A Violent Non-State Actors Reading List

In the introduction to her edited volume Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, Klejda Mulaj notes that, while political science scholarship has extensively examined non-state actors (most notably those whose activities are primarily economic), violent non-state actors (VNSAs) “have only recently received sustained interest amongst academic and policy circles.” The study of VNSAs is thus a young and developing academic field, and scholars examining VNSAs will experience both the joys and also the pitfalls of working on a relatively new topic. The theoretical literature is highly uneven, with some extraordinarily well developed concepts mixed with a battery of assumptions that the field may no longer adhere to in four or five years.

This semester I’m teaching a course on violent non-state actors for Georgetown University’s security studies program, the first such class that the program has offered (although it has offered courses examining terrorism and counterterrorism for many years). A number of colleagues have expressed interest in seeing my syllabus, or having me provide a reading list. Thus, to assist other scholars with an interest in VNSAs, I’ve compiled the following reading list, largely based on my course syllabus. The inclusion of a particular work does not constitute an endorsement (which should be evident to those who remember my reaction to Pape and Feldman’s Cutting the Fuse), but it means that it’s part of the relevant discussion that scholars should be having. [Note: This list was updated on July 9, 2014, following the completion of a new course syllabus.]

Part One: Theoretical Foundations

I. Violent Non-State Actors in Context

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “Terrorism and the Coming Decade,” Global Brief, Oct. 2011.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “Interpreting al-Qaeda,” Foreign Policy, January 6, 2014.

Derek Jones, Understanding the Form, Function, and Logic of Clandestine Insurgent and Terrorist Networks (Joint Special Operations University, 2012).

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapter 1.

Jacob Shapiro & Nils B. Weidmann, “Is the Phone Mightier than the Sword?: Cell Phones and Insurgent Violence in Iraq,” Dec. 18, 2011.

Lisa Stampnitzky, “Disciplining an Unruly Field: Terrorism Experts and Theories of Scientific/Intellectual Production,” Qualitative Sociology 34 (2011):1–19.

II. Defining Violent Non-State Actors and Understanding Their Strategy

Ivan Arreguín-Toft, “How the Weak Win Wars,” International Security 26:1 (2001).

Jack A. Goldstone, “Toward a Fourth Generation of Revolutionary Theory,” Annual Review of Political Science (2001): 139-187.

Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (Columbia University Press, 2006).

Carlo Morselli, “Assessing Vulnerable and Strategic Positions in a Criminal Network,” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 26 (2010).

Nicholas Sambanis, “What is Civil War? Conceptual and Empirical Complexities of an Operational Definition,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 48:6 (2004): 814‐58.

The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (2007), pp. 3-34.

III. Recruiting

Ana M. Arjona &  Stathis N. Kalyvas, Rebelling Against Rebellion: Comparing Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Recruitment (2008).

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “A Blind Spot,” Pragati, Nov. 2, 2012.

John Knefel, “Everything You’ve Been Told About Radicalization is Wrong,” Rolling Stone, May 6, 2013.

Clark McCauley & Sophia Moskalenko, Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Peter R. Neumann, “The Trouble with Radicalization,” International Affairs 89:4 (2013): 873-93.

Robert Pape & James K. Feldman, Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism & How to Stop It (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010).

Patrick Van Inwegen, Understanding Revolution (2011), chapters 1, 4-7.


IV. Nationalist Groups

Brian Michael Jenkins, International Terrorism: A New Kind of Warfare (Santa Monica, CA: The RAND Corporation, 1974).

Daniel Byman, “The Logic of Ethnic Terrorism,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 21:2 (1998).

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapters 3-5.

C.J.M. Drake, “The Provisional IRA: A Case Study,” Terrorism and Political Violence 3:2 (1991).

Martyn Frampton, “Dissident Irish Republican Violence: A Resurgent Threat?” The Political Quarterly 83:2 (Apr.–June 2012).

Judith Matloff, “Basque-ing in Peace,” World Policy Journal 29:3 (2012): 81–88.

Ignacio Sànchez-Cuenca, “The Dynamics of Nationalist Terrorism: ETA and the IRA,” Terrorism and Political Violence 19:3 (2007).

James A. Piazza, “Is Islamist Terrorism More Dangerous?: An Empirical Study of Group Ideology, Organization, and Goal Structure,” Terrorism and Political Violence, 21:1 (2009): 62-88.

V. Insurgent Groups

Mark T. Berger & Douglas A. Borer, “The Long War: Insurgency, Counterinsurgency and Collapsing States,” Third World Quarterly 28:2 (2007).

David Fitzgerald, “Vietnam, Iraq and the Rebirth of Counter-Insurgency,” Irish Studies in International Affairs (2009).

Richard Weitz, “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Latin America, 1960-1980,” Political Science Quarterly 101:3 (1986).

Thomas H. Henriksen, Afghanistan, Counterinsurgency, and the Indirect Approach (Joint Special Operations University, 2010).

Gian Gentile, “A Strategy of Tactics: Population-centric COIN and the Army,” Parameters, August 2009.

Jason Fritz, “Counterinsurgency is Not the Problem,” War on the Rocks, August 14, 2013.

VI. Al-Qaeda through 2011

Brian Michael Jenkins, “The New Age of Terrorism” (RAND, 2006).

Juan Carlos Antúnez & Ioannis Tellidis, “The Power of Words: The Deficient Terminology Surrounding Islam-Related Terrorism,” Critical Studies in Terrorism (2013).

Ryan Evans, Peter Neumann & Raffaello Pantucci, “Locating al-Qaeda’s Center of Gravity: The Role of Middle Managers,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 34:9 (2011).

Leah Farrall, “How al-Qaeda Works,” Foreign Affairs 90:2, Mar./Apr. 2011.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Bin Laden’s Legacy (Wiley, 2011).

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “Lone Wolf Islamic Terrorism: Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad (Carlos Bledsoe) Case Study,” Terrorism and Political Violence 26:1 (2014).

Brian A. Jackson & Bryce Loidolt, “Considering al-Qa’ida’s Innovation Doctrine: From Strategic Texts to ‘Innovation in Practice,’” Terrorism and Political Violence 25:2 (2013): 284-310.

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapter 10.

K. Payne, “Building the Base: Al-Qaeda’s Focoist Strategy,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 34:2 (2011).

VII. The Arab Uprisings and Al-Qaeda

Marc Lynch, The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East (New York: PublicAffairs, 2013).

