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II. Defining Terrorism: A Distinct Form of Political Violence?
A. A Historical Review of the Terminology
B. Developing an Explicit Definition
III. Historical Examples of Terrorism
A. Al Qaeda and the September 11 Attacks
IV. Historical Patterns
V. Theoretical and Empirical Contributions to the Study of Terrorism
A. The Causes of Terrorism
1. Individual and Group Motivations
2. Structural Causes of Terrorism
B. The Effects of Terrorism
1. The Economic Effects of Terrorism
2. The Consequences of Suicide Attacks
Since September 11, 2001, considerable attention has been devoted to the study of terrorism, yet scholarly analysis of the subject has actually been active for several decades. With this increased focus, confusion has arisen as to the very meaning of terrorism. In addition, there are competing theories in regard to the causes and effects of terrorism, with contributions coming from economists, sociologists, psychologists, and political scientists. The study of terrorism is truly a multidisciplinary endeavor. This research paper provides a review of the debate regarding the definition of terrorism, presents historical examples of terrorism to provide context, and introduces the primary theoretical and empirical contributions of major scholars in the field.
II. Defining Terrorism: A Distinct Form of Political Violence?
The term terrorism, like globalism, is difficult to define and has a diversity of meanings among different groups and individuals. As a common cliché says, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” The shifting contexts in which the term is used make it difficult, but not impossible, to study the phenomenon as a distinct form of political violence. For the purposes of empirical analysis, terrorism must be defined explicitly. This research paper offers such a definition, while acknowledging that it may differ from that of other scholars, cultures, governments, media outlets, and perhaps the reader. It is useful to examine first the evolution of the usage of the term throughout history. Although examples of terrorism stretch back several millennia, the word terrorism is relatively new to the world stage.
A. A Historical Review of the Terminology
The first usage of “terrorism” was in reference to the actions of a nation, not a subnational group. After the French Revolution in the late 18th century, the victors conducted a brutal campaign against nobles perceived to be enemies of the newly formed state. The series of mass executions by the postrevolutionary government was referred to as the terror. This early conceptualization differs from the more modern use of terrorism, in which the perpetrators are not usually governments and are instead nonstate actors (Laqueur, 2001). The usage of terrorism to refer to the violent actions of nonstate actors arose in response to the bombings and assassinations conducted by radical members of political movements such as anarchism and revolutionary socialism in the late 1800s and early 1900s. During the 20th century, the use of the term expanded immensely, often to include any type of political violence that the observer found to be disagreeable. This is where the murkiness of terrorism’s meaning arises. Politicians and the media are quick to label any enemy violence as terrorism. When any act of violence one disagrees with constitutes terrorism, the concept loses its meaning as it has become highly contextual and subjective. This is why we see certain acts of violence covered as terrorism by certain media outlets and as legitimate resistance by others. The atmosphere of confusion is not helped by the fact that, between governments and researchers, there are more than 100 different working definitions of terrorism. In addition to these observations, Jenkins (1974) pointed out the relativistic nature of the term when he wrote that terrorism seems to mean simply whatever the “bad” guys are doing. Merari (1993) echoed this when he noted that the term had become more of a derogatory epithet than an adjective describing a unique phenomenon.
B. Developing an Explicit Definition
If terrorism is simply a subjective catchall term for many types of political violence, why then is it given so much attention? The answer is that, although the expression can be carelessly or intentionally misused by political figures and media outlets, there is a general consensus among scholarly researchers that terrorism is a distinct form of violence, different from riots, coups, inter- and intrastate warfare, and so forth. Tilly (2004) contended that the definition should be based on characteristics of perpetrators and victims. That is certainly a good starting point.
