Weapon of the Weak? Why State Capabilities Have Conflicting Effects on Terrorism
By Joseph Young
Although the academic study of terrorism has increased exponentially since 9/11, the conventional wisdom about this form of violence was established decades prior. The conventional story is that terrorism is the poor man’s airforce or more generally a weapon of the weak.
As early as 1981, Martha Crenshaw suggested that “[t]errorism is a logical choice when oppositions have such goals and when the power ratio of government to challenger is high. The observation that terrorism is a weapon of the weak is hackneyed but apt.”
Certainly power asymmetry is part of the story and this hackneyed observation is reasonable on its face. In a recent working paper Cullen Hendrix and I suggest a more nuanced story about how state capacity influences terrorism.
It is fairly uncontroversial to claim that the state establishes the opportunities for violence within society. As Rudy Rummel reminds us, the state is efficient at killing and unrestrained states are far more deadly than the most destructive oppositional groups. The trick as states try to build capacity in low capacity places like Afghanistan and Iraq is to build a state capable enough to reduce violence but restrained enough to refrain from wide-scale repression.
States can be capable in many ways. I won’t discuss all of them here (see Hendrix’s “Measuring State Capacity” for an overview). However, two forms of capability can help us resolve the dilemma of making states both capable yet restrained. If terrorism is a weapon of the weak, then we expect it to be a tactic used against states with more capable militaries. In sum, more military capacity leads to more terrorism. States can also have capable bureaucracies (bureaucratic/administrative capacity (BA)) that can reduce terrorism in at least two ways. States with capable bureaucracies can better observe their populations and thus quickly identify and deter violent challenges. BA capacity can also reduce potential grievances by allowing dissidents institutional pathways to channel grievances, rather than violence. However, simply possessing institutions is not enough — capable institutions are what can potentially reduce the resort to dissident violence. Dividing capacity in these ways can also uncover why state capacity can both enhance and reduce terrorism.
Figure 1 offers a first cut at examining the world when dividing capacity between these two dimensions, military and BA. The vertical access is military capacity and the horizontal represents BA capacity (see the paper for the gory details).
The traditional story, or that military capacity provides incentives for terrorism as a tactic is supported by the initial check in Figure 1. The horizontal dotted line divides more militarily capable states from less capable states. The red number in each cell identifies the average number of attacks for the countries in each cell. Attacks are on average much higher above this horizontal dotted line. Adding this second dimension of capacity, however, can help explain variance among more and less militarily capable states. Having higher levels of BA capacity clearly reduces the average expected attacks. High BA capacity states with low military capabilities are the least prone to terrorism (avg. 2.1 attacks in a country-year). States like the US, UK, and France have greater attacks on average but many fewer than states like Russia, Colombia, and Burma.
In the paper, we also use multivariate methods to control for other factors that might invalidate our argument and the results hold. If our results are accurate, the policy implications for states, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, are important. Building a strong military won’t likely decrease terrorism. Building rule of law, and strong and responsive institutions are the answer to reducing violence.