Scott Shane, “As Regimes Fall in Arab World, Al-Qaeda Sees History Fly By,” New York Times, February 27, 2011.

Gartenstein-Ross, Bin Laden’s Legacy, pp. 184-88.

Daniel Byman, “Terrorism After the Revolutions: How Secular Uprisings Could Help (or Hurt) Jihadists,” Foreign Affairs 90:3 (2011).

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia’s Long Game: Dawa, Hisba, and Jihad (ICCT—The Hague, 2013).

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Tara Vassefi, “Perceptions of the Arab Spring Within the Salafi-Jihadi Movement,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 35 (2012).

Fawaz Gerges, “The Rise and Fall of al-Qaeda: Debunking the Terrorism Narrative,” Huffington Post, Jan. 3, 2012.

Bruce Hoffman, “Al Qaeda’s Uncertain Future,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 36:8 (2013): 635-53.

William McCants, “Al-Qaeda’s Challenge: The Jihadists’ War with Islamist Democrats,” Foreign Affairs, Sept./Oct. 2011.

VIII. Hamas and Hizballah

Eitan Azani, “Hezbollah’s Strategy of ‘Walking on the Edge’: Between Political Game and Political Violence,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 35:11 (2012): 741-59.

Nadia Baranovich & Ravichandran Moorthy, “Terror Strategies in the Israel-Palestine Conflict: An Analysis of Hezbollah and Hamas,” IEPDR 5:2 (2011): 229-36.

Hillel Frisch, “Strategic Change in Terrorist Movements: Lessons from Hamas,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 32:12 (2009): 1049-1065.

Mona Harb & Reinoud Leenders, “Know Thy Enemy: Hizbullah, ‘Terrorism’ and the Politics of Perception,” Third World Quarterly 26:1 (2005).

Baudouin Long, “The Hamas Agenda: How Has it Changed?” Middle East Policy 17:4 (2010): 131-43.

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapters 7-8.

IX. The Defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapter 17.

Ahmed Hashim, When Counterinsurgency Wins: Sri Lanka’s Defeat of the Tamil Tigers (2013).

Neil DeVotta, “The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Lost Quest for Separatism in Sri Lanka,” Asian Survey, December 2009.

Lionel Beehner, “What Sri Lanka Can Teach Us About COIN,” Small Wars Journal, August 27, 2010.

Niel A. Smith, “Understanding Sri Lanka’s Defeat of the Tamil Tigers,” Joint Force Quarterly 59 (2010).

John Thompson, “Hosting Terrorism: The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Canada,” in Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Linda Frum eds., Terror in the Peaceable Kingdom (2012).

X. Drug and Criminal Cartels

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapter 2.

Robert J. Bunker & John P. Sullivan, “Cartel Evolution Revisited: Third Phase Cartel Potentials and Alternative Futures in Mexico,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 21:1 (2010): 30-54.

Ami C. Carpenter, “Beyond Drug Wars: Transforming Factional Conflict in Mexico,” Conflict Resolution Quarterly 27:4 (2010).

Sylvia M. Longmire & John P. Longmire. “Redefining Terrorism: Why Mexican Drug Trafficking is More Than Just Organized Crime,” Journal of Strategic Security 1:1 (2008): 35-52.

Carlo Morselli, Cynthia Giguère & Katia Petit, “The Efficiency/Security Trade-Off in Criminal Networks,” Social Networks 29 (2007): 143–53.

John T. Picarelli, “Osama bin Corleone? Vito the Jackal? Framing Threat Convergence Through an Examination of Transnational Organized Crime and International Terrorism,” Terrorism and Political Violence 24:2 (2012): 180-98.

Bilal Y. Saab & Alexandra W. Taylor, “Criminality and Armed Groups: A Comparative Study of FARC and Paramilitary Groups in Colombia,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 32:6 (2009): 455-75.

Graham H. Turbiville Jr, “Firefights, Raids, and Assassinations: Tactical Forms of Cartel Violence and Their Underpinnings,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 21:1 (2010): 123-144.

Jeremy McDermott, The FARC, the Peace Process and the Potential Criminalisation of the Guerrillas (2013).

XI. Non-State Actors in the Cyber Realm.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “The Anatomy of an Evolving Threat: Publication of Classified Information,” War on the Rocks, November 20, 2013.

Wendy Wong & Peter Brown, “E-Bandits in Global Activism: Wikileaks, Anonymous, and the Politics of No One,” Perspectives on Politics 11:4 (2013).

Noah Hampson, “Hacktivism: A New Breed Of Protests in a Networked World,” Boston College International & Comparative Law Review 35:2 (2012): 511-542.

Jeffery T. Richelson, “Intelligence Secrets and Unauthorized Disclosures: Confronting Some Fundamental Issues,” International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence 25:4 (2012).

François Heisbourg, “Leaks and Lessons,” Survival 53:1 (2011).

Brandon Valeriano and Ryan Maness, “The Dynamics of Cyber Conflict between Rival Antagonists, 2001-11,” Journal of Peace Research 51:3 (2014).

Simon Mabon, “Aiding Revolution? Wikileaks, Communication, and the ‘Arab Spring’ in Egypt,” Third World Quarterly (2013).

Alinta Krauth, “Anonymous in Portmanteaupia,” Social Alternatives 31:2 (2012): 27-32.

Charlotte Philby, “The Tor System: Welcome to the Dark Internet Where You Can Search in Secret,” Independent, June 10, 2013.

Peter W. Singer, “The Cyber Terror Bogeyman,” Brookings Institute, Nov. 2012.

Simon Springer et al., “Leaky Geopolitics: The Ruptures and Transgressions of WikiLeaks,” Geopolitics 17 (2012): 681-711.

XII. Warlords, Lineage-Based VNSAs, and Traditional Power Brokers

Anthony Vinci, “‘Like Worms in the Entrails of a Natural Man’: A Conceptual Analysis of Warlords,” Review of African Political Economy 34:112 (2007).

Jutta Bakonyi & Kirsti Stuvøy. “Violence and Social Order Beyond the State: Somalia and Angola,” Review of African Political Economy 32:104-105 (2005): 359-82.

Kimberly Marten, “Warlordism in Comparative Perspective,” International Security 31:3 (Winter 2006/07): 41-73.

XIII. Private Military Corporations

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapter 18.

David Perry, “Blackwater vs. bin Laden: The Private Sector’s Role in American Counterterrorism,” Comparative Strategy 31:1 (2012).

