Civil War, Terrorism, Revolution – The Puzzle of ISIS and the Challenge of Complex Events

By Jack A. Goldstone

As scientists, we look for well-bounded problems and well-defined questions; for only such can be resolved by scientific inquiry. It therefore seems obvious that in our studies of conflict, it is crucial to make distinctions between such disparate phenomena as civil wars, terrorism, and revolutions. Yet the world we live in respects no neat boundaries. Civil wars, terrorism, and revolutions flow together, whether in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, or Mali and northern Nigeria, or in Colombia and Sri Lanka.

Social movements seemed, for a while, to be a separate matter. Whereas civil wars, terrorism, and revolutions seemed by the late 20th century to be relegated to the developing world, social movements thrived where there existed stable and secure democratic institutions, which provided the rights to free assembly and free expression on which social movements depended. Social movements could turn violent, of course, but such violence was considered either an extremist phase or a response to state-employed violence, and thus not a normal part of the social movement domain. Certainly large scale terrorist campaigns, guerilla warfare or mass military mobilization, and efforts to overthrow the existing government entirely and replace it seemed to be alien to the vast majority of social movements that sociologists studied.

Yet the last several decades have shown that even this division is deceptive. Efforts to change governments by non-violent civil resistance have blended social movements with revolution. We now know that the collapse of the Soviet Union and its east European satellites began with environmental, arts, and nationalist social movements. We have just seen movements for democracy in Tunisia, Myanmar, and Ukraine quickly move from social movements to revolutions, without campaigns of terror or civil war. Yet we have also seen similar social movements in Libya and Syria trigger civil wars, while terrorism has become a tactic of social movements (as with the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, or Boko Haram in Nigeria) and an outgrowth of civil wars (as with the 9/11 airline attacks growing out of the civil war in Afghanistan, or the Paris 2015 attacks growing out of the civil war in Syria).

I am reminded of the situation that physicists faced in dealing with elementary particles – after neatly classifying neutrinos into three distinct types (electron, muon, and tau) it was discovered that each type could transform into any of the others, and indeed oscillated between different types over time. As social scientists, reality forces us to recognize that civil wars, revolutions, terrorism, and social movements are similarly linked, and that a given social confrontation can oscillate among these different types of conflict as it unfolds.

As one example of the complexity of the conflict events we now observe, it is impossible to understand, or even describe the phenomena of the Islamic State (ISIS) without incorporating such oscillations. ISIS may use terror, profligately and horrifyingly, but it is not at heart a terrorist organization. If that were all it was, it could not aspire to govern a state of several million people, or spread a global ideology of Sunni empowerment. ISIS is best understood as a revolutionary state-building movement, which seeks to create a Caliphate that will liberate Sunni Muslims from Morocco to the Philippines from the shackles of pro-Western governments and the threat of sectarian enemies.

As a revolutionary movement, ISIS has a leading party structure, but also bureaucratic elements that deal with oil sales, local administration and policing, and utilities and other mundane but necessary matters in the territory it rules. It has a military organization that by opposing the governments of Syria and Iraq is conducting civil war. Yet it is not just conducting civil wars, but is carrying out a transnational global campaign to recruit fighters, spread its ideology, and build an ideologically-driven imperial state, with declared provinces in over a dozen different countries, including Nigeria, Libya, Egypt (in Sinai), Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The question we face in studying contentious politics is therefore not how to study social movements, or revolutions, or civil wars or terrorism; it is rather to understand what factors lead a conflict to oscillate among these types, or why some conflicts transform in certain directions but not others.

In my own work I have tried to follow this approach by not defining “revolutions” in terms of a specific set of conflict characteristics. That is, I allow that revolutions can be violent or non-violent; can spur terrorism and civil war or proceed without them, and that they can spin off various types of social and political organization and then go through additional radical phases later on. For example, the American Revolution produced a civil war against British occupation forces, but managed to avoid terrorism and spun off a series of social movements, eventually producing the U.S. Constitution years after the civil war ended as an outcome of the Federalist movement. In the Philippines in 1996 and Ukraine in 2004, popular social movements to secure free and fair elections ended up producing revolutions, but avoiding civil war and terror. In Libya and Syria, however, pro-democracy movements ended up spurring civil wars and giving birth to terrorist campaigns aimed at weakening resistance to extremist Jihadist Islamic movements, movements that now sought revolutionary seizures of power.

We may think we have started to understand the dynamics of social movements, or revolutions, or civil wars or terrorism, based on the excellent research that has been done in each of these areas in the past several decades. Yet the real challenge is to understand how these different types of mobilization and conflict flow into one another, or get diverted from doing so. This is what understanding today’s events, in all their complexity, now requires.

1 Comment

Filed under Civil Wars and Contentious Politics, Essay Dialogues, Uncategorized

One response to “Civil War, Terrorism, Revolution – The Puzzle of ISIS and the Challenge of Complex Events

  1. Rahim Choudhary

    It is an excellent article, specially with respect to the idea that revolutions, terrorism, civil wars, and social movements have a large degree of commonality between them which allows them to morph into each other. This observation seems profound and valuable for further research. The transition from one form to the other is often like a phase-transition in Physics, which brings in totally new set of variables and events which become perplexing to the researcher.
    There is however one important correction that is needed in this research approach. The author seems to regard the social movements, revolutions, civil wars, and terrorism floating in a passive environment. The environment is in actuality is not passive; historically it can be easily observed that the behavior of the environment provides the cause for the social movement, revolution, terrorism, and civil war to take place. Therefore, it is necessary to actively bring in the prevailing political, economic, and social order as an actor against which a social movement generates itself and thrives.


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