First, an examination of the nature of the victims is in order. By far, this is the most controversial definitional aspect of terrorism. Take, for example, the 1983 suicide bombing of a United States marine barracks in Lebanon by the militant group Hezbollah. The strike occurred after U.S. troops were sent in to mediate an increasingly violent civil war, and well over 200 soldiers were killed. The attack is almost universally referred to as terrorism, but this is problematic. The victims in this case were armed security personnel stationed in a war zone. If every surprise attack on active armed forces is considered terrorism, there is little to distinguish terrorism from unexpected attacks that occur in conventional warfare. Hence, many scholars believe that terrorism involves violence directed at civilians. That is to say, the victims of terrorism are not actively or officially involved in a violent conflict.
Second, it is important to distinguish the characteristics of the perpetrators of terrorism. History is replete with examples of nation-states targeting civilians, whether their own citizens or individuals in other countries. Traditionally, though, such actions are referred to as state terror or war crimes. More often, those designated as terrorists are members of subnational groups, meaning they do not have the characteristics of a modern state, such as holding a monopoly on the legitimate use if violence in keeping with the classic Weberian definition in an internationally recognized, geographically defined territory or fielding a conventionally equipped army and navy. Examples of such nonstate actors include transnational groups such as al Qaeda or regionally based rebel groups such as the Basque separatists Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) in Spain. It follows, then, that another criterion for a violent act to be considered terrorism is that it be committed by nonstate actors. Note that excluding state terror or war crimes from falling under the rubric of terrorism does not pass a moral judgment regarding the reprehensibility of such acts. In fact, the goal of this section of the research paper is to arrive at a definition that is as free from subjective moral, or “normative,” conditionality as possible. Discarding some of the emotional and moral baggage that accompanies the loaded term will allow us to arrive at a more analytically useful conceptualization.
Beyond the nature of the attacker and the victims, it is important to analyze motivations behind terrorist acts. If we were to stop with the definition we have now, any violent crime committed by one civilian against another would be considered terrorism. However, there appears to be something qualitatively different that distinguishes the violent crimes committed by individuals and groups motivated by the desire for economic gain from the violent crimes committed by terrorist organizations. For example, there appears to be a fundamental difference between violent groups such as Hamas in the Palestinian territories and violent groups such as the Sicilian Mafia in southern Italy. Both are nonstate actors that use violence against members of a civilian population, but the distinction lies in the goals of the organizations. Hamas desires to destroy the Israeli state and claims to fight for a Palestinian homeland—a political goal. Organized crime outfits such as the Mafia have no such political intentions. They may have political connections in the form of corruption and bribery, but their aspirations essentially revolve around making money. Groups that use terrorism have political goals that extend beyond the immediate consequences of an attack. In other words, they seek to effect political change by committing violent acts against civilians. Political change can take a variety of forms. For example, terrorism can be used with the aim of changing or gaining policy concessions from a particular government or of destabilizing that government altogether. It can also be used to gain domestic support from an aggrieved group by demonstrating a willingness to fight for a cause. Thus, a final condition for a violent act to qualify as terrorism is that it be motivated by a desire to influence a political outcome. This is not to say that those who use terrorism cannot also engage in organized crime (the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Fuerzas armadas revolucionarias de Colombia, [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia; FARC] turn huge profits by trafficking in narcotics), but their goals are primarily political in nature. This last condition excludes several other types of violence. For example, hate crimes without any known motivation beyond the immediate act would not be considered terrorism. Violent crimes committed by the mentally disabled, such as the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley, also do not have an ultimate political motive and would not fall under terrorism.
Therefore, the working definition of terrorism developed in this research paper is as follows:
Terrorism is the use of violence against civilians and is perpetrated by nonstate actors with the intent of achieving some political outcome.
