By Matias Uusisilta

Terrorism – as its name suggests – aims to evoke terror and instil fear into people’s minds in order to achieve a political goal. In that sense, it is a form of political action in the same way voting and demonstrating are, but significantly more radical in its manner. But how and why do people reject parliamentary politics and turn to terrorism in pursuit of social change? What leads political groups into committing acts of violence against civilians? This article aims to provide a look into how extremist groups are formed, how they recruit members and how we can use that knowledge to prevent terrorism.

To understand these dynamics, one should consider some of the insights provided by ‘social movement theory, a form of study which considers the social and psychological dynamics of social mobilization and can therefore offer a valuable understanding of extremist movements. Quintan Wiktorowicz, a political science professor and an expert on Islam and violent extremism, applies social movement theory to Islamic extremism in his book Islamic Social Activism. It provides us with a theoretical framework for both the formation of extremist groups and how marginalized people are drawn into them. Despite his focus on Islamic terrorism, these theories can also be applied to other forms of violent extremism (far-right, buddhist and leftist extremism).

Wiktorowicz argues that specific phenomena, such as state facilitated oppression towards certain groups creates an environment that can breed terrorism. Such oppression creates a feeling of non-belonging that can lead to ‘anti-system frames’. These frames portray the existing system as the central source of blame for the problems faced by the oppressed group. Combined with the paradoxical fact that the only way to change these corrupt systems is through operating within them (parliamentary politics), its victims see no other viable option besides an outright assault on it. This then leads to violence towards the observed oppressor and even extends to civilians which are dismissed as collateral in a legitimate fight against the system.

In a worst-case scenario, this violence legitimates the state and society to further oppress the group, which widens the space for terrorism to proliferate and thus restarts the cycle of oppression. One example of this is visible in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where terrorist organizations like Hamas receive strong support from the Palestinian people due to decades of oppression from the Israeli state and society and the absence of any secular alternatives, which are usually the first to be crushed or undermined.

In the case of Europe and the US, terrorist attacks occur on a smaller scale and often include an individual being excluded from society and healthy social circles. Movements that use anti-system frames and claim that the whole system is ruined and unredeemable through parliamentary channels might offer an alternative that appeals to the people they aim to recruit. This alternative might as well be an Islamic caliphate or an anti-capitalist system, depending on the target audience. The recruitment process is enhanced by using strong mental pictures of a minority being oppressed by the majority in the current system. A spiral of capsulation draws members further into the movement and cuts their remaining ties to society, with rationality giving way to emotional drive. This effect might be reinforced by strict behavioral codes that are required for members and by limiting contact to people outside the movement. Islamic terrorism is far from the only outlet for a violent alternative. Another example of an individual who was driven into a similar kind of spiral was far-left terrorist James Thomas Hodgkinson from the US, who opened fire on Republican senators at a baseball practice in 2017. This was another event in which an individual felt excluded from society with little hope for the future and was driven to act out against a group he perceived as oppressors

So how does social movement theory help further a better understanding of global terrorism? Though these theories should not be taken as a framework that applies to all situations where acts of terrorism occurs, they provide an understanding of the dynamics of extremist groups formation, and can hence help us develop better methods that address terrorism at its roots. The USA’s War on Terror has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East and left behind a wake of destruction that has only multiplied the number of terrorists in the world. “The idea of ‘fighting fire with fire’ only creates a political environment where anti-system frames thrive and legitimize counter tendencies.” Moving our societies towards an equilibrium where all groups are included in the political sphere and can participate in decision-making empowers people, and offers them the chance to influence the way the society treats them, enabling them to protect their interests. Finding ways to make sure that no individuals or groups are alienated from society prevents the formation, growth and strength of extremist organizations. In the case of terrorism, it seems that violence truly breeds violence, and that focusing on the root causes of the issue would save lives, on both sides of the battlefield.

By Matias Uusisilta

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