Conceptualisation of Terrorist Violence

"Terrorism" and "terrorists" are of course heavily laden terms. In the political discourse, they are mainly polemic constructs, pejorative labels attached to political action, and actors marking the enemy’s damnability (and thereby justifying extraordinary measures to fight him). Nevertheless, as an empirical project we do not follow calls to abandon the notion of terrorism altogether, seeing it instead as a specific form of political violence which can for analytical purposes be distinguished from other means and modes of pursuing violent conflict. The discussion of the term will be a major topic throughout the course of the project. At the outset, we consider terrorism to be (the threat of) the use of violence as a calculated instrument in a political conflict, targeting non-combatants and addressing audience(s) beyond the immediate victims. For pragmatic reasons, we restrict our focus to non-state actors, or "terrorism from below". While states certainly have used and continue using this instrument with devastating effects, both on their own and foreign populations, state actors have distinct structures and abilities and face very different constraints and conditions regarding the application of violence, that would go beyond the scope of this project. Therefore, of general concern for the research group are organisations that engage in violence in the sense described above. However, we do not think that such use automatically warrants the labelling of a group as "terrorists", or that "terrorist" can be an ontological statement about the inherent nature of specific organisations as such, much less individual persons, at all. Nor do we regard an organisation as merely the sum of its actions, implying a quantitative "threshold" for a categorisation. In tune with the overall theme of our research, instead we argue that attention has to be paid to the particular contexts and (subjective) functions of violence, including its relation to other activities. The pursuit of a terrorist strategy is subject to processes of transformation and learning itself, and therefore falls squarely in the analytical focus of the research group.

Learning Processes

In order to systematically study different aspects of learning, the project utilises a framework structured along three interrelated dimensions, covering the sources (from whom do they learn?), mechanisms (how do they learn?), and outcomes (what do they learn?) of the learning process.

1. Concerning the sources of learning, organisations can capitalise on their own experiences, be they successes or failures (micro level); as well as those of other non-state groups (meso level), for instance through training. Lastly, transformations are crucially shaped by relationships to states that seek to repress movements or may sympathise with them (macro level).

2. The main broad mechanisms of learning are competition and emulation. Groups that compete with the states they are fighting, but also with other groups in the same "market of violence", need to improve their techniques and rigorously analyse mistakes in order to survive. Likewise, organisations aim to emulate past successes, both their own as well as those of "role models". Some even attempt to emulate states by establishing rudimentary structures of governance.

3. Finally, violent groups learn about different aspects of their struggle. On the tactical level, improvements are about the concrete means of violence they employ, be it techniques of bomb construction or plans for armed assault operations. The strategic level is concerned with the ends of violence, like shifts in doctrine or the overall objectives of the campaign, or possibly even the abandonment of terrorism altogether. The operational level bridges these aspects and is concerned, among others, with the organisational structure of the group, which has to be adapted according to the tactical and strategic focus.

This framework can be visualised using parallel coordinates, which provide an overview of the different dimensions from left to right. By connecting relevant levels along these dimensions, specific learning processes can be illustrated. For example, a small development of a group’s own IED-design1 would be located on the micro and tactical levels and work through a combination of emulation (keep what works) and competition (improve what did not work). Larger learning processes encompass more levels: The adoption of suicide bombings as a tactic, for example, also necessitates changes in operational conduct and draws on experience from other groups skilled in this technique (illustrated in red in the depicted graph).

The in this way delineated sub-projects in the research group are combined in the framework to provide a more complete picture of transformation processes.


1 'improvised explosive device'

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