A Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence led by the University of Maryland

Understanding Desistance from Terrorism


Understanding Desistance from Terrorism

Investigators: 

Project Details

Abstract: 

Understanding the origins of terrorism is not the same as understanding how and why terrorism ends.  This insight points to the utility of examining cases in which terrorism ends in order to try to understand desistance as a phenomenon in its own right, that is, cases in which a terrorist group moved quickly from a high level of activity to inactivity.  If desistance is the phenomenon of interest, cases of rapid desistance deserve special attention. This project involved a comparative analysis of three terrorist organizations that experienced a decline and eventually ceased terrorist activity--the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), Justice Commandos for the Armenian Genocide (JCAG), and Egyptian Islamic Group (EIG).

Primary Findings: 

The research revealed six relevant findings regarding the desistance of groups from terror:

  1. Group desistance can occur by group decision (attain final or intermediate goals, transition to politics, expansion to guerilla war or revolution) or by organizational losses (decapitation, casualties, defections, loss of bases or sympathizers).
  2. Group decisions to desist from terrorism result from a complex interplay of terrorist actions and state responses over time, as these are differently perceived by different audiences.
  3. Group decision for desistance is made effective by intact organization; organizational losses can leave metastasizing terrorist cells.
  4. Groups can decline in activity based on desistence trends among other, related groups.  In addition to the bombing mistake at Orly Airport, ASALA's fast decline was associated with a leadership split, intragroup violence, loss of bases in Lebanon, and problems raising money from the Armenian diaspora. JCAG, ASALA's competitor, declined with ASALA despite having none of ASALA's problems. We conclude that JCAG's decline resulted from loss of sympathy for Armenian terrorism from the Armenian diaspora and from Western countries.
  5. The fast decline of Egyptian Islamic Group after their attack on foreign tourists at Luxor was also over-determined. EIG leaders in jail had declared a ceasefire and Luxor was a challenge for leadership from radical members still at large, as well as a strategy of 'jujitsu politics' that hoped for a government crackdown that would mobilize renewed fury against the government. Instead the Egyptian government played up the un-Islamic character of violence against foreign guests and made common cause with the Muslim Brotherhood in supporting a broad public revulsion against terrorist violence. This turn undermined support for Zawahiri's Islamic Jihad as well as for EIG.
  6. Public revulsion against a particular act of terrorist violence can generalize (illogically) to rejection of all terrorist violence. Governments should prepare to use terrorist mistakes in the same way that terrorists hope to use government over-reactions -- for jujitsu politics.
Methodology: 

This project involved a case history of "fast desistence" focused on Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia and Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide, as well as case history of fast desistence of Egyptian Islamic Group after Luxor.

Timeframe

Project Period: 
May 2005 to May 2009