Understanding and Influencing Dynamics of Learning and Unlearning Violence

As social scientists with a focus on peace and conflict research, we investigate the human being as a whole that contains many different facets, including dark sides. In spite of many practical, security, and ethical challenges of doing field research in situations of violence and conflict, understanding why terrorist groups employ violence does not mean forgiving1 and we use the chance to generate insights on dynamics of learning and unlearning violence and on radicalisation and de-radicalisation as well as the possibilities for influencing these dynamics.

One way of influencing learning mechanisms that is commonly employed when dealing with terrorism is exerting pressure on terrorist groups – for example, through violent counterterrorism measures. However, is it possible to learn under pressure? Researchers from various disciplines have observed that pressure only leads to changes in routine behaviour and that what is learnt is not internalised. Moreover, when people learn under pressure, their main goal is frequently to make the pressure stop; what specific things they learn during this process is of secondary importance to them. Do terrorist organisations only act and react rather than learn? Bo Hedberg elaborates on the difference between closed and open systems, notably that "learning in open, cognitive systems takes the form of positive feedback which changes the systems or their knowledge, whereas learning in closed, natural systems is the function of negative feedback which aims at maintaining the genotype unchanged. If a system cannot reorganize itself, it has to use its behavior repertoire to resist and counteract outside threats." When terrorist organisations are under pressure and threat and also operate underground and in isolation, it is hard to imagine that these conditions are conducive to double-loop learning. Double-loop learning redefines the rules of low-level learning. Whereas single-loop learning describes, for example, a change of decision within organisations, double-loop learning implies questioning the rules of decision-making. Since leaders within organisations frequently do not have access to these rules, examples of double-loop learning are hard to find. Empirically, this project will consider the cooperation between terrorist groups, and hence how leaders exchange knowledge about rules of decision-making, as exemplified by the inner-Islamist debate between the Egyptian Gamaa Islamija and Al Qaeda or the IRA's dialogue with the ANC. The rules of decision-making of 'terrorist' organisations are thereby also defined by the dynamics of the conflict they are involved in. Whereas acting/reacting within a closed system can perpetuate the conflict, questioning the rules of the conflict may also mean a shift to an open system. Processes of learning within closed or open systems are linked to integration into conflict structures, a focus that the research group shares with the department "Integration and Conflict."

However, when the conditions do not support learning on a meta-level, terrorist organisations still learn within the parameters of the conflict and change their tactics and strategies. Theoretically, changes in tactics seem like a more likely response to pressure than changes in strategies, which should be more robust. However, if the idea of making strategic shifts was already present before the introduction of pressure, the pressure may serve as a welcome window of opportunity. Conflict mediators emphasise that in order to bring about moderation of terrorist groups, exerting pressure has to be combined with offering them a way out: without pressure, they do not take the way out, and without a way out, pressure will not work. Hence, this project also looks at providing a way out – for example, through recognition – as an additional possibility for inducing change. Can external recognition bring about self-recognition of violent groups? What is the result of recognition by allies or enemies? How do pressure and recognition affect moderates in comparison with radicals? Pressure and recognition often serve as arguments or justifications that reinforce identity and hence support a certain course of action, rather than as inspiration for profound course corrections. The question then arises: how does a change in beliefs come about and under what conditions do organisations question the rules of the game of decision-making, for example by questioning conflict dynamics? Thomas Risse speaks of the power of truth-seeking arguing, a dialogue in which the participants question cause and effect relationships and the moral validity of their previous claims. Here, preferences and identities are no longer fixed but open to debate and change. In their books on their ceasefire initiative, the Gamaa Islamija questions the rationality of their previous approach. In their writings they touch upon issues which sound familiar in the context of just war theory. They also ponder intentions and consequences, concluding that they did not have the capability – i.e. the power – to have the intended impact: "and if jihad can’t achieve that, it is forbidden." Their further elaboration on the jurisprudence of balances and their re-interpretation of sharia highlight the need to consider elements of "Law and Anthropology" in the analysis of de-radicalisation.

As the Gamaa Islamija expresses it, a human being does not have two lives, one to experience and one to learn from the experience: both experience and learning have to be accomplished within one life. With this in mind, one desired research outcome of this project is the possibility of applying the knowledge acquired on radicalisation and de-radicalisation processes and the mechanisms of (un)learning violence and providing a source for academia, decision-makers, conflict mediators and those working with communities at risk of radicalisation. The project thus aims to learn from other's experience as well as provide a source for others to experience learning.

1 Günther Schlee: Wie Terroristen gemacht werden

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