Searching for Patterns of Terrorism

November 08, 2019

On 21 and 22 November 2019 a workshop entitled “Is Terrorist Learning Different?” will take place at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. The workshop was organized by members of the research group “How ‘Terrorists’ Learn”. Through the analysis of international case studies, participants will explore tactical and strategic learning processes of violent radical groups.

Individual paths to violence
What makes members of terrorist organizations different from other people? To answer this question, the workshop contributions will consider both the learning behaviour of organizations and ways that individuals are radicalized. For example, Sheelagh Brady (Dublin City University) takes the biographies of 24 individuals as a starting point to examine how they move between extremist groups, organized crime, private mercenary units, and the military. Brady is interested in the influences that evidently dispose certain individuals to align themselves with a violent way of life from which they can free themselves only with difficulty. The story of Anis Amri, the perpetrator of the attack at the Berlin Christmas market in December 2016, is the focus of the paper by Wael Garnaoui (Université Paris Diderot). Garnaoui sees Amri as a typical case of an illegal immigrant who becomes a terrorist while seeking a better life for himself.

The environment of terrorism
But the workshop is not merely interested in determining what leads individuals to embark on paths of violence, but also with the question of what special characteristics distinguish the contexts in which terrorism arises. The recent terrorist attacks in Halle, Kassel, and Berlin have highlighted once again the fact that terrorists learn from other terrorists: it is clear that they plan their actions according to specific patterns and they put great thought into determining which means seem most suitable for accomplishing their ends. Even if attacks are often carried out by “lone actors”, these individuals always act within a social environment that serves as a source of knowledge and from which they hope to receive recognition. “It doesn’t matter whether the actors are single individuals or highly organized groups: terrorism always originates within a concrete social context and the two are subject to forces of change,” explains Dr. Carolin Görzig, head of the research group “How ‘Terrorists’ Learn”. “In order to better understand the development of different forms of terrorism, we are interested in examining the social milieu of the actors and analysing learning processes within individual groups. In addition we consider how various terrorist groups come into contact with each other and thereby learn from one another. Finally, we consider interactions on a third level, namely between terrorist groups and states.”

Diversity of learning processes: paths into and out of violence
Although public discussions of terrorism focus primarily on aspects such as extremist violence and fanaticism, it is important not to forget that there have also been many cases of deradicalization and renunciation of violence. “It is by no means the case that the path to involvement in underground and illegal activities is irreversible,” says Görzig. “One of the most striking examples of such a reversal by a terrorist organization is the direction taken by the IRA.” After fighting for years as an underground movement, the IRA leadership became increasingly aware of the unlikelihood of accomplishing their goals through violent means. Through contact with representatives of the African National Congress, they saw how this South African group had gone from being an illegal organization to becoming a legal political party. In his workshop paper, Dieter Reinisch (University of Vienna) presents the results of interviews with 34 ex-IRA prisoners and shows how, during their imprisonment, they gradually distanced themselves from violence and helped lay the groundwork for the peace process in Northern Ireland. In contrast to the belief that the particular environment of prisons leads to radicalization, here it was imprisonment that in fact triggered deradicalization processes instead. But such willingness to learn can by no means be observed for all organizations. Using the example of the downfall of the Islamic State (IS), Nori Katagiri (Saint Louis University) shows in his presentation that the IS leadership largely shut itself off from outside influences and thus greatly limited their possibilities for learning from the successes and failures of other groups.

International comparison of learning processes
“Learning processes of terrorists can take a variety of different paths,” notes research group head Görzig. “By precisely analysing the development of groups and individuals and comparing them internationally using empirical studies from Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Europe, we can better determine whether there are typical behaviour patterns that can be observed again and again.” If this should prove to be the case, and if the effort to identify such learning and behavioural processes is successful, it would then be possible to make empirically supported prognoses about future developments in international terrorism.”

Studying global social change
The Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology is one of the world’s leading centres for research in socio-cultural anthropology. It was established in 1999 by Chris Hann and Günther Schlee, and moved to its permanent buildings at Advokatenweg 36 in Halle/Saale in 2001. Marie-Claire Foblets joined the Institute as Director of the Department ‘Law & Anthropology’ in 2012. Common to all research projects at the Max Planck Institute is the comparative analysis of social change; it is primarily in this domain that its researchers contribute to anthropological theory, though many programmes also have applied significance and political topicality. Fieldwork is an essential part of almost all projects. Some 230 researchers from over 30 countries currently work at the Institute. In addition, the Institute also hosts countless guest researchers who join in the scholarly discussions.

More information about the workshop

Website of the research group “How ‘Terrorists’ Learn“

Contact for this press release
Dr. Carolin Görzig
Max Planck Research Group “How ‘Terrorists’ Learn”
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle (Saale)
Tel.: 0345 2927-379

PR contact
Stefan Schwendtner
Press and Public Relations
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle (Saale)
Tel.: 0345 2927-425

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