Max Planck Research Group - How 'Terrorists' Learn

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


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From the decision to organise in pursuit of a political goal, the learning of specific operational procedures and tactics to the development or renunciation of certain strategies of violence, violent groups are engaged in manifold processes of transformation. Facing a constant threat of repression, violent non-state actors have to continuously improve and adapt in order to be successful, stay relevant, and simply to survive.

The research group seeks to understand these organisational dynamics of violence of so-called "terrorist" groups. Specifically, while existing research in this regard has so far predominantly focused on factors influencing whether organisations are able to learn and innovate, we argue that this has distracted from the more pertinent question of how they learn. In order to systematically study different aspects of learning, the project utilises 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. Hence, learning does not occur in a vacuum. Instead we ask, from what or from whom terrorist groups learn and distinguish three contextual levels, ranging from the micro, to the meso and macro level. The learning process can be described as driven mainly by mechanisms of emulation and competition and learning outcomes are changes in tactics, operational procedures, and overall strategies.

Individual projects in the group consider various processes of transformation of actors using violent tactics. Group members have conducted field work in sites like Niger, Palestine, Turkey, Kyrgyztan, and Northern Ireland. This is supplemented with an analysis as well as a reflection of the limitations of (large-N) quantitative datasets on political violence. The three context levels of learning (micro, meso, macro) are taken up in the individual as well as collaborative projects of the Research Group in different ways. While the quantitative research by Michael Fürstenberg especially addresses the meso level, looking at learning among affiliating and merging groups, the PhD projects predominantly focus both on the micro level with a focus on organisational structures, decision-making, and recruitment strategies, and going beyond that level as well. The challenge in theory building is to integrate the different levels by, for example, differentiating between followers and leaders as in Almakan Orozobekova's project, by capturing the different levels of cooperation and conflict influencing organisational dynamics within and between rebel groups, as in Regine Schwab's project, or asking, as does Katharina Siebert's project, how more and less cohesive groups perceive their environment and change strategies – a connection between the micro, meso, and macro levels. With a focus on social interaction between the different stakeholders involved, Florian Köhler's project on Boko Haram analyses the conflict in Eastern Niger in a broad systemic perspective and Imad Alsoos investigates Hamas and an-Nahda's forms of internal and external mobilisation while they were in opposition and while in office/power.

Besides problematising different context levels of learning, each project develops an individual conceptual approach that will be integrated into the wider framework in a subsequent step. Change, adaptation, and innovation are all processes that are different from but yet relate to learning. Benefiting from the conceptual wealth will inform our knowledge on learning processes and answer questions such as: When can we speak of learning and when of change, when does learning lead to adaptation, and how is learning related to innovation?

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