The logo of Action directe's ally, the German Red Army Faction (RAF)

From Action directe to Pax Electronica: Context and Method in the Analysis of Anti-government Groups*

Paper presented at "Trajectories of Terrorist Violence in Europe" conference at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies (Harvard University), March 10, 2001.

Dr. Michael Dartnell - mdartne@uwindsor.ca,
Department of Political Science | University of Windsor


When I started research on the French extremist group Action directe, I faced a serious barrier: how was I going to get information about it? The members of the Paris wing of AD were then (1986) on France's most-wanted list. AD supporters were on the run. It was not a time for the few French who actively supported the group to make themselves known, especially to an inquisitive foreigner. To make matters worse, when I arrived in Paris in September 1986, an AD ally, the Fractions armées révolutionnaires libanaises (Lebanese Armed Revolutionary Fractions - FARL) made a bloody and dramatic attack on the Tati department store on the Rue de Rennes that horrified French opinion. Not really knowing where to look and wary of being misunderstood by the tough military police (CRS) swarming through the city, I decided to talk to some journalists.

By chance, I went to Agence France Presse (AFP), where the journalist most familiar with the AD file had lived in Montréal and liked Canadians. He led me into the AFP archives, placed AD files in my hands, and pointed to a photocopier. I spent the next four days furiously photocopying virtually all of the AFP materials. The journalist supplemented this by surreptitiously handing me a few thicker texts. He told me to photocopy them, return them quickly to him, and show no one. I later saw that these were AD's main theoretical statements.

At the end of my first day in the archives, I had two piles of documents that I shoved into two large Galeries Lafayette shopping bags. I rode the Métro back to a friend's apartment, having simply turned over the top page on the pile. The page was emblazoned with AD's symbol, a large star crossed by a machine gun. I got off the Métro at Filles-du-Calvaire and walked past the CRS guard at the station entrance. Once in the apartment, I used a large dining room table to sort and examine my work. The dining room's windows were open onto a courtyard to let in the cool evening air. Once all the papers were spread out, I stood for a moment, shifted my eyes to the apartment across the courtyard, quickly closed the heavy drapes, and put away the AD papers. I did not look at them again until I was back in Toronto. As I'm writing this, looking back, I realize that this has all the makings of a spy novel.



My research found that AD's Paris and Lyon branches together undertook at least 75 attacks. The attacks began with a May 1, 1979 machine-gun assault on the headquarters of the French employers' association, the Conseil national du patronat français (CNPF) by Lyon-based Action directe nationale (ADn) and continued for another eight years. They included the assassinations of General René Audran, head of French international arms sales, on January 25, 1985, and of Renault CEO Georges Besse on November 17, 1986. Less spectacular was AD's treatment of ordinary people who were in its way. A Portuguese cleaning woman testified that ADn member Max Frérot pulled her hair, struck her, made death threats, and tossed her into a toilet with adhesive tape over her mouth during a bank heist [see, Le Monde, June 30, 1989].

The motives underlying AD attacks, the focus of my research and interpretation, seem far-removed from today's French and global realities. In 1979, France had been ruled for over twenty years by a series of conservative governments, but the left had moved from scathing criticism of the Fifth Republic régime to the threshold of power. It achieved this by shedding its previous communist orientation for a social democratic one. The creation of François Mitterrand's Socialist Party (PS) in the 1970s had by 1979 fatally weakened the French Communist Party (PCF).

AD explained its violent campaign as a consequence of PS reformism. AD saw the change as a betrayal of an insurrectionary tradition that stretched back to 1870 and beyond. For AD, true "left-wing" politics entailed the overthrow of the capitalist system and its appendage, the liberal democratic state. In fact, the French left had grudgingly accepted the institutions de Gaulle put in place. While the PCF dominated the left, this tolerance of liberal democracy was arguably conditional. The rise of the PS thus alarmed AD because it was openly reformist, which the group saw as a renunciation of left-wing principles, and an acceptance social inequity, imperial prerogative, and connivance with the U.S.

