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).  In 1962 it issued the Port Huron statement, which was more or less a blanket indictment of US government socio-economic policies.  At a contentious SDS convention in 1969 a small group of SDS members advocated for the formation of a clandestine revolutionary wing of SDS.  When they failed to persuade a majority of the convention those people split from SDS, formed the Weather Underground, and engaged in a number of terror bombings between 1969 and 1972.

Consider the Muslim Brotherhood, a multi-national Islamic movement founded in 1928 in Egypt.  It began as a social and religious organization, but by the mid-1930s publicly called for British withdrawal from Egypt, and since advocates for shari’a law and the eventual unity of all Islamic governments under a Caliphate.  Today the Brotherhood is active in at least 18 countries, and has formed political parties in many of them.  At various times in both Egypt (e.g., late 1940s) and Syria (e.g., early 1980s) the Brotherhood has established clandestine cells that used violence, including terror tactics, to challenge the state.  The vast majority of Brotherhood chapters, however, have eschewed terror tactics much as the ANC and SDS.  Ayman al-Zawhairi joined the Brotherhood at the age of 14 (1965), and shortly thereafter played a role creating a splinter group known as al-Jihad (aka Egyptian Islamic Jihad).  In 1981 an al-Jihad cell assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, and al-Zawahiri was imprisoned along with other al-Jihad leaders.  Released in 1984 al-Zawahiri left Egypt and during his travels to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan abandoned the idea of a coup d’etat in Egypt in favor of a global struggle from below.  In 1998 he merged al-Jihad with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda.

Are social movements defined by their tactics, by their goals, by the size of the mobilization, or some combination thereof?  The study of social movements is generally considered an outgrowth of the interests of scholars who entered the academy in the 1960s and found the theoretical accounts of the Collective Behavior school anathema to their (sometimes personal) experience with the social movements that swept the US, Europe, and even the globe during the 1960s.  Yet, despite the resource mobilization/contentious politics school’s call for study of repertoires (tactics) a meager amount of research has been conducted that focuses upon tactics.  There nevertheless tends to be a normative bent to research on social movements: as Rory McVeigh (1999) has noted, liberal movements get more attention than conservative movements.  Might ethical beliefs about the validity of tactics lead social movement scholars to shy away from studying groups that use violence in general, and terror tactics in particular?

I used Scholar Google to examine the number of articles published in American Journal of Sociology, American Sociological Review, Mobilization, and Social Forces that use the words “terror” or “terrorism” in the title of the article during the years 1960-2012 (excluding book reviews).  These are the results (in parentheses I record the total number of citations to those articles):

American Journal of Sociology:          0 (0)

American Sociological Review:           2 (193)

Mobilization:                                       3 (7)

Social Forces:                                     6 (141)

Interestingly, both of the articles in ASR are conceptual (Walter 1964, Gibbs 1989) as is one in SF (Goodwin 2006).  The content of the articles aside, 11 articles is not a large number.[i] This is hardly conclusive evidence of a proclivity of social movement scholars to avoid researching groups that use terror, but it is consistent with such a tendency.

Yet, if such a tendency exists, does that preclude one from using existing theories of contentious politics to study the tactical choices of groups that challenge the state?  Certainly not.  Indeed, it is a rich literature upon which to draw.  The first place one might look is Tilly’s (1978) contention that the tactics a group adopts are largely informed by the repertoire used by challengers in the past.  Indeed, Palestinians that have adopted terror tactics are copying the tactic used by Zionist groups such as The Irgun and Lehi (aka the Stern Gang) that sought to drive the British from Palestine during the 1930s and 1940s.  Terror has been used as a tactic of armed struggle for thousands of years (Rapoport 1984, 2002), and it would be interesting to explore whether Tilly’s conjecture about the stickiness of tactics is borne out with respect to terror.

In closing, I wish to explore the primary claim in DeNardo’s (1985) book, which puts some analytic rigor behind the oft-noted pundit quip that terror is a tactic of the weak.  DeNardo argues that terror is most attractive to groups that advocate policies with limited popular support, and thus have a small base of supporters they could mobilize.  Similarly, terror is least attractive (and mass protest most attractive) to groups that advocate policies that have broad public support and thus have a large base of supporters they might be able to mobilize.  The underlying argument is that challengers must disrupt the socio-economic-political process if they are going to change policy (or topple a government).  Groups that can mobilize large numbers of people can disrupt through “people power” whereas groups that have limited numbers of supporters they might mobilize need to multiply their labor, and violence is a multiplier that increases the disruptive capacity of an individual.

Might DeNardo’s focus on the production of disruption, with its attendant linkage between potential supporters and tactics, help explain why social movement scholars appear to have limited interest in studying the decision to use terror?  After all, if a movement is defined, in part, by large scale mobilization, then it would follow that groups that lack the ability to mobilize large numbers would not draw the attention of movement scholars.  This is certainly a reasonable and plausible account.  Yet, it does not contradict my claim above that the contentious politics literature is a rich theoretical source for illuminating why some groups adopt terror tactics.  It seems highly likely that DeNardo has identified an important part of the answer, yet it seems similarly unlikely that a mono-causal account of the choice of terror tactics is the best we can do.  To the extent that is so, the social movement literature should not be ignored by those studying terror, nor should terror be ignored by those who study social movements.  As the three case vignettes with which I began this essay remind us, well known campaigns of terror can develop alongside, and perhaps even out of, social movements that are predominantly non-violent.


DeNardo, James. 1985. Power in Numbers. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Gibbs, Jack P. 1989. “Conceptualization of Terrorism.” American Sociological Review, 329-340.

Goodwin, Jeff. 2006. “A Theory of Categorical Terrorism.” Social Forces, 84(4): 2027-2046.

McVeigh, Rory. 1999. “Structural Incentives for Conservative Mobilization: Power Devaluation and the Rise of the Ku Klux Klan, 1915-1925.” Social Forces, 77(4): 1461-1496.

Rapoport, David C. 1984. “Fear and Trembling: Terrorism in the Religious Traditions.” American Political Science Review, 658-677.

Rapoport, David C. 2002. “The Four Waves of Rebel Terror and September 11.” Anthropoetics, 8(1).  Available online at:

Tilly, Charles. 1978. From Mobilization to Revolution. Random House.

Walter, Eugene V. 1964. “Violence and the Process of Terror.” American Sociological Review, 248-257.

[i] By way of comparison, the term “social movement” is in the title of 78 articles (11 in AJS, 16 in ASR, 35 in Mobilization, and 16 in SF.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Is Terrorism a Form of Activism?

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