Social Movement Theory and Terrorism: Explaining the Development of Al-Qaeda

By T M
2014, Vol. 6 No. 09 | pg. 1/4 |

Since the attacks of September 11th, the Western world has labeled al-Qaeda and its leadership as suicidal and irrational terrorists hating the Western 'way of life'2. This justified the American "War on Terror" and led Margaret Thatcher to declare Islam the new Communism.3 However, as is often pointed out, what is 'terrorism' in the view of one may be mere 'warfare' in the view of another. It is therefore important to avoid these terms and answer the question of cost-benefit rationality. Social movement theory provides a useful framework for interpreting al-Qaeda. Can social movement theory help focus on the crucial questions of why and how the organization emerged and what caused the change in the organizational mode leading to today's structure? To what extent can social movement theory describe al-Qaeda's development and where does it reach its boundaries?

In order to analyze the development of al-Qaeda, various scholars5 have pursued the application of social movement theory over the past ten years. The dominance of Western scholars in social movement theory and the perception that Islamism is somewhat exceptional led for a long time to the exclusion of generally non-Western movements and specifically Islamic movements. While applying social movement theory to e.g. Hamas none of the authors have gone as far as to include al-Qaeda. Hafez studied Islamic movements mostly in Northern Africa and tried to produce a universal assumption aiming "to explain as many instances of Muslim rebellions as possible"6 and suggested solutions. This by definition generalizes and simplifies specific components on the small basis of few examples.

Peter Arnette Interviewing Osama Bin Laden in 1997

Peter Arnett interviewing Osama bin Laden in 1997

"We believe the United States is directly responsible for those who were killed in Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq. This American government abandoned humanitarian feelings by these hideous crimes. ... The United States today has set a double standard ... It wants to occupy our countries, steal our resources, impose on us agents to rule us … and wants us to agree to all this. If we refuse to do so, it will say, 'You are terrorists'."

Osama bin Laden
Interview with Peter Arnett.1

Therefore, this essay builds on existing findings and applies them to al-Qaeda, the organization which seems to be least associated with social movement. The analysis largely excludes the various regional branches of al-Qaeda and concentrates instead on the core of the organization which is nowadays called al-Qaeda or mother al-Qaeda and which historically revolves around the ideological leader Osama bin Laden. As a theory describing groups of actors, social movement theory provides us with the appropriate level of analysis to describe this component within the overall al-Qaeda network.

First, an overview of social movement theory and its historical roots is undertaken. The next section briefly traces back the development of al-Qaeda and its evolution from a hierarchical to a largely decentralized organization. It then applies social movement theory to the source data to determine the degree of usefulness. Furthermore, shifting the level of analysis to an individual level, it provides an outlook for further research based on a bottom-up approach to fill the explanatory gaps identified within social movement theory.

The source data consists of internal al-Qaeda documents released by 'The National Security Archive' on the basis of the Freedom of Information Act and on the so called 'Letters from Abbottabad'7. This is a valuable basis for the analysis since it provides insight into the plans and intentions of al-Qaeda's leadership. Arguably, the evidence presented is limited, but preliminary assumptions can be made which can serve as a starting point for further debate and research.

Defining Social Movement Theory

Social movement theory is a concept developed since the 1960s. It is based on the idea of individuals forming networks8 and focuses on the reasons for the creation of these networks as well as on the means of mobilization of previously uninvolved individuals.9

A social movement is according to Diani "a network of informal interactions between a plurality of individuals, groups and/or organizations, engaged in a political or cultural conflict, on the basis of a shared collective identity"10. This identity creates solidarity and makes the network internally homogeneous while functioning as a distinctive characteristic towards out-groups.

This section will describe the four major trends of social movement theory:11

  1. Mass behavior
  2. Resource mobilization theory
  3. Political opportunity processes
  4. New social movements (NSM)

The latter three emphasize the idea of 'knowledgeable subjects'. They assume rational actors, which each perform cost-benefit calculations and join social movements in order to maximize own benefits. Although this definition has not been accepted by all social movements, some preferring an altruistic activist image, it is generally applied in the literature. Another important differentiation made is the question of whether change is promoted at systemic or non-systemic (individual) level. Accordingly, authors differ in the way that they on the one hand take into account a systemic political perspective (Tilly, McCarthy, Zald) or on the other hand address both cultural and personal change of individuals (Melucci and Turner/Killian).12

Even though this has been stressed by some authors13 an overly strong differentiation of social movements from political and social organizations (e.g. parties or religious sects) and from informal networks such as political mobilization campaigns seems to supply us with no added benefit. Given the definition of social movements as including both individuals and organizations, I consider it unfavorable to exclude political formations 'per se' as this would e.g. exclude Hamas from the social movement towards Palestinian self-determination. I therefore disagree with the statement of Diani14, as especially in fascist parties in Italy and Germany prior to WWII ideology was one important part of political discourse.

The concept of social movement theory analyses individuals performing collective actions towards common interests15. These actions are mostly displayed outside of common institutional frameworks such as the political space granted by governments and need not be visible (e.g. demonstrations).

