What is the relationship between terrorism and social movements?

By Robert Brym

Definitions of terrorism vary, depending on whose ox gets gored. For example, U.S. Code, Title 22, Ch. 38, Para. 2656f(d) defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents” (Cornell University Law School, 2012). By this definition, the exercise of indiscriminate state violence against noncombatant targets for military and political purposes is not terrorism, but a violent act of resistance against occupation or ethnic, religious or national oppression may be. Sharply put, your ox is a terrorist when he gores mine, but my ox gores yours with legitimacy.

In contrast to terms that refer to specific forms of violence that can be defined independently of their legitimacy in the eyes of one party or another engaged in conflict – terms such as suicide bombing or state-directed assassination – terrorism is a term that always takes sides. Accordingly, a case can be made for expunging “terrorism” from the sociological lexicon in favor of value-neutral terms that describe specific forms of violence.

Think of this issue as a measurement problem. A relationship exists between two variables if a change in the value of one is associated with a change in the value of the other and if the essential properties of both variables remain constant. On average, people’s height is positively associated with their annual income if height always refers to stature, but not if it refers to birth month in half the cases. It follows that the editors of Mobilizing Ideas may have asked the wrong question because there can be no necessary relationship between terrorism and social movements insofar as the essential properties of terrorism vary with one’s perspective.

A better question might be, “What is the relationship between, say, suicide bombing or state-directed assassination and social movements?” Here, research offers clues.

Robert Pape amassed evidence on 462 suicide attacks that took place worldwide between 1980 and 2003. He concluded that suicide attacks are a tool of last resort undertaken by relatively powerless groups with the major or central objective of “coercing a foreign state that has military forces in what the terrorists see as their homeland to take those forces out” (Pape, 2005: 21). Subsequent events and analyses required that we think about suicide attacks in a more complex manner, as a phenomenon with multiple causes. Researchers demonstrated that the imperatives of jihadi ideology (Moghadam, 2008), the strength of public support (Brym and Araj, 2008), and the desire for revenge in response to repressive state action (Araj, 2008; Brym and Araj, 2006) are among the chief factors influencing the prevalence of suicide attacks independently of the strategic rationale motivating weak national liberation movements. Apparently, strategic thinking, cultural forces, public opinion, and emotional responses combine to incite some movement members to engage in suicide attacks.

Suicide attacks always evoke a state response, and researchers have done an especially thorough job investigating the reaction of the Israeli state to Palestinian suicide bombers. One camp holds that the Israeli state response to attacks or anticipated attacks is typically quick and disproportionate (Almog, 2004-05; Jaeger and Paserman, 2006; 2008). It may take various forms, including armed incursions, the destruction of houses owned by bombers’ families, and the assassination of operatives and masterminds. However, the speed and disproportionality of the response suggests the operation of an invariant, two-tits-for-tat strategic logic that is analogous on the state side to Pape’s argument about the strategic rationality of suicide attacks by insurgents.

The rational choice explanation of state response to suicide attacks has been subject to the same sort of criticism as Pape’s argument has. The “rationality” of Israeli decision makers is not fixed. It is a cultural variable that changes with political circumstances. Decision makers construct a “decision regime” for dealing with Palestinian violence that forms the basis for action until a political shock (such as the eruption of an intifada or a radical realignment of international and domestic political forces such as occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s) renders it ineffective or at least less than optimal. When, following such a shock, the political environment is characterized by weak American pressure to de-escalate and non-conciliatory Israeli and Palestinian leaders who are unwilling to make reciprocal concessions, two-tits-for-tat accurately describes the decision regime. In such circumstances, the desire for revenge on the part of Israeli leaders is high. In contrast, when the political environment is characterized by strong American pressure to de-escalate and conciliatory Israeli and Palestinian leaders who are willing to make reciprocal concessions, tit-for-two-tats more accurately describes state reaction to suicide bombings; the Israeli response is weaker than one would otherwise expect. One cannot adequately account for the prevalence of state-directed assassination and other repressive actions on the part of the Israeli state without taking into account the historically variable cultural and emotional matrix within which leaders make decisions about the level and type of state repression that is appropriate in different circumstances (Brym and Andersen, 2011; Gazit and Brym, 2011; Kuperman, 2005; Löwenheim and Heimann, 2008; Rasler, 2000).

In sum, suicide bombing is a tactic that is employed by a particular type of social movement in identifiable circumstances. Like all tactics employed by social movement activists, it elicits a response from authorities. Neither the prevalence of suicide attacks nor the prevalence of particular forms of state response is governed by a stable rationale. As is the case for all social movements, historically specific political circumstances influence cultural and emotional standards that help to define the actions of insurgents and state authorities as well as their interactions.


Almog, Doron. 2004–05. “Cumulative deterrence and the war on terrorism.” Parameters (34, 4): 4–19

Araj, Bader. 2008. “Harsh state repression as a cause of suicide bombing: the case of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism (31, 4) 284-303

Brym, Robert and Andersen, Robert. 2011. “Rational choice and the political bases of changing Israeli counterinsurgency strategy.” British Journal of Sociology (62, 3) 482-503

Brym, Robert and Araj, Bader. 2006. “Suicide bombing as strategy and interaction: the case of the second intifada.” Social Forces (84, 4) 1965-82

Brym, Robert and Araj, Bader. 2008 “Palestinian suicide bombing revisited: a critique of the outbidding thesis.” Political Science Quarterly (123, 3): 485–500

Cornell University Law School. 2012. “22 USC § 2656f – Annual country reports on terrorism.” http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/22/2656f (retrieved 12 March 2012)

Gazit, Nir and Brym, Robert. 2011. “State-directed political assassination in Israel: a political hypothesis.” International Sociology (26, 6) 862-77

Jaeger, David A. and Paserman, M. Daniele. 2006. “Israel, the Palestinian factions, and the cycle of violence.” American Economic Review (96, 2): 45–49

Jaeger, David A. and Paserman, M. Daniele. 2008. “The cycle of violence? An empirical analysis of fatalities in the Palestinian–Israeli conflict.” American Economic Review (98, 4): 1591–1604

Kuperman, Ranan D. 2005. Cycles of Violence: The Evolution of the Israeli Decision Regime Governing the Use of Limited Military Force. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Löwenheim, Oded and Heimann, Gadi. 2008. “Revenge in international politics.” Security Studies (17, 4): 685–724

Moghadam, Assaf. 2008. The Globalization of Martyrdom. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press

Pape, Robert A. 2005. Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. New York: Random House

Rasler, Karen. 2000. “Shocks, expectancy revision, and de-escalation of protracted conflicts: the Israeli-Palestinian case.” Journal of Peace Research (37, 6): 699–720

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

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