Category Archives: Is Terrorism a Form of Activism?

Contributors to this essay dialogue were asked to evaluate the relationship between terrorism and social movements. Is terrorism an expression/tactic/tool of social movements? Are suicide bombing, mass suicides, and other tactics commonly associated with terrorism forms of activism/contentious action? If so, do our theoretical tools for analyzing social movements work well for understanding terrorism and its contentious forms of action? If not, why not, and what might some alternative perspectives be?

For a Relational Approach to Contentious Strategies, or “It Takes Two to Tango”

By Jeff Goodwin

Political violence and terrorism (violence against noncombatants) have received considerable attention from scholars of social movements and contentious politics since the events of 9/11. Several important books and dozens of articles have been published by such scholars on these topics. I recently had the privilege of editing a special issue of the journal Mobilization (March 2012) on political violence, and the recent essay dialogue on terrorism at the Mobilizing Ideas website continues this important conversation.

At the same time, we should not forget, scholars have also devoted growing attention to nonviolent civil resistance, exemplified by recent studies by Sharon Erickson Nepstad (2011) and Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan (2011). In fact, strategies and tactics of various types have received renewed attention from scholars of contentious politics in recent years in an effort to understand better their causes and efficacy (e.g., Jasper 2004, Amenta 2006, Ganz 2009, Maney et al. 2012). The recent scholarship on violent and nonviolent strategies promises to enrich this more general discussion of strategy (although strategies may of course be differentiated on many other analytic dimensions). Continue reading

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Terrorism and Social Movements: Part Two

As promised, we have lined up a second set of essays on the role of terrorism in social movements.  These posts address many of the same questions but from new angles, and at times offer responses to posts in the first round.  Many thanks to our distinguished contributors to this second set of essays for this dialogue:

Victor Asal, University at Albany (essay)
Donatella Della Porta
, European University Institute (essay)

As always, we invite readers to enter into the dialogue by posting opinions and reactions in the comments.
Editors in Chief,

Grace Yukich, David Ortiz, Rory McVeigh, Dan Myers

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Some Reflections on the relationship between terrorism and social movements?

By Donatella della Porta*

Is terrorism linked to social movements? In answering the question, I think a caveat is in order. In all my work, I have tried to avoid the term terrorism altogether, as I have doubts about its value as a social scientific concept. Heavily loaded from the ethical and political point of view, the term has been used to refer to a variety of phenomena. As Tilly (2004: 8) reminded us with specific reference to political violence, in the social sciences the value of a concept is linked to its capacity to point to detectable phenomena that exhibit some degree of causal coherence. Tilly therefore—I think wisely–refused to use the term terrorist to describe actors that in fact are characterized by complex repertoires of action – highlighting the need to investigate types of events that can in fact be included in the same social science category. Terrorism is a generalized construct derived from our concepts of morality, law, and the rules of war, whereas actual terrorists are shaped by culture, ideology and politics – specific, inchoate factors and notions that motivate diverse actions” (2003: 117). Most fundamentally, there is a risk of reifying terrorism (and terrorists) based on the use of some forms of collective action. Even when means are easily definable as terrorist, it is tricky to talk of a terrorist organization, as this would hypostatize the use of one means over others that that organization will very likely be using as well. Continue reading

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Cannolis, Contention and Killing

By Victor Asal

As any student can tell you the advantage of being called on in class to discuss an issue after many of your fellow students have been called on is that you are often more prepared to answer the question because you have listened to your colleagues.  The great disadvantage of course is that there may be nothing new or interesting left to say.  That has not stopped me as a student and it will not stop me now.  I found it very interesting reading the prior contributions to this discussion and I found it particularly interesting that as far as I could tell across a wide spectrum of perspectives, everyone agreed that terrorist tactics are not a distinct animal separated by some theoretical line from social movements.  While there was disagreement about the definition of terrorism itself and the political implications of the term, everyone agreed that terrorism is a tactic that can be employed by social movements and a behavior that those who examine collective action should be studying.   Even something as unpleasant as suicide terrorism is described by Brym as a social movement tactic.  Miller and LaFree are so confident of the social movement nature of terrorism that they focus very quickly on the “…complex relationships between various groups, organizations, and individuals…”  I wish I could be controversial and disagree with my colleagues about the relationship between terrorism and social movements Continue reading

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April Essay Dialogue: Is Terrorism a Form of Activism? The Role of Terrorism in Social Change

What is the relationship between terrorism and social movements? Can terrorism be conceptualized as a movement tactic? Are suicide bombings, mass suicides, and other actions commonly associated with terrorism also forms of activism/contentious action? If so, do our theoretical tools for analyzing social movements work well for understanding terrorism? If not, why not, and what might some alternative perspectives be?

In March, the social movements journal Mobilization produced a special issue focusing on terrorism, publishing articles that begin to address some of these pressing questions. For our April dialogue, the editors of Mobilizing Ideas invited other scholars of terrorism and political violence to continue the conversation started in Mobilization‘s special issue.

