Terrorist organizations generally have a central leader, mid-level cadres, and recruits who constantly engage in training and indoctrination. For a terrorist group to prosper, it must be supported by an ethnic, religious, or political base that is sympathetic to its cause. In some cases, however, terrorist groups do not seek to win the hearts and minds of people. Instead, they simply demand support.
Terrorist groups normally have two operational wings. One is an overt/semi-covert political wing, and the other is a secret military wing. The political wing supports the military wing by providing cover and by gaining access to resources. The political wing may also engage in public relations efforts. Sometimes, the political wings of terrorist organizations are legally registered non-profit organizations that are able to raise the cash needed for the military wing to fulfill their missions.
The military wings of terrorist organizations actually carry out terrorist acts. They complete the planning, surveillance, and preparation needed to attack a target. The military wings of terrorist groups are organized in separate cells so that if one cell is compromised, the others can continue to function. The military wings of terrorist groups generally focus on activities that will maximize destruction and loss of life in order to create chaos and fear among the people. They also participate in bombings, assassinations, and ambushes.
The hierarchy of terrorist organizations is fairly rigid in structure. There is always a senior leader and a small cadre of core leaders. These leaders tend to remain in power for many years and, therefore, bring continuity to their cause. Therefore, those fighting terrorists should probably concentrate on disrupting the chain of leadership in terrorist groups. Whereas the top leaders in terrorist organizations are not expendable, common members are often sacrificed.
Terrorist groups develop ideologies that, in their minds, justify the horrific actions they take. The most radical forms of religion provide fertile ground for the rooting of terrorist ideologies. The use of a religious foundation gives terrorists the appearance of respectability and legitimacy.
There are three basic ideological foundations of terrorism; left and right-wing terrorism, ethnonationalist terrorism, and politico-religious terrorism. Left-wing terrorism is driven by Marxist/Leninist philosophy. Left-wing terrorists strive to overthrow capitalism in favor of socialism or Communism. Included among these groups are the Red Army Faction of Germany, the Red Brigade of Italy, and the New Peoples' Army in the Philippines. Right-wing groups include the Ku Klux Klan in the United States, the United Self-Defense Forces in Columbia, and the American Nazi Party.
Ethnonational terrorist groups include the Kurds in Southeastern Turkey, the Palestinians, and the Kashmiri Liberation Front. Such organizations pose a great threat to the security of the world order because they hold extremely uncompromising views of what must take place.
Groups that fight for religious principles tend to be the most dangerous and the least compromising of all. This is true because they believe that their cause is also God’s cause. Religiously motivated groups include the Army of God in the United States, the Islamic Resistance Movement (HAMAS), Al-Qaeda, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Of these various groups, Islamists have thus far tended to be the most violent.
In addition to religious motivations, people may become terrorists for political reasons. Sometimes, nation states support terrorism against an enemy state, or political factions grow angry enough to terrorize one another.