Going Abroad: Transnational Solicitation and Contention by Ethnopolitical Organizations1

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Going Abroad: Transnational Solicitation and Contention by Ethnopolitical Organizations1

Victor Asal2

University at Albany, State University of New York
Justin Conrad3

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Peter White4

University of Maryland, College Park


Existing literature on contentious political movements has generally focused on domestic political activity. Using the new Minorities at Risk Organizational Behavior-Middle East dataset (MAROB-ME), which contains organization-level data for 104 ethnopolitical organizations in the Middle East and North Africa, we analyze the decision of both violent and nonviolent organizations to engage in political activity transnationally. Among the results, we find that diaspora support is associated with transnational non-violent protest, while foreign state support and domestic repression increase the use of transnational violence. The most robust finding, however, is that participation in the domestic electoral process consistently reduces the likelihood that an organization will engage in any political activity abroad.

Word count: 13,800

A consistent theme in the contentious politics literature is that contentious behavior is a difficult undertaking.5 If domestic contention is difficult, there is every reason to think that coordinating and executing contentious behavior abroad is even harder.6 Indeed, if we examine violent contention in the form of incidents of terrorism — the type of political activity for which there is probably the best quantitative data for both transnational and domestic activity — it becomes apparent that there is a great deal more domestic terrorism than transnational terrorism.7 In a recent study which differentiates transnational from domestic terrorism in the Global Terrorism Database (GTD),8 Enders, Sandler, and Gaibulloev9 identified 12,862 transnational terrorist incidents out of 66,383 total — or less than 20% of all incidents. Going abroad is costly, and many political organizations simply do not have the resources to do so, even if they wanted to.10 This raises the question: which organizational factors or aspects of an organization's domestic or transnational political environment make it more or less likely to be active abroad? More specifically, how do different factors separately impact the choice to solicit external support or to use violent or nonviolent contention abroad?

We argue that much of the variance in transnational activity by political organizations can be explained as a function of two primary concepts: opportunity and threat. Some factors increase the probability of organizations engaging in transnational activity because they offer resources or other opportunities that can strategically benefit the organization’s cause at home. We contend that foreign state support, diaspora support, and the ideological positions of organizations make certain types of transnational activity particularly attractive. On the other hand, in line with Keck and Sikkink11, the domestic political environment may be such that the organizations are “pushed” into transnational activity. We argue that political repression and state violence targeted towards organizations, as well as competition with other political organizations, raise the likelihood that organizations will pursue their cause internationally.

There is a well-developed literature on transnational terrorist activity12 and nonviolent transnational activity in the social movements literature.13 There is also a range of work on non-contentious transnational organizational behavior, focusing on non-governmental organizations, human rights, and other activist groups,14 and international and regional organizations.15 While these two segments of the literature do an admirable job of explaining the structural and organizational drivers of specific types of transnational activity, as well as aspects of organizational design and resultant efficacy and dysfunction, there are gaps in our understanding of transnational organizational behavior. Specifically, there is a lack of theory coupled with broad-based empirics that examines the impact of organizational and environmental threats and opportunity factors on why strategically-minded political organizations choose to engage in specific kinds of transnational politics: soliciting external support, engaging in non-violent contentious politics abroad, and engaging in transnational violence. This gap in the literature can be explained partly by limitations in cross-national data on political organizations. Quantitative analysis of transnational terrorism has focused primarily on state-level factors,16 and the two most prominent datasets for studying transnational terrorism, the GTD and ITERATE,17 are focused on terrorist incidents, rather than the organizations perpetrating them. There is a parallel limitation in the human rights literature, where, with a few recent exceptions,18 there is generally a dearth of quantitative data on the organizational behavior of nonviolent activists.

Using the Minorities at Risk Organizational Behavior-Middle East dataset (MAROB-ME), which contains yearly organization-level data for 104 ethnopolitical organizations in the Middle East and North Africa, we can compare the impact of different opportunity and threat factors on transnational activity by both violent and nonviolent organizations. While this data is limited in the sense that it only pertains to ethnopolitical organizations in the Middle East and North Africa, it does allow us to extend the research on transnational political behavior by examining the impact of important variables on the different strategy choices at the organizational level of analysis. We are aware of no large-N study of social movements that takes this organizations-focused perspective. At the same time, it is important to note that when it comes to political violence and the export of political violence transnationally, the Middle East and North Africa is often an outlier — an issue that we will discuss later in this paper.

In the following section, we outline our expectations regarding the effects of different types of threats and opportunities on transnational solicitation of support, non-violent contention, and violent contention. We then derive a series of testable hypotheses. In the third section, we outline our empirical strategy and describe the MAROB-ME data. The fourth section contains a discussion of our results, including discussions of statistical and substantive significance. We conclude with thoughts on the implications of our results, as well as suggestions for further research.