The following briefly highlights the main characteristics of each strand of social movement theory. On this basis section 3 examines al-Qaeda's development and suggests to what extent social movement theory is helpful in describing al-Qaeda.

1. Mass behavior

The core idea is that "mass behavior is derived from functionalism 'equilibrium in systems'" and that there is a direct causal relationship between structural and psychological preconditions (such as discomfort or social despair) and so called 'crowd processes'.16

Blumer and Canetti make references to nature's passive processes such as wildfires or avalanches, which are caused by natural events and not by active, rational decisions.17 Accordingly, collective behavior is unrelated to 'organizational' or 'institutional' structures.18

In contrast to the mentioned passive processes, the following three strands focus on rational actors making conscious decisions to join a social movement. These are more applicable in describing al-Qaeda.

2. Resource mobilization theory

McCarthy et al. stress the importance of resource mobilization in the formation of social movements.19 Edwards and McCarthy define resources as required by social movements in terms of their moral, cultural, social-organizational, human or material dimensions.20 The four means of accessing additional resources are seen as main reasons for forming movements: aggregation of existing resources, self-production, appropriation by e.g. linking existing social movement's websites and patronage e.g. using respected figures or recognized awards.21

Resource mobilization theorists see a flexible and fluid but nevertheless hierarchical structure, which is a clear distinction towards mass behavior.22 Since involving both administrative and logistical challenges, formal social movement organizations (SMO) gain importance, which can provide continuity and extend the reach of social movements. These SMOs as well as individual actors take over the important role of 'movement entrepreneurs' that will be described below.

3. Political opportunity processes

'Political processes' is closely associated with Tilly. He defines social movements as organized and sustained, but in addition adds the characteristics 'self-conscious' thereby highlighting the "challenge which implies shared identity among participants"23.

Analogous to resource mobilization theory, Tilly describes rational actors, who act with the goal of starting a "political process, where excluded interests try to get access to the established polity"24. Thus, social movements to him primarily originate within a certain country in opposition to the government. Although specifically containing the word political, such processes always encompass one or multiple cultural, economic or social factors.

A second important focus for Tilly is on processes. Social movements to him are a "sustained series of interactions between power holders and persons successfully claiming to speak on behalf of a constituency lacking formal representation, in the course of which those persons make publicly visible demands for changes in the distribution or exercise of power, and back those demands with public demonstrations of support."25

These interactions will change according to opportunities and constraints provided by the system. For example the access to political space and decision-making may vary over time on the basis of the political system's current openness or prevailing coalitions.26 While recognizing the influence of movement entrepreneurs, 'political process' theorists will explain a social movement's behavior mostly by structural factors of the system.

4. New social movements (NSM)

Whereas the previous three approaches concentrate primarily on the 'how' of social movements' creation, certain authors such as Melucci and Touraine seek to explain the 'why' of movement creation. Furthermore, they analyze narratives used to increase popular support of individuals. This approach seeks to understand the underlying "large-scale structural and cultural changes"27.

It focuses on the concept of 'framing', originated in psychology and sociology and aimed at creating a common vision within a social movement. Frames serve as mental filters strongly influencing the interpretation of events and the world as a whole.28 "Frames are tools that lend order and sense to an otherwise confusing world by providing language that captures or constructs the meaning of prOsama bin Ladenems."29 The frame is then applied by individuals to future events and therefore has to encompass multiple dimensions. As Goffman puts it, frames are constructed along biological (e.g. age or gender) or cultural and social (e.g. religion, language, profession) outlines.30

Whereas Touraine develops the idea of one core conflict which draws people together with subordinate ones possibly adding to the broader picture31, Melucci is less interested in the single core conflict.

He provides us instead with a definition of social movements along three dimensions32:

  1. Solidarity at the center of social movements
  2. Requires conflict and an opposition (adversary) claiming the same goods or values
  3. Goals cannot be achieved within existing system, but there is a necessity to break the boundaries imposed

This aligns with the three core tasks of framing identified by Snow and Benford.33

In summary, the goal therefore is to alter an existing, intolerable system. However, activity of social movements cannot be measured solely according to visible and public actions, but instead has to take into account e.g. cultural production.34 Touraine also recognizes the, as he puts it, "combination of a principle of identity, a principle of opposition and a principle of totality"35, which enables social actors to identify themselves as well as their conflict opponents and the stakes. The central idea of both terms 'solidarity' and '(group) identity' is the creation of a joint ideology, a joint set of beliefs and sense of belonging. Movement entrepreneurs (possibly individuals or institutions) use and encourage the spread of 'ideological framing' and 'meaning construction'.36 Movement entrepreneurs are seen as a requirement for enduring social movements by creating a collective identity based on solidarity and a sense of (in-)justice.37

As the previous section has argued major differences between the different strands of theory exist. Nevertheless, every author offers valuable insights into social movements to an extent that helps analyze al-Qaeda by focusing on the "circulation of essential for action (information, expertise, material resources)"38 as well as giving meaning by narrowly creating an identity. Theories can thereby help analyze and understand the creation of conditions for mobilization (e.g. resource mobilization theory) as well as the ideological background. This is the aim of the following section, which makes claims about al-Qaeda suggesting historical evidence.

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