View Full Version : On a global scale, what is the size of Al Qa’ida and/or other Terrorist Groups?

01-29-2007, 02:47 AM
I am interested in opinions and/or studies that may lead to an accurate approximation of the size of terrorist groups around the world. I know opinions may vary widely. I have written several papers on the topic of Insurgents vs Terrorists, and have my opinion too. But I am interested in learning more. I came across a concept known as Dunbar's Number in which he makes an argument to the upper limits of social organizations. His research does not speak at all to terrorist groups--in fact his research was done many years before Oklahoma City, 911, or other attacks.

Dunbar has theorized that 150 would be the group size only for communities with a very high incentive to remain together. For a group of this size to remain cohesive, Dunbar speculated that as much as 42% of the group's time would have to be devoted to social grooming. Correspondingly, only groups under intense survival pressure, such as subsistence villages, nomadic tribes, and historical military groupings have, on average, achieved the 150-member mark. Moreover, Dunbar noted that such groups are almost always physically close: "... we might expect the upper limit on group size to depend on the degree of social dispersal. In dispersed societies, individuals will meet less often and will thus be less familiar with each, so group sizes should be smaller in consequence." Thus, the 150-member group would only occur because of absolute necessity, i.e. due to intense survival, security, environmental and/or economic pressures.

However, as with many theoretical values, it has occasionally been abused and mistaken as a "magic number". It has also been popularized as the monkeysphere, a neologism coined by David Wong in an article which introduces this concept.

In its popularization, the research of Dunbar and others is taken as an upper bound of the number of fellow humans that an individual can view as being "truly human". In this form, the "monkeysphere" functions as a reductionistic and biologistic explanation for why humans can treat some humans with consideration and other humans indifferently or even inhumanely.

"The reason that the people in village X don't mind doing Y to the people in village Z is because the people in village Z are not in the monkeysphere of people in village X."

Recently, I took the liberty to study our Small Wars Community and found that if you add up the number of members on our site and then subtract those that had zero or only one response ever to the postings, the numer falls within the range of Dunbar's postulate.

For the sake of this thread, I ask that we separate Insurgencies from Terrorist operatives. In addition, I ask that we define terrorists members as "Card Carrying." In other words, it is OK to be dienfranchised but I would define a card carrying member as one who has a call to arms and will act upon that calling.

Rob Thornton
01-29-2007, 04:36 AM
GP - Thanks - anything that causes me to look at something different usually helps.

For the sake of this thread, I ask that we separate Insurgencies from Terrorist operatives. In addition, I ask that we define terrorists members as "Card Carrying." In other words, it is OK to be dienfranchised but I would define a card carrying member as one who has a call to arms and will act upon that calling.

I don't know if this helps, but I think here, terrorism is more of a tactic to influence events here (sometime by extension into the Internet and TV the US population) while the Insurgency is a strategy to prevent the Iraqi government (the one we are helping to build) from establishing order so that other groups (and specific personalities) can pursue their own goals.

Sometimes these goals coincide, sometimes they are more inline with the actual government. Interests converge and diverge.

This might make for allot of variables. A man who emplaces an IED is often recruited from a poor neighborhood and offered what we'd call small change for risking his life. Another may be taking advantage of an opportunity to avenge a perceived wrong -lots of people over here have been shot, shot at, had their house busted into, been humiliated etc. by people who really thought they were doing the right thing, but it may have turned out wrong. In this culture, settling scores is important.

I think there are some dedicated folks out there, but they are often the ones pulling the strings. Its hard to tell why they pull some of the strings though. Hope this helps some

01-29-2007, 05:10 AM
, terrorism is more of a tactic to influence events

I agree that there are significant and fundamental differences between Terrorists and Insurgents--significant differences in their motives, targets, their desires, their funding, their socioeconomic class, their ability to apostatize and in the way we must fight each-- but in my question, I am specifically interested in Terrorist Groups. I understand the discussion of terrorism as more of a tactic but I believe that we have defined Terrorism (capital T) to be more than just a tactic as it once was used. Tim McVeigh was a Terrorist, he also used terrorist techniques, Al Qa'ida is a Terrorist group and they used terrorist tactics. Terrorists "Only" strike strategic targets based on their ideology--local lawlessness is not strategic nor is it ideological. Insurgency fighting in Iraq is not strategic--as a result, I believe that their are very very few Terrorists and or cells operating in Iraq contrary to what many may say. That notwithstanding, I am interested in the size of the global Terrorist community and would appreciate your thoughts.