Deane-Peter Baker & James Pattison, “The Principled Case for Employing Private Military and Security Companies in Interventions for Human Rights Purposes,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 29:1 (2012).

Christopher Kinsey, “Problematising the Role of Private Security Companies in Small Wars,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 18:4 (2007): 584–614.

Seden Akcinaroglu & Elizabeth Radziszewski, “Private Military Companies, Opportunities, and Termination of Civil Wars in Africa,” Journal on Conflict Resolution (2012).

Ulrich Petersohn, “The Other Side of the COIN: Private Security Companies and Counterinsurgency Operations,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 34:10 (2011): 782–801.

XIV. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapters 9, 11, 16.

Gartenstein-Ross, Bin Laden’s Legacy, chapters 7-8.

Vanessa M. Gezari, “How to Read Afghanistan,” New York Times, Aug. 10, 2013.

Thomas Johnson, “Taliban Adaptations and Innovations,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 24:1 (2013): 3–27.

Thomas H. Johnson & Matthew C. DuPee, “Analysing the New Taliban Code of Conduct (Layeha): An Assessment of Changing Perspectives and Strategies of the Afghan Taliban,” Central Asian Survey (2012).

Antonio Giustozzi, “Hearts, Minds, and the Barrel of a Gun: the Taliban’s Shadow Government,” Prism (2012).

Oscar Gakuo Mwangi, “State Collapse, Al-Shabaab, Islamism, and Legitimacy in Somalia,” Politics, Religion & Ideology 13:4 (2013): 513–27.

XV. Counter-Opposition VNSAs

Sabine C. Carey, Michael Colaresi & Neil J. Mitchell, “Disorder, Delegation, and Deniability: Incentives for Pro-Government Militias,” conference paper from Paramilitaries, Militias, and Civil Defense Forces in Civil Wars (2012).

Mark Wilbanks & Efraim Karsh, “How the ‘Sons of Iraq’ Stabilized Iraq,” Middle East Quarterly 17:4 (Fall 2010).

Myriam Benraad, “Iraq’s Tribal ‘Sahwa’: Its Rise and Fall,” Middle East Policy 18:1 (2011).

Enzo Nussio, “Learning from Shortcomings: The Demobilization of Paramilitaries in Colombia,” Journal of Peacebuilding and Development 6:2 (2011).


XVI. The State’s Tactical and Strategic Toolkit

Audrey Kurth Cronin & James M. Ludes eds., Attacking Terrorism: Elements of a Grand Strategy (Georgetown University Press, 2004).

Audrey Kurth Cronin, How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns (Princeton University Press, 2011).

Thomas & Casebeer, “Violent Non-State Actors: Countering Dynamic Systems,” Strategic Insights, March 2004.

Bryan Groves, “America’s Trajectory in the Long War: Redirecting Our Efforts Toward Strategic Effects Versus Simply Tactical Gains,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 36:1 (2013): 26–48.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “The Future of Preventive Detention Under International Law,” in Sam Muller ed., The Law of the Future and the Future of Law (Hague Institute for the Internationalisation of Law, 2012).

Benjamin Wittes, Detention and Denial: The Case for Candor After Guantanamo (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2011), chapters 1, 2, 5.

Stephanie Carvin, “The Trouble with Targeted Killing,” Security Studies 21:3 (2012).

Jenna Jordan, “Attacking the Leader, Missing the Mark: Why Terrorist Groups Survive Decapitation Strikes,” International Security 38:4 (2014).

Patrick B. Johnston, “Does Decapitation Work? Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Targeting in Counterinsurgency Campaigns,” International Security 36:4 (2012).

Bryan C. Price, “Targeting Top Terrorists: How Leadership Decapitation Contributes to Counterterrorism,” International Security 36:4 (2012).

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Kelsey D. Atherton, “How We Killed Privacy—in 4 Easy Steps,” Foreign Policy, August 23, 2013.

Neil M. Richards, “The Dangers of Surveillance,” Harvard Law Review 126:7 (May 2013).

Tore Bjørgo and John Horgan eds., Leaving Terrorism Behind: Individual and Collective Disengagement (London and New York: Routledge, 2009).

XVII. The Future of VNSAs

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapter 19.

Gartenstein-Ross, Bin Laden’s Legacy, chapter 12.

Adam Elkus, “The State of the State,” War on the Rocks, June 16, 2014.

Peter Turchin, “A Theory for Formation of Large Empires” (2009).

Radicalization and Political Violence

Rolling Stone has published a new article entitled “Everything You’ve Been Told About Radicalization is Wrong.” It is primarily an attack on the NYPD’s study Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat, written by Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt, but it more broadly makes the bold claim that there is no causal connection between radicalization and violence. (I will define some of these terms subsequently — something that Rolling Stone failed to do, and that certainly contributed to the piece’s lack of clarity.)

In studying what drives people to undertake terrorist violence, it is extremely important to be open to new ideas, and new ways of thinking about the issue. Further, I have my own criticisms of the NYPD’s model, which I have already outlined at Al-Wasat. But the major problem with Rolling Stone‘s argument is that it is a broadside against entire lines of inquiry without actually presenting evidence that these ways of thinking about the problem set are flawed.


It is worth beginning any discussion of radicalization by exploring what the concept refers to. I’ll offer two definitions. Since Rolling Stone is attacking the NYPD’s study, we might start with how that study conceptualizes the process of radicalization.

The NYPD’s study views salafi jihadist ideology as “the driver that motivates young men and women, born or living in the West, to carry out ‘autonomous jihad’ via acts of terrorism against their host countries.” Radicalization, according to that study, is a four-step process (sequential though not necessarily linear) that terminates in a final step that it refers to as jihadization. NYPD defines this phase:

Jihadization is the phase in which members of the cluster accept their individual duty to participate in jihad and self-designate themselves as holy warriors or mujahedeen. Ultimately, the group will begin operational planning for the jihad or a terrorist attack. These “acts in furtherance” will include planning, preparation and execution.

NYPD’s study notes that “individuals who do pass through this entire process,” to the jihadization phase, “are quite likely to be involved in the planning or implementation of a terrorist act.”

Now, if I were critiquing the NYPD’s study, I would argue that the definition of jihadization makes the study’s conclusion almost tautological. Is it any surprise that people who “accept their individual duty to participate in jihad and self-designate themselves as holy warriors,” and then take the extra step to “begin operational planning” for a terrorist attack are “quite likely to be involved in the planning or implementation of a terrorist act”? But, oddly, Rolling Stone takes the opposite tack. It actually argues that there is no connection between completing the steps in NYPD’s study and the propensity to undertake violence.