This definition is by no means the authoritative final word, and there remain several gray areas. Some terrorist groups have skillfully stretched the meaning of combat ants to apply to virtually every citizen of the state that they oppose. Below are some alternate definitions illustrating the fact that, even within the U.S. government, competing definitions exist:
Terrorism is the use of force or violence against persons or property in violation of the criminal laws of the United States for purposes of intimidation, coercion, or ransom. (U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2009, para.1)
[Terrorism is] premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience. (U.S. State Department, 2001)
Terrorism can be practiced alongside other modes of violence. For example, a rebel group can choose to use hit-and-run attacks against military targets while also conducting strikes against a civilian population. In such a case, terrorism is one component of the group’s overall strategy of warfare. It can be expanded, put on hold, or altered according to the decisions of the group’s leader or leaders. This occurred in the case of the African National Congress (ANC), which used terrorism in its fight against the South African apartheid-era government. When the apartheid government finally collapsed and the ANC took over the reins of power, it no longer conducted terrorist attacks. As a result of such examples, terrorism is treated in this research paper as a tactic that can be used strategically. Repugnant though it may be, terrorism is a method for achieving an objective, and terrorist groups may more accurately be considered to be groups that use the tactic of terrorism.
III. Historical Examples of Terrorism
The works of Enders and Sandler (2006), Laqueur (2001), Hoffman (1998), and White (1998) together provide a fascinating account of the history of terrorism. Although the term is relatively new, there are many historical examples of nonstate actors using violence against civilians with the broader goal of influencing a political outcome. One of the famous early examples was that of the Sicarii. The group’s name derives from its preference for using sica, or long knives, when attacking its targets. During the middle of the 1st century, Palestine was occupied by the Roman Empire. A rebellious Jewish group known as Zealots chafed under Roman rule and actively agitated for the removal of the Roman regime. Within the Zealots, a more radical sect existed, the Sicarii, who felt that violent overthrow was the most appropriate course of action. The strategy of the Sicarii was what would become a classic element of terrorist violence: to provoke a government (in this case, that of Rome) into an overreaction that would, in turn, drive more supporters (in this case, fellow Jews in Palestine) toward the terrorists’ cause. The Sicarii embarked on a campaign of assassinations directed against Roman officials and fellow Jews deemed to be collaborators. Historical reports indicate that the Sicarii assassinated their victims in broad daylight and among crowds of people to maximize the dramatic effect. The group also attacked infrastructure, damaging the water supply and destroying agricultural and financial targets.
Operating from the 11th to the 13th centuries in Persia and Syria, a group known as the Assassins was a violent splinter group from the Ismaili religious sect. The Assassins were a small group motivated by a desire to protect their religious practices from repression by rival factions, and they held sacred the act of eliminating their victims with daggers. Because of the limited manpower of the Assassins, their leader realized they could not confront the government head-on and instead opted for a sustained campaign of assassinations. Among their most prominent victims were high officials of government, including the king of Jerusalem. The premium that the Assassins placed on dying for their cause, which they believed to be an act of martyrdom, would be echoed by religious extremists in far more recent times.
Religious fanaticism and radical separatism are not the only motivating ideology among groups that used terrorism in history. In the mid-19th and early-20th centuries, a political movement known as anarchism became popular in Europe and North America. The ideology advocated the dissolution of all forms of government, deeming them inherently exploitative and unjust. Some anarchists rejected the more traditional means of political expression, such as protests and the dissemination of propaganda through pamphlets. Rather, they advocated what has been called “propaganda by deed.” Using violent action to demonstrate by example is a thematic element found among practitioners of terrorism. Violent anarchists in France, Italy, Britain, and the United States were not coherently organized groups, and their targets and methods differed. In Italy and France, there were several high-profile assassinations of government officials and merchants deemed to be part of the corrupt state apparatus. The technological advances that have occurred since the Assassins now allow for a new type of terrorism that has become emblematic of the modern era: the use of bombs. Dynamite was a weapon of choice among violent French and American anarchists, and the use of explosives in terror attacks has been adopted by an ever-widening array of groups in the last two centuries.
