Colombia has three terrorist groups that have been designated by the Secretary of State as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs): the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN), and remaining elements of the rightist paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The ELN has a dwindling membership of about 2,000 fighters and reduced offensive capability, but has inflicted casualties through the increased use of land mines and continues to fund its operations through drug trafficking. Peace talks between the ELN and the Colombian government remain stalled.

With more than 32,000 members demobilized, the AUC remained inactive as a formal organization, but some AUC renegades continued to engage in criminal activities, mostly drug trafficking, according to the terrorism report. According to the report, the Colombian government continued to process and investigate demobilized paramilitaries under the Justice and Peace Law, which offers judicial benefits and reduced prison sentences for participants who confess fully to their crimes and return all illicit profits.

The FARC has been weakened significantly by the government’s military campaign against it, including the killings of several FARC commanders in 2007 and the group’s second in command, Raúl Reyes, during a Colombian government raid on a FARC camp in Ecuador on March 1, 2008. In May 2008, the FARC admitted that its long-time leader, Manuel Marulanda, had died of a heart attack in March. In July 2008, a Colombian military operation rescued 15 long-held hostages, including three U.S. defense contractors held since February 2003—Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell, and Marc Gonsalves; Colombian Senator and presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt; and other Colombians. In addition, according to the State Department’s terrorism report, Colombian security forces captured or killed a number of mid-level FARC leaders in 2008 and reduced the amount of territory where the FARC could freely operate.

Desertions among FARC members also increased in 2008 to more than 3,000 compared to almost 2,500 in 2007. Nevertheless, the FARC has continued tactical-level terrorist activities, kidnapping for profit (including the holding of 24 “high value” political hostages and hundreds of other kidnap victims), and narco-trafficking activities. The group launched several bombings against civilian and military targets in urban areas and targeted rural outposts, infrastructure, and political opponents in dozens of attacks.

Colombian terrorist groups continue to utilize the territory of several of Colombia’s neighbors, according to the State Department terrorism report. The FARC uses Ecuadorian territory for rest, recuperation, resupply, and training in addition to coca processing and limited planting and production. While Ecuador’s relations with Colombia remain tense in the aftermath of Colombia’s March 2008 military raid on a FARC camp in Ecuadorian territory, Ecuador’s military has increased the number of operations against the FARC in its northern border region.

Both the FARC and the ELN and remnants of the AUC often crossed into Venezuelan territory to rest and regroup as well as to extort protection money and kidnap Venezuelans in order to finance their operations. According to the terrorism report, the Venezuelan government did not systematically police the country’s 1,400-mile border with Colombia to prevent the movement of armed groups or to interdict the flow of narcotics. Moreover, limited amounts of weapons and ammunition, some from official Venezuelan stocks and facilities, reportedly have ended up in the hands of Colombian terrorist groups.


The FARC, ELN and remnants of the AUC often crossed into Venezuelan territory to rest and regroup as well as to extort protection money and kidnap Venezuelans in order to finance their operations. The Venezuelan government also did not systematically police its country’s border with Colombia to prevent the movement of armed groups or to interdict the flow of narcotics.

Some limited amounts of weapons and ammunition from official Venezuelan stocks and facilities were reported to have ended up in the hands of Colombian terrorist groups.

The State Department terrorism report also noted that passengers on weekly flights connecting Tehran and Damascus with Caracas were only subject to cursory immigration and customs controls in Caracas. There has been increasing concern in recent years about Iran’s increasing interest in Latin America, particularly its relations with Venezuela under President Hugo Chávez. One reason for the concern is Iran’s ties to the radical Lebanon-based Islamic group Hezbollah (Party of God), which is reported to have been linked to the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires.

The next generation of terrorism

Mapping Terrorist Networks

A good way to understand how terrorist networks work is to map them. A well constructed map provides insight into how the network operates. After the 9/11 event government and private intelligence agencies used social network analysis to map the terrorist network that attacked on that day. Despite incomplete knowledge of all the connections between members, their analysis is still cogent and probably fairly close to reality.

