The role of trust in deciding which terrorist faction to join

PIRA trust
Research based on interviews with Irish Republican activists has shown that trust plays a greater role than ideology in how members pick sides when terrorist groups splinter. CREST’s Emma Barrett summarises the recent study, by John Morrison, Director of the Terrorism and Extremism Research Centre at University of East London.

When a terrorist organisation splits along ideological lines, how do rank and file members choose one faction over another? You might expect that these would be ideologically-based decisions. After all, involvement in a violent group is a high risk activity that demands high levels of personal commitment. It is logical to assume, therefore, that only those who believe strongly in the cause would be prepared to take those risks and make that commitment. A new article by John Morrison challenges that assumption.

Morrison examines individuals’ decisions to side with one side or another during the ideological splits in the Irish Republican movement that continued up to the 1997 split between the Provisional IRA (which chose a political route) and the so-called ‘dissident’ Republican groups that continued to pursue a violent path. Based on interviews with 43 Republican activists, from leadership figures to rank and file members, Morrison shows that when it comes to individual decisions to join one side or the other social commitment may trump – or at least compete with – ideological commitment. He writes: “The tipping-point for the majority came when they assessed how those individuals they trusted, and distrusted, were aligning. For many this was a significantly more powerful factor than any strategic or ideological divide.”

And what was the basis of this trust? For many, those they trusted were family or people from their close community – people they had grown up with and with whom they had strong bonds. For others it was influential local figures, who often engendered more trust than more distant senior leadership figures.

Morrison also highlights the importance of trust in organisations’ publications, citing the merger of An Phoblacht and Republican News and its allegiance to the Provisional IRA as pivotal after the 1986 split between the PIRA, under Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, and the Continuity IRA: “With these newspapers being the first port of call for the majority of members to gain access to political and paramilitary statements and interpretations of events, this proved to be critical in the affirmation of the Adams/McGuinness leadership”.

Morrison’s findings add to our understanding of how and why individuals are attracted to terrorist groups, and chime with other research on the nature of commitment in terrorist groups (see, for instance, John Horgan’s 2009 book Walking away from terrorism). The findings are also consistent with research in organisational psychology that shows that local level relationships matter more than relationships with distant leadership figures.

So, for a new recruit, it may not be ideological position that matters most, but who else is in the group. This insight also has implications for disengagement and ‘deradicalisation’ programmes. If commitment is primarily social rather than ideological, then counter-narrative or ideological ‘deprogramming’ strategies may not help lure someone away from a group of individuals with whom he or she feels a close personal bond of trust.

CREST highlights interesting and relevant research, whether or not it has been carried out by CREST. The research for Morrison’s article, ‘Trust in me: Allegiance choices in a post-split terrorist movement’ was not funded by CREST. You can read it here.