Shae Potter

Activists, Want to Get Things Done? Think Like a Terrorist

Often wonder why activist goals never progress beyond angry feet and clever hashtags? Well, there are reasons and lessons that could be learned from the world of terrorism.


Despite all their empathetic force and bluster, connective action networks like the Occupy movement are merely echo chambers. I believe they must adopt a hierarchical structure and techniques used by terrorist organizations in order to effectively distribute their resources, narratives, and ideology.

Think about all of the “successful” [read: atrocious] attacks Al-Qaeda and ISIS have carried out; 9/11, Bastille Day, London Bridge, Barcelona … now see if you can name any minds that the Occupy movement has changed. Their message is unheard, which clashes with the climate.

Less than a decade after the global financial crisis, the subprime mortgage business in America is flourishing. Capitalism has endured. Like the Earth orbiting the sun, Wall Street bankers will get their six-figure bonuses until the end of time.

Surely there is something to be learned about terrorist group operations if they can mount global campaigns – and often be effective in their goals of destruction and fear – when the world’s intelligence agencies are playing a game of Whack-a-Mole against them?

I’ve noted a few similarities between activist groups and terrorist organizations:
• Goal to bring about political or social change
• Global aims
• United by ideology
• Avenues of recruitment: social and online networks
• Marketing and propaganda material
• Exposure in media essential to campaign progress

While they’re not the same flower by any stretch, there is a lot of cross-pollination between the two.

“Connective action” campaigns, like the Occupy movement, organize power through communications-based networks. Often decentralized operations, their message is spread on the back of viral social media campaigns. Their grand narratives are broad, ideological and easily propagated in new areas or countries. Whether about climate change, the post-election pussy hat phenomenon, or “the 99%,” their issues are easy to agree with.

But with no central decision-making apparatus to move beyond marches and hashtags, how could these movements ever bear fruit?

That’s where the terrorists come in.

While not all terrorist organizations operate as hierarchies, they are at their most powerful and sophisticated when they have a chain of command to produce a cohesive narrative buttressed by propaganda, regular recruitment, and resource supply chains. Groups like the Occupy movement must hybridize their campaign strategy to capitalize (pun intended) on viral groundswells of support. If Occupy had an executive command or a figurehead of operations who could directly lobby and meet with politicians, give media interviews, and set tones and directives, perhaps more people would have been held accountable for the Global Financial Crisis.

The global ambitions of activists need to be supported by effective and logical strategies; and understanding how terrorists organize can be incredibly useful when launching movements. The “connective action” model is loud, march-y, and chant-y, but is also blunt and unwieldy. Bring in figureheads. Bring in campaign strategists.

Think like a terrorist organization, then act like people.


Shae Potter

Shae Potter is a third year student studying counterterrorism at The University of Sydney. She likes to chase neighborhood cats screaming "Love meee!" and one day she's releasing a coral lipstick that's going to be white.

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