Moving away from the NYPD’s definition of radicalization — which, as I said, seems to contain a tautology — let’s also employ a more generalized definition of radicalization. I find the definition offered by Peter Neumann and Brooke Rogers useful: “radicalisation describes the changes in attitude that lead towards sanctioning and, ultimately, the involvement in the use of violence for a political aim.” In other words, under this definition radicalization refers to various changes in attitude that culminate in the idea that using violence for political aims is acceptable. So if we’re querying whether there is a causal connection between radicalization and political violence, the question is if embracing an ideology that holds political violence to be acceptable or even required makes one more likely to engage in political violence, or if it makes no difference.

Finally, I should mention that there is no single pathway to terrorism: this discussion is not about whether ideological radicalization is the only cause of terrorist violence. As I wrote on Al-Wasat earlier, sometimes “political anger, group dynamics, even sense of adventure” may be the dominant factor driving people to violence. Rather, this discussion is about whether ideological radicalization is one such pathway to terrorism, or whether that causal connection is a myth.

John Horgan: “The Greatest Myth Alive”

“The idea that radicalization causes terrorism is perhaps the greatest myth alive today in terrorism research.”–John Horgan

I recognize Horgan as a talented academic, albeit one whose past work has sometimes had a blind spot with respect to the role of religious ideas. So I was interested to see the evidence for such a bold claim. But none of the points he made to Rolling Stone establish that the connection between radicalization and terrorism is a myth. I engaged Horgan on Twitter, and he provided two different sources that he said grounded his argument in far deeper research than is reflected in the Rolling Stone piece. But neither of those sources support his strong conclusion either.

Before addressing Horgan’s arguments, let me point out that the idea there is some causal connection between radicalization and terrorism is one of the more intuitive connections in all of terrorism research. One would expect that someone who believes in an ideology that justifies the use of violence for political ends would be more likely to engage in politically-motivated violence than someone who does not. Of course, sometimes the intuitive answer is not the right one — so let’s look at Horgan’s evidence.

Arguments to Rolling Stone. Horgan provides two arguments to Rolling Stone about why the idea that radicalization causes terrorism is a myth. First, he says that “the overwhelming majority of people who hold radical beliefs do not engage in violence.” I agree with this, and in fact made a similar point in a recent CNN interview. (When I said this, I was defining “radical beliefs” in a different way than the NYPD does in its jihadization phase, and Horgan is almost certainly employing a different definition as well.) But the point that most people who hold radical beliefs don’t engage in violence doesn’t disprove a causal connection. I find that, because people tend to be uncomfortable discussing religion, they have a far lower threshold for accepting evidence discounting the connection between religious ideas and terrorist violence than they might in other contexts; I noted this tendency in a recent review of a book by Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko. So let’s take this out of the context of religion and examine parallel claims and refutations:

  • Poverty is a causal factor in crime. “That’s not true. The overwhelming majority of poor people do not commit crimes.”
  • The widespread availability of firearms is a causal factor in gun violence. “That’s not true. The overwhelming majority of gun owners do not commit gun violence.”
  • Government repression is a causal factor in revolutions. “That’s not true. The overwhelming majority of repressive governments do not experience revolutions.”

In these cases, the refutations do not disprove the initial claims. Similarly, Horgan’s statement makes the point that there is hardly a one-to-one relationship between radical ideas and terrorism. But that doesn’t mean there is no causal connection.

Horgan’s second argument is that “there is increasing evidence that people who engage in terrorism don’t necessarily hold radical beliefs.” I asked him about this on Twitter, and he explained that “it’s not that they don’t hold extreme beliefs. It’s that the beliefs don’t always precede involvement.” This is obviously a different claim than his quotation in Rolling Stone. Since I don’t have access to the data he’s referring to, I can’t really speak to it, except to make one point: the fact that in some cases involvement in a violent extremist movement doesn’t precede beliefs does not disprove a causal connection between radicalization and terrorism.

Horgan also makes a third point later in the Rolling Stone article: “There are the bigger social, political and religious reasons people give for becoming involved… Hidden behind these bigger reasons, there are also hosts of littler reasons – personal fantasy, seeking adventure, camaraderie, purpose, identity. These lures can be very powerful, especially when you don’t necessarily have a lot else going on in your life, but terrorists rarely talk about them.” But as Adam Elkus pointed out on Twitter, multicausality is part of social science. While Horgan’s point is, again, true, it doesn’t substantiate his claim that the causal connection between radicalization and violence is a myth.

Terrorism and Political Violence. Horgan pointed me to his article in Terrorism and Political Violence (Jan. 2007) entitled “A Conceptual Framework for Addressing Psychological Process in the Development of the Terrorist.” It was an interesting and worthwhile read, but did not demonstrate that the causal connection between radicalization and terrorism is a myth. Here is what that article had to say about ideology and terrorist violence:

The influence of ideology in a psychological sense has been little explored with respect to terrorism. As noted earlier, Hall describes ideology as ‘‘the framework for thinking and calculations about the world—the ‘ideas’ that people use to figure out how the social world works, what their place is in it and what they ought to do.’’ In a psychological sense, this implies influences on an individual’s cognitive state, a point noted by Aaron T. Beck in his paper on terrorism: ‘‘Ideology concentrates their thinking and controls their actions.’’ For Beck, ideology implies not only cognitive influences, but that it operates as a process, changing or ‘‘controlling’’ behaviour; ideology therefore might be expressed in forms of cognitive structure, but it also has a sense of content that may exercise significance influence over behaviour. From a different context, as noted earlier, Louis Althusser also emphasises the significance of meaning and representation expressed through language and social action and practice. Taylor and Taylor and Horgan explored the role of rule governance as one way of understanding the behavioural process that might be involved in ideological control over behaviour, and it may be that further empirical exploration of this would yield valuable results.

Far from implying a lack of causal connection, this passage thus implies that further research into the connection between ideological radicalization and terrorism could “yield valuable results.” So did something change in the six years since his article came out to change his mind about that point?

