One of the less appreciated topics in military affairs is the relationship between organization and strategy. Ideally, strategy should dictate organization; in reality, organization to some degree dictates strategy. In 1965, the United States Army in Vietnam tried fighting the conflict for which it was best prepared, a war of maneuver in that emphasized finding, fixing, and finishing a conventional enemy. By 1968, the Army was forced to fight the war it actually faced—a moment of truth that required painful adjustments.
Revolutionaries strike their own balances between strategic and organizational requirements. The three types of revolutionary strategy discussed so far—Maoist, Leninist, and terrorist—result in very distinctive types of organization. In fact, the structure of a revolutionary group is often a better guide to its real doctrine than its own doctrinal statements, which often are intentionally or unintentionally misleading. Al Qaeda may borrow the rhetoric of Maoist-like groups, depicting mass uprisings against corrupt governments. However, the Al Qaeda organization looks nothing like a Maoist political and military structure—and it never will, as long as it pursues a terrorist strategy.
Since Maoists plan for a long war, fought initially from the periphery, they need to create their own shadow government and army. Maoist groups have a well-organized political structure, often with a party at its core to which administrative units are subordinate from the national to the regional and local levels. The political arm needs to provide basic services (water, food, medicine, education, and so forth), as well as ensure the political aims of the revolution (indoctrination, recruitment, etc.). Meanwhile, the military effort needs to maintain a field army capable of sustaining a long campaign in which the revolutionaries will nearly always be vastly outnumbered and outgunned. It needs a permanent organization of general-purpose guerrillas, plus specialized units such as combat engineers, anti-aircraft gunners, snipers, and assassination teams.
Maoists use their military arm to raid military and police outposts, keep the enemy army spread thin (and therefore ineffective nearly everywhere), sabotage the government's physical and administrative infrastructure, and create liberated zones where guerrilla units can regroup, re-supply, and re-equip as needed. Military action slowly erodes the government's ability to govern, a vast undertaking that requires a large military and political effort.
In theory, the party (or, often, an alliance of parties) is the core of the entire organization. Frequently, however, the military wing is the peer or superior of the political wing. It can be difficult to discern the real relationship between the political and military arms, since any political organization that operates overtly needs to appear independent of the military wing. The complexity and opacity of the political-military relationship often complicates peace negotiations. If you agree to talks with the political arm—for example, Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, or the FDR in El Salvador's civil war—it can be hard to determine if you're negotiating with real decision-makers or powerless spokesmen.
Leninist groups clearly emphasize political over military methods, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the political leaders are actually in charge. Leninist organizations occasionally build shadow governments, but not for the same reasons as Maoists. Leninists construct an alternate government that can replace the existing regime immediately after it falls. Maoists, of course, need an operational government much earlier, to replace the regime in "liberated zones." Political organization, for Leninists, is often the arm of decision, not administration. Political action— alliances with other anti-regime groups, strikes, demonstrations, riots, samizdat, infiltration, and so forth—is to Leninist strategy what hit-and-run raids on military outposts are to Maoists.
In other words, Leninists have a military wing, but it focuses on different kinds of operations, with different political outcomes in mind. Sabotage, assassination, and kidnapping may look like terrorist acts, but they're not. The target is the government, and the objective is a demonstration of its vulnerability. Military action also demonstrates the potency of the revolutionaries to other groups opposed to the regime, making it more attractive to build alliances with them. Over time, the political balance of power may shift to the point where the regime crumbles. At that point, the Leninists will be well positioned to shoulder aside the other groups that helped topple the regime (and may, in fact, ultimately deserve far more credit than the Leninist faction).
Since Leninists are trying to ignite and direct a political firestorm, with the collapse of the regime as its goal, they too need a large organization to succeed. At times, the people with guns may still be the ones with real power within the revolutionary organization, even though they don't command a large army the way Maoist military leaders do. The discipline, ruthlessness, and armament of the Leninist military leaders nonetheless give them a great deal of leverage—which is why the political leaders usually take measures to control the military wing from the very beginning. For example, a political officer may be attached to every military unit, and political leaders may be required to approve any military operation.
Terrorist organizations look much different than Maoist and Leninist revolutionary groups. There is a division between political and military arms, but not much of one. Often, the leaders of cells and the overall organization manage both political and military action; their subordinates are the ones who have more specialized responsibilities.
Political action is often far more limited, requiring a much smaller effort. Like Leninists, terrorists are eager to use mass communications to transmit revolutionary messages. They share, with the Leninists, the need to recruit new members, craft a revolutionary doctrine, police the orthodoxy of their own members, and gather intelligence on the enemy. Unlike Leninists, terrorists emphasize military action—which, again, follows far different lines than Maoist and Leninist strategies. Terrorists use violence—bombings, kidnappings, assassinations—to generate terror within a broad population. To achieve this goal, terrorists need only a small number of operations, each carried out by a small number of operatives. (Compare the 19 hijackers who executed the 9/11 attacks to the 10,000 or more members of the FARC guerrilla movement in Colombia.) Therefore, terrorist organizations are much smaller than Maoist or Leninist groups.