01-29-2007, 01:33 PM
I don not know the numbers myself, but I would try the FBI for the most current estimates of actual numeric strenght of world wide terror units.

01-29-2007, 08:35 PM
I am interested in opinions and/or studies that may lead to an accurate approximation of the size of terrorist groups around the world....
The RAND study referred to in this older thread (http://council.smallwarsjournal.com/showthread.php?t=1491) makes for a decent read on a chunk of the subject matter...

Steve Blair
01-29-2007, 08:50 PM
When counting members of terrorist groups there is also the question of just who should be counted. Within any group there are always the hard-core members and those who could be called "fellow travelers." With any group the hard core is usually small, while the fellow traveler segment is much larger.

Most groups will tap into the fellow traveler (or disposable) segment of their followers when someone expendable is needed for a task. Such folks can also be used to set up safe houses, move money or weapons, and other such tasks. But they are almost never involved in planning or certain levels of operational execution.

02-01-2007, 02:39 PM
To settlers on the borders of the advancing Western frontier, the plains Indians were terrorists. To the US military, they were a powerful insurgent force. Red Cloud had led a successful campaign against US forces that resulted in the closing of the Bozeman trail. He then settled down as did his followers. As Crazy Horse, Gaul and Sitting Bull continued to emerge as powerful war leaders, they were able to pull many recruits north who participated at Rosebud and Little Big Horn. Many of the same recruits/volunteers subsequently returned to the reservations and secured areas. Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull and their bands kept on the move. Said bands and their number of fighting men were relatively small in number compared to availbable numbers at the time of the two previously mentioned big fights. History would suggest that when Zaqawri was at his peak, there was likewise a peak in number of active and tacit supporters. I see these stats, the attempts at making a head count or terrorists per se, as very murky and fluid at best. This murkiness gives some justification IMHO for the population-centric approach in counterinsurgency in the Iraq theatre of operations.

Steve Blair
02-01-2007, 03:11 PM
I would actually propose that Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and other Sioux and Cheyenne leaders were insurgents as opposed to terrorists. They were seeking territorial rights. The Frontier settlers considered them savages or original occupants to be displaced by new (and supposedly more enlightened) occupants.

If you were going to class any group as terrorists from this period, Geronimo's followers would come closer to the mark. They were considered bandits by other Apaches (no matter what TNT might say about it), who helped hunt down some of his followers. When dealing with terrorists a number is handy, since it allows you to track the reduction of the group.

Sorry for the history nit-pick, but this is one of my "pet rocks."

02-01-2007, 05:36 PM
I would propose that the plains Indians were the finest light cavalry seen since the Mongols did their thing. Crook rode a mule when he engaged Apaches for its endurance and common sense. I suspect he was a strong advocate of drafting Thoroughbred horses from Kentucky, Tenn. and Virginia to use for extremely rapid, small strike forces carrying Winchesters against the Lakota to keep the women of the villages upset and demanding of their men to pack up and continually move, thus limiting their organizational ability and food gathering ability. Traditional tactics ruled the day as Custer post-mortem tells us. The War Dept. did finally muster enough sense to supply the winter troops with buffalo coats so they were able to pursue Crazy Horse in the winter of 76', kept him moving and it resulted in him bringing in his band in 77'. Head counts don't seem to have much direct bearing on the mind set that controls the response to an opponent of this nature and I suspect in Iraq of today, the incident-to-response 'formula' can be improved on in many ways.

02-02-2007, 11:08 AM
I have, privately, thought the parallels between the 300 years war between white and native American and west and islam are uncanny.

I'm not certain there is a peaceful solution, and I don't want to be on the "losing" side.