The Paris and Lyon branches of AD read the change differently. In general, both opposed French policy in Africa, real estate speculation, arms production and big employers. The common orientation was clearly expressed by the group's attacks in 1979-1980, which hit mainly ministries and, to a much lesser extent, corporate headquarters. The aim was to protest "social imperialism" and attack what were seen as the mechanisms of French international policy. After 1982, both branches regularly hit international business and international organizations. ADn remained nationalist in orientation, what I call an "extreme-left protest faction" focused on racism, Jean-Marie Le Pen and New Caledonia. Paris-based Action directe internationale (ADi) evaluated the change in broader terms, articulating a French variant of the Euro-terrorist ideology that targeted the military-industrial complex. By this term, ADi meant the French state, international organizations, and arms producers. This strategic shift led assassinations that were intended to reconstitute the proletariat and use the Third World as a motor for revolution.



My close reading of AD's ideology sketched the political typologies behind a nearly decade-long terrorist campaign in a liberal democracy. Viewed retrospectively, the campaign, which expressed impact of globalization on traditional French extreme-left ideology, was a faultline in the shift from the Cold War to post-Cold War international system. Changing targets and a growing rift between the two ADs stemmed from shifting views of the international system. ADn saw that system from a domestic viewpoint and focused on French imperialism. For ADi, the early focus on French neo-colonialism gave way to a global view in which international capitalism was transmogrifying. Another way of expressing this change is an intersection of domestic and global levels of analysis due to the intensity and rapidity of contemporary globalization [in this paper, "globalization" refers to "a process ... which embodies a transformation in the spatial organization of social relations and transactions - assessed in terms of their extensity, intensity, velocity and impact - generating transcontinental or interregional flows and networks of activity, interaction, and the exercise of power" (Held et al: 16)].

Over the past thirty years, the global context has been increasingly marked by the economic and political role of information. The political implications are as yet little understood, but evident in the rising volume of information and rapid spread of information technologies (IT) [in 1999, over 100 million adults in the U.S., half of the country's adult population, were using the Internet. A report released by the Strategis Group also observed that Internet users are becoming more sophisticated in their use of the medium, with 77 percent of users sending e-mail with files or attachments every week. In 1999, users were sending an average of six e-mails a day, and over 20 percent of users had built or updated a Web page in a three-month period. The number of U.S. Internet users was projected to reach 177 million by the end of 2003, according to International Data (IDC). Globally, the number of Internet users was estimated to reach 502 million by 2003, compared with 142 million in 1998, IDC says (New York Times, November 11, 1999)]. They relate to the analysis of terrorism insofar as violence, whether by great powers or small armed groups, tries to send messages. Misplaced or not, various non-state actors continuously seek ways to place messages before target publics or as many people as possible. New IT-driven media such as email, the Web and chat rooms present a wide range of opportunities due to their global reach. Technological change, information revolution, and global communications thus enhance the visibility of a variety of once unknown, marginal, illegal, unpopular and unorthodox groups. In this information-laden context, it is important to differentiate the threat of physical harm from anxieties due to the eruption of unprecedented numbers of domestically-based non-state actors on the global scene.



My current research applies methods used on AD to the new context of globalized political communication. My Insurgency Online project began as a study of "netwar", that is, how radical activists (as distinct from transnational NGOs such as Amnesty International) use IT [For opposing views of netwar by analysts and practitioners, see David Ronfeldt and Arquilla and While netwar expresses global change, its impact should not be overdrawn. Netwar alone will not overturn the state-based international system, but does alter global security by giving activists access to significantly wider publics. Technological change, information revolution, and global communications have a de-territorializing effect that can be addressed by examining the social context of information. My research develops typologies of netwar activism to enhance our ability to characterize, qualify and nuance security issues. To achieve this, Insurgency Online examines a cross-national selection of groups that communicate in English on the Internet. Historical-contextual, ideological and discourse methods are used to examine messages. The methodology highlights central themes for each typology and links them to global security. In this way, the discourse analysis method used to analyze AD is now applied to online research on both Websites and social-political contexts.