We thank our list of distinguished scholars who contributed to the first round of essays for this dialogue:

Robert Brym, University of Toronto (essay)
Erin Miller and Gary LaFree, University of Maryland (essay)
Will Moore, Florida State University (essay)
Ziad Munson, Lehigh University (essay)
Anthony Oberschall, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (essay)
Robert White, Indiana University- Purdue University Indianapolis (essay)
Joseph Young, American University (essay)

In mid April, we will launch a second round of essays for this dialogue, including contributions from Victor Asal, Donatella Della Porta, Jeff Goodwin, and Craig Jenkins.

Enjoy engaging with these insightful essays and please contribute to the debate by posting your opinions in the comments.

Editors in Chief,

Grace Yukich, David Ortiz, Rory McVeigh, Dan Myers

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Menu Item or a Specialty?

By Joseph Young

Is terrorism the domain of a group of specialists in violence?  Or is terrorism a tactic (or strategy)[i] that any group or individual may select from a menu of many other tactics?  For some social movement scholars, such as the late Charles Tilly, the answer is simple:

[S]ocial scientists who attempt to explain sudden attacks on civilian targets should doubt the existence of a distinct, coherent class of actors (terrorists) who specialize in a unitary form of political action (terror) and thus should establish a separate variety of politics (terrorism).[ii] Continue reading

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The Global Terrorism Database: Support for Terrorism as a Fundamental Instrument of Social Movements

By Erin Miller and Gary LaFree

Social movements using terrorism or terrorism driving social movements?

The relationship between social movements and terrorism has emerged as an important analytical dimension of our research on terrorist activity. Our approach to this issue has been largely inductive rather than deductive, and stems directly from our work on the Global Terrorism Database (GTD). The GTD includes data on nearly 100,000 terrorist attacks that occurred worldwide between 1970 and 2010, including when, where, and how they happened, as well as information on the perpetrators of the attack. Rather than questioning whether or not social movements use terrorism as tactic, we frequently find ourselves focused on how we can and should organize the information we have on perpetrators of terrorism in a way that accounts for the complex relationships between various groups, organizations, and individuals that share political, social, economic, or religious goals. In essence, this indicates to us that empirically terrorism is in fact a tool of social movements aimed at achieving a common goal. To illustrate this, we discuss the methodological and substantive implications of studying perpetrators of terrorism. Continue reading

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Movements, Mobilization and the Terror Tactic

By Will H. Moore

Consider the African National Congress (ANC), a national South African organization founded in 1912 to unite Africans in their struggle against European oppression.  In the 1950s it organized a Defiance Campaign against Unjust Laws that produced mass mobilization.  In 1961 the ANC abandoned its reliance upon solely non-violent tactics and formed Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), an underground cell that embraced terror tactics and planned and executed a series of bombings.  Nelson Mandela led Umkhonto and was imprisoned for his leading role in Umkhonto’s terror campaign.

Consider the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the youth branch of a US socialist organization formed originally in 1905 (it adopted the name SDS in 1960).  Continue reading

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A Middle Way: Adopting the Sensibility of Social Movement Studies to Understand Terrorism

By Ziad Munson

Many people resist recognizing groups engaged in terrorism as social movement organizations.  This is perhaps because social movement research is so often conducted by scholars personally sympathetic to the movements they study – and most scholars aren’t sympathetic to terrorist activity.   But sympathetic or no, most terrorism is conducted by groups that fit any common definition of a social movement organization.  Suicide bombings, airplane hijackings, and butyric acid attacks are used by groups oriented toward social and political change in much the same way as protest marches, boycotts, letter-writing campaigns, and civil disobedience.

Recognizing terrorist activity as social movement activity can help us better understand it.  Continue reading

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Social Movements and “Terrorism”: “And if that’s what a terrorist is, I want to be a terrorist.”

By Robert White

There has never been a period of peace in Ireland.  And they tell us that’s because the fucking Irish are always causing the trouble. … They started it off.  They formed a national army to take over Ireland.  Colonize it.  They kept the army here over a period of a couple of hundred years after that, to hold it.  They then planted it with Protestants. … They formed a very tight, close-knit society, where no Catholic or no Irish person, ethnic Irish, could join. … And they ruled Ireland with a mailed fist.  Literally.  A grasp of iron and nobody stepped out of line.  And it’s only natural that a people are going to breed at some stage someone who says, “I am not going to take that.”  Now what does that make him?  Does that make him a rabble-rouser?  Does it make him a troublemaker?  Does –  it ought to.  I mean obviously if he stands up and hits back it makes him a combatant.  A combatant, right?  And it makes him therefore eventually a rabble-rouser and a murderer and a terrorist, you know?  And if that’s what a terrorist is, I want to be a terrorist.

– Provisional Irish Republican Army veteran (1984).

Scholars and government officials have spent countless pages trying to define “terrorism.”  They should instead follow Charles Tilly’s definition of political violence:

any observable interaction in the course of which persons or objects are seized or physically damaged in spite of resistance (Tilly 1978, p. 176).

What is often termed “terrorism” is more properly the use or threat of political violence.

A virtue of Tilly’s definition is it acknowledges that state and non-state actors engage in (and threaten) political violence.  Unfortunately, many scholars who study “terrorism” explicitly exclude state actions from their definition or they include the potential for state violence and then selectively focus on non-state activists.  This is misguided, at best.

From my perspective, “terrorism” is a label used by elites to smear dissenters.  Continue reading

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