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 but unfortunately I do not- terrorism is a tactic and it is one that social movements can and sometimes do embrace.  Perhaps the clearest way I can state my perspective on this is a conversation I had a number of years ago at Sovrana’s Pizza in Albany as a new assistant professor talking about my research agenda with a new colleague in a sister department.  Over cannolis (By far the best cannolis in Albany-  and no they don’t pay me a commission), my new colleague Karl Rethemeyer explained to me that he studied groups that organized networked and mobilized in order to change the policies of governments in various northeastern American States.   I responded that I studied organizations that organized networked and mobilized in order to change the policies of governments also – except some of the organizations that I studied blew things up and some of them killed civilians on purpose.  Over the cannolis Karl convinced me that network analysis was important for understanding these types of organizations and I convinced him that studying both violent and nonviolent organizations gives us a better handle on understanding the strategic choices of social movements and organizations.  We have been working together ever since.  In other words, violence is a tactic – so is protest and so are sit-ins.  They are not mutually exclusive and they are tactics that can be used by causes we support and like but they can also be used by causes that we vociferously oppose.   Our normative feelings about the tactics or the goals of the organization should not have an impact on how we analyze the practice of social movements.   In other words I agree wholeheartedly with Oberschall when he argues that “The theory of collective action is an appropriate tool for explaining the entire spectrum of challengers and unconventional confrontations: dissidents, mass protests, social movements, guerrillas and insurgents, including terrorists and state terrorism.” A point strongly echoed by all the other blog posts so far on this question.

So why is the question of terrorism as a part of social movements a debate in the first place?  As Munson point out “ “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 (see also Moore’s post).”  Thus people who study social movements tend to like the social movements they study and pick the ones they like to study – and so are unlikely to look at nasty social movements.  But just how unlikely?  Borrowing a page from Moore I went to Google Scholar and pulled up articles searching on the term “social movements.” Of the first 1000 articles I came across the word terror once around 300 articles in (in the name of the book not the book chapter) and then again about 900 articles in (in one of the words of the short abstract Google scholar produces for each article).   In other words there is almost no mention of terrorism amongst the top 1000 articles that Google scholar brings up when one searches for information about social movements.  When I searched for terrorism and looked for mention of social movements amongst the top 1000 articles I again found only two article mentions where social movements came up in article titles, journal titles or in the short abstracts (and no they were not the same articles that emerged from the prior search).   Researchers tend to study nonviolent and violent social movement in a disaggregated fashion and I believe that this separation is highly problematic.   People think of social movements in a positive light while they tend to damn terrorism.    As White points out, often terrorism “… is a label used by elites to smear dissenters.”  Rarely do people – even practitioners of terrorism – proclaim the positive value of killing civilians [although interestingly see (Marighella, 1969) or (Cohen, 1966)].   While I disagree with White, who sees the label of terrorism as only a smear used by the powerful, I do agree with him that the term is often used as such and that this is detrimental to our understanding of social movements across the kind of wide spectrum that White and Oberschall point to in their posts (I define terrorism as the political targeting of civilians for intentional harm – whether by a government or by a nongovernmental actor and if I like the actor’s goals or not).  On more than one occasion I have had the unpleasant experience of being yelled at for suggesting that Al Qaeda  is just as much of an activist network as the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.    Indeed if you compare different transnational activist networks (TANs) across a wide spectrum of policy areas to a variety of terrorist organizations across an equally wide variety of policy areas according to their behavior and strategic use of contentious behavior (as opposed to their policy objectives which you might like or dislike) the one key difference between the groups labeled as terrorist and those that are referred to as  TANs or social movements are that the terrorist groups use violence and the “traditional” TANs  do not [see Table 1 from (Asal, Nussbaum, & Harrington, 2007)].

The division that is too often created implicitly or explicitly between studying groups that are violent and those that are not violent has imposed a high cost on our understanding of contentious politics. First of all it obscures those factors that push social movements to choose the tactics that they do choose because at least theoretically they could choose anything from “mundane actions like signing petitions to extreme actions like flying a hijacked airplane into the World Trade Center (White).”  Why movements or organizations choose one end of the spectrum and not the other is a question that we cannot answer if we only look at one kind of social movement mobilization.  This division also obscures our ability to better understand why groups choose to use certain kinds of violence (e.g. the targeting of soldiers vs. the killing of civilians). Finally it makes it difficult for us to examine the cases where groups choose a mixed strategy.  The tools of analysis that have been used to study collective actions and social movements have already contributed much to our understanding of political violence, but if we work to remove the divide that separates the study of violent and nonviolent contention, I believe we will be able to contribute even more to our understanding of violent contention – even if it means examining behavior we abhor with tools we have usually applied to behaviors we admire.


Asal, V., Nussbaum, B., & Harrington, D. (2007). Terrorism as Transnational Advocacy: An Organizational and Tactical Examination. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 30(1), 15-39.

Cohen, G. (1966). Woman of violence: memoirs of a young terrorist, 1943-1948: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Marighella, C. (1969). MINIMANUAL OF THE URBAN GUERILLA.   Retrieved September 24 2004, 2004, from

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

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