Why Terrorists and revolutionaries are more similar than you’d think
Matt Dixon and George Lawson outline their framework for understanding the overlap between revolutionary and terrorist groups
On 20 April 1894, two anarchists — Giuseppe Farnara and Francis Polti — were sentenced to 30 years in jail at the Old Bailey in London for plotting to destroy capitalism. The evidence against them came from the testimonies of an engineer and a chemist who became suspicious of two foreigners trying to buy lengths of iron piping and pints of sulfuric acid, as well as the two men’s landlord, who discovered extremist literature in their bedroom.
In many ways, this case mirrors contemporary terrorist trials — a network of committed activists using the latest technologies to pursue their agenda. Substitute capitalism for kafir, pamphlets for mobile phones, and the combination of iron piping and sulfuric acid for a mixture of iron shrapnel and explosives, and the comparison to contemporary militant Salafism becomes even more acute.
Is ISIS a revolutionary organization?
This comparison, suggestive as it may be, helps highlight the ways terrorism and revolution intersect. Yet, much of the time, the two are seen as distinct. Take the case of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), perhaps the highest profile, most militant contemporary Salafist terrorist group. At its height, ISIS governed a territory that included eight million people, establishing ministries of war, policing, resources, agriculture, taxation, health, infrastructure, and more. Educational curriculums were redrawn, while ISIS established tight control over cultural practices and everyday behaviour: dress codes, particularly for women, were tightly monitored; smoking and alcohol were banned; adultery, blasphemy and homosexuality carried the death penalty.
This is not how terrorist groups are meant to act. Most definitions of terrorism depict groups that do not seek territorial acquisition. By contrast, revolutionary movements are usually associated with precisely this goal: seize the state in order to carry out radical transformative programmes. Both ISIS and its affiliates controlled substantial territories, and these territories have served as the basis for projects of international and domestic transformation. And yet ISIS is considered almost exclusively to be a terrorist group. We searched for the term ‘revolution’ in four leading terrorism journals. Since 2001, around 5 per cent of articles published in these journals mention revolution in titles, abstracts or the main body of the text. Around 10 per cent of articles examine militant Salafism. In total, around 1 per cent of articles published in the four main terrorism journals since 2001 relate militant Salafism to revolutionary dynamics. At some point, it seems, analysts decided that groups like ISIS were terrorists rather than revolutionary movements. This seems out of joint.
In our view, it is more productive to see ISIS and related groups as blends of revolutionary movement and terrorist actor — as examples of ‘revolutionary terrorism’. During the Cold War, ‘revolutionary terrorism’ was a fairly common term that was applied a range of ‘new left’ groups. But with some important exceptions, few analysts today systematically examine the relationship between terrorism and revolution.
This is unfortunate as the concept of ‘revolutionary terrorism’ helps differentiate between goals and tactics. At one end of the spectrum are groups concerned with changes within a single state; at the other end are those concerned with the legitimacy of the states-system as whole. We term the former ‘order-maintaining’ and the latter ‘order-transforming’. Some groups, whether order-maintaining or order-transforming, use terrorism in order to raise consciousness around a particular issue, such as animal rights or climate change, but without trying to seize formal power. We describe this use of terrorism as ‘minimalist’. Other groups, by contrast, use terrorism as part of a project of state capture, seeing this as a means by which to generate transformative agendas, whether domestic, international, or both. We describe the strategies of these groups as ‘maximalist’.
Taken together, these distinctions produce a typology of revolutionary terrorism:
In the bottom left are single-issue terrorist movements: ‘order-maintaining minimalist’ groups that use terrorism to generate limited change within a single state. Examples include radical anti-abortion activists. In the top left are national revolutionary terrorists: ‘order-maintaining maximalist groups’ that pursue major political change but still work within the states-system. Groups like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Provisional Irish Republican Army are in this category. In the bottom right are anti-systemic terrorist movements: ‘order-transforming minimalist’ groups that see the states-system as illegitimate and use terrorism to challenge it. A range of left-wing revolutionary terrorist groups, such as the Red Army Faction and the Japanese Red Army, fit in this category. In the top right are ‘transnational revolutionary terrorists’: order-transforming maximalist groups that see the states-system as illegitimate and seek to capture territory to carry out programs of political transformation. Examples include a range of militant Salafist groups.
This typology has three advantages. First, it demonstrates that terrorist acts are not isolated, but embedded in wider ecologies — revolutionary terrorists use terrorism as part of a suite of strategies directed towards their goals. Second, it begins the task of systematically linking contemporary revolutionary and terrorist groups. And third, it highlights the particular threat posed by groups such as ISIS, which use extreme violence in pursuit of transforming both domestic and international orders.
Existing frameworks that see ISIS as simply another type of terrorist actor are not so much wrong as limited. The transnational revolutionary terrorism of militant Salafism requires a far closer relationship between understandings of terrorism and revolutions. Only by investigating their points of intersection can policy-makers and researchers alike meaningfully address the challenge such groups pose.
Matthew Dixon is a Principal Research Analyst on International Terrorism at the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
George Lawson is Professor of International Relations at the Australian National University.
Their article ‘From revolution and terrorism to revolutionary terrorism: the case of militant Salafism’ was published in the November 2022 issue of International Affairs.
All views expressed are individual not institutional.