The systematic campaign of violence and intimidation directed toward Blacks and moderate Whites in the United States by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is an infamous example of domestic, “homegrown” terrorism. The KKK was devoted to preserving the traditional dominance of Whites in the U.S. South, and this vision entailed violent actions designed to forcibly dissuade Blacks from participating in the political process. A ritualistic right-wing organization, the KKK was indelibly known for its practice of wearing white hoods and its pseudoreligious practice of burning crosses. KKK activities included a series of extrajudicial (outside the law) executions known as lynchings. The KKK used lynchings and other forms of violence to murder numerous individuals throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. In the 1960s, the KKK caused an international uproar when it planted a bomb in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The resultant explosion killed four young girls and served to galvanize the civil rights movement that was emerging in the United States (National Public Radio, 2003).
Terrorism was a central strategy for gaining power within several political movements during the 20th century. Communist revolutionaries were among several groups using terrorism to agitate against czarist rule in Russia in the 1900s. By the time they achieved power in a 1917 coup, they had conducted three major campaigns of assassination against political enemies. The fascist Nazi party also used terrorism in its ultimately successful attempt to gain control over the German government prior to World War II. Thus, two of the most historically significant political movements of the 20th century, fascism and communism, made use of terrorism to successfully transition from being challengers of governments to becoming the governments themselves.
The post–World War II era heralded several new developments that came to characterize modern terrorism. First, the growing popularity and availability of commercial air flight presented new opportunities for groups aiming to conduct terrorist attacks. During the 1960s and 1970s, skyjacking was used effectively and often. In these hostage-taking situations, aircrafts were forcibly commandeered in flight or on the ground, and political demands were made by the hijackers. Defensive countermeasures taken, such as the installation of metal detectors at airports, helped to greatly reduce the number of terrorist hijackings in the 1980s and 1990s. Second, the 1980s saw the advent of suicide bombing, first used by the Lebanese group Hezbollah and refined by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) separatists in their fight for an autonomous homeland separate from the Sri Lankan government.
A. Al Qaeda and the September 11 Attacks
Following the September 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. government tasked the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States to create a comprehensive account. The Commission produced the Complete 9/11 Commission Report (2004), which is a massive and freely available online resource that is easy to read and highly recommended for students interested in a more thorough accounting of the attacks. The following account is primarily derived from the Complete 9/11 Commission Report.
In 1978, the Soviet Union invaded the Central Asian nation of Afghanistan. A rugged geographic region characterized by a tribal society, Afghanistan was home to several million Muslims of differing ethnic backgrounds. The possibility of an atheistic Communist regime occupying a Muslim nation proved to be an incendiary prospect for many Muslims across the world. It also presented an opportunity for governments in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, to export young radicals to fight the Soviet occupation. In doing so, these governments gained stature as defenders of the Muslim faith while also relieving themselves of the internal security threat these radicals represented. The United States, Soviet Russia’s primary cold war enemy, also provided funding for some of the groups battling the Soviets. These groups were by no means uniform in their methods and motivations, and after their victory over the Soviets in 1989, they proceeded to battle among themselves, plunging Afghanistan into another decade of statelessness and civil war. One of the many foreigners who traveled to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets was Osama bin Laden, the son of an immensely wealthy Saudi Arabian construction magnate. After the Soviets left Afghanistan, bin Laden was instrumental in maintaining a cadre of followers that eventually became known as al Qaeda.
Bin Laden was largely the financier of al Qaeda, and his deputy, Egyptian physician Ayman al-Zawahiri, headed up operational control of the organization. Espousing a radical version of Sunni Islam and inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, the al Qaeda leadership was determined to battle any party it perceived to be hostile toward its austere version of Islam. Bin Laden blamed the suffering of fellow Muslims on corrupt Middle Eastern regimes, whom he perceived to have betrayed the faith, and the actions of Western governments, particularly the United States. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991, the neighboring Saudi regime became concerned that it was Saddam Hussein’s next target. Bin Laden offered the protective services of his fighters, but the Saudis, wary of importing the same figures that helped topple the Soviets, instead opted for protection from the United States, allowing U.S. military forces to use Saudi territory as a launching pad for the first Gulf War. The prospect of foreign troops on Saudi soil (home to the two most holy sites in Islam: Mecca and Medina) proved to be intolerable to al Qaeda. The organization also held grievances against the United States for the country’s support of Israel and other Middle Eastern governments that al Qaeda held a deep enmity toward. Thus, the United States became a primary target of the organization.