Secrecy also keeps terrorist organizations small. Terrorists therefore operate in networks or cells, each focused on a particular region or type of target. For example, a cell may operate in one city, and perhaps even just one district or neighborhood. Branches of an international terrorist network like Al Qaeda might focus on particular countries, such as Egypt or the United States, or particular types of operations, such as attacks on airliners. Every cell or branch is constantly evading the police, since every one of its actions (acquiring explosives, recruiting suicide bombers, planning an attack) is illegal.
Terrorist groups, therefore, are structured more like organized crime families than other revolutionary organizations. Small, secretive, and disciplined, terrorists and Mafiosi alike use violence to generate fear. They recruit and train specialized operatives, but the mullah or capo at the top of the organization controls all activities, as do the leaders of each cell or branch. A terrorist leader may look forward to a day when an enemy regime collapses, just as a mafia don may anticipate a day when the police are so corrupt or ineffective that he can operate in total freedom. Meanwhile, daily operations have less ambitious goals: the maintenance of the small, secretive, and violent organization itself, and the continued generation of terror.
The size of the group also depends on who the enemy is. Terrorists focused on an occupying power can blur the distinctions between the foreign government and its equally foreign population. The more ethnically, linguistically, or religiously different the occupying power is, the easier it is to lump the enemy regime and population together as one alien Other. Terrorists fighting their own government, on the other hand, are deliberately blowing up, shooting, or kidnapping civilians like themselves. The terrorist group shrinks in proportion to the level of disgust it inspires—which is greater when you attack your fellows, instead of a foreign population.
There are a lot more details worth discussing about each model of revolutionary organization, but this is a good point to stop and take note of how to use these models in practice. These are Max Weber's ideal types—ideal only in Plato's sense of the word. Each is a template that shapes revolutionary organizations. In reality, no revolutionary organization follows the template completely. To make the picture even messier, revolutionaries often mix strategies, which requires a hybrid organization. However, the more a group stresses a strategy, the more it needs a particular type of organization. The revolutionaries can adapt, moving closer to the organizational type best suited to their own strategy, or they can fail. Often, they adapt simply by splintering.
The Irish Republican Army (IRA) is a good case in point. In its early days, the IRA under leaders like Michael Collins was a predominantly Leninist organization. The 1916 Easter Rising, for example, was a classic Leninist moment: the disciplined revolutionaries, in alliance with other anti-regime groups, sought to create a political crisis centered on the capital, Dublin. Violence had its role, directed against the British government and its agents in Ireland. While the movement had its more militant strain, as exemplified by John Connolly, it was neither Maoist nor terrorist.
While Ireland gained its independence, Northern Ireland remained firmly in the grip of the British. The violent events of the 1960s and 1970s accelerated the already centrifugal forces at work within the IRA, which ultimately split along doctrinal lines. The Provisional IRA (or "Provos") focused on attacking targets outside Northern Ireland, primarily within England. Their list of targets expanded from British civilian and military officials to include civilians, often the primary victims of car bomb attacks. In contrast, the "Original IRA" abandoned military operations altogether, pinning its hopes on a well-organized mass movement. In the 1980s, the Continuity IRA broke from the Provos over the question of whether Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, should hold seats in the Irish Parliament. Later, the Real IRA, which opposed the 1998 "Good Friday" agreement, broke away from the Provos to continue its own terror campaign. And these are just the biggest groups; other, smaller groups, sometimes appropriating the names of the larger factions, still exist.
The IRA case shows clearly how strategy drives organization. The more different factions pursue a terrorist strategy, the harder it is to remain part of a larger Leninist organization. The factions least troubled by targeting civilians are also the smallest groups—sometimes to the point where they can only sustain themselves financially through bank robberies and other crimes.
How has the British government fought these groups? Of course, the British Army has been an extremely visible part of the civil war in Northern Ireland. (In fact, the IRA has turned the British solder patrolling a Belfast street into the symbol of the British occupation.) However, the British military effort has, obviously, not been a conventional military operation. It has its paramilitary dimensions, particularly around population security. When going on the offense against the IRA factions, the British military has worked with the police, courts, and intelligence services to monitor and infiltrate the IRA, capture and prosecute its members, and over time, dismantle its organization piece by piece. It resembles the FBI's campaign against Al Capone more than the US/South Vietnamese war with the Viet Cong.
Last week's attacks in London underline this point. Whatever merits the British deployment in Iraq has, it did not stop a terrorist cell from killing approximately 50 civilians and shutting down the center of London. You may hear people sneer at the statement, Counterterrorism is primarily a police effort. Often, these are people with little or no experience in stopping terrorists attacks, or capturing terrorists after the fact. Counterterrorism does involve parts of the government that normally look beyond the nation's borders, such as the intelligence services, and often elite units, such as Germany's GSG-9 or Britain's SAS, for particular operations (usually rescue missions or raids). The other 90 percent or more of counterterrorism devolves into what you might call a police investigation—albeit one against the toughest kind of criminal, a well-organized, highly secretive, and undoubtedly ruthless organization.