How Do Terrorist "Cells" Work?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 17 2001 6:32 PM

How Do Terrorist "Cells" Work?

News reports have attributed the planning and execution of the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings on terrorist "cells." What are terrorist cells, where do they come from, and how do they work?

Advertisement

Among the first revolutionaries to organize conspiracies into secret cells was Louis Auguste Blanqui, a socialist of the Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic era. The basic principle behind cell organization is simple: By dividing the greater organization into many multiperson groups and compartmentalizing information inside each cell as needed, the greater organization is more likely to survive if one of its components is compromised.

Anarchists and revolutionaries in Russia, Ireland, France, Germany, and Switzerland adopted cell organization in the 1880s, as did the communist movement in the late 19th century, because they are remarkably difficult for foes to penetrate. We know from previous criminal investigations that Osama Bin Laden organizes his terrorists into cells. Had U.S. intelligence infiltrated one of the terrorist cells responsible for last week's attacks, they might have learned only of the proposed date of an attack but not the target, the time, or the means of the attack.

Like communist cells, Osama Bin Laden's terrorist cells intend to overthrow existing governments. But unlike the communist cells, which were highly organized and specialized, Bin Laden's cells may be extremely ad hoc in function. A planning cell for one operation may be tapped as an execution cell for the next.

"Planning" or "support" cells may have fewer than 10 members, often local residents from Islamic nations, responsible primarily for fund raising. They may also be responsible for providing execution cells with drivers' licenses, cash, credit cards, or lodging, as well as procuring materials for bomb building.

The members of "sleeper" or "submarine" cells may have lived in the target country for years, doing nothing until activated. According to one of Bin Laden's former aides, there are hundreds of "sleeper" terrorists across the United States. This is why several suspects from last week's attacks had no prior FBI record.

"Execution cells" are brought in at the final stages of an attack. They will utilize resources supplied by other cells. Several of the hijackers from last week's attack arrived in the United States in August.

"Operation commanders" may come in only at the last moment before the attack. They may be the only link between local cells and the larger umbrella organization--in this case, the central Bin Laden organization. The commander may not even perform the operation himself, often leaving the country before the terrorist attack occurs. Terrorism experts are certain a commander watched this week's attack and has escaped with the help of other U.S. cells. The commanders of both the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kenya are college graduates, multilingual, computer literate, and still at large. Osama Bin Ladin's role in these operations was probably limited to serving as front man, financier, and publicist.

Explainer thanks James Phillips at the Heritage Foundationand Martha Crenshaw atWesleyanUniversity.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?