Small Wars Journal

Decentralization: The Future of ISIS

Wed, 11/05/2014 - 8:49am

Decentralization: The Future of ISIS

Nicholas B. Pace

With the United States increasingly involved in counter-terror operations across the world, terrorist organizations have had to become more flexible and adaptive to their environment.  Centralized, top-down terrorist organizations with ambitions to target the United States and its interests are no longer feasible.  The United States’ use of technology and its ability to target any location across the globe, through the use of multiple intelligence methods and drone strikes, has made this organizational model impossible to maintain.  The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, is an example of the trend in de-centralizing terror networks, and represents their evolution.  Their evolution from a branch of al Qaeda to a localized army with a radical Islamic ideology will lead to further decentralization as the group is attacked directly and forced to adapt. 

The move to decentralized, flexible, adaptive networks limits the ability of the United States and its allies to effectively conduct strikes against terrorist sanctuaries, while maximizing the unpredictability and effectiveness of global terror organizations.  ISIS, like al Qaeda, is extremely effective in decentralizing its operational capacity.  Rather than plan and direct attacks from a centrally located command and control post, al Qaeda has decentralized its operations, content to ideology and ideas designed to inspire attacks directed at its targets.  This has resulted in a new organizational model that is much more difficult to target, and creates new counter-terror implications for the United States and its allies. 

Why Decentralize?

As previously mentioned, de-centralization is necessary to the survival of the leaders of terror organizations.  Osama bin Laden is dead.  Ayman al Zawahiri is in hiding, and since September 11, 2001, numerous other al Qaeda leaders have been killed or captured.  Members such as Abd al Kader Mahmoud Mohamed al Sayed, who was “…a longtime senior jihadist leader and military commander who was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan sometime in the Spring of 2012” [i].  There are other reasons, however, to move toward decentralization that do not allow for simple explanations of hardship.  The rhetoric of al Qaeda itself describes such hardship, and even welcomes it as evidence that an Islamic Caliphate will be established following such a struggle.  According to Christopher Blanchard, “…Bin Laden issued a declaration of jihad against the United States in 1996…”, which he often compares to “…Islamic resistance to the European Crusades…”[ii].  The word jihad itself means struggle in Arabic, and the Crusades were a series of wars that lasted nearly 200 years[iii].  In this light, the current al Qaeda leadership does not expect an immediate end to their struggle, and likely sees it lasting beyond their lives. 

The reason, then, for decentralization, must be more pragmatic.  Beyond the ability to aid in the protection of the leadership, decentralization works to the advantage of al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations by providing increased security.  This is a trend that has become more common, in large part because of the increase in communications technology.  It occurs out of both necessity, and sometimes, disagreements within organizations. 

Decentralization can also lead to the establishment of new organizations whose goals differ from that of the original.  ISIS is no longer recognized by Zawahiri as a part of al Qaeda, but it grew from it, and is a perfect example of this type of decentralization.  A BBC report on February 3, 2014 stated that “Al-Qaeda has insisted it has no links with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which has been locked in deadly clashes with rebels in Syria.”[iv] This does not mean, however, that the two groups do not share ideology, goals, and targets.  In 2013, for example, an al Jazeera report stated that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the then al Qaeda in Iraq leader, rejected orders from Zawahiri to keep itself and the al Nursa front in Syria separate.[v]  The falling out between the two leaders created the illusion of separate organizations, but their goals and ideology remain the same.  Currently, ISIS is the closest to realizing the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate that al Qaeda wants. 