START article. A second article Horgan pointed me to, published by the University of Maryland’s START center last year, speaks to that question. In it, Horgan argues that we should “end our preoccupation with radicalization so that we can effectively regain a focus on terrorist behavior.” This article is primarily concerned with problems with practically applying the concept of radicalization. Nowhere does it provide evidence that there is no causal connection between radical beliefs and violence. In fact, it addresses his above-discussed point that involvement may precede beliefs. He writes:

A lingering question in terrorism studies is whether violent beliefs precede violent action, and it seems to be the case that while they often do, it is not always the case. In fact, the emerging picture from empirical studies of terrorists (including over a hundred terrorists I have interviewed from multiple groups) is repeatedly one of people who became gradually involved with a terrorist network, largely through friends, family connections, and other informal social pathways but who only began to acquire and express radical beliefs as a consequence of deepening involvement with a network.

There are two things worth noting about this. First, it is useful that he quantifies that radical beliefs “often” precede violent action. Second, Horgan’s statement is entirely consistent with the conclusions in the NYPD study, which speaks of the role of social networks:

  • The key influences during this phase of conflict and ‘religious seeking’ includes trusted social networks made up of friends and family, religious leaders, literature and the Internet.” (p. 30)
  • “Clusters of like-minded individuals begin to form, usually around social circles that germinate within the extremist incubators.” (p. 31)
  • “These groups, or clusters of extremists … are not ‘name brand’ terrorists or part of any known terrorist group. For the most part, they have little or no links to known militant groups or actors. Rather they are like-minded individuals who spend time together in clusters organized, originally, by previously established social network links.” (p. 85)

Overall, Horgan’s paper makes some valuable points about practical applications of the concept of radicalization, and about some of the lack of clarity some scholars have when discussing radicalization. While I disagree with some points that Horgan makes in his paper, it is a) a valuable read, and b) one that does not support the very strong claim he made about the causal relationship between radicalization and terrorism being a myth.

Rolling Stone‘s Other Arguments

I examined Horgan’s ideas in depth because, as I said, I respect him as a scholar. Though none of the rationales he gave support his strong claim that “the idea that radicalization causes terrorism is perhaps the greatest myth alive today in terrorism research,” I wanted to examine them in detail and point out where they contribute valuable critiques to our discussion of radicalization as a concept. The rest of the article provides less meat, although it does contain one critique with which I agree.

The critique I agree with comes from Jamie Bartlett, who states: “I have found that many young home-grown al-Qaeda terrorists are not attracted by religion or ideology alone – often their knowledge of Islamist theology is wafer-thin and superficial – but also the glamour and excitement that al-Qaeda type groups purports to offer.” As I said in my last Al-Wasat post on radicalization, “an on-point criticism of the NYPD study … is that it assumes the primacy of ideology (religious or otherwise) in moving an individual toward the embrace of violence.” Ideology, as Bartlett notes, is not always the primary moving force. However, this doesn’t mean that the study and the concept of radicalization lack value: I find that the NYPD’s study provides a useful conceptual framework in cases where ideology is the predominant pathway toward undertaking terrorist violence. This seemingly includes the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, thus making this a strange time for Rolling Stone to launch a broadside against the concept of radicalization.

Other critiques that Rolling Stone offers:

If media accounts are to be believed, the accused Boston marathon bombers were “radicalized” by watching American-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki’s YouTube sermons and reading Inspire, the al Qaeda magazine.

False. My last Al-Wasat entry goes through media accounts carefully. This is not the impression one would come away with after reading my entry. If Rolling Stone‘s contention is that you’d get this impression by reading narrowly and selectively within the media accounts… well, okay, but not the best critique.

Jamie Bartlett, head of the Violence and Extremism program at the think tank Demos, echoes these doubts. “The word ‘radicalization’ suggests a fairly simple linear path toward an ultimate violent conclusion,” he says. Studies suggest that although there may be stages in the evolution of a terrorist, placing them sequentially on a line, as the NYPD’s report literally does, is far too pat. The stages are fluid, not a simple trajectory, and it is virtually impossible to predict who will or won’t engage in violence based solely on their beliefs.

Ignores what the NYPD study actually says. That study clearly states (p. 19): “Each of these phases is unique and has specific signatures associated with it. All individuals who begin this process do not necessarily pass through all the stages and many, in fact, stop or abandon this process at different points. Moreover, although this model is sequential, individuals do not always follow a perfectly linear progression.”

As I flagged before, the idea that “it is virtually impossible to predict who will or won’t engage in violence based solely on their beliefs” is rather absurd if those beliefs are represented by the “jihadization” phase of the NYPD’s study. Once individuals “accept their individual duty to participate in jihad and self-designate themselves as holy warriors or mujahedeen,” it is probably a bit less difficult to predict who will or will not engage in violence. Further, while the ability to predict violence is relevant the utility of radicalization models, it does not really speak to the truth of the models. In other words, a radicalization model can simultaneously accurately describe the process leading one to commit violence while also doing little to help us distinguish between those who will drop out and those who will not.

“To be a radical means to reject the status quo, which in some cases propels society forward,” says Bartlett. “Equating radicalism with terrorism can produce a dampening effect on free expression – either by government or by self-censorship.”

Employs a different definition of radicalism than either the NYPD study or Neumann and Rogers. Salafi jihadism, the focus of the NYPD study, has never propelled any society forward.


The Rolling Stone piece also mixes in a great deal of criticism of the NYPD’s policing efforts. This is a fair area for discussion, but even if one concludes that the NYPD’s efforts were wrong in every way, the policies undertaken by NYPD do not invalidate the concept. Again, taking this outside the context of religion and political violence, let’s examine a few similar claims to Rolling Stone‘s contention that the connection between radicalization and terrorist violence is invalid because it led to what the magazine considers to be bad, discriminatory policies:

  • A carbon tax would be an economically disastrous, awful policy. Therefore, the idea that carbon dioxide causes global warming is invalid.
  • Gun control would put us on the road to dictatorship. Therefore, the idea that the availability of firearms is linked to violence is invalid.
  • Abortion is a positive evil, akin to murder. Therefore the idea that an abortion can ever be in the health interests of a mother is wrong.

Rolling Stone‘s readers would, I suspect, disagree with all three of these propositions, and see the logical flaws in them. The fact that you might oppose a carbon tax does not prove that global warming is a myth. Likewise, one’s views of the NYPD’s policing practices do not invalidate the connection between radicalization and terrorist violence. Overall, there may be a strong argument that, as Horgan suggests, there are serious problems with applying models of radicalization in the law enforcement context. But that is a far different argument than the contention that everything we’ve been told about radicalization is wrong.

