Academia Terrorism

Why Groups Use Terrorism: A Reassessment of the Conventional Wisdom

Guest post by Max Abrahms

Fleeing ISIS, Syrian Kurds walk into Turkey. By the European Commission DG ECHO.

Fleeing ISIS, Syrian Kurds walk into Turkey. By the European Commission DG ECHO.

Over the past decade, political scientists have learned a great deal about terrorism. For a while, the conventional wisdom held that groups commit terrorism because it’s strategically effective. For this reason, the dominant paradigm is sometimes referred to as the Strategic Model of Terrorism. Its logic seemed self-evident: To avert additional pain to their civilians, governments were presumed to adopt a more dovish stance by granting the perpetrators their political demands. Prominent scholars from Robert Pape to David Lake to Andrew Kydd and Barbara Walter promoted this viewpoint until it became the conventional wisdom.

There was only one problem with this emerging scholarly orthodoxy. It wasn’t supported by the evidence. Increasingly, empirical evidence has revealed that terrorism is a remarkably ineffective tactic for groups to induce government concessions. In 2006, I published the first study to examine a sample of terrorist groups in terms of their political effectiveness. What I found is that groups are far more likely to attain their demands when their violence is directed not against civilian targets, but military ones. Since then, other researchers with different samples have confirmed that hardly any of the thousands of terrorist groups since the dawn of modern terrorism around 1970 have achieved their political demands by attacking civilians. The historical record is not entirely barren of such cases, but they are the exception that proves the rule.

Subsequent statistical studies have found that terrorism is not simply correlated with political failure; the attacks on civilians actually lower the odds of government concessions. This is because terrorism tends to shift electorates to the political right, strengthening hardliners most opposed to appeasement. But don’t take my word for it; just look at how target countries have responded to Islamic State and associated Islamist attacks.

  • Last year, Islamic State said the purpose of beheading the American journalist James Foley was to persuade the United States into calling off military operations in Iraq. But the terrorist act had the opposite political effect. In the immediate aftermath of the beheading, President Obama declared that the U.S. would consequently ramp up its air campaign in Iraq and extend it into Syria for the first time.
  • The Paris attacks had a similar effect on France. The French were the opposite of intimidated. Instead, they were defiant. Attendance at the post-attack Paris march was essentially unprecedented. Crowds that size hadn’t been seen since the end of World War Two. Simultaneously, sales of the Charlie Hebdo magazine soared from about 60,000 to millions worldwide. The Islamophobic far-right Front National picked up numerous supporters. Of course, France also dramatically increased its participation in the anti-ISIS military coalition, reflected best in its deployment of the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier to the Gulf. And while Islamic State detests the Assad regime, the French public suddenly warmed to him.
  • Canada, too, did the political opposite of what the Strategic Model would predict. After a couple terrorist attacks on Canadian soil, the public gave its spy agency unprecedented powers to disrupt terrorism at home, while suddenly favoring an expanded role in the coalition against Islamic State. Indeed, Canada is now arguably even more hawkishly anti-terrorism than its southern neighbor.
  • Jordan was a real question mark. The Jordanian public had been highly ambivalent about fighting Islamic State before its citizen was torched to death in a cage. Would Jordan withdraw from the counterterrorism coalition like the anomalous case of Spain after the 2004 Madrid attacks? Just the opposite — in response to the torching, Jordan began bombing the lights out of Islamic State, even ordering additional fighter planes to help get the job done.
  • The beheading of 21 Coptics in Libya had the same counterproductive effect on Egypt. Although not formally a member of the anti-ISIS coalition, Cairo quickly volunteered to lead a pan-Arab military force against Islamic State.
  • Even Japan became more bellicose after its citizens were slaughtered. Since 1947, Article 9 of the Constitution has banned Japan from possessing war-making capabilities. But thanks to the terrorist attacks, the Japanese rallied around the flag, pushing for the repeal of Article 9 to better respond to threats like Islamic State.

All of this raises what I’ve coined as The Puzzle of Terrorism: If attacking civilians only encourages governments to dig in their political heels, why do groups do it? In a new study in International Organization, Phil Potter and I propose an original theory that can accurately account for variation in militant group violence against civilians. It turns out that certain kinds of groups are significantly more likely to attack civilians than others – those suffering from leadership deficits in which lower level members are calling the shots. Leadership deficits promote terrorism by empowering lower level members of the organization, who have stronger incentives to harm civilians.

