What Are al Qaeda and ISIS Organizationally?

In general, there is little disagreement about the ISIS's organizational structure. Most everyone agrees that it consists of a central leadership in Syria and Iraq and about a dozen provinces (called wilayat) over which the leadership extends varying degrees of control.

But there are significant disagreements about the structure of al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda: Core, Affiliates, and Adherents. According to the U.S. government, al Qaeda consists of three parts: a core leadership, affiliated groups, and adherents. The "core" is those people who carried out 9/11 and still desire to kill Americans and attack America. The affiliates are local insurgent groups seeking to overthrow local leaders and set up their own governance. They have an ambiguous relationship with the core, but are certainly not directly controlled by al Qaeda's leaders. Adherents, better known as "lone jihadis," have no organizational connections to foreign groups and are simply inspired by al Qaeda's leadership to carry out their attacks.

This vision of al Qaeda implies a decentralized and nonhierarchical organization, one where the leadership is only loosely tied to locally focused affiliates. Such a structure would allow the U.S. and others to concentrate on killing off the terrorist "core" through drone strikes while leaving the insurgent affiliates for local partners and allies to deal with. Adherents would naturally be handled by law enforcement rather than the military.

Figure 3: Al Qaeda Network

Al Qaeda: Command and Branches. This vision is entirely denied by al Qaeda itself, which asserts that it consists of a central command that issues orders and organically connected branches that carry out these orders. A close look at al Qaeda's structure supports this vision of a hierarchical and centralized military organization.

Director of National Intelligence Clapper on al Qaeda's Organizational Structure. In the fall of 2014, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper revealed that al Qaeda had multiple command or planning centers. The existence of these nodes might help explain how a non-state organization could command and control an irregular global war.

Figure 8: New Command-Planning Nodes, c. 2014, According to DNI Clapper