Projet * How Terrorists Learn * Max Planck

standardHow ‘Terrorists’ Learn – Re-considering the tactical and strategic transformation of violent movements and organisations

From the decision to organise in pursuit of a political goal, the learning of specific operational procedures and tactics to the development or renunciation of certain strategies of violence, violent groups are engaged in manifold processes of transformation. Facing a constant threat of repression, violent non-state actors have to continuously improve and adapt in order to be successful, stay relevant, and simply to survive.

The research group seeks to understand these organisational dynamics of violence of so-called “terrorist” groups. Specifically, while existing research in this regard has so far predominantly focused on factors influencing whether organisations are able to learn and innovate, we argue that this has distracted from the more pertinent question of how they learn. To address this gap, difficult conceptual issues regarding the actual meaning of notions like “learning”, “transformation”, “terrorists”, and “terrorism” have to be tackled. We employ a broad perspective as a starting point, with individual projects considering various processes of transformation of actors using terrorist tactics. Through the conduct of multi-method empirical research, the group aims to find out, how violent groups learn from experiences of their own as well as from others.

The projects are structured around a heuristic framework covering the three interrelated dimensions of sources (from what/whom do they learn?), mechanisms (how do they learn?), and outcomes (what do they learn?) of the learning process. Projects are covering changes in tactics (e.g. innovations in modes of attack), operational procedures (like recruitment patterns), and overall strategies (regarding the function of violence, for example). These forms of learning occur in different contexts, ranging from the micro (self-evaluation) to the meso (relationships to other non-state groups) and macro (interactions with states) level, and can be described as driven mainly by mechanisms of emulation and competition (regarding groups’ own successes and failures as well as those of others).

In addition to the analysis of quantitative data and primary documents, the research group will capitalise on the accessibility of former members of violent groups who have reintegrated into society as well as prisoners to conduct qualitative field research in the Middle East, Western Europe, the United States, and Central Asia.


Hofmann, Claudia and Carolin Goerzig. 2016. Influencing Negotiation Willingness in the Middle East: The Potential Contributions of Private Actors. Negotiation Journal 32(2): 151-163.

Goerzig, Carolin and Khaled Al-Hashimi. 2015. Radicalization in Western Europe: Integration and Loss of Identity among Muslim Communities. London, New York: Routledge.

Goerzig, Carolin and Claudia Hofmann. 2015. The Dark Side of Recognition: Mutual Exclusiveness of Active and Passive Recognition in the Middle East. In: Christopher Daase, Anna Geis et al. (eds.). Recognition in International Relations. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

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