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Defining Terrorism

by Victor Asal
August 7, 2018

This interview was orignially conducted and published in frank on April 28, 2018.

This interview with Victor Asal, a professor and chair of public administration at Rockafeller College University of Albany, was conducted and condensed by frank news. It took place April 16, 2018

My name is Victor Asal, I’m a professor of political science and Chair of Public Administartion at Rockafeller College at University of Albany, State University of New York.

I have three main areas of research. My first area of research is why people would go 400 miles out of their way to blow up people they’ve never met before. So criminal justice most times, most homicides are committed by people who know the other people. But going and killing people you’ve never met before, why would specific organizations do that? What are their strategies? That’s one area of research that I focus on.

My other area of research is why people are discriminated against by the State or by societies. Why are some people treated badly just because of the color of their skin, or their gender, or their sexual identity? I research all of those areas there.

I will note that I believe there is a strong connection between people being treated badly, and people blowing things up.

These two areas of research are definitely connected.

My third area of research is the area of pedagogy in political science. What are effective ways of teaching students about political concepts, about the theories of politics? Specifically in the areas that I research. I’m a big fan of games, excerices, simulations — making a student a lab rat in their own experiment is much more useful than discussing why did Stalin do this? If I have an excersise where you are Stalin, and you did it, everyone else in class can ask you to explain it, it can be a different understanding.

Related to political violence I spent a great deal of time focusing on collecting new data that allows us to get traction under analysis on the organizational level, within a couple different contexts. The area of violent non-state actors. Why do certain organizations turn to violence? And when they do, why are some organizations much more lethal than other organizations? One of the things that I’ve found in my research is strong support for an argument that Ted Gurr made 47 years ago, about why men rebel.

In that work Gurr is making the argument that discrimination and oppression are critical in why people turn to violence.

There were a lot of people who disputed this and argued about this — but there's been growing literature that’s been focusing at the ethnic group level, that this is true, that this is one of the drivers of the use of political violence. I’ve been looking at this at the organizational level using a dataset called Minorities Risk Organizational Behavior dataset. And that’s ethnopolitical organizations in the Middle East and North Africa that claim to represent an ethnopolitical group, minority group. From the analysis, some of them are violent, some of them are not violent.

Can you tell me who some of them are?

Hammas, Amal, the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), lots of different organizations, again some are violent, some are not, and some go back and forth.

It’s very clear in our analysis that State oppression of the organization is a key factor in these organizations turning to violence.

That makes sense.

The other data set, that really is the genesis of myself and colleague, Karl Rethemeyer here at U Albany, is the Big Allied and Dangerous data set, which has the acronym BAAD. The BAAD Dataset is the dataset of organizations that have already turned to violence, that are using violence, and to be able to look at why some of them are so much more lethal than others, or use CBRN weapons [chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear ] in terrorism and such.

One of the interesting things that we’re finding is that organizations that are networked tend to be much more lethal than organizations that are not networked.

What do you mean by networked?

Having allies. For example, how many things have you gotten by knowing somebody?

Nearly everything.

Right, so we’re finding that that’s true of organizations also. Organizations that have connections tend to be more lethal, tend to get a lot more done, in a lot of different ways. Friends can be very, very helpful.

The other thing that we’re finding is that organizations that are lethal tend to generate more rivals. There’s a cycle process. But there's another issue here, that really drives these organizations, and that’s ideology. There’s some really interesting theoretical and case study work by a guy named Mark Juergensmeyer. He talks about how ideology can compel organizations and people to kill. Because they have this power of othering…have you ever seen the movie Aliens?


You should see the movie Aliens. It's a great movie. Our heroine, Ripley, she’s trying to protect this young girl from aliens. And the aliens are these sentient, intelligent creatures, that have this unpleasant habit of eating humans. Ripley stumbles into a nursery of baby aliens. I mentioned that the aliens are intelligent beings?


Well, Ripley also has a flamethrower when she stumbles into this nursery, and she flame throws all these babies, killing them all. And whenever I’ve watched this scene with other people, do you know what they do? They cheer! And this captures this sense of othering.