In 1998, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri held a news conference to announce the issuance of a religious edict. In it, they claimed it was the duty of every observant Muslim to attack Americans whenever and wherever possible. Soon afterward, bin Laden clarified that the group made no distinction between American troops and civilians, reasoning that civilians in a democratic society were directly responsible for the policies of a government they voted for. Several terrorist attacks attributable to al Qaeda had already occurred by the time the 1998 edict was issued, but none at that point had been as large as the two simultaneous vehicular bombings of U.S. embassies in Sudan and Kenya that followed that summer. The bombings killed hundreds of civilians, mostly Muslim East Africans. This irony did not go unnoticed by al Qaeda, which, hoping to be the vanguard for disaffected Muslims throughout the world, had already embarked on more ambitious plans to attack Americans directly.
Some time that same year, bin Laden purportedly gave approval for the September 11, 2001, attacks. The operational planning for this task was largely delegated to a man known as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Born in Kuwait and college educated in the United States, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed reportedly claimed to have gotten the idea for a plane attack on the World Trade Center (WTC) after his nephew’s 1993 attempt to destroy the towers with a vehicle bomb failed. Throughout 1999, the plan progressed as candidates for the operation were recruited, trained in Afghanistan, and secured visas for entry into the United States. While in the United States in 2000 and 2001, the hijackers attempted to blend in as visiting students, and select members attended flight training school.
By 2001, the U.S. government had indications that al Qaeda was planning a massive attack on the homeland, but the government was unable to connect the bits and pieces of intelligence, spread across several governmental agencies, into a coherent enough picture to stop the plot before its execution. The nature of the attack was also unexpected because there had never been one like it before. There had been suicide bombings in other countries, but no one had ever combined suicide attacks with airline hijacking. The conventional model of hijacking and hostage negotiation was not part of the plan, and few, if any, predicted that entire commercial airliners could be taken over and commandeered with items as seemingly innocuous as box cutters. Thus, most of the world was shocked when 19 men hijacked four planes on September 11, crashing three of the planes into their intended targets—the WTC towers and the Pentagon—while the fourth was brought down in a Pennsylvania field when the passengers fought to retake control of the aircraft. The attacks resulted in the destruction of the WTC towers and part of the Pentagon, with more than 3,000 civilians murdered. The size and scope of the operation are without parallel.
IV. Historical Patterns
A few patterns emerge in this brief, and by no means exhaustive, historical review of the occurrence of terrorism. These patterns have guided much of the research in academia. First, groups that employ terrorism come from a variety of ideological backgrounds. Some, like the Assassins, were religiously motivated. Others were devoted to a left or right wing political cause, such as the anarchists or the KKK. Groups such as the LTTE aimed to carve out a piece of territory for their ethnic kin. These motivations are not mutually exclusive. For example, the Sicarii were a religiously motivated group that also sought an element of territorial control. The primary lesson to draw is that no one extreme political or religious ideology dominates the use of terrorism. The backgrounds and motivations of these organizations are highly diverse, and attempting to uncover a single, overarching ideology among them all is a fruitless endeavor. Second, a similar amount of diversity is found across time and geographic region. Although the methods of implementation have shifted with technology, terrorism is not a new phenomenon, and it is not restricted to one region of the world. Third, all the previously mentioned groups, at least initially, lacked the size and ability to field regular armies that could mount a direct challenge to governmental authorities. This makes sense because, by definition, groups that use the tactic of terrorism are nonstate actors. However, some movements have grown large enough to challenge authorities by more conventional military means, being able to simultaneously pursue guerrilla campaigns or fight traditional battles while also conducting terrorist strikes. Last, the attacks conducted by various terrorists were intended to provoke a response, whether from the element of society they were challenging, the societal groups they claimed to be fighting for, or both.