Let me close by explaining, briefly, why the connection between extreme ideas and violence matter. Last month I did field research in Tunisia, where there has been an alarming amount of vigilante violence undertaken by hardline salafis against artists, activists, women, and religious minorities. If there were no connection between extremism and violence, we would expect vigilante violence to be evenly distributed within Tunisian society–undertaken sometimes by secularists, sometimes by Communists, sometimes by sufis. It is not. And if radical ideas and terrorism are not connected, then the growth of Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia, which openly shares al-Qaeda’s ideology, should not be seen as particularly problematic. After all, since it is not currently engaged in a terrorist campaign, its ideology should not be seen as predictive of future violence — right?

If we pretend that a connection between certain radical ideas and political violence does not exist, we will be taken by surprise, time and again, by future acts of non-state violence.

Notes on the Tsarnaevs’ Radicalization

The investigation into the radicalization of the Boston Marathon bombing’s Tsarnaev brothers has only just begun. While the picture of the radicalization of the Tsarnaev brothers remains incomplete, many have already pointed to what appear to be obvious warning signs of violence. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two brothers, seemingly became a recruit of his older sibling Tamerlan. However, the older brother Tamerlan showed many classic signs of radicalization and a turn to violence. When placed in context, the question shifts from “How was Tamerlan radicalized?” to “Why was Tamerlan’s radicalization not detected?”–Clint Watts, “Detecting the Radicalization and Recruitment of the Boston Bombers”

In this entry, I will outline some of my thoughts and notes on the Tsarnaevs’ radicalization. In the above-quoted piece, Watts utilizes Chris Heffelfinger’s radicalization model, which consists of four different stages: 1) introduction to an extremist ideology, 2) immersion in the ideology’s “thinking and mindset,” 3) frustration that other adherents to the ideology are not taking action, and 4) resolve to undertake violence to advance the ideology’s cause.

Heffelfinger’s model is similar, though not identical, to the model offered in the NYPD’s 2007 study, written by Mitchell D. Silber and Arvin Bhatt, Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat. While Heffelfinger’s model is generalized, and a researcher could try to apply it to a range of extremist ideologies, the NYPD model is focused exclusively on salafi jihadism. That study similarly identifies four phases in the radicalization process. The first is pre-radicalization, an individual’s life before his journey to extremism. The second is self-identification, in which the individual begins exploring salafi Islam “while slowly migrating away from their former identity — an identity that now is re-defined by Salafi philosophy, ideology, and values.” The third phase is indoctrination, where the individual’s beliefs intensify, culminating in “the acceptance of a religious-political worldview that justifies, legitimizes, encourages, or supports violence against anything … un-Islamic, including the West, its citizens, its allies, or other Muslim states whose opinions are contrary to the extremist agenda.” The fourth and final phase is jihadization, where the individual comes to accept an individual duty to undertake violence, and may even “begin operational planning for the jihad or a terrorist attack.”

In both models, it should be noted, many more people will begin the process than will complete it: most people who come to hold extremist ideology drop out at some point before using violence in service of those beliefs. (Many people may in fact continue to hold extreme beliefs, but not be driven to violence by them.) A great deal of criticism has been directed at the NYPD model in particular. Some of this criticism is off-base: in Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Literature Review, Minerva Nasser-Eddine and colleagues criticize the NYPD study for “leav[ing] out militant Christians, … as well as other groups within the West that employ terrorist and guerrilla tactics in their campaigns.” The rather obvious problem with this criticism is that it unreasonably assumes that all militant ideologies should share a common radicalization trajectory. However, an on-point criticism of the NYPD study, which is also applicable to Heffelfinger’s model, is that it assumes the primacy of ideology (religious or otherwise) in moving an individual toward the embrace of violence. In my own research on “homegrown” jihadist terrorism in the West, I’ve found that ideology is sometimes the central factor in an individual’s radicalization, while sometimes another factor — political anger, group dynamics, even sense of adventure — predominates.

I find both the Heffelfinger and also the NYPD model useful so long as we understand that they don’t explain the entirety of terrorist cases, and not even the entirety of cases where the terrorist attack is designed to further the salafi jihadist cause. Rather, they can help us to understand radicalization trajectories in cases where ideology is the predominant factor.

I wanted to introduce these radicalization models because they will help us to think about the points that follow. But my goal in this entry is not to discuss the merits or shortcomings of existing radicalization models. Rather, I want to outline some aspects of this case that strike me as significant.

The end of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s boxing career

The New York Times carried a long article on the impact that the change in entry rules in the Golden Gloves national tournament had on Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The tournament rules changed in 2010 to disqualify legal permanent residents, after which Tamerlan “dropped out of boxing competition entirely, and his life veered in a completely different direction.” The Times explains:

Mr. Tsarnaev portrayed his quitting [boxing] as a reflection of the sport’s incompatibility with his growing devotion to Islam. But as dozens of interviews with friends, acquaintances and relatives from Cambridge, Mass., to Dagestan showed, that devotion, and the suspected radicalization that accompanied it, was a path he followed most avidly only after his more secular dreams were dashed in 2010 and he was left adrift.

Fox News has published an article where Tamerlan’s former coach, Bob Russo, commented on the Times piece: “That’s ridiculous. You can’t tie the sport of amateur boxing — that has helped so many immigrants and unfortunate people — to his transition to radical Islam.” This critique represents a gross misreading of the Times article, which in no way implies that boxing made him do it. The NYPD’s study, wherein the radicalization trajectory is largely based on salafi-jihadist ideology, notes that the catalyst for the religious seeking that exemplifies the self-identification phase “is often a cognitive event or crisis, which challenges one’s certitude in previously held beliefs, opening the individual’s mind to a new perception or view of the world.”

Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s disqualification from boxing in future Golden Gloves national tournaments seems to have been a personal crisis of this kind, which made him open to new ideologies and ways of understanding the world. Acknowledging this in no way blames boxing, excuses Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s actions, nor obscures the role of radical Islamic ideology.

Religious ideology and radicalization

The reporting on Tamerlan Tsarnaev makes religious ideology appear to be a powerful force — and, I would say, likely the dominant force — in his radicalization and turn toward violence. It should be noted that when we talk about the role of religious ideology in this context, we aren’t speaking about the role of Islam writ large, but rather a particular understanding of the faith that many other Muslims oppose. This is illustrated in Tamerlan’s case, when some of his theories about the faith were rejected at a Cambridge, Massachusetts mosque.

