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Strategic Culture and Violent Non-State Actors

Edward David Last wrote a 2018 PhD at the University of Southampton on strategic culture, Al Qaeda, and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb:

Last, Edward David (2018) Strategic culture and violent non-state actors: a comparative strategic cultural analysis of Al-Qaida and Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. University of Southampton, Doctoral Thesis, 602pp.Record type:

While strategic culture has traditionally been applied to states, this work adds to the emerging literature applying strategic cultural approaches to VNSAs. This analysis goes beyond these ideational approaches by also incorporating the concept of practices. In contrast to Alastair Johnston’s (1995a; 1995b) conception of strategic culture I concur with Colin Gray (1999b) that behaviour cannot be disentangled from culture. Indeed, narrative and behaviour, in the form of practices, are mutually constitutive of strategic culture (Lock 2010; Neumann and Heikka 2005). This study consists of a comparative strategic cultural analysis of two Salafi-Jihadist violent non-state actors: Al-Qaida-central and its franchise, AlQaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), employing concepts of strategic narrative and strategic practices.

AQIM, formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat or GSPC, rebranded as an Al-Qaida franchise in 2007, leading to speculation of a change from its Algeria-centric agenda to an anti-Western agenda. However, this has not been the case. Rather, AQIM has undergone a process of regionalization, expanding its operations beyond Algeria into Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Indeed, the study finds that while their strategic narratives share a number of common themes they are expressed in differing strategic practices. As such, the two organizations have distinct strategic cultures and differing strategic priorities. AlQaida prioritizes the battle against the far enemy, i.e. the West, whereas AQIM prioritizes the struggle against the near enemy, i.e. local regimes, deemed apostate, in the Maghreb-Sahel, primarily Algeria and Mali. Indeed, Al-Qaida primarily employs strategic practices of terrorism against Western civilians, whereas AQIM primarily employs guerrilla practices targeting local security forces.

Last’s PhD parallels my 2020 Monash University PhD that developed a new strategic culture framework for terrorist organisations, although I looked at Japan’s Aum Shinrikyo. I look forward to reading Last’s dissertation when it becomes available in June.

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Radicalisation’s Core

Zin Derfoufi has a new article in Terrorism and Political Violence on the radicalisation-terrorism nexus. Derfoufi’s analysis of potential selection bias in terrorism studies has implications for the inclusion criteria of terrorists and terrorist organisations. The article’s abstract:

Is radicalization inherently conducive to terrorism? This paper addresses this fault-line within discourses on radicalization by analyzing the political awakening and mobilization of British Muslims operating in environments targeted by violent-extremists. The results show that despite undergoing the “root causes” and “triggers” associated with radicalization, and even having direct contact with violent-extremists, research participants still rejected terrorism. This paper analyzes why participants’ radicalism promoted resilience to political violence rather than propel them toward it. It challenges the selection bias within terrorism and radicalization studies which constrain our ability to understand this phenomenon by focusing on the rare cases of people who support terrorism while ignoring its more common trajectories of non-terror related activism (or apathy). In correcting this bias, this paper proposes a more holistic definition of radicalization grounded in the lived realities of people undergoing that process and concludes with a discussion on what the findings mean for the assumptions underpinning academic discourses on this matter and state counterterrorism policies.

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The Attitudes-Behaviors Corrective (ABC) Model of Violent Extremism

In my PhD’s literature review I considered several different models of violent extremism and terrorism. Now, James Khalil, John Horgan and Martine Zeuthern have a new explanation:

Progress in understanding and responding to terrorism and violent extremism has continued to stall in part because we often fail to adequately conceptualize the problem. Perhaps most notably, much of our terminology (for instance, “radicalization”) and many variants of our existing models and analogies (including conveyor belts, staircases and pyramids) conflate sympathy for this violence with involvement in its creation. As its name suggests, the Attitudes-Behaviors Corrective (ABC) model seeks to overcome this issue by placing this key disconnect between attitudes and behaviors at its core. In this paper, we first present the key elements of our model, which include a graphic representation of this disconnect and a classification system of the drivers of violent extremism. The former enables us to track the trajectories of individuals in relation to both their attitudes and behaviors, while the latter helps ensure that we consider all potential explanations for these movements. We then adapt these elements to focus on exit from violence, applying the dual concepts of disengagement and deradicalization. Finally, we conclude with a section that aims to provide the research community and those tasked with preventing and countering violent extremism with practical benefits from the ABC model.

The article’s emphasis on separating out attitudes from behaviours will be quite important for deradicalisation and disengagement initiatives.