The Foundation and Transformation of Terrorist Groups

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, one of the toughest and most complicated types of fighting appeared: the fight against terrorist groups, later referred to as “the War on Terror.” Terrorist groups have been present throughout history, but they enjoy special concern and coverage in the media these days due to current anti-terror campaigns. In spite of all that liberation movements, just-cause struggles, and terrorist movements have in common, we shall focus on terrorist movements here.

Many organizations are considered terrorist movements. These include the FARC in Colombia; the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka; the Irish Republican Army; the ETA in Spain; the Khalistan Commando Force in India; the Red Brigades in Italy; the Shining Path Communist Party in Peru; the Kach and Kahane Chai Movements in Israel. Although some of these movements have vanished, the majority remain active.

Ever since September 11th, terrorist groups – especially those originating in the Middle East and the Islamic World – have been in the spotlight and the media has covered the news on them in detail.

Al-Qaeda is the most well-known terrorist group on the scene today. It’s notoriety has prompted other terrorist groups in the Islamic World and countries where there are Muslim minorities to claim to be affiliated with the Al-Qaeda, whether or not they actually are, in order to receive support and attention.

Some of the groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda are: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Records indicate that some terrorist groups which formed before Al-Qaeda were actually precursors to the organization. These include the Egyptian Jamaah Islamiyyah, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad Movement, and the Algerian Armed Islamic Group.

The Transformation of Terrorist Groups

Whoever follows terrorist groups in the news must ask himself how these groups came about, how they transformed, and why some normal members of society turn into terrorists. This is what we will try to shed some light on in this article. Experts emphasize that terrorist groups do not form suddenly or haphazardly; rather, they transform from one shape to another until they crystallize in their final forms as terrorist groups which carry out violent operations to achieve their objectives.

Terrorist groups begin as segments of society which feel they have been wronged and demand – or reject – some changes in society. They then begin to express their demands in peaceful ways for some time, which is acceptable in most countries and considered positive as long as the groups don’t break any laws. The negative transformation begins to take place when the groups change their methods of making demands and some of their members stress that peaceful methods are yielding no results. The final change takes place when some of the groups’ members begin preparing themselves for acts of violence.

How does this transformation take place?

We shall answer this question through highlighting the nature of how terrorist groups form, relying upon three important studies by specialists in social movements and terrorist movements. These studies are by Dr. Rodney Stark, an American sociologist and researcher in social movements; Dr. Donatella Della Porta, Professor of Political Science at the Istituto Italiano di Scienze Umane and specialist in European leftist terrorist groups; and Dr. Michael Wieviorka, Head of the Advanced Center for Social Studies in France, who is well-known for his research on violence, terrorism, racism and social movements and his theory of social change.

In his book on sociology, Dr. Stark explains that social movements begin when four elements are present:

1. A common cause. It is necessary for there to be a group of people in a given society who share a certain problem and aim to change it, whether it is through causing some change in society or preventing some change from taking place which they see as a threat to their existence or well-being. Normally people don’t attempt to change things in their society if they are pleased with the current situation. So, for a social movement to form, a group within the society must have specific afflictions or grievances they wish to redress or reduce.

2. Optimism about success. The members of the social movement must be optimistic about the possibility of achieving their goals.

3. The appropriate time. Normally, but not always, there is an unexpected event that contributes to people’s suffering which leads them to believe that it is time to do something to correct their situation. Usually the birth of a social movement comes about because of a dramatic event which arouses people, pushing them to demand that their situation be corrected and that their suffering come to an end.

4. A social communication network. In order for a social movement to form, there must be a network inside the society that recruits members. Members might recruit their own relatives, colleagues, fellow members at recreational centers, etc.

Normally, as soon as a movement forms, other existing groups and organizations, such as labor unions and teachers unions, join it. People don’t usually join social movements all of the sudden after reading about them in newspapers or hearing about them in the news; they usually join them due to their close relationships with people who have become active in them.

Social movements aren’t usually formed by a single individual; they usually start with a group of likeminded people who invite their relatives and acquaintances to join it. Thus, it is usually groups, not individuals, who join social movements.

Dr. Stark also mentioned that social movements need the following four factors in order to be successful:

1. Active recruitment. There must be active recruitment of members and resources. Social movements are usually more successful when they have active leadership capable of recruiting loyal and obedient members and of securing the necessary funds and facilities for the movement to continue. These are considered internal factors that affect the social movement. Social movements do not appear suddenly, but require a number of factors to form: some of them are internal and others are external. The main interior factor is the presence of a group of people who are sincere and enthusiastic about taking action to bring about change. The movement’s members must have adequate means of communication, a location far from surveillance to hold their meetings, and the necessary funds to make their message heard.

2. Overcoming opposition. In order to be successful, the movement must overcome exterior opposition. This is considered the main external factor for the success of a movement. Usually when any movement starts, an opposition movement forms to counter it. When a movement demands change, other movements normally oppose that change as they view it as a threat to their existence or their welfare. Thus, the success of a movement largely depends on its ability to overcome opposing movements.

3. Effective alliances. The continuity of a social movement also depends on its ability to make allies – or at least remain neutral – with other major groups and strong civic organizations in the society. The more that a social movement is able to bring about change, the more its adversaries try to organize even stronger opposing movements in order to prevent that change from taking place. Opposing groups work toward gaining allies and supporters for their movements, and focus on gaining financial, political, and legal support. The more a social movement is able to attract allies from outside groups, the more likely it is to be successful.