I had an interesting conversation on Bloggingheads with Adam Serwer that I recommend for those interested in this topic, in part because I thought it did a good job of broaching controversial aspects of this discussion that are often shunted to the side, while not veering into the sensationalistic or offensive. Further, much of my academic work on the topic has focused on the role of religious ideology in the radicalization process. While studies like the NYPD’s may over-emphasize the role of ideology, other studies unfairly marginalize it. Examples that I have reviewed include the work of Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko, and of Jessica Stern. To help navigate this controversy, my work has outlined indicators of religious ideology being a guiding force in a subject’s radicalization: their presence or absence can help researchers determine the importance of religious ideology to a particular terrorist’s radicalization.

Here are some data points that I have found relevant with respect to Tamerlan Tsarnaev:

Where did his radicalization occurThe N.Y. Times (Apr. 27) reports that Tamerlan’s landlady, Joanna Herligy, said, “He certainly wasn’t radicalized in Dagestan.” That is, she believes signs of his extremism were evident before he left for six months in the Caucasus. Herlihy “told law enforcement officials that his trip clearly merited scrutiny,” and said “that Mr. Tsarnaev’s embrace of Islam had grown more intense before that.”

Adoption of a legalistic Islamic practice. One of the steps that my 2009 study on religious ideology and radicalization identifies is adoption of a highly legalistic practice of Islam. A legalistic practice in itself is not alarming: most often it is indicative only of someone becoming more conservative in his practice of the faith. But in a great deal of homegrown terrorist cases, adoption of a highly legalistic practice was an early step in the process indicative of an individual coming to adopt a new identity, and new ideas at odds with his previous life.

As part of this step, several homegrown extremists stopped listening to music. Those who gave up music included Adam Gadahn (who once made his own death metal albums) and John Walker Lindh (who used to post obsessively in online hip hop chat rooms, at one point claiming that he was “a famous MC who shall remain anonymous due to dickriders”). Tamerlan also gave up music as his practice of Islam became more severe. He not only listened to all kinds of music, but also was a talented musician. The N.Y. Times (Apr. 27) recalls that “during registration for a [boxing] tournament in Lowell, he sat down at a piano and lost himself for 20 minutes in a piece of classical music. The impromptu performance, so out of place in that world, finished to a burst of applause from surprised onlookers.” Tamerlan listened to all kinds of music, including classical and rap, and used the email address The_Professor@real-hiphop.com. In fact, a few years ago he had planned to enter music school. AP (Apr. 23) shows that Tamerlan’s interpretation of Islam guided his eventual avoidance of music. Six weeks after Tamerlan had told Elmirza Khozhugov, the ex-husband of his sister, about his plans to enter music school, they spoke on the phone. Elmirza asked how music school was going. Tamerlan said that he had quit, and explained that “music is not really supported in Islam.”

Growing a beard is another act that can indicate an increasingly legalistic practice (though, again, is not at all alarming in itself). Members of the Fort Dix Six, for example, had a rather long conversation, captured on tape by an informant, about the details of how beards should be kept according to religious law. The N.Y. Times (Apr. 27) reports that Tamerlan “grew first a close-cropped beard and then a flowing one.” Tamerlan shaved off his beard prior to the bombing.

Spiritual mentor. In his turn toward a stricter practice of Islam, Tamerlan may have had a spiritual mentor. Referred to in early reports as “Misha,” this alleged influencer’s real name is Mikhail Allakhverdov. Tamerlan met him in 2008 or 2009. The AP (Apr. 23) reports that Tamerlan’s family thought Misha/Allakhverdov was instrumental in his decision to stop studying music. Elmirza Khozhugov told the AP about his method of religious instruction: “Misha was telling him what is Islam, what is good in Islam, what is bad in Islam. This is the best religion and that’s it. Mohammed said this and Mohammed said that.” Khozhugov witnessed the conversation, which occurred until Tamerlan’s father, Anzor, came home from work around midnight. When he asked why Misha was still there, Tamerlan’s mother, Zubeidat, replied, “Don’t interrupt them. They’re talking about religion and good things. Misha is teaching him to be good and nice.” Tamerlan’s relationship with Misha would cause tension with his father, who felt that his son was listening to Misha and not to him. But it apparently did not cause tension with his mother, who was also coming to practice a stricter form of Islam (as I will discuss momentarily). Though much of the steps Tamerlan took suggest a move toward strict salafism, Christian Caryl, the writer who first tracked Misha/Allakhverdov down, has said that he did not think Misha was a salafi.

Misha was apparently also influential in turning Tamerlan toward political extremism and conspiracy theories. Tamerlan “turned to websites and literature claiming that the CIA was behind the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Jews controlled the world,” AP reports. He read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and also developed an interest in Alex Jones’s conspiracy website Infowars. Tsarnaev began to frequent jihadist websites, and read extremist literature like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s English-language online publication Inspire.

Attempts to impose his religious beliefs on others. Another step in my 2009 study was attempts to impose one’s religious beliefs on others. Tamerlan seems to have done this with his mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, with respect to the wearing of hijab. The Times (Apr. 27) reports that his mother used to not cover her head, and in fact “she began wearing a hijab only a few years ago, in the United States, prodded by her son.” This actually caused tension at home. The Wall Street Journal (Apr. 22) reports that Tamerlan’s father, Anzar, said, “You are being crazy, covering yourselves.” Zubeidat replied, “This is what Islamic men should want. This is what I am supposed to do.” Tamerlan’s mother and father later divorced.

Intolerance toward perceived religious deviance; belief in a schism between Islam and the West. Two of the steps in my 2009 study were extreme intolerance of perceived religious deviance, and perception of an irreconcilable schism between Islam and the West. Both of these appear to have been present in Tamerlan, based on the same incidents.

Belief in a schism between Islam and the West can be manifested in self-isolation, or distancing oneself from previous friends and acquaintances who are non-Muslim. In one U.K. case, that of attempted suicide bomber Nicky Reilly, his stepfather noted that Reilley “started to hate us. He went on about how he’d die and find Allah and lasting paradise.” Likewise, acquaintances of 7/7 bomber Germaine Lindsay noted that he “shut himself away,” and that “when he converted, he stopped hanging out with his normal friends.” We can see evidence of this in Tamerlan. After his one-time best friend Brendan Mess was killed in a gruesome triple murder (which Tamerlan himself may have committed, as I will discuss), Tamerlan did not attend the funeral, explaining, “I don’t have any American friends.”

