Splitting to survive: understanding terrorist group fragmentation

Date18 September 2017
Publication Date18 September 2017
AuthorJohn Francis Morrison
SubjectHealth & social care,Criminology & forensic psychology
Splitting to survive: understanding
terrorist group fragmentation
John Francis Morrison
Purpose From Al-Qaeda to the IRA, almost all terrorist organisations have experienced splits in some
shape or form. This can spell the dawn of violent spoiler groups, but it may equally play a significant role in
the overall politicisation of a group. The purpose of this paper is to provide a greater understanding of these
splits by assessing the issue from a political organisational perspective.
Design/methodology/approach The author proposes that by addressing splits through the lens of
organisational survival, we may gain a greater insight into the process which takes place in the lead up to,
and in the aftermath of, organisational cleavage.
Findings It is posited that the rationale behind schism can, at times, be the result of a desire from at least
one side to maintain the survival of the organisation in a form they both respect and recognise. In order to
achieve this, it might require forming an independent, autonomous organisation, or alternatively promoting
the exit of internal factional competitors.
Research limitations/implications Within the paper, three organisational hypotheses are proposed.
It is vital that in order to assess their validity, these are empirically tested by future researchers.
Practical implications To be able to counter terrorist organisations, one must first have an understanding
of the external and internal events and processes. While much of our attention is on understanding paid to the
external violent activity of the groups, we must also develop a significant understanding of the non-violent
internal activities as well. This paper provides a theoretical basis for understanding one of these process,
organisational split.
Originality/value By addressing splits from an organisational survival viewpoint, the paper challenges the
previously held assumption that splits should be analysed as part of the end of terrorism.
Keywords Terrorism, Survival, Political organizational theory, Schism, Splits, Spoilers
Paper type Conceptual paper
One need only look to Syria and Iraq to appreciate the importance of understanding the causes
and effects of the splintering of terrorist and insurgent organisations. In his 2014 State of the
Union address, US President Barack Obama reaffirmed his support for the Syrian opposition
fighting against President Bashar al-Assad, as long as they rejected the agenda of terror
networks(Obama, 2014). However, this was a hesitant support. In the lead up to this statement,
both Obama and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had indicated that it was the
fragmentation of the Syrian opposition which had delayed their stronger support (Pearlman,
2013). While the fragmentation of this opposition had a clear effect on foreign policy, the
splintering of Iraqi insurgents was affecting troops on the ground from the moment they set foot
in Iraq. Between 2003 and 2006, the beginning of coalition forcesoperations in Iraq, it was
identified that up to 56 Sunni insurgent groups were involved in politically violent attacks in Iraq
(Hafez, 2007). This is before the similarly fragmented Shia insurgency is even taken into
consideration. However, it is not just within Iraq and Syria that organisational division is having a
significant effect on terrorist or insurgent groups. One can analyse any terrorist or insurgent
movement across time or place and will invariably find that at some stage, the group was either
formed from or affected by an organisational split. From the history of divisions in Palestinian militants
(Bueno de Mesquita, 2008) to the proliferation of splintering in Irish republicanism (Morrison, 2014),
Received 27 July 2016
Revised 6 January 2017
24 February 2017
Accepted 25 March 2017
John Francis Morrison is the
Director of Terrorism and
Extremism Research Centre at
the School of Business and
Law, University of East London,
London, UK.
VOL. 3 NO. 3 2017, pp.222-232, © Emerald Publishing Limited, ISSN 2056-3841 DOI 10.1108/JCRPP-07-2016-0013

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