The decentralization of terrorist organizations also leads to innovation and prompts further success.  For example, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, commonly referred to as the “…September 11 mastermind…”planned those attacks, not Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, or any of the other senior leaders of al Qaeda. [vi] It is true that bin Laden met with Mohammed and approved of the plan, but it was Mohammed’s plan.  According to Brafman and Beckstrom, “In a command-and-control environment, you can closely track what everyone is doing, but being watched and monitored makes employees less likely to take risks and innovate”.[vii]

This type of hands-off approach to organizational management is precisely what Brafman and Beckstrom advocate in their book, The Starfish and the Spider.  The book is designed to provide corporations and managers with tools designed to foster innovation and creativity, but it does so much more.  It serves as a decentralization blueprint that, in part, serves to describe how al Qaeda operates.  In this model, there is no central leadership.  Ayman al Zawahiri can claim to be in charge of the organization, and in a sense, he is.  He provides al Qaeda with guidance and direction as needed, but it is not as a commander giving orders to his troops, as is often portrayed in news and media articles.  The reality is that he controls the small contingent of al Qaeda bodyguards around him, and has limited communications with the rest of the organization.

This is what Brafman and Beckstrom call a catalyst.  This is different from a centralized leader, like a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) they argue, because

…catalysts and CEOs draw upon very different tools.  A CEO is the boss… A catalyst interacts with people as a peer … Catalysts depend on emotional intelligence; their job is to create personal relationships.  Catalysts are inspirational and collaborative; they talk about ideology and urge people to work together to make the ideology a reality … catalysts thrive on ambiguity and apparent chaos (p. 129).[viii]

This sounds exactly like the behavior of al Qaeda and its senior leadership.  Pleas to the ummah (the global Muslim community) and brothers of the jihad come across as an interaction between peers; Zawahiri is not a religious cleric, he is a simple Muslim.  His ideas are broadcast to inspire actions, not to direct specific attacks.  The ambiguity and chaos that surrounds him is part of his mystique, and what makes al Qaeda attractive to young, radicalized Muslims. 

The ability for al Qaeda to inspire attacks is what makes it so difficult to combat.  Anyone can be part of al Qaeda, and it is no longer necessary for them to travel to Pakistan and find a training camp to join.  In Understanding Terror Networks, Marc Sageman states that, “The terrorism is mostly self-generated from the bottom-up, self-organizing, a local initiative that has considerable flexibility”[ix]  This is al Qaeda’s de-centralization at work.  It provides its members with a certain level of anonymity while giving them the flexibility to conduct attacks in the manner that best accomplishes their objectives. 

The attack conducted at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009 by United States Army Major Nidal Hasan is a perfect example of this.  Hasan, motivated by his adoption of extreme Islam, carried out premeditated murder and attempted murder.  In a senate report concerning the shooting, according to the New York Times, there were “…concerns that he embraced violent Islamic extremism” and “…government officials knew Major Hasan communicated with Awar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric…” and member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.[x]  The attack was praised by Ayman al Zawahiri, and Major Hasan was upheld by him as an example of a good Muslim.  Whether the United States government classifies Hasan or the attack as one by al Qaeda is irrelevant.  The attack was carried out by a man who was inspired by, in communication with, and identified himself as a member of the al Qaeda organization. 

Decentralization in al Qaeda has been one of the hallmarks of the organization.  As attacks against al Qaeda increase, the tendency to decentralize the group and its command and control structure increases.  This allows al Qaeda to continue its operations while making the organization more difficult to find and detect. 

This is exactly how Brafman and Beckstrom describe the workings of a decentralized organization.  “In decentralized organizations, anyone can do anything.  A part of a decentralized organization is akin to a starfish arm: it doesn’t have to report to any head of the company and is responsible only for itself”.8  Decentralization is what will allow al Qaeda to continue to grow and change beyond the ability for powerful governments, such as the United States, to stop it. 

