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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 as "beyond the pale". Nevertheless, as an empirical project we do not follow calls to abandon the notion of terrorism altogether, agreeing instead with Richard Jackson that the numerous problems of 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 as a specific form of political violence which can heuristically be distinguished from other means and modes of pursuing violent conflict, namely (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 using this instrument with devastating effects, both on their own and foreign populations, non-state actors have distinct structures and abilities and face very different constraints and conditions regarding the application of violence. In tune with the overall theme of our research, 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 the dynamics between states and non-state actors contribute to such processes of transformation.

In the course of their work, however, 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

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. Initially, the main broad mechanisms of learning were 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. Within the course of the research, the individual projects have added to these mechanisms such that some of the projects define their own middle axis of the framework.

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-design2 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.

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

2 'improvised explosive device'

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