Turning to Terrorism: Ethnic, Religious, and Extremist Organizations

Project Details


Utilizing the Minorities at Risk Organizational Behavior (MAROB) Database, experimental research and case studies, researchers sought to identify important factors and trends related to ethnic, religious and other extremist organizations' decisions to engage in terrorism and other forms of political violence. Researchers also examined the circumstances that lead violent political organizations to become involved with criminal organizations.

Primary Findings:

The MAROB Database allowed researchers to investigate violent political organizational behavior in a fundamentally new way by allowing them to examine comparable organizations that either do or do not use violence. This examination has turned up some very interesting findings related to the use or non-use of types of political violence as well as other types of organizational behavior. Researchers found that general violence and attacks against civilians have similar predictors - but not the same. Similarities include the fact that organizations with democratic ideologies are less likely to use violence or terrorism and organizations that control territory or are targets of repression are more likely to use both. On the other hand, organizations that control territory are twice as likely to use general political violence as they are to use terrorism; and religious ideology makes organizations more likely to use terrorism but not other forms of violence. Similar kinds of analysis have been done on the issue of suicide terrorism and the use of state violence against groups. The MAROB data also allowed researchers to shed light on issues indirectly related to violence. For example, they found that organizations that fragment are much more likely to have competing leadership structures. Along with the employment of tactical violence, these precipitate ethno-political organizational fission and eventual splintering.

With respect to the experimental research component, the research program extended an initial series of experiments conducted with both U.S. and international samples to examine grievance, opportunity structure, demographics, and a range of social/personality factors in the justification and choice of terrorism. Researchers conducted online experiments to systematically vary the type of grievance under consideration, the opportunity structure for political action, type of attack, and the type of target/victim. The research indicated that grievance has a significant impact on the choice and justification of both protest and terrorism. To date, researchers have conducted studies that have drawn online samples from the United States, Turkey, Malaysia, and Jordan (for a combined sample size of 4,004). Willingness to take action is associated with higher grievance in U.S. and Malaysian samples. In addition, higher grievance increases the likelihood of choosing terror attack in the U.S. sample and marginally in Jordan. Grievance has a positive influence on justification of both protest and terrorism (across samples). Willingness to take action is sometimes associated with lower risk, but the overall impact of risk is limited. Additional studies show an initial interaction of risk and grievances which will be further examined going forward.

The research team also examined in more detail the possible connections between violent ethnopolitical organizations and organized crime. The researchers examined whether, to gain funds and weapons, militant networks might establish criminal enterprises; or align with existing trans-border criminal networks. These hybrid trans-border networks, which the research team calls 'unholy alliances', command economic and political resources, and suborn officials wherever their communal networks extend. Researchers focused on group-based movements and organizations; however, the analysis is mostly concerned with trans-border networks based on them. Networks can also be interest-based, that is, concerned mainly with material gain rather than collective interests of an identity group. The key question is how and why the movements the research team refers to as unholy alliances have jointly pursued political and economic gain and with what consequences for them and the states across which they operate. The research team conducted six case studies to examine these issues: four from the Balkans, in the aftermath of the breakup of the Yugoslav Federation, and two from Islamic states, including militant Kurdish nationalists of the PKK in Turkey and Algerian Islamists that have carried out terror campaigns and criminal activities domestically and in Western Europe. These analyses and findings are featured in Transborder Crime-Terror Networks (Routledge, 2012).


This is a project that involves multiple methods, including historical data collection, experimental research, case studies, and data analysis.

Data collection on ethnopolitical organizations involved culling information from a range of open-source materials, including research reports, government sources, and media reports, and compiling those data into a structured database to allow for analysis. These data were utilitized in multivariate statistical analyses to identify factors that did and did not significantly differentiate violent from non-violent organizations. The related experimental research uses a 2 (high grievance, low grievance) by 2 (high risk, low risk) experimental design. Through this project, the research team collected annual data on 114 ethnopolitical organizations based in the Middle East and North Africa for 2005-09, and 45 ethnopolitical organizations based in post-Communist Europe for 2007-2009. These data will be added to the Minorities at Risk-Organizational Behavior (MAROB) data set. In addition, research partners at John Jay College and Michigan State University collected annual data on 60 white supremacist organizations in the United States, half of which have engaged in violence during their history.

Experimentally, the research team conducted a series of on-line studies in the U.S. (n = 2,932), Turkey (n = 413), Malaysia (n = 408), and Jordan (n=251). In these studies, participants assumed a first-person perspective as a member of a fictional oppressed minority group in one of four vignettes. Following the manipulation of grievance and risk, participants were asked to indicate the likelihood that they would engage in any form of political action as a result of the experiences that were portrayed in the vignette. In addition, participants were asked to choose between violent actions and peaceful protest. Finally, participants were asked to indicate the extent to which each form of action was justified. Participants also completed measures of Social Dominance Orientation (SDO), Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA), measures of intergroup images, as well as the level of identification with each of the groups that were described in the vignettes (oppressive outgroup, and oppressed ingroup). Finally, comparative case studies were the primary method used to explore the dynamics and impacts of unholy alliances between political terror and criminal organizations.

Analysis involved: (1) Statistical analyses to determine variables leading to terrorism and to the desistence of terrorism. By extending  the MAROB methodology to the U.S. we can, for the first time, systematically compare the organizational behavior of U.S. domestic extremist organizations with similar organizations internationally; (2) quantitative and qualitative research on the role of MAROB groups in the emergence of hybrid terror-crime networks in the Middle East, Post-Communist States, and Latin America; (3) analysis of experimental data (included data from individuals in high conflict societies) on the impact of grievance, risk, and social-personality variables on the justification, endorsement, and intention to use violence at the individual level.


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