4. Controlling negative competition. When a social movement forms because of a common grievance shared by many people of a certain sector of society and resources are available to the movement, several smaller organizations usually form within the movement. These internal organizations could cooperate and be successful, but they usually compete to try to control the mother organization. Stark emphasized that the success of a movement depends on its ability to benefit from those smaller organizations, cooperate with them, and prevent them from competing with one another, which weakens the movement.

Once a social movement succeeds in forming and voicing the change it wants to take place, or to prevent from taking place, it faces one of three possibilities:

1. All of the movement’s demands might be met, in which case the movement ceases to exist as it no longer has a reason to exist. When this takes place the movement’s leadership could try to take advantage of the reputation they gained in the media and the resources they gathered to enter into politics, benefitting from their followers.

2. Some of its demands might be met, in which case the majority of the movement’s members may leave it and mix back into society while the more enthusiastic members remain and re-form the movement.

3. At other times none of the demands of the movement may be met and it face political or military force. In this case, many lay sympathizers with the movement who were not very enthusiastic about its goals abandon it. On the other hand, a larger percent than in the second possibility will remain; these are the dedicated members who are benefitting from the organization. They re-organize the movement and choose new strategies and modus operandi.
As already mentioned, when some or all of the demands of a movement are not met, the most active and loyal members remain and work to re-organize the movement, following new procedures. In order to show how members of social movements that demand improvement of their conditions through peaceful means become members of terrorist organizations that only wish to harm and terrify others, Dr. Donatella Della Porta performed research on terrorist groups that arose in Italy in the seventies and early eighties. Her work is one of the best studies on how social movements go from being peaceful civic organizations to being secret terrorist cells. Dr. Della Porta’s findings are based on three levels of analysis: the broader level (macro), the middle level (meso), and the smaller level (micro).

Della Porta says that, in order for a terrorist group to form, certain factors – known as interests, demand, ideologies, or tactics – must be present in the society. The first factor is that the group makes demands which have not been adequately met. Normally secret groups claim they are responsible for making sure these demands are met on behalf of the society at large. The second factor is the presence of an ideology or political culture supporting violence. Secret societies usually adopt ideologies allowing for the use of violence to achieve their goals. The third factor is the use of violent tactics, namely killing and acts of terrorism. Groups that operate secretly often end up resorting to violence in their struggles with other parties. They often subscribe to extremist ideologies such as the leftist ideology (Communism) in Europe or the extremism attributed to divine religions such as that used by Jews in racist Israeli movements and the extremist Islamic groups that claim to be performing Jihad by killing and terrorizing innocent Muslims.

The type of group that resorts to violence is of two types: one that resorts to violence at times, and irregularly when provoked by some event; this group sometimes continues for a time or acts with intermittent violence in a manner that doesn’t raise much concern. The second type of group supports the use of organized violence to bring about change and achieve its goals; this group also divides into two further groups: one that continues upon its current situation without forming a separate organization; this type of group is easy to eliminate because it relies upon individuals instead of a clear organizational structure. The other type of group organizes itself under leadership and has military, administrative, media, financial, and recruiting departments; this type is what rebel and liberation groups turn out to be in their final stages. Some liberation movements have just demands and others are simply viewed as rebel groups.

Based on Dr. Della Porta’s analysis, government forces deal with movements at later stages; thus, the movements that have defined leadership and formally advocate ongoing violence will further divide into groups under the pressure of government. The first group will adopt passive strategies such as secretly organizing, which could lead to negotiations. Secret organizations can also choose to carry out acts of terrorism.

Who is a terrorist?

Dr. Della Porta mentioned that the groups that operate secretly are the ones that end up carrying out terrorist acts, using random violence since they don’t have any other way to maneuver.

Dr. Wieviorka said that his research had not led him to a precise definition of a terrorist, as what one group of people calls a terrorist may be referred to as a freedom fighter by another group. He divided terrorist acts into two categories: those which are performed as a means of achieving a goal, such as sending a message to society, potential allies or the governments that support them, or to prove the feasibility of such acts; and those in which terrorism itself is the means and the end, such as Al-Qaeda operations in the Arabian peninsula, attacks by armed groups in Algeria, and Kach and Kahane attacks in Palestinian occupied territories.

Dr. Wieviorka differentiated between the pure terrorist and the person who uses terrorism to achieve some goal. Everything mentioned in the abovementioned research can be applied to groups currently using violence throughout the world to determine whether they are movements with just demands and legitimate activities or simply rebel movements.

We can summarize all three research papers by saying that, in general, terrorist movements do not arise out of pure coincidence; rather, they result as a chain of events and transformations that a number of individuals in a society go through. They could begin with a handful of people who express their complaints peacefully. Those individuals then split for various reasons and form other groups, some of which resort to violence to express their demands. There are usually a number of enthusiastic individuals who strongly sympathize with those demands so they continue to protest and make demands, using several methods, including organizing secretly to avoid being monitored by national security forces. When individuals reach this stage, it’s only a matter of time until they begin using terrorism as a means of achieving their goals. After that, a more extreme and violent group branches out from these individuals that uses terrorism, not as a means of achieving a goal, but as a means and a goal in and of itself. Governments should exhaust their resources in researching this critical transformation in the behavior of individuals and groups and in coming up with appropriate solutions to do away with terrorism and ensure safety and security.