Date of Completion


Embargo Period



Mary Bernstein, Elizabeth Holzer

Field of Study



Master of Arts

Open Access

Open Access


Solely equating terrorism with criminality discounts the social, political, cultural, and historical motivations that drive people to employ violence as a strategy for collective action. Using the multi-institutional politics approach to social movements (Armstrong and Bernstein 2008), this study explores the choice of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in the Philippines to employ terror and violence as the primary social movement tactic to pursue their Islamic separatist cause. Analysis of archival and open-source data, together with original interviews, reveal that the problem is multi-institutional – developmental, cultural, historical, social and political all at the same time. The choice of violence results from a distinctive combination of context-specific conditions rather than from pure fundamentalist ideology or political opportunities. The culture of “warlordism,” history of Muslim oppression, weak governance and law enforcement, and the lack of economic opportunities in the southern Philippines, has largely directed the strategy of the ASG over time. Specific tactics of kidnap for ransom, extortion, and small-scale (non-suicide) bombings currently point to a wavering and superficial Islamic fundamentalist ideological indoctrination among its members and supporters. Strategic choices thus depend on the struggle for material and symbolic power in Mindanao. This suggests that the tactics of the ASG arise not from purely political or secessionist motivations, but rather emerge as a consequence of a multi-layered structure of dominance, and a complex power struggle in Mindanao. Consequently, a purely militaristic approach to eliminate the ASG that disregards the multi-institutional nature of the problem will simply be a cause of perennial frustration.

Major Advisor

Davita Silfen Glasberg