What is a Sleeper Cell?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

One of the most insidious tactics at a terrorist organization's disposal is the implementation of a sleeper cell. This consists of secret agents who receive specialized training in their home countries and are then assigned to assimilate into another country's culture and society. These agents may spend years performing their regular duties while living deep undercover, then suddenly receive orders from their overseas handlers to either commit an act of terrorism or provide aid to those who will.

The events of September 11, 2001 highlight the dangers of a sleeper cell.
The events of September 11, 2001 highlight the dangers of a sleeper cell.

Individual members of a sleeper cell may not even be aware of each other, since plausible deniability during police interrogations can be vital. One sleeper agent may work for an airline ticket office, for example, while another may work at a car rental company or a chemical plant. When the commanders of the terrorist organization want to activate a cell, each agent may only receive the name of one contact person or receive only his or her specific orders. The airline ticket agent, for example, may only be told to provide tickets for four men traveling from Germany to New York. The car rental agent may only be told to pick up these men from the airport and deliver them to the chemical plant. This process insures that no individual is aware of the entire plan.

It can be extremely difficult for government agencies to track and dismantle sleeper cells because of their nebulous construction. If the individual members are well-trained and dedicated to their cause, they can easily blend into society without raising any suspicions. A cell doesn't necessarily need to hold regular meetings or undergo additional training to carry out their missions. Members simply go about their daily routines until a handler contacts them for an assignment. Some agents may not even be fully aware of their obligations, believing that a benevolent government agency simply paid for their education and immigration expenses.

The events surrounding September 11 pointed out the dangers of such cells, since a number of US citizens did provide material assistance to the actual terrorists. While some may have simply been performing their regular duties, others were most likely members of sleeper cells activated to perform crucial support operations. A student pilot who only studied take-off procedures, for example, would be an ideal member. An airline baggage handler who could smuggle weapons onto a plane without notice would also be useful.

Some agents may be fully aware of their roles in an operation, while others may be deliberately kept in the dark until called upon to act. This is why an attack can be so notoriously difficult to thwart. A cell is often discovered through covert surveillance and infiltration by a double agent.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


Sleeper cells have become active nowadays in parts of the world. Many terrorist activities have been potentially powered by such bodies like the sleeper cells. Tracking them has been difficult for years, but the new technological development has enabled various governments to dismantle and dissolve such hazardous elements out of the society.

Sleeper cell agents dedicate themselves for the cause since their bosses above pay lot for their inception into governmental bodies, for family welfare and timely payments. This very reason has brought difficulty in tracking such agents as in some cases there are threats of mass killings of family members which ceases the sleeper cell agent from revealing details to authorities once caught.


These "sleeper cells" obviously have an x amount of people on the bottom level of them. They are all obviously controlled by the higher level which naturally has less members. This level could possibly think it's managing people for a legitimate government agency?

Well, with the government now with the authority to listen to our communications, and probably tap into our internet activity they can more than likely disassemble a "sleeper cell" pretty quickly. The best way to do it is probably find all the lowest level people and monitor them to find out who is calling the shots, and work all the way up and disassemble it from the top down.


there is nothing more important than the development (full, complete, total) of the human being. kept ignorant and uninformed, dependent on technologies is the most dangerous situation and we are in it.


@ Anon33865- Welcome to the military industrial economy. Technology will always be more lucrative than human ability, because it is built to replace human ability. A specific technology only has to be developed once, and then it can be mass-produced. Teaching someone the skills that the technology replaces would cost much more because each individual must be recruited, trained, developed, and maintained. Developing people is much more labor intensive than shooting a satellite into space that can be programmed by a few individuals. You also never have to question a satellites loyalty.

Don't get me wrong, I am a believer in human military intelligence, but the government is sold on all of this technology because it is a cost effective substitute, and the companies that produce this technology employ millions. Every military project is some senator or representatives pet project. When military spending makes up somewhere around fifty percent of total spending, you have to find reasons to need what these companies produce.


I have no information about how our government is proceeding against radical Islamic terrorism. I have the impression that we have a paucity of Arab speakers and also a paucity of bodies on the ground in foreign countries. I perceive that we rely too much on technology and not enough on humans. We should have a government funded program to recruit people to study the history, the culture and the language of any country that could become an enemy.

We waste billions on programs that don't work or even make things worse. We could spend some on hard intelligence. The CIA missed the impending implosion of the USSR. Of course, some in our government are more concerned that some foreigners civil rights would be impinged than about the security of the U.S. See the Church Committee and the denial of communication between the FBI and the CIA. Then note that the woman who made it worse was put on the committee to see what went wrong. One of the best ways to thwart attacks is to infiltrate the terrorist organization-without people who look like them and speak like them that is very difficult.

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