Here’s what they found out about the networks structure:

A sparse operational network. The 19 members of the operational cells (the actual 9/11 hijackers) were relatively isolated. The mean path length — the average number of hops between any one member of the network to any other — was a high 4.75. The greatest number of network connections between members was 5. Additionally, key members pulsed connections to other key members in the network through brief coordination meetings. These brief meetings reduced the distance between operational members by 40% (from a mean path length of 4.75 to 2.79).

A larger administrative network to support the operational teams. The administration network provided a means to “keep alive” many of the weak connections between sparsely connected members of the operational network. They also provided much of the ongoing care needed to prepare an otherwise isolated operational team member for the attack.

A leadership structure despite a lack of formal hierarchy. When the network is looked at in its entirety (operational plus administrative), Mohammed Atta emerged as the leader. Atta had 22 connections to other people in the network, much more than any other (the nearest other outlier was 18). Mohammed Atta’s position on the network gave him control of its operation. Atta scored high in all measures of network connectivity: degrees (activity on the network), closeness (his ability to access others on the network — fewer number of hops), and betweens (control over the network — a central position that allowed him to broker the flow of information across the network).

The costs and benefits of this network configuration. Al Qaeda didn’t design this network. It grew organically based on a combination of the operational requirements and the initiative of its members. Despite this organic nature, the design worked extremely well.

Here are the dynamics:

The interplay of distance in the operational network and the closeness of the administrative network enhanced the network’s operation. The intentional lengthening of the mean path in the operational network improved the security of the network (no one member knew a majority of the others). The administrative network mitigated the detrimental aspects of this configuration (less learning, poorer planning, etc.) by helping to lower the mean path between members. It also provided supplemental clusters of skills and capabilities to provide localized enhancement of the operational network.

NOTE: Notice that three of the four the operational cells were at the minimum size for small groups while the entire group — operational plus administrative — is at the optimal size for a medium sized group. The only small cell that failed (crashed in PA) was below the lower limit of five members.

Trust between members of the network was based on deep relationships. Many of the relationships between members of the 9/11 terrorist network were developed years before in the al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. This prior knowledge/experience allowed the communication between network members to operate at a high degree of sophistication. It also lowered the transaction costs of forming and operating the network. The downside to this trust requirement is that people with unique skills may not be included.

There was too much overlap between unique skill sets and leadership positions in the network. Examination of the network indicates that the trained pilots (a unique skill) were also the network leaders (identified by the number of connections). This overlap of skills/responsibilities made the network vulnerable. The reason for this is probably a combination of personal bias of Mohammed Atta when building this network and the requirement for an extreme level of commitment necessary to conduct a kamikaze operation.

Hard Lessons

The 9/11 terrorist network will likely serve as a model for future activities. Here’s what can be applied to future counter-terrorist efforts:

Expect these operational networks to be run by relative unknowns. Osama bin Laden, nor many of his top aides, were not a direct part of the network map. Osama’s absence indicates that he has a “hands-off” management style. He does not micromanage. The network structure indicates that projects sponsored by al Qaeda are operated like independent businesses that acquire their own resources, do their own planning, and execute their plans without reference to senior authority. This is further support for the idea that bin Laden is operating a venture capital incubator model of terrorism. This also implies that Osama’s removal will likely not have any measurable impact since al Qaeda’s operations are run by entrepreneurs over the period of years.

Assassination of a single network leader will not work. Despite the concentration of leadership and unique skills in Mohammed Atta, his assassination would not have prevented the operation. A second emergent leader with a high degree of connectivity was present: Marwan al-Shehhi. If Atta was removed, his loss would have eliminated one cell from the operational team (he was a pilot) while leaving most of the network intact. In order to disrupt the network fully, multiple high flow targets must be taken out simultaneously in order to prevent the emergence of alternative leadership.

NOTE: There also is a high degree of dynamism in the network structure not captured by this analysis. This will be a topic of future analysis.

Strategic attacks are possible with a network of less than 70 people. The small size, and low cost, of the 9/11 terrorist network should give pause to all counter-terrorist planners. Given that an estimated 100,000 people trained in Afghanistan, the potential for replays of 9/11 style strategic attacks is very high. The key members of the 9/11 network relied on trust built on face-to-face meetings in the Afghanistan camps. This implies that the key to unraveling the entire network is to gain access to Osama’s list of people who trained in the camps (al Qaeda literally means “the database”).


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