For many reasons, there’s an inverse relationship between the position of members within the organizational hierarchy and their incentives for harming civilians. For starters, lower level members may try to rise up within the group by committing atrocities against civilians. Such organizational ladder-climbing is well documented in gangs, but is also quite common in militant groups – just ask Jihadi John. Furthermore, lower level members have less access to organizational resources than the leadership, incentivizing them to strike softer targets. And leaders tend to have more experience in asymmetric conflict, so they are more apt than their subordinates to understand the political risks of indiscriminate violence in the first place.

In accordance with this new theory for terrorism, our study reveals that decapitation strikes with drones make militant groups more likely to attack civilians by weakening the leadership. Decentralized groups are also prone to civilian targeting because the leadership must delegate tactical decision-making to lower level members. Similarly, we demonstrate that as operatives travel further away from the leadership, they gain a measure of autonomy and are thus more inclined to attack the population. Unlike the Strategic Model, our organizational theory does not rest on the dubious assumption that terrorism helps induce government concessions. But more importantly, it can help to predict which groups will attack civilians, when, and why.

Max Abrahms is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University.

19 Comments

  • Fascinating article. The fundamental paradox of terrorism isn’t examined much in the rhetoric about terrorism, which is kind of insane. I think your argument that low level members of organizations have the incentive to attack civilians is a valid one. However, there is the assumption that terrorist groups do not want a military reaction from the country they are attacking which I am unconvinced of. For a terrorist/militant group one of the strongest brands of legitimacy that can be attached to them and their rhetoric is a major military power targeting them.

  • Islamic Terrorist groups use Islamic scripture as their guidelines in all of their actions. Refusing to engage with these scriptural teachings and the historical precedents that Islamic Mujahideen call upon is the height of arrogance……

  • It is getting very tiresome to repeatedly see Max Abrahms’ watered down,made-to-fit-a-tweet opinions passed off as serious analysis. Abrahms only covers the periods of initial outrage,when a society’s commitment is arguably at its strongest.

    But what happens when a society feels itself sucked into a war with no discernible end or end goal? We only have to look at America’s retreat from world affairs as an example. Regardless how righteous the “war on terror” may have appeared at the start, today we have a situation where the USA is so desperate to disengage from the ME it will gladly make deals with Iran, a country that backed militias that caused the death of countless American troops.

    But then it is a habit of Abrahms to ignore inconvenient facts for the sake of a headline that sounds good in a tweet, the most blatant example being his disingenuous ignoring of the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon,an act which fulfilled its aim of forcing the American to abandon that country.

  • Don’t you need to show that terrorists consistently resort to terrorism despite having knowledge of its ineffectiveness for this to really be a ‘puzzle’?

    • I.e., Don’t we need evidence, case by case, of the leaders who know better? Is John the best example — given that he was likely ordered by experienced leaders to do what he did?

  • The conventional wisdom was never that terrorism was strategically effective. From the late 1980s onward, the view in many circles was that terrorism was effective some 20% of the time – if you defined effective as the terrorist group getting all or some of its demands. Suicide terrorism was thought to be slightly more effective.

  • Several points have to be raised here:

    1) “To avert additional pain to their civilians, governments were presumed to adopt a more dovish stance by granting the perpetrators their political demands.” <<<< Abrahams only talks about "terrorism" as the violent activity coming from radical armed groups against governments but makes no provisions to talk about what many scholars like Noam Chomsky have clearly identified as "state terrorism", which is carried out out by governments themselves to push their agendas while gaining public support. Governments (particularly one we all know about) create false enemies in order to justify the release of funds (ending up in the hands of weapon manufacturers mainly) to "fight them"

    2) "evidence has revealed that terrorism is a remarkably ineffective tactic for groups to induce government concessions" <<<<< Might it be because a good amount of "terrorism" around the world comes from the very same source group or government that allegedly fights it?

    3) "This is because terrorism tends to shift electorates to the political right, strengthening hardliners most opposed to appeasement" <<<<< Again: warmongering needs enemies. "Terrorism" -as described in this slanted article- is needed as a justification to proceed with current sick course of action and, still, gain public acceptance with what would, otherwise, be crazy policy-making

    4) James Foley's case: "President Obama declared that the U.S. would consequently ramp up its air campaign in Iraq and extend it into Syria for the first time" <<<<< Does it sound like Irak and their "weapons of mass destruction" all over again? … déjà vu anyone??