Growing Toward Legitimacy

Decentralization and the ability to gain and recruit volunteers anywhere is part of what Sageman refers to as small-world networks.  According to Sageman:

Small-world networks have interesting properties.  Unlike a hierarchical network that can be eliminated through decapitation of its leadership, a small-world network resists fragmentation because of its dense interconnectivity.  Random attacks, such as stopping terrorists arbitrarily at our borders, will not affect the network’s structure.[xi]

This organizational behavior allows al Qaeda to accomplish its goals through other organizations that share a vision.  ISIS is in the process of achieving an Islamic Caliphate, as attacks throughout Iraq and Syria continue and the organization gains land, people, and resources.  Further, they are not limited by resources in the traditional sense, because contributions come from its members or those who want to support it.  Michael Knights’ October 14 article in Politico argues that the ISIS move toward Baghdad is “a sign of desperation” because of the predominately Shi’a population and well-organized militias in the capital.[xii]

In truth, ISIS probably knows this better than any Western analyst.  It probably also knows that it does not have to take Baghdad in order to achieve its goal of an Islamic State.  The threat of constant violence in the Iraqi capital, coupled with the expansion of the nearby territory under its control, are enough for ISIS to achieve its goal.  If Baghdad is under siege long enough, and gains continue in other parts of Iraq and Syria, ISIS can force recognition by the Iraqi government and begin to carve out an independent territory.  After its separation from al Qaeda, ISIS centralized its operations to gain the territory it has.  As ISIS continues to be the target of attacks, however, it will decentralize in the same manner as al Qaeda, creating off-shoot groups that continue to threaten the stability of the region.  The group may even be defeated, for a time, but its ideology is not going away. 

According to Brafman and Beckstrom, “Ideology is the glue that holds decentralized organizations together”.[xiii]  The fact that ISIS is considered an international threat, and the perception of its ability to carve out and establish an Islamic Caliphate keep it relevant.  Al Qaeda in Iraq, once headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, seemed defeated following his death and the gains made by US forces in Iraq following it.  In response, the organization decentralized and transformed itself, and eventually became ISIS.  It is now more powerful than ever. 

If decentralized networks and ideology are what makes ISIS potent and determines how it operates, then the implication for government policy is that these are what must be attacked.  It is not enough to simply kill the perceived leadership of the organization or conduct air strikes in key locations. In fact, this potentially presents another dilemma.  While Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is known to the United States intelligence community, his potential replacements are likely unknown, and are potentially from, and even located in, any country in the world.  This represents a scenario in which the United States intelligence community becomes a victim of its own success. Targeting and removing the terrorist leadership, as we have witnessed with al Qaeda, has not removed the threat.  It will be the same with ISIS.

Adapting to the Change

The first step in implementing an effective policy toward defeating ISIS is recognizing that it is not a strictly hierarchal organization, and that it consists of a variety of decentralized networks.  According to Sageman, “Because of the network’s ability to spontaneously grow and self-organize, attacks against the large hubs must be undertaken simultaneously to break up the network”.[xiv]  This means that removing the leadership of one terror cell will do little to remove the threat.  All of the leadership must be targeted and removed at virtually the same time.  If it is not, the likelihood of new cells emerging, or old ones finding new leadership, is greatly increased. 

The tendency of the United States is to treat ISIS like a military organization, with a centralized, top-down leadership hierarchy, rather than to treat it as a collective of networks that are decentralized.  Brafman and Beckstrom point out that “…when attacked, decentralized organizations become even more decentralized” however, “…when attacked, centralized organizations tend to become even more centralized”.[xv]

Consider how the United States responded to the attacks of September 11, 2001.   First, the 9-11 Commission was created, which, in turn, issued a detailed report consisting of over 500 pages.  Included in The 9-11 Commission Report was a chapter titled “What to do: A global strategy” which included numerous recommendations, many of which were implemented.  Many of these included increasing the United States bureaucracy, which included establishing more Congressional Committees, a Department of Homeland Security, and creating another national intelligence office, with an appointed Director of National intelligence.[xvi]

This type of reaction, while understandable, did little, if anything to defeat al Qaeda, and will not defeat ISIS.  In fact, it may make matters worse.  According to Brafman and Beckstrom, “…eliminating the catalyst is a futile effort at best, and given that when you go after circles new ones quickly emerge, the only part of a decentralized organization that you can realistically go after is the ideology” (p. 144).15  The United States, then, must change its attitudes about combating the terrorist threat posed by al Qaeda and ISIS.  Attacking cells, arresting terror suspects, and killing the senior leadership is not enough. 

