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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.

Among the three sources of learning, the macro level hints to the broader and future developments in the evolution of terrorism that will be in the focus of the research group.

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

In order to better understand the macro context in which terrorist groups learn, 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 clear 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 will be a reaction to globalization, its reply could lie in a retreat into the local and national. This hypothesis is supported by the current boom of anti-liberal and right-wing forces (who often rely on appeals to local identity), as manifested in the election of Trump in the US and the rhetoric of Viktor Orbán and others in Europe.

Right-wing actors do not only connect to local conditions but also act in a highly global fashion. The perpetrator of the shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, explicitly named American role models and the Norwegian terrorist Breivik. Yet right-wing actors also co-opt traditions of the local, referring to Germanic paganism, the American frontier mentality, or Christian fundamentalism, which suggests that a possible right-wing terrorist fifth wave has parallels with the religious wave. At the same time, the identitarian movement 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 relates to the continuity and discontinuity of violence. We investigate the transformation of terrorist groups within the frame of such (dis-) continuity by means of field research in different countries in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa.



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

2 'improvised explosive device'

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