Mixed messages? The role of terrorist violence in armed conflict

The overarching theme of this research is the relationship between the concepts of "terrorism" and "insurgency" as forms of political violence. Contrary to public perceptions, the vast majority of terrorist attacks, defined as acts of political violence by non-state armed groups designed to address a larger audience than the immediate victims (usually civilians and non-combatants), take place in the context of increasingly complex situations of transnational violence and civil war. Consequently, for most violent non-state actors terrorism is just one available tactic in their struggle. The conceptual difficulties resulting from this can be illustrated with the rise of the self-proclaimed "Islamic State", which is now commonly referred to in German media as the "terror militia", reflecting the hybrid nature of an organisation conducting terror attacks in Paris and Brussels as well as waging full-scale war in Syria and Iraq. Another example is the recent shift of Al-Qaeda from being a clandestine network designed to strike Western targets to an umbrella for insurgency forces fighting regimes in several countries of Africa and the Middle East.

Unfortunately, most studies have traditionally looked at terrorism in isolation, rather than as part of a larger arsenal used by insurgents. This can be misleading, as for example terrorism could only be a small part of actual activities of so-called “terrorist groups”, or dynamics ascribed to terrorism could in reality be the result of more conventional military pressure. Drawing on event-data primarily from the Global Terrorism Database, maintained by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, as well as data on armed conflict compiled by the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) as well as other sources of data on aspects of violent conflict, I combine data on terrorist and more conventional violence in order to study how these are interconnected.

Regarding the topic of the Research Group, the question then is how this is related to patterns of group learning and behavioural change. How do groups adapt their tactics and strategies regarding the means and targets of violence? Militant groups are usually not fanatics using mindless violence as an end in itself. Rather, they are in principle able to reflect upon the advantages and disadvantages of various strategies and tactics and adjust their choices accordingly. Like any other organisation, terrorists have to set priorities and decide how to apply limited resources based on evaluations of past experiences and external input as well as organisational capacity. The choice of specific tactics of political violence therefore also reflects the operational structure and overall strategic outline of a group and, crucially, its ability to change and innovate. Using the example of the al-Qaeda network, such transformations will be tracked employing an organizational learning approach.

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