Max Planck Research Group - How "Terrorists" Learn

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

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.

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.

Projects of the Research Group

Internal and External Mobilisation in Opposition and in Office: Comparing the Strategies of Hamas in Gaza and an-Nahda Movement in Tunisia

Imad Alsoos
This research project by Imad Alsoos focused on mobilisation strategies of the Palestinian Hamas and al-Nahda party in Tunisia. Central questions were how the two Muslim Brotherhood movements mobilise, educate and train their own activists, how these activists then go on to form their internal organisational structures, and how they mobilise the public within their own local communities.

The Boko Haram crisis and socio-political dynamics in eastern Niger

Florian Köhler
This project by Florian Köhler looked at the wider context of Nigeria's Boko Haram insurgency from the angle of Eastern Niger, a region severely affected by spill-over effects. Since its emergence in the early 2000s, Boko Haram established itself as a regional player by a process of integration on the regional social landscape – integration understood not in the sense of acculturation or assimilation, but as interaction in a wider systemic whole that can also be characterised by conflictual relations. Florian Köhler won the 2020 Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthropology with his book Space, Place and Identity: Woɗaaɓe of Niger in the 21st Century (New York: Berghahn 2020).

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

Michael Fürstenberg
The focus of this project by Michael Fürstenberg was on the characteristics of collective learning of right-wing terrorists. The string of attacks and discoveries of far-right structures in recent years, from the lone actor terrorism of Oslo, Christchurch or Halle to the networks of “Atomwaffen Division”, “The Base” or the “Boogaloo Bois ”, provided growing empirical evidence that some long-standing assumptions about far-right violence are changing and we might confront a new global wave of right-wing terrorism.

Understanding and Influencing Dynamics of Learning and Unlearning Violence

Carolin Görzig
This project was concerned with understanding and influencing mechanisms of learning and unlearning of terrorist groups. One way of influencing learning mechanisms that is commonly employed when dealing with terrorism is exerting pressure on terrorist groups – for example, through violent counterterrorism measures. However, is it possible to learn under pressure? By means of empirical research on the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland and the Egyptian Gamaa Islamiyya Görzig examined options for transformation through negotiations and dialogue.

The Making of 'Foreign Fighters'

Almakan Orozobekova
'Foreign fighters' have become crucial to the survival and development of violent Islamist groups/organisations in the current dynamic environment. This can be seen from the exponential upsurge in the number of foreign individuals who have joined various Islamist militant entities in Syria and Iraq since 2013. This research project by Almakan Orozobekova focused on what makes individuals join violent Islamist groups (motivating factors) and how they get enlisted in those groups (facilitation or recruitment methods).

Lost in Fighting? Dynamics of Interaction between Armed Opposition Groups in Syria

Regine Schwab
In her dissertation Regine Schwab examined the complex power relations and interests of the different factions involved in the Syrian civil war. She shows how, in spite of far-reaching differences in their ideologies, military strength, and strategic goals, the opposition groups regularly worked together in various alliances. As a result, the government of Assad and his allies, although in possession of superior military resources, have not been able to prevail against the opposition. The German Association for Peace and Conflict Studies has named Regine Schwab as winner of the 2022 Christiane Rajewsky Award for her dissertation “Let’s fight each other another day: How armed opposition groups managed challenges to cooperation and postponed conflict in Syria’s multiparty civil war (2012-2019)”. In their statement, the jury praises Schwab’s study for its contribution to understanding the relations between armed groups and its valuable insights for international peace-making efforts.

Report 2020 - 2022

Final Collected Edition of the research group

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