Several criteria guide Website analysis. It involves determining how many of what types of documents are on a Website as well as distinguishing their subject matter [Types of texts might include press releases, analyses, theoretical texts, and texts by other organizations or groups (e.g. news reports, government statements, statements by allied groups or even opponents)]. Characterizing the type of conflict a Website addresses is critical as is a group's view of a régime. This in turn raises the question of how a group describes itself and its goals. Many types of groups are on the Web and it is important to clarify how they correspond to categories such as liberal-democratic, socialist-communist, religious, nationalist, etc. The analysis also asks whether groups say anything about events outside their territorial location and who are their domestic, foreign or transnational allies or enemies. The number of texts, length, date, relative length, relation to national and/or international political events, and frequency of types indicates how the Website is being used.

Insurgency Online also examines Website functions and their ties to offline realities. The location of a site may be clear through the country server (e.g., ".ca", ".se", ".uk", etc.). The site can also be characterized as a stand-alone, affiliated with umbrella organizations [For example, http://www.hamas.org is stand-alone, while http://sunsite.unc.edu/freeburma/index.html is not. In this case, Hamas has a domain name, which might serve to indicate how well-organized, financed and connected it might be.] or traced to a Web server [For example, http://zeus.uwindsor.ca/courses/ps/dartnell/insuron.htm can be traced to the University of Windsor.]. If possible, identifying the Webmaster and their location (country, continent or organization) is helpful. Mapping out the number and sophistication of functions on a site (mailing lists, newsgroups, chatrooms, video or audio documents, photo images) also might point to a group's human, financial and material resources. Analyzing the context of Website information resembles basic offline research. Analysis of a country's population, economy, political system, how political structures allow expression of difference and identity, status of media, political players as well as issues underlying conflict all enter analysis.



Typologies of online insurgents are located in many ways, from news reports to surfing Websites such as "Political Resources on the Net" ["Political Resources on the Net" can be found at http://www.politicalresources.net/.] to keywords on different search engines. Once Websites are located, a report is prepared [Website analyses focused on the following groups: Afrikaner White Resistance (AWB - South Africa),Basque ETA (Spain), Burning Punjab (India), Communist Party of Peru-Shining Path (CPP-SP), Council of Khalistan (India), Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (transnational), Ejercito de Liberación Nacional (ELN - National Liberation Army - Colombia), Greenpeace (transnational), Homan (Iran), Iranian Women's International Research Committee (IWIRC), Irish Republican Socialist Movement (IRSM), National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCR), Northern Ireland Women's Coalition (NIWC), Partiya Karkaren Kurdistan (PKK - Kurdistan Workers' Party), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA - transnational), Queer Jihad (transnational - Middle East), Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Sinn Féin (Northern Ireland), Tamil Eelam (Sri Lanka), Tibetan Women's Association, Tupac Amaru (MRTA - Peru), United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW - transnational), and White Aryan Resistance (W.A.R. - U.S.).]. English-language materials are used to show how groups communicate globally in an international language. The sample was modified during research to include transnational movements and non-violent organizations, which reflected the continued spread of the Internet in Africa, Western Europe, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and North America. From this wide variety, the study focuses on select transnational, environmentalist, women's, nationalist, leftist, and racist groups. Each typology is analyzed differently to provide a framework for an overall theory. Interdisciplinary methodologies are used to examine materials: historical analysis of message contexts; ideological analysis of groups; analysis of message transmission (mailing lists, texts on Web, e-mail, etc.); and, discourse analysis. The three examples following, of gender-based, nationalist and left-wing groups, express the post-Cold War intersection of domestic and global factors.

