Why terror networks are dissimilar: How structure relates to function

Christian Leuprecht, Kenneth Hall

Research output: Book chapter/Published conference paperChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


Theories on international terrorist networks are wrought with contradiction. On the one hand, networks that support or facilitate politically motivated violent extremism are thought to pose a threat because they are centralized and hierarchical. On the other hand, the same networks are thought to pose a threat because they are decentralized and operate autonomously. Social networks analysis (SNA) makes it possible to resolve this apparent contradiction by controlling across countries for characteristics and structure of networks linked to the same terrorist organization relative to different functions that such networks perform. One terrorist organization for which sufficient open-source data exist to mount a systematic comparison is Al-Shabaab (AS). Comparing traits such as brokers, centrality characteristics of nodes, international linkages, and use of funds, the chapter compares AS networks as they relate to recruitment, fundraising and attacks across the United States and Australia with corroborating evidence from Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Denmark. Although networks differ markedly across these attributes, unrelated networks performing similar functions are consistent in their nature and structure. These findings suggest that networks are functionally differentiated insofar as they serve as strategic repertoires. This is a significant finding. Knowing how a network’s function is related strategically to its structure means being able to infer a network’s function if only its structure is known and, conversely, being able to infer a network’s structure if only its function is known. Not only does SNA thereby facilitate detection and dismantling of networks, it also suggests that recruitment, fundraising and attack networks require differentiated approaches by defence and security agencies insofar as SNA shows them to be distinct phenomena.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNetworks and network analysis for defence and security
EditorsAnthony J. Masys
Place of PublicationCham, Switzerland
Number of pages38
ISBN (Electronic)9783319041476
ISBN (Print)9783319041469
Publication statusPublished - 2014

Publication series

NameLecture Notes in Social Networks


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