Max Planck Research Group - How 'Terrorists' Learn

How 'Terrorists' Learn – Re-considering the tactical and strategic transformation of violent movements and organizations


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Terrorist groups are often treated as a sort of “black box” – visible only in the destruction wrought by them, while the strategies, decision-making, and organizational processes that shape their actions often remain invisible, unexamined, and seemingly incomprehensible. This research group seeks to contextualize the cognitive and behavioural learning of terrorist groups by examining influences and motivations for change, thereby gaining insight into the dynamics of violence and the patterns of terror more generally.

When we start to take apart the black box, it becomes clear that so-called “terrorist” groups undergo manifold processes of transformation: from the decision to organize in pursuit of a political goal, the learning of specific operational procedures and tactics, to the development or renunciation of certain strategies of violence. Additionally, terrorist groups act within a dynamic and complex context. Operating, for example, in opposition to the state, violent groups have to continuously adapt in order to survive. They learn from their own failures and successes as well as from the strategies of other groups, and sometimes they reassess their means and goals in order to stay relevant.

While existing research has so far predominantly focused on factors influencing whether organizations are able to learn and innovate, we argue that this has distracted from the more pertinent question of how they learn. Learning does not occur in a vacuum. Hence, in order to systematically study different aspects of learning, the project utilizes a framework structured along three interrelated dimensions, covering the context (from whom do they learn?), mechanisms (how do they learn?), and outcomes (what do they learn?) of the learning process. Regarding the question ‘learning from whom’, we distinguish three contextual levels, ranging from the micro to the meso and macro level. How terrorist groups learn, i.e. the learning process, can be described by mechanisms of emulation and competition and results in different learning outcomes, i.e. changes in tactics, operational procedures, and overall strategies.

Communities of hateful practice: right-wing terrorism and collective learning

Only a wooden door protected the Halle synagogue in 2019 | Photo taken by Michael Fürstenberg, May 2020

Understanding and influencing dynamics of learning and unlearning violence

Mural Belfast, International Wall: The provisional IRA learned from the ANC when embarking on the peaceful path. | Photo taken by Carolin Görzig, June 2017

The making of 'Foreign Fighters'

A road in Central Asia with a double bend first to right - travel and risk. | Photo taken by Almakan Orozobekova, July 2017

Lost in fighting? Dynamics of interaction between armed opposition groups in Syria (2012-2017)

The war next door: the seeming calm of the Syrian-Turkish border. | Photo taken by Regine Schwab, September 2017

Individual projects consider various groups of actors who use violent tactics and the transformation processes they have undergone. Their fieldwork sites include Niger, Palestine, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Syria, Egypt, the Basque Country, the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, and Colombia. This is supplemented with analysis of (large-N) quantitative datasets and primary documents. All the projects, both individual and collaborative, examine the contextual levels of learning in various ways.

In her recently completed PhD project, Almakan Orozobekova focused on what makes individuals join violent Islamist groups (motivating factors) and how they get enlisted in those groups (facilitation or recruitment mechanisms), while Regine Schwab, another recent graduate, studied how different levels of cooperation and conflict influence organizational dynamics within and between rebel groups in Syria. Katharina Siebert's project deals with group cohesion and how the degree of cohesion affects how they perceive their environment and the strategies they adopt. Focusing on social interaction between stakeholders, Florian Köhler's ongoing post-doctoral project on Boko Haram analyses the conflict in Eastern Niger in a broad systemic perspective, and Imad Alsoos's project compares the forms of internal and external mobilization used by Hamas and an-Nahda while they opposed the government and while they held political power. Considering the recent rise in attacks by right-wing extremists, Michael Fürstenberg studies processes of collective learning among the far right. Adopting a comparative lens, Carolin Görzig analyses patterns of learning and transformation of terrorist groups in Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America. She focuses on processes of double-loop learning within terrorist organizations as well as on mechanisms of competition and emulation among terrorist organizations.

Besides examining different context levels of learning, each project develops an individual conceptual approach that expands our overall knowledge on learning processes. Adopting a comparative perspective, we also search for answers to questions such as whether terrorist learning is different, how internal and external dynamics shape their learning processes, and in what ways different forms of learning – or the failure to learn – correlate to successes and failures of terrorist groups.

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