V. Theoretical and Empirical Contributions to the Study of Terrorism
Terrorism studies, as a subfield of political science, are a relatively new endeavor. They do not have the level of development we find in other arenas of political science, such as the study of interstate war or internal revolutions. Despite that, there have been some major developments in the field during the past three decades. This portion of the research paper analyzes some of the seminal works on terrorism and reports some of the critical empirical conclusions from this area of study.
A. The Causes of Terrorism
1. Individual and Group Motivations
As is often the case with the study of some unique social phenomenon, the first efforts were primarily aimed at explaining its causes. There is also much to be learned from the effects of terrorism, but understanding the origins of terror is of primary importance. Jenkins (1974) produced an analysis for the U.S. Congress that contained considerable insight into the nature of terrorism. Jenkins forcefully argued against the perception that terrorism was the work of senseless, mindless, and irrational actors. Attacks on civilian targets shock the conscience, and the seemingly random, chaotic carnage that is produced by terrorism understandably gives the impression to many that it is the work of insane individuals. This impression may even be intentionally cultivated by terrorist practitioners themselves, and the media also play a role in casting terrorists as lunatics, but the evidence belies this assumption. Jenkins’s work noted that practitioners of terrorism had concrete political goals and did not simply engage in violence for the sake of violence in the way that sociopathic criminals might. Rather, because terrorist groups often lack the resources to mount a direct challenge to government security forces, they shift their focus to “softer,” less fortified targets, such as civilians. The often indiscriminant nature of attacks on civilians garners the most attention, so while the purpose of a more conventional military operation may be to take and hold a piece of territory, the terrorist attack is designed to influence an audience beyond that of the immediate victims. Often the goal is to create a climate of panic and to expose a government’s inability to prevent such indiscriminate violence. Because of these unconventional goals, Jenkins cast terrorism as a form of political “theater” in which the harm suffered by the immediate victims of terrorism is of secondary importance to the group conducting the attack. Take, for example, the September 11, 2001, attacks. The perpetrators chose targets that were steeped in symbolism. The Pentagon and the WTC were prominent symbols of American financial and military might, readily recognizable as such by both American citizens and the worldwide audience that witnessed the attacks. The attacks sent a message that the citizens and institutions within the United States mainland were not safe, and the atmosphere of fear following the attacks was palpable. The name Osama bin Laden gained universal recognition, while al Qaeda became the object of unceasing media attention. Yet despite the disastrously large death toll, the average American citizen’s chance of being harmed in such an attack remained infinitesimally small. For the average person, the chance of being felled by a heart attack or car accident was far greater than that of being struck down by al Qaeda, yet terrorism became the central issue for several election cycles following the attack. These facts give credence to Jenkins’s argument that terrorism is theater: a spectacle designed to attract maximum attention and create massive emotional impact. It became clear that one of the reasons terrorism occurs is the massive amount of attention it can attract without being cost prohibitive for small organizations.
Crenshaw (1981) was one of the earliest political scientists to conduct research on terrorism. She concluded that terrorism was not necessarily the result of broad public dissatisfaction with the political order or evidence of a fractious society. Rather, Crenshaw contended, terrorism was often the result of the grievances of a disaffected group that had originated in the elite and claimed to fight for a larger group. This conclusion was reasonable given the makeup of left-wing terrorist groups that had dominated the news in the previous two decades. While claiming to fight for the downtrodden worker, groups such as the Red Army Faction in Germany were largely composed of students from upper- or middle-class origins. Their parents were academics, clergy, writers, and other professionals, yet the students became disaffected and alienated from the societies that spawned them. Crenshaw believed that psychological factors such as guilt, desire for vengeance, and a thirst for excitement were the primary motivations of individuals who participated in terrorism.