The Revolutionary Organization of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) [The RAWA Website was found at http.www.rawa.org/.] is a left-of-centre organization established in Kabul in 1977 to fight for human rights and social justice. Most RAWA operations are now based in Afghani refugee camps in Pakistan. The RAWA Website contains over 180 texts in more than 300 pages. At least half of the documents present reports, statements and eye-witness accounts of violence and atrocities against Afghani women and children by the Taliban. The site uses extensive multimedia and contains many disturbing images. Photo, audio and visual media create an engaging and interactive environment that arouses a moral and emotional response by providing credible evidence of atrocities in Afghanistan. Multimedia resources also invite support for RAWA's struggle. Most reports rely on the personal experience of women and other witnesses. Extensive witness testimonies (at least 120 reports) provide compelling substantiation of a disturbing social and political situation. The Website expresses the de-territorializing impact of this context by framing Afghani women's plight in relation to global civil society. It articulates what I call a "global gender" perspective that aims to override divisions based on territoriality and state sovereignty through an appeal for gender-based justice [Geraldine Heng notes that "female emancipation - a powerful political symbol describing at once a separation from the past, the aspirations of an activist present, and the utopia of an imagined national future - supplies a mechanism of self-description and self-projection of incalculably more than pragmatic value in the self-fashioning of nations and nationalisms" ("'A Great Way to Fly'": 31)].

The Basque Euskal Herria Journal (EHJ) Website [The Basque Journal Website was found at http://members. freespeech.org/ehj and http://www.ehj-navarre.org/] is a news and information site that aims to provide up-to-date, uncensored information on the Basque conflict. The news section is produced by a team in Bayonne, France. The Website uses English and Basque interchangeably to supply extensive information about Basque history, economics, society, politics, and analysis of the conflict. This bilingualism expresses the global-domestic aspect of "place nationalism", which in this case argues for an independent Basque state to Basques, the Basque diaspora and a global public. The EHJ ideology is nationalist rather than right- or left-wing because it emphasizes the state of Navarre and the Basque people. The Website criticizes France, Spain, and the international community for denying the Basque right to self-determination and ignoring what it calls systematic repression. Overall, the Website tries to draw international attention and support by individuals, groups, NGOs, and governments through a range of weekly and monthly reports and news, extensive graphics, photographs, video material and maps. Links to international institutions, human rights and women's organizations, workers' organizations and environmental groups extend its concerns to a global level.

The EHJ Website is hosted by Free Speech Internet Television (FSIT), a NYC-based nonprofit Web hub that supports groups excluded by mainstream media. Until July 18, 1997, the site was hosted by the Institute for Global Communications (IGC) [the IGC Website is located at http://www.igc.org.], which suspended it after a sustained campaign of "mailbombing" [a large volume of repetitive email intended to make computers unusable]. As a nonprofit organization providing Web and email access and other Internet services to activists, IGC hosted the EHJ Website to publish "information often ignored by the international media, and to build communication bridges for a better understanding of the conflict." ["Statements of Support for IGC" (no date)]. In July 1997, a huge number of email messages demanded the site's removal, arguing that some EHJ sections supported the nationalist terrorist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA).

The Peruvian Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru (MRTA) Website [at http://burn.ucsd.edu/~ats/mrta.htm] is managed by a Toronto-based activist group "Arm The Spirit" (ATS). The server is run by "BURN!", a solidarity group at the University of California at San Diego [a mirror Website, "Vox Rebelde", is the group's main Spanish-language site.]. The MRTA site embodies the "mondo-left", a perspective that appeals to a global public to increase pressure on a dictatorship and to advance a left-wing agenda in a specific territory. During the December 1996 - April 1997 hostage crisis at the Japanese embassy in Lima, the Website presented materials in several languages and provided hyper-links to other like-minded organizations, mainstream media, and ATS [for a longer analysis of the MRTA Website see Dartnell: 117-136]. The Website supplies information about the MRTA, its ideology, and activities via regular press releases, interviews with MRTA leaders in both sympathetic and mainstream press, longer theoretical-ideological texts that outline the group's world view, and solidarity contacts to sympathetic Latin American and foreign radical organizations. Links to international left-wing and Latin American solidarity networks connect the Website to a global network. Press releases in Spanish, English, German and Danish [Danish materials are included due to the significant MRTA support community in that country] illustrate how Web communication can focus for specific impact [in 1997, the links section featured a short video clip of MRTA guerrillas preparing departure for the Japanese embassy. The video image quality was mediocre and revealed nothing critical, but shows how a small group can present itself to a global public and circumvent mainstream media]. The archive of government and corporate print news shows how Web-based information can be tailored for specific political needs.