Targeting Networks vs. Targeting Ideas

At this point, it should be evident that the core of ISIS, its ideology, must be attacked.  One of the better recommendations for attacking al Qaeda in the 9-11 Commission Report was to “Engage the struggle of ideas”.[xvii]  Sageman, echoes this as a necessary response to the threat, stating:

The global Salafi jihad feeds on anti-Western and anti-American hate speech.  Such virulent discourse is a necessary condition for the jihad and provides a justification for it.  It is important to eradicate it and encourage civil discourse in Muslim communities.[xviii]

This is not to say that the current policy of the United States to support targeting the military efforts of ISIS, such as the one at Kobani, is wrong or not worthwhile, but it must be complemented by a strategy that targets the group’s ideology.  This is something that was previously recognized, but not implemented.  According to Porter, “Unless this approach identifies the war of ideas tightly with particular physical and political entities, it takes an undifferentiated view of a universal battlespace and is open to entanglement anywhere within it”.[xix]  Even President Obama recognized that operations against ISIS are going to be a long, drawn out process.  The United States needs to find a way to compliment that process with the successful targeting of ideas, not just militants. 

End Notes

[i] Roggio, Bill. “Prominet al Qaeda Leader Killed in Drone Strike in 2012” in The Long War Journal.  February 6, 2013.  Accessed at on October 19, 2014. 

[ii] Blanchard, Christopher.  “Al Qaeda: Statements and Evolving Ideology”.  CRS Report for Congress, Updated June 20, 2005. 

[iii] Bréhier, Louis. "Crusades." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.

[iv] BBC News.  Al Qaeda Disavows ISIS Militants in Syria.  February 3, 2014.  Accessed at: on October 19, 2014. 

[v] Atassi, Basma.  “Iraqi al Qaeda Chief Rejects Zawahiri Orders”.  Aljazeera.  June 15, 2013.  Accessed at: on October 19, 2014. 

[vi] Burkeman, Oliver and Zaffar Abbas.  “How Mobile Phones and an 18 Million Bribe Trapped 9/11 Mastermind”.  The Guardian.  March 10, 2003. 

[vii] Brafman, Ori and Rod A. Beckstrom.  The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.  2006.  Penguin Group: New York. 

[viii] Brafman, Ori and Rod A. Beckstrom.  The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.  2006.  Penguin Group: New York. 

[ix] Sageman, Marc.  Understanding Terror Networks.  2004.  University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia. 

[x] The New York Times.  Nidal Malik Hassan.  April 9, 2014.  Accessed at: on October 19, 2014. 

[xi] Sageman, Marc.  Understanding Terror Networks.  2004.  University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia. 

[xiii] Brafman, Ori and Rod A. Beckstrom.  The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.  2006.  Penguin Group: New York. 

[xiv] Sageman, Marc.  Understanding Terror Networks.  2004.  University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia. 

[xv] Brafman, Ori and Rod A. Beckstrom.  The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.  2006.  Penguin Group: New York. 

[xvi] The 9-11 Commission.  The 9-11 Commission Report.  2004.  W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.: New York. 

[xvii] The 9-11 Commission.  The 9-11 Commission Report.  2004.  W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.: New York. 

[xviii] Sageman, Marc.  Understanding Terror Networks.  2004.  University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia. 

[xix] Porter, Patrick.  “Long Wars and Long Telegrams: Containing al Qaeda”.  International Affairs: Volume 85, Number 2.  The Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2009.


About the Author(s)

Major Nicholas Pace is currently assigned to Joint Forces Command, Brunssum and holds a Master’s Degree in Diplomacy from Norwich University.



