How Do Terrorist "Cells" Work?

From: Olga Bourlin (
Date: Fri Sep 21 2001 - 12:37:55 MDT




          How Do Terrorist "Cells" Work?
          By Dahlia Lithwick

          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?

          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.

          Next question?

          Explainer thanks James Phillips at the Heritage Foundation and Martha Crenshaw at Wesleyan University.

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          Also in today's Slate:

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          Earthling: Civilian casualties and the new war.


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Joel Jacobs

"The less you know, the more certain you can be."

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