Both of Tamerlan’s outbursts disrupting services at the Islamic Society of Boston’s Cambridge mosque were in service of his vision of a schism between Islam and the West, and showed his intolerance of what he saw as religious deviance. As the L.A. Times reports:

The older brother twice disrupted services. In November, Tamerlan Tsarnaev disputed a preacher’s statement that it was appropriate to celebrate national holidays, according to the society’s statement. Then in January, he challenged a preacher who praised the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: Tsarnaev “stood up, shouted and called him a ‘non-believer’; said that he was ‘contaminating people’s minds’ and began calling him a hypocrite,” according to the statement. Congregants urged Tsarnaev to leave, and once the service was over, he was told he was not welcome to attend the mosque if he continued interrupting services.

Earlier signs? There has been a great deal of speculation that Tamerlan may have carried out a gruesome triple murder before leaving for the Caucasus: one of the victims was his former best friend, Brendan Mess. The victims were bound, had their throats slashed, and were sprinkled with marijuana. The linked piece provides possible reasons for this murder, including the possibility that Tamerlan was outraged that Mess had given marijuana to his younger brother Dzokhar, and also the possibility that the victims may have been targeted because they were Jewish.

Russia’s FSB warned the FBI and CIA about Tamerlan in 2011, saying that he had “changed drastically” and become “a follower of radical Islam.” The FSB also stated that he planned to travel to the region, where he would connect with “underground” militant groups. Much of the inevitable debate about whether an intelligence failure occurred prior to the Boston bombing will focus on the FSB’s warning, Tamerlan’s trip to the region, and how evident the danger Tamerlan posed in 2011 was. However, it is worth noting that there is a difference between someone holding extremist views and someone being likely to undertake violence. In a free society, the fact that someone holds extreme views does not automatically confer the right for the government to put him under surveillance, nor should it.

Dzokhar Tsarnaev. Dzokhar, on the other hand, did not display his brother’s signs of religiosity. He was a pot smoker, a drinker, a partier — all of which contributed to people who knew Dzokhar feeling such disbelief that he could be involved in the Boston plot. (Those who knew Tamerlan, in contrast, were able to recall various data points illustrating his transformation.) This is why, in my Bloggingheads conversation, Adam Serwer and I agreed that “religious identity politics” were likely more important to Dzokhar than religious belief itself. And other factors may have loomed even larger, such as peer pressure from his respected older brother.

Why is Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia’s Leader Threatening the Government?

Yesterday, Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia’s fugitive leader Abu Iyad al-Tunisi (Saif-Allah Benahssine) issued a bellicose statement threatening the overthrow of Tunisia’s government if it interfered with AST. Abu Iyad specifically threatened to cast the Tunisian government into the “dustbin of history.” (For a more complete translation of Abu Iyad’s statement than appears in press reporting, see this post at Long War Journal.) Abu Iyad’s statement is noteworthy, and perhaps surprising, because it represents the first time he has made a threat against Tunisia’s government: he had previously affirmed, on multiple occasions, that “Tunisia is a land not of jihad, but of preaching (dawa).” In this sense, the statement represents a deviation from the strategy AST has established toward the use of violence, albeit perhaps a smaller deviation than it appears at first glance.

AST’s strategy toward use of violence has had a few distinct characteristics. AST has publicly condemned the use of violence, as when Abu Iyad told Al Jazeera in July 2011 that “we have the gentlest attitude” toward the Tunisian people, “and will never be dragged into harming them in any way.” But on the other hand, AST has been purposefully ambiguous about its connection to actual acts of violence — it seems to have been involved in several such acts, but with plausible deniability built in. Essentially, AST’s strategy was designed to intimidate its domestic opponents through the use of force, and consistently expand the boundaries of what might be considered “acceptable violence” (in other words, acts of violence that won’t trigger a state crackdown). At the same time, AST maintained its ability to operate openly, and in that way build its base and power:

  • AST’s official position has been that Tunisia is a land of dawa, and not of jihad.
  • AST has undertaken violence against civilians, while maintaining ambiguity about whether the group was actually carrying out such attacks. I recently wrote an article for Foreign Policy outlining the rise in hardline salafi vigilante violence in Tunisia: though AST hasn’t claimed any of those acts, the degree of organization involved in several of them suggests AST involvement.
  • AST occasionally pushes the boundaries of acceptable violence against foreign targets of jihad. Most prominently, AST was fairly clearly behind the September 2012 assault on the U.S. embassy in Tunis, something that one can discern even from its social media activity.
  • AST consistently undertakes dawa to grow its organization, including through the provision of social services.
  • Though the evidence on this point is somewhat ambiguous, AST seems to be stockpiling weapons for use at some point in the future. This is consistent with the advice of jihadist ideologues and strategists such as Hamzah bin Muhammad al-Bassam and Abu Sa’ad al-Amili (with whom AST enjoys a particularly close relationship).

Abu Iyad’s statement is a departure from this established strategy because it threatens the Tunisian state for the first time. So what could explain this move? Here are several possibilities, moving from what I consider the most likely to the least likely:

  • AST may be concerned that the anti-terror crisis cells Tunisia is setting up, in addition to other arrests of salafis following the assassination of Chokri Belaid, suggests that Tunisia intends to get tougher on AST in a way that may threaten its growth. There are so many candidates to have assassinated Belaid that it is entirely conceivable (perhaps likely) that AST didn’t carry out that killing. If so, Abu Iyad’s statement may also send a message to Ennahda warning them about pinning the killing on salafis. If, on the other hand, AST did kill Belaid, this may be a warning to Tunisian politicians that they too may be individually targeted. Either way, the goal of the warning is to coerce the Tunisian government to maintain its policies of containing AST, rather than moving toward a crackdown.
  • AST may think the government will be unwilling or unable to escalate following the threat. If so, this further pushes out the bounds of acceptable violence within Tunisian society through a direct threat against the state that essentially goes unanswered.
  • AST may believe it has gained enough strength that it can withstand any government response. In that way, this threat could represent another step toward AST fully establishing itself as a parallel state structure.
  • It could be an emotional error on Abu Iyad’s part, especially given that he has been living as a fugitive for months.
  • Finally, AST may believe that now is the time to transition from dawa to jihad. This option seems quite unlikely.
It is well worth watching how both the Tunisian state and also AST react following this threat.