    5) "The Paris attacks had a similar effect on France. The French were the opposite of intimidated. Instead, they were defiant." <<<<< Same thing here, chose an enemy (false or real), blow it out of any reasonable proportion, and use it to justify your geopolitical position. … … …

    6) "Canada, too, did the political opposite of what the Strategic Model would predict." <<<<<< ("Strategic Model" … chuckles here) … But of course!!! … When terror comes from the allegedly "attacked" state, it would be illogical to lower the intensity of the response if what you're looking for is an excuse to ramps things up

    7) "The Jordanian public had been highly ambivalent about fighting Islamic State before its citizen was torched to death in a cage." <<<< < No wonder of course, Jordan enjoys higher levels of education and progress than most middle east countries, the crowds are not that easy to manipulate… so the question was: "Guys… What can we do to get Jordan onboard with this crazy, comic-book, terror story around the globe? … Ahhh… let's torch a guy down in a cage, give it the widest possible coverage by our state-controlled media and… voilá…

    8) "The beheading of 21 Coptics in Libya had the same counterproductive effect on Egypt" / "Even Japan became more bellicose after its citizens were slaughtered" <<<<<< Do I see a pattern emerging here? … (one that even the blindest would see too?) … is it just my imagination???

    9) "All of this raises what I’ve coined as The Puzzle of Terrorism: If attacking civilians only encourages governments to dig in their political heels, why do groups do it?" <<<<< Only a few groups are true "terrorists" (in the sense of being authentic armed groups against their own governments and the one most interesting uqestion to be answered is: Why do such grups come into existence? are they justified after years of tyranic and stupid government policies??)… … Most of what the western, mind-washed world sees as "terrorism" is only war-lord induced violence to destabilize foreign opposing governments and justify invasion, why can't the author see that "other pattern" emerging and slapping him in the face like a solid brick???

    10) "For many reasons, there’s an inverse relationship (no shit!! … really?) between the position of members within the organizational hierarchy and their incentives for harming civilians. For starters, lower level members may try to rise up within the group by committing atrocities against civilians." … … <<< Of course!! … lower-level members of what might, otherwise, be legit and perhaps more “moderate” opposing forces of a tyranic goverment are easier to alienate, arm, finance and mobilize against these goverments, so you end up killing three birds with the same shot: gain popular approval (and, thus, release funds with congress complicity), destabilize opposing governments AND install puppet ones to serve your interests

    To sum it all up, I think professor Max Abrahams either lives in Mars or has just swallowed the whole made-up thing about “terrorism” as it is now. He has not yet understood the concept of “state terrorism”… …. … But don’t you get me wrong here, I’m a pacifist and I would hardly justify violence against my own government (although I think my country, Mexico, is on the very brink of social upheaval as I write this) and I am not blaming -with my position here- the sensible, intelligent and good-natured people of the US, Israel and Palestine for the wrongdoings of their respective radical and stupid governments… but, to me, the pattern here is so easily identifiable that I can hardly believe how someone in a prominent academic position of social studies cannot see it the way many people already do.

  • […] Max Abrahms blogs in a recent Political Violence @ a Glance post, that terrorism is an ineffective tactic for motivating government concessions. Why would a group revert to terrorism if it encourages intransigence from a government rather than accommodation? Why do militant groups use terrorism if it doesn’t work? Abrahms calls this dilemma, “The Puzzle of Terrorism”. Abrahms and Potter recently published an innovative perspective of terrorism – offering the explanation that leadership deficits provide rogue foot soldiers an opportunity for tactical freedom, which leads to indiscriminate attacks against civilians. […]

  • Terrorism is a long-term strategy. In fact, al-Qaeda and ISIS have both been quite explicit that their goal is to provoke an intervention against them in order to draw the opposing governments into a protracted war of attrition that these governments presumably can’t win, which will undermine their legitimacy and cause their collapse. The mythical role of Afghanistan in the fall of the USSR is a foundational element in that strategic logic. So yeah, absolutely there’s a strategic logic to terror, which could be predicated precisely on an overreaction. Moreover, asserting that all terrorism has the same purpose is strangely naive. It could be a way to raise awareness, a tool for recruitment, or simply a way to demonstrate ability to hurt. It’s quite unlikely that low-level out of control members of the group would rise in the hierarchy by committing atrocities against the will of the leadership, as the post suggest. More likely, they will find themselves killed off in a hurry.

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