments have been around for much longer. For example, the ongoing discussion over the definition of what terrorism is in the first place, and the distinction between terrorism and insurgency, has been going on for decades. Given the wide range of opinions on this question and our desire to not exclude research based on a particular definition, we do not specify one here but note that most definitions of terrorist acts focus on some element of the use of violence or threat of violence toward noncombatants. Similar debates exist regarding the definition of a group as a terrorist organization, and two of the articles cited here discuss this definitional issue. When it comes to the main topic of terrorist group strategies, a wide net is cast as well, including pieces that are global in nature as well as region and country specific, research that is primarily theoretical, and research that is qualitative or quantitative methodologically. This article does not focus solely on strategies of violence but also on other types of strategies that are necessary for the survival of any group: financing and recruitment, for example. Also provided is an overview of other aspects of terrorist organizations, such as their network relations, that have attracted attention in academic research. Additionally this article looks at the relationship between organizations and states that can vary from support to ongoing conflict between the two and research that discusses if and how such organizations might succeed or fail at achieving their political goals.

General Overviews

When it comes to terrorist group behavior there are several works that are good starting points – and some of them do not just cover organizational strategies. An excellent place to begin is Crenshaw 1981, a seminal article that identifies key motivations for organizational behavior and in many ways laid out a research agenda for the coming decades of research. Hoffman 2006 provides a useful overview of organizations, including the histories, strategies, and tactics they have deployed over time from a qualitative perspective, while Enders and Sandler 2011 provides an overview of terrorist behavior from a quantitative event data perspective. Rapoport 2013 provides an overview of terrorist organizational behavior, and McCormick 2003 provides a review of the literature that discusses their decision-making process. Drake 1998 provides a broad overview of terrorist target selection while Shapiro 2013 offers an in-depth overview of the challenge of managing covert organizations that are likely to be under attack from authorities. Phillips 2015 and Ligon, et al. 2013 both have useful discussions about the challenges of defining a terrorist organization and possible solutions to this challenge.

  • Crenshaw, Martha. “The Causes of Terrorism.” Comparative Politics (1981): 379–399.

    DOI: 10.2307/421717

    This was one of the first pieces investigating the phenomenon of terrorism and those who engage in it. This is the starting point for several prominent theories of terrorism and an important text in the field.

  • Crenshaw, Martha. “Organizational Approach to the Analysis of Political Terrorism.” Orbis 29.3 (1985): 465–489.

    Crenshaw seeks to explain terrorist attacks in the context of the larger group dynamics and looks at terrorist incidents as a strategic tactic of political organizations with defined structures and leadership.

  • Drake, Charles J. M. Terrorist’s Target Selection. New York: St. Martin’s, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230374676

    This work is a primary starting point for the study of terrorist target selection. Drake investigates the organizational characteristics of terrorist groups to determine what influences the strategies and target selections of these groups.

  • Enders, Walter, and Todd Sandler. The Political Economy of Terrorism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511791451

    The authors seek to explain the actions and choices of terrorist groups and governments conducting counterterrorism. They use large data sets and statistical analysis to explain many counterintuitive choices made by actors involved in perpetrating and countering terrorism.

  • Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

    Discusses a wide range of issues in the field of terrorism, including the development of a singular definition of terror, agents and ideologies of terrorism, and various strategies and tactics employed by terrorist organizations.

  • Ligon, Gina Scott, Pete Simi, Mackenzie Harms, and Daniel Harris. “Putting the ‘O’ in VEOs: What Makes an Organization?” Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict 6.1–3 (2013): 110–134.

    DOI: 10.1080/17467586.2013.814069

    The authors present a framework for understanding the different levels of formal structure that are seen in violent extremist organizations. They offer three distinct structures and provide characteristics of each.

  • McCormick, Gordon H. “Terrorist Decision Making.” Annual Review of Political Science 6.1 (2003): 473–507.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.polisci.6.121901.085601

    McCormick examines three theories on terrorist group decision making: strategic theories, organizational theories, and psychological theories

  • Phillips, Brian J. “What is a Terrorist Group? Conceptual Issues and Empirical Implications.” Terrorism and Political Violence 27.2 (2015): 225–242

    DOI: 10.1080/09546553.2013.800048

    Phillips develops a standard model for defining terrorist groups in an attempt to bring more specificity to a term that is lacking any singular definition in the field.

  • Rapoport, David C. Inside Terrorist Organizations. London: Routledge, 2013.

    Rapoport presents a number of essays about the interworking of terrorist organizations and what life within the organizations is like.

  • Shapiro, Jacob N. The Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400848645

    Shapiro’s book examines how terrorist organizations manage their membership and enforce discipline. Also explores why groups are organized in different ways and how they manage the challenges of being covert targeted organizations.

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