The left-wing MRTA rejects electoral politics, identifies with an indigenous tradition of anti-colonial liberation struggle, and was organized into armed units shortly after creation in 1984. It claims to oppose globalization on behalf of trade unions, workers' groups, students, and peasants. The MRTA's deadly conflict with the government of former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori catapulted it onto the global media stage when it seized all guests at a reception at the Japanese embassy residence in Lima on December 17, 1996. The MRTA held President Fujimori's brother, several generals, heads of police divisions, Peru's Foreign Minister, Supreme Court judges, members of Congress from the ruling party, and Japanese and Bolivian ambassadors during a four-month stand-off in which it used sophisticated techniques, including a Website [Vogel, Moffett, and Sandberg], to explain its acts to a watching world ["They tried using cellular phones to call TV stations after they took more than 500 hostages in Peru, but the government blocked the signal. They let in 20 photographers, and the government will probably make sure that doesn't happen again." McAllester].



Insurgency online points to a qualitative shift in the nature of conflict and provides typologies for further analysis. In a context of technological change, information revolution, and global communications, analysts need to understand transnational forces. Non-state actors increasingly act in interconnected contexts, cut across pre-existing relations and reconstitute them in new ways. Global gender, place nationalism and the mondo-left are cases in point of online insurgents that send messages to as many people as possible or target receptive publics. The results are often surprising. Intense media focus on the embassy incident stimulated hits on the MRTA Website while loss of media attention led to a decline [The Wall Street Journal reported that the site became "a hot spot in cyberspace. Internet surfers have logged on more than 16,000 times to one site set up by Tupac Amaru sympathizers in the U.S. and Canada 10 days ago" (Vogel , Moffett, and Sandberg). By April 22, 1997, the site had 88,035 hits.]. This suggests that Internet communication is linked to other conventional media whose attention stimulates wider public interest. Widespread use of political sites by journalists gives online insurgents access to mainstream global communications while subjecting their messages to the influence of international news media. Journalists' use of sites also highlights how Internet communication, by reaching specific skills, income, access or, ironically, locations (i.e., Western societies), reconstitutes relations in new ways, creating different global elites that access, produce and transmit specific types of information.

The trajectory of my own analysis of insurgent groups has followed the globalization of political communication from the violence of AD outward to a wide selection of illegal, unknown and unpopular groups. When I started research on AD, my over-riding concern was how to get information on an illegal organization about which few people knew or cared to know anything. After I heard about the MRTA Website in 1996, I realized that something new was happening. Research can now begin on the Web, where new forms of political representation are emerging. I have outlined three typologies of online insurgency based on context and Web use. The online insurgents in RAWA are "global-gender" activists who try to alert the world about gender-based violence. Unable to take concrete political action in Afghanistan, their Web appeal circumvents domestic disempowerment and aims at global publics. The second typology are the EHJ "place nationalists" who aim to get out a "real story" about the Basque conflict from a nationalist perspective. In contrast to RAWA, the EHJ wants an independent state for the Basque in a physically-defined territory. Thirdly, MRTA "mondo-leftists" use the Web within a struggle to control the Peruvian state. To circumvent domestic authoritarianism and push for another form of government, the MRTA "went global" and succeeded in drawing widespread negative attention to the Fujimori government.

Online insurgency does not point to the collapse of the state or inter-state system nor to the rise of more peaceful forms of global politics through some pax electronica. It expresses the fragmentation and increased complexity that result when conventional forms of conflict between governments and opponents are influenced by the transnational effects of technological change, information revolution, and global communications. Although it might be possible to regulate the Internet, no concrete conclusions can now be drawn and it might take years to devise a global regime for Internet communication. The qualitative political change is an accelerated struggle for hearts and minds, more complex forms of conflict, and intensified political marketing.



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* I would like to thank the United States Institute of Peace for its support in 1999-2000, when much of the research in this paper was done. I am also grateful for NATO-EAPC support as a Research Fellow in 2000-2001.



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March 16, 2001