If I can build an ideology that makes me the good guy, and makes you evil, or not really even human — that enables me to say I can kill as many of you as I want, and I can kill as many civilians as I want. So ideology, particularly religious ideology, has an important impact. And the combination of religious and ethnonaturalist ideology have a very, very important impact on the behavior of these organizations.

The issue of killing civilians gets at one of the core debates we are having about terrorism. Because the term terrorism can be used in many ways. And there are lots of people who use the term terrorism to describe any violent organization they don’t like. Those are the terrorists, these are the good guys. And if you’re trying to study this phenomena from an analytical, theoretical perspective, in my mind that is highly problematic. Because what that means is the definition of what we’re looking at is whether we like you or not. And that might be a great definition for seventh grade friendships, but not a great definition for doing analysis.

And there are big debates about what, and how we should capture terrorism, even if we’re talking about it in an analytical fashion.

How would you like to define it [terrorism]?

So I define terrorism not by if I like you or don’t like you. I define terroism by, are you a political organization, with a political motivation, who is blowing people up, and specifically targeting civilians?

Intentionally targeting civilians.

Yes. Intentionally targeting civilians, to hurt and kill civilians. Now, there are organizations that are insurgent organizations that target soldiers, there are organizations, terrorist organizations, that intentionally target civilians, and there are lots of organizations that do both.

I will note that sometimes civilians get killed that are not being targeted, and in my mind, that is not the same thing as targeting civilians to kill civilians.

It's one thing to shoot somebody in uniform, I don’t have to like it, especially if I’m wearing a uniform, but I would consider that very different behavior than blowing up a nursery school.

How do you feel about US military action, especially in the Middle East, where they are not fighting people in uniform?

When I say uniform I am using it prosaically — I’m saying fighters.

Any figher? Even if they happen to be a civilian?

If they are in a militia, they’re fighters.

There is a huge difference between shooting at somebody who’s got a gun, and killing parents and children who are not involved in the conflict.

Let me very clear here, there's another distinction about terrorism, when people talk about terrorism, mostly what they’re talking about is non-state actors. There is a whole discussion about State terrorism. In my mind, if the State is intentionally targeting civilians, they are involved in State terrorism. But again, that's a controversial topic as well. Which gets back to my other focus, which is political discrimination and political oppression. When it comes to violence, I primarily look at non-state actors. Both insurgents and terrorist organizations, and what factors are pushing towards targeting civilians and other kinds of behavior. But States can be pretty awful. And if we want to compare which kind of organizations, between non-state actors and States, which have killed the most amount of civilians, there is no contest. Russia did a phenomical job under Stalin slaughtering millions of people. Hitler. I mean, we could go on and on about States. There have been States that have been lax, and have killed civilians by being lax, and not paying attention. And there have been States that have intentionally targeted civilians, who they meant to kill.

Do you think your research can help inform policy or military action in dealing with these organizations?

I would hope so. One of the key aspects of the kind of data I’m collecting is that it can help you identify who to be most worried about. You should know that most terrorist organizations don’t kill anybody because they are fairly incompetent. And very few kill many people.

The second component is, and I’m not the only person saying this, other researchers would strongly agree with me, is that treating people badly is a bad idea.

A really sad example of this is the invasion of Iraq. Where the U.S conquered Iraq and then fired the entire military, and put them out of jobs, and took them out of organizational structure, and that was a big mistake. Oppression in general is not a smart policy.

What are the fundamentals of understanding terrorism as you define it?

I think there’s normative components here, and empirical components. When it comes to thinking about terrorism,

I think it would be very helpful for the general public to realize that terrorism is a political strategy that is focusing on killing civilians to try to move forward a political effort.

Try to understand why these organizations are doing this, strategies to make them stop is important, and something we need to be paying attention to. And being able to draw a distinction between violent organizations, we may or may not not like their ideology, but they are not killing civilians. It's important to make the distinction between organizations that maybe you do like, that might be killing civilians. A concrete example is John Brown. His goal was to stop slavery. I am in favor of stopping slavery. John Brown slaughtered civilians. Intentionally. That makes him, in my mind, a terrorist, whether I like his ideology or not. Being able to make that distinction is important both analytically, but also normatively, for how we understand the world around us.