Managing such a transnational organisation and connecting to multiple locations and identities requires considerable logistical and organisational capability. The practice of tapping into the local and the global can be described as a ‘plug and play’ approach. Transnational terrorist organisations not only have an ideology that ‘plugs’ into local grievances, their organisational structures and resources also operate in this manner.
One of the main claims about transnational terrorist groups is that they are not hierarchical in structure but rather cell-like and even anarchical, lacking a formal leader. This led Marc Sageman to talk about a ‘leaderless jihad’ (2008). He characterised Al Qaeda as a loose-knit amorphous organisation, a position which was hotly contested by Bruce Hoffman (2006). Hoffman seems to have lost the argument, as terrorist organisations are becoming increasingly decentralised as they take advantage of new technologies, forms of communication and other aspects of globalisation. Consequently, communicating with transnational terrorist groups can be difficult. Negotiators cannot be sure the people they are talking to are representative of the group or have sufficient leverage to influence other members of the group, and splinter groups are more likely under these conditions. There are risks and vulnerabilities for terrorist organisations associated with this approach, notably in relation to information and operational security, coordination issues and resilience. There are also advantages in terms of longevity: the lack of central leadership gives them a greater scale and scope of operations and makes opposing or destroying them very difficult.
Rather than focusing on individuals, it is more helpful to focus on processes. One of the key processes within transnational terrorist organisations is the distribution and acquisition of money and equipment. Here we see the connections to transnational crime – particularly the smuggling of human organs, drugs and guns and human trafficking. Criminals can provide terrorist groups with whatever they require, provided the price is right, and terrorists will engage in or tolerate criminal activities when it serves their needs. Failed states offer fertile ground for possible and profitable connections between terrorism and criminality. The US government’s National Strategy for Combating Terrorism (2006) contends that terrorists exploit failed states, using them to ‘plan, organize, train, and prepare for operations’. However, some scholars disagree, noting that few international terrorists emerge from failed states (Simons and Tucker 2007) and most failed or failing states are not predisposed to exporting terrorism (Coggins 2015) – though they generate significant security problems for their own citizens and neighbouring states. What is worth noting is that states that are weakly governed, rather than failing, are also implicated. Pakistan is one such example – and was where Al-Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden was living when he was killed by the US military in 2011 during a covert operation. This occurred, incidentally, without Pakistan being informed: the United States could not assume that he was there without the knowledge of elements of Pakistan’s government, which is often accused of having state links to terrorism.