Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Does Terrorism Work?

Bruce Schneier points to a fascinating research article called Why Terrorism Does Not Work by Max Abrahms, published in International Security.

The paper starts by investigating whether (and under what conditions) terrorism works. Contradicting some recent works that have described terrorism as a successful strategy, the author provides evidence that terrorist groups have a success rate of only 7 percent.

The paper also argues that terrorism against civilian targets has a lower success rate than terrorism against military targets.

The author explains this phenomenon using something called correspondent inference theory, which is a version of the POSIWID principle found in psychology. The theory suggests that when we are trying to infer the motives of other people, we base our thinking on the expected (short-term) effects of their actions.

So if the immediate effects of terrorist activity are to cause
  1. death and destruction
  2. massive clamp-down and over-reaction by the authorities
  3. victimization (and subsequent radicalization) of communities thought to be associated with the terrorist groups
then it seems natural to suppose that these effects (rather than any stated policy aims or demands) represent the true motive of the terrorist activity.

Of course this thinking is self-reinforcing. If it seems unlikely that terrorism could possibly succeed in achieving its stated aims and demands, then it is more likely that we will impute alternative motives to the terrorists (e.g. "they're just out to destroy our way of life"), and this makes our governments all the more unwilling to accede to any demands.

But historically, there are some terrorist groups have succeeded. If a terrorist group selects tactics known to have a higher chance of success, then we might at least suppose that they are serious about their stated aims. Whereas if a terrorist group selects tactics that haven't worked for other groups in the past, we might well wonder what they're really up to.

Source: Max Abrahms, Why Terrorism Does Not Work. International Security, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Fall 2006), pp. 42–78 (pdf).

Related post: Does Misunderstanding Work? (July 2007)