Types of Transnational Activity

As the literature on transnational activism suggests,19 and as the MAROB-ME data illustrate, engaging in political activity abroad is less likely than doing so at home, but it is not an insurmountable hurdle for many organizations. Not all external political activity, though, presents the same challenge to an organization, and we distiniguish between two broad types of activity (see Table 1): solicitation and contention, and then within contention, both violent and non-violent activity. We believe that contentious politics should present a related but different challenge than soliciting support. Lobbying abroad, like lobbying at home is a “…more routine form of political challenge”20 than contention and, just like political activity in a domestic context,21 protests and violence should be more challenging than “regular politics” internationally. The descriptive statistics from the MAROB data support this expectation with more than 59% of the organizational-years in the dataset seeing organizations engaged in the transnational solicitation of support (see Table 2), which is defined as maintaining a foreign office or meeting with foreign officials or organizations. At the same time, it is clear from the data that transnational contention is rare. Less than four-percent of the organizational-years in the data have an organization engaged in transnational protest activity (acts of symbolic resistance or demonstrations), and slightly less than eight-percent have organizations engaged in transnational violence (targeting security personnel, non-security government personnel, or civilians).

We argue that specific organizational and structural factors increase the probability that an organization will solicit external support and/or engage in violent and nonviolent contention. Sending representatives abroad to talk to NGOs, diaspora supporters, or foreign governments is a potentially resource-intensive activity, but it does not demand the kind of commitment, time, or planning as transnational contention.22 All transnational contention is difficult, but we argue (and the descriptive statistics also suggest) that transnational violence is easier than transnational nonviolent contention (i.e., protest). Our expectation in this regard is driven by the fact that terrorist acts do not generally require a large number of people to carry them out, whereas non-violent contentious politics, public demonstrations in particular, often require large numbers of participants and/or supporters. Crenshaw,23 discussing terrorism as a “weapon of the weak” addresses this issue when she points out that “terrorism is attractive because it is a relatively inexpensive and simple alternative, and because its potential reward is high.”24 Similarly, Weinstein25 finds that weak, “opportunistic” insurgent organizations are more likely to use indiscriminate violence to coerce their populations because they are unable to secure voluntary support. Given that transnational contention takes place far from an organization’s natural recruitment pool and that violence can have a “powerful impact with minimal resources,”26 from a collective action perspective,27 the intuition is clear: transnational violence should be easier, because it requires fewer resources, and fewer people need to coordinate around and reconcile their "free riding" incentives vis-á-vis the "public good" of contention.

Our central argument is that when an organization encounters limitations or threats to their domestic political opportunities, they will be more likely to go abroad.28 However, when subjected to such threats, the organization will be most likely to solicit external support and engage in transnational violence rather than non-violent protest because these activities require the mobilization of fewer individuals. We expect that an organization’s focus will shift to non-violent contention when the transnational political opportunity structure is particularly amenable to mass mobilization on behalf of the organization, such as when they have a politically active diaspora. In contrast, more narrowly focused supporters, such as foreign states, should provide the kind of resources that may be particularly amenable to violent activity. In either case, external support provides organizations with additional opportunities to engage in costly transnational political behavior.

Overall, however, we expect a lower probability of engaging in these transnational activities if the organization is formally engaged in the political process at home. Involvement in elections, for example, leads the organization to view the domestic political environment as less threatening. Participation in the political process in an authoritarian or semi-authoritarian context — which is particularly relevant to the region on which our data is focused — strongly suggests cooptation29 and likely involves government efforts to prevent the organization from engaging in transnational activism. And even within the context of democracies, Saideman, Lanoue, Campenni, and Stanton30 find that more inclusive electoral systems reduce the overall probability of ethnic protest and rebellion.

The above discussion contains within it an implicit assumption that political organizations are, for the most part, strategically-minded, instrumentally rational actors. In other words, we have highlighted the “logic of consequences” in organizational decision-making, as March and Olsen refer to the approach. 31 However, while much of our theoretical framework is clearly derived from a rational choice perspective, we do not frame our analysis in opposition to non-rational choice theories. Indeed, in our analysis, we explicitly acknowledge that since organizations face varying levels of grievances and are motivated by different types of ideologies, the identity and norms of an organization should also have an important impact on their behavior. However, there is an important body of work whose contributions we do not incorporate directly into our analysis — such as those highlighting how history and normative frameworks;32 organizational "pathologies;"33 and international socialization pressures34 can influence the decisions that organizations make. We see our findings as being complementary to this body of literature and believe that future research should examine how the "logic of appropriateness"35 may serve as a lens through which organizations view the threat and opportunity drivers of transnational contention. However, empirical constraints preclude us from examining these perspectives here.36 Below, we discuss our specific expectations of how organizational and structural factors may influence ethnopolitical organizations' expected utility of engaging in the three forms of transnational political activity.

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