Mixed messages? The role of terrorist violence in armed conflict
As part of the Research Group, my areas of responsibility are cross-cutting in nature, providing specific assistance to the other members and their various projects, on the one hand, and conducting general quantitative research on terrorism and terrorist groups with a focus on innovation and learning, on the other. Drawing on event-data primarily from the Global Terrorism Database, maintained by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, as well as other sources of data on aspects of violent conflict, I am developing a dataset of terrorist groups’ activities and characteristics in order to track behavioural change and its determinants across time and space. This can be used both to provide important contextual information as well as detailed statistics of the dynamics of violent conflicts and terrorist campaigns covered by the various sub-projects of the Research Group.
The overarching theme of my own research is the relationship between the concepts of “terrorism” and “insurgency” as forms of political violence. Contrary to public perceptions, the vast majority of terrorist attacks, defined as acts of political violence by non-state armed groups designed to address a larger audience than the immediate victims (usually civilians and non-combatants), take place in the context of increasingly complex situations of transnational violence and civil war. Consequently, for most violent non-state actors terrorism is just one available tactic in their struggle. The conceptual difficulties resulting from this can be illustrated with the rise of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State”, which is now commonly referred to in German media as the “terror militia”, reflecting the hybrid nature of an organisation conducting terror attacks in Paris and Brussels as well as waging full-scale war in Syria and Iraq. Another example is the recent shift of Al-Qaeda from being a clandestine network designed to strike Western targets to an umbrella for insurgency forces fighting regimes in several countries of Africa and the Middle-East.
Regarding the topic of the Research Group, the question then is how this is related to patterns of group learning and behavioural change. How do groups adapt their tactics and strategies regarding the means and targets of violence? In what way are these shaped by the context of counter-terrorism/insurgency campaigns by the state or interactions with other non-state actors? For example, on a tactical level suicide bombings can be applied as a device to terrorise domestic or international populations or as a weapon in offensive military operations. Like any other organisation, terrorists have to set priorities and decide how to apply limited resources based on evaluations of past experiences and external input as well as organisational capacity. The choice of specific tactics of political violence therefore also reflects the operational structure and overall strategic outline of a group and, crucially, their ability to change and innovate.