Thu, 11/13/2014 - 9:07am

In reply to by OriBrafman

What was most difficult for me in writing this was finding other resources that discussed decentralization. There aren't that many, and the ones that are available seemed to revolve heavily around communications architecture rather than organizations and networks. Unless the international community "gives up" on stopping ISIS, they will certainly decentralize and form new networks. ISIS is a great example of what happens when the arm of a starfish (al Qaeda) is removed, and it creates another starfish (ISIS).


Fri, 11/07/2014 - 9:07am

Let's keep the conversation going, there are some very good starfish implications. Enjoyed the article and your thinking.


Wed, 11/05/2014 - 1:53pm

In reply to by dfil

Thanks for your feedback. For clarification, I am not assuming or suggesting that there needs to be discourse with ISIS. The point was that the US needs to better assert its message with the populations that ISIS is attacking and, more importantly, recruiting from. I will try and make my position more clear next time.

"At this point, it should be evident that the core of ISIS, its ideology, must be attacked."

This sort of thinking has been gaining prominence and fails to understand what enables insurgency. ISIS has perhaps the most self-evidently destructive and disgusting ideology, "The worst idea in history" as the Idonesian chief of staff put it. These people are clearly irreconcilable, and for those of us with experience of trying to have civil, let alone intelligent discourse with online users about current events or history, convincing a radical jihadist their worldview is wrong isn't a feasible course of action. The reason these ideologies do not gain as much traction in places like western countries is because of effective governance, opportunity for economic advancement and education, and most importantly, civil society. But even so, there will always, always be deviants that take the form of serial killers, school shooters, and sometimes terrorists.

And when it comes to "wars of ideas", there has already been an ongoing and intense dialectic for decades within radical Islam and between mainstream Islam vs. radical Islam in general. They discuss topics such as historical interpretations of the Koran, what it means to be a Muslim, who can declare who a Takfiri and on what grounds, and how Islam meshes with manmade laws (to name a few). A couple hundred of the world's leading Islamic clerics and scholars from nearly every sect and school of thought when Islam came together in Amman, Jordan, to issue the Amman Message in 2005 condemning radical Islam through specific points that attack the crux of their ideology. If there is to be a war of ideas, it should be left to the leaders of the mainstream Muslim faith since the ideology of these Jihadists is obviously a discourse on Islam, and where recognized Islamic scholars that have the official authority to issue verdicts pursue the dialectic. It's also important to note that ISIS is enemies with almost everyone, and it makes far less sense to pursue a war of ideas with them than it did with Communists or Nazis.

And since there will always be violent deviants justifying their actions through one belief system or another, the true center of gravity is control of territory by governments that enable civil society. The JCS counter terrorism guidance and the Counterinsurgency field manual recognize that the true metric of success is having a government control every bit of its territory and to do so effectively and legitimately. Ideology is something that happens in people's heads, it only becomes a problem when they turn those ideas into action, and therefore is deserving of action in return.

Another significant misunderstanding is assuming that everyone in ISIS even wants to fight for them, or to remove legitimate political grievances as a prime driver of conflict. All insurgencies recruit fighters locally through forced conscription. If men with guns walk into my home and threaten to kill my family before my eyes unless I forfeit my oldest son, I will be a communist, nationalist, partisan, jihadist, or whatever I have to tell these men to spare their lives. This is an extreme decision that is constant in civil wars and insurgencies. While Iraq war history and counterinsurgency in general is very ambiguous, it is clearly irrefutable that Sunni Iraqi collaboration during the occupation with AQI and recently with ISIS was and is born from behavior intending to hedge against a predatory Shiite government. Ideological sympathy was never a part of it, and in Iraq (and Afghanistan) tribal identity takes precedence over Islamic identity, and in both cases radical groups infringed upon traditional tribal institutions and culture. The dimension of conflict is far broader than ideology, and jihadist insurgents themselves are keen on exploiting political grievances and finding operating space in conflict spaces where governments have broken down or failed to uphold rule of law.