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Conceptualisation of Terrorist Violence

"Terrorism" and "terrorists" are of course heavily loaded terms. In political discourse they are mainly polemic constructs, pejorative labels attached to political actions and actors that mark the enemy as "beyond the pale". Nevertheless, as this is an empirical project, we do not heed calls to abandon the notion of terrorism altogether, agreeing instead with Richard Jackson that the numerous problems with the term and its frequent (mis)use "provides a reason for critical engagement rather than withdrawal and capitulation in the discursive struggle".1

From an analytic point of view, we consider terrorism a specific form of political violence which can heuristically be distinguished from other means and modes of pursuing violent conflict – namely, it involves (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. While states certainly have used and continue to use this instrument with devastating effects, both on their own and against foreign populations, non-state actors have distinct structures and abilities and face very different constraints and conditions regarding the application of violence. In line with the overall theme of our research, we argue for the importance of paying attention 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, and the dynamics between states and non-state actors contribute to such processes of transformation.

In practice, however, we cannot insist on always strictly adhering to this definition of the term: group members also have to deal with the usages, perceptions, and implications of the term "terrorism" in the field, which is influenced by global as well as local discourses. Actors may reject the concept outright, understand it differently, or use it for their own political communication. These have to be reconciled with the analytical approach and reflected in the analysis.

Learning Processes

Learning is a notoriously difficult concept as well. Without subscribing to any single approach, we consider both cognitive and behavioural aspects of transformations and follow an organizational learning perspective. In order to systematically study different aspects of learning, the project utilizes 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, organizations can capitalize on their own experiences, be they successes or failures (micro level); as well as those of other non-state actors (meso level), for instance through training. Additionally, transformations are shaped in crucial ways by the wider environment in general and in particular by relationships with states that may seek to repress movements or, conversely, sympathize with them (macro level).

2. The main broad mechanisms of learning are competition and emulation. Groups compete with the states they are fighting, but also with other groups in the same "market of violence". Therefore, in order to survive they must continuously improve their techniques and rigorously analyse their mistakes. Likewise, organizations 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. Within the course of their projects, some of the individual researchers have identified additional mechanisms and adapted the middle axis of the framework accordingly.

3. Finally, violent groups learn in connection with ways to organize, plan, and implement their actions. 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 organizational structure of the group, which has to be adapted according to the tactical and strategic focus.

This framework can be visualized 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, minor changes in a group’s design for an improvised explosive device (IED) 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. Terrorist groups might change their strategies by transforming their leadership structure and building a political arm, or by engaging in double-loop learning which can result in the adoption of peaceful means.

The Macro-Level and the Future: Right-Wing Violence as the Fifth Wave of Terrorism

During the first three years we were able to gather rare insights into the inner life of organizations as well as into the dynamics between different terrorist organizations. We have thus contributed to taking apart the black box of terrorist organizations and thereby gaining insights on both micro dynamics and meso-level processes. In order to better understand the macro context in which terrorist groups learn, we are increasingly considering their interaction with states in a broader historical frame. In order to better understand the macro context in which terrorist groups learn, and thus the broader developments in the evolution of terrorism, we consider their interaction with states in a broader historical frame. We relate (un-)learning processes to David Rapoport’s historical work in which he identifies four waves of terrorism: the anarchist wave (1880-1920), the anti-colonial wave (1920-1960), the new left wave (1960-1980), and the religious wave (since 1979). This frame serves to embed our research in a historical context and serves as a basis for theory building by uncovering the key mechanisms that explain the continuity and discontinuity of violence. We address the following questions in particular: How does violence spread and how are the different waves of terrorism and counterterrorism interrelated – i.e., in what ways does one wave lead to the next?

Considering that, according to David Rapoport’s model, each of the different waves of terrorism lasted approximately 40 years, the current religious wave should be coming to an end and giving way to a new fifth wave. Can past patterns help us to understand and predict the nature of this fifth wave? Given that terrorist groups and states respond to each other in a process that can be called co-escalation, it is essential to consider the contexts in which terrorism arises. Therefore, we analyse what terrorist groups often perceive as state terrorism and cluster that perception in four waves: imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, and neo-colonialism. Projecting this pattern into the future, the fifth wave could be a reaction to globalization. There are certain similarities between the first and third wave and likewise between the second and fourth wave. Anarchists and the New Left propagated criticism of the dominant system, while the anti-colonial and religious waves pursued territorial ambitions. The socialist activists of the New Left (third wave) can thus be understood as the “grandchildren” of the anarchist revolutionaries, while Islamists understand themselves as fighting for freedom from neo-colonial oppression much like the anti-colonialist movements before them. This suggests that it is possible to speak of a generational pattern in which grandparents pass on their heritage to their grandchildren. Following this pattern, it can be posited that that criticism of the system will be important for the fifth wave. If the fifth wave is going be a reaction to globalization, its criticism could take the form of a rejection of liberal cosmopolitanism and a retreat into the local and national. The recent string of antisemitic, anti-Muslim, and racist attacks – not least in our city of Halle – along with a boom of anti-liberal and right-wing forces in public discourse supports this hypothesis.

However, right-wing actors are not just connected to local conditions but also act in a highly global fashion. The Australian perpetrator of the shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, explicitly named American role models as well as the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, and he donated money to the Austrian Identitarian movement. Yet right-wing actors also co-opt traditions of the local, referring to Germanic paganism, the American frontier mentality, or Christian fundamentalism, suggesting that a possible right-wing terrorist fifth wave has parallels with the religious wave. At the same time, the Identitarians or the alt-right in the US understand themselves as revolutionary actors and adopt concepts from the left, lamenting for example about language prohibition as a result of anti-discrimination. That terrorists from different ideological and historical backgrounds learn from each other and exchange ideas demonstrates the continuity and discontinuity of violence. We investigate the transformation of terrorist groups within the frame of such (dis-)continuities by means of field research in multiple countries; and we contextualize our increasing focus on right-wing violence with the knowledge we have already collected on ethno-separatist, left-wing, and religious terrorism in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.

1 Jackson, Richard. 2008. An Argument for Terrorism. Perspectives on Terrorism 2(2), p.29.

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