The idea of a rational terrorist has very real policy implications for counterterrorism officials. If an enemy is mentally deranged, irrationally lashing out at random targets, there is little use in trying to predict when, where, and how that enemy will strike. However, if an enemy is calculating, weighing the costs and benefits of conducting an attack, policymakers and analysts are more likely to be able to get an idea of what targets the enemy will select and how it will attack them. It is no surprise, then, that many researchers take the rational choice approach when modeling terrorism. In this research strategy, the choice of whether to participate in terrorism is contingent on the cost–benefit ratio for the principal actor, the terrorist. Scenarios are often presented as a game wherein an actor takes a turn, choosing whether to use terrorism, and another actor, usually representing a government or counterterrorist agency, must choose a response while considering that the terrorist opponent will be trying to predict the agency’s strategy (Lake, 2002). The key, then, is determining what particular conditions create a payoff structure for potential terrorists sufficient to entice them to commit the violence despite knowing what the counter-response will be. More simply put: What conditions cause terrorism to be worthwhile to certain groups and individuals despite the risk? The following section describes various theories regarding those conditions. Attributing thought and rationality to terrorism is controversial as many are reluctant to admit any quality but insanity to such a reprehensible form of violence, but the idea of the strategic terrorist is one of the dominant themes in academic research on the matter.
However, the rational choice approach has been criticized as unrealistic. Individual interviews of terrorists have often revealed no such cost–benefit analysis among the terrorists that were studied. Sometimes the choice to participate is based on a desire for revenge rather than a sober calculation of the possible costs and payoffs. One failed suicide bomber noted his spiritual motivations for engaging in terrorism, an inspiration that is not easily modeled by rational choice (Hassan, 2001). Perhaps the only blanket statement that can be made about the “average terrorist” is that he or she is willing to undertake extreme risk. That said, different motivating factors may drive the foot soldiers of terrorist groups and their leaders. It seems more reasonable to expect that the leaders of groups that utilize terrorism do look at the “big picture” and consider the benefits and risks of various oppositional strategies.
2. Structural Causes of Terrorism
Rather than focus on the individual psychological calculations of the individual terrorist, some researchers have put forth causal arguments based on the institutional and structural features of a society. One such argument revolves around the supposed connection between poverty and terrorism.
In both the literature and the culture at large, there is an expectation of a causal relationship between poverty and terrorism. Following September 11, 2001, politicians such as former Vice President Al Gore and President George W. Bush argued that combating terrorism should involve efforts to eradicate poverty and increase education in the world’s troubled hot spots. Academics too have prescribed the lifting of living standards in various regions in the hope of creating a disincentive for participation in terrorist activities. There is good reason to think that certain socioeconomic factors are determinants of terrorism. The lack of economic and educational opportunities has already been empirically linked to a variety of other problems, such as property crime, the occurrence of civil war, and instability within new democracies. The general theory is that poverty and a lack of opportunity increase the level of grievances among economically marginalized members of society and that a subset of an aggrieved population may choose to express its discontent violently by way of terrorism. However, the actual evidence of a connection between poverty and terrorism is mixed at best. Counterfactual examples include of the finding that many of the perpetrators of the September 11, 2001, suicide attacks came from educated, middle-class backgrounds. A profile of failed Palestinian suicide bombers in The New Yorker returned the same results (Hassan, 2001). Most of the young men interviewed had held jobs, were educated, and did not come from extreme poverty. On the other side of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, an analysis of the Israeli Jewish Underground, an organization that attacked Palestinian civilians during the 1970s and 1980s, also found that a strong majority of members were highly educated and held prominent occupational positions. There is the possibility that although poverty or lack of educational opportunities is not prevalent among the practitioners of terrorism, it may be that poor socioeconomic conditions experienced by their ethnic or religious kin inspire a so-called Robin Hood model of terrorist activity. If this were the case, it would be more appropriate to analyze aggregated societal or country-level indicators of economic and educational conditions than the individual socioeconomic origins of the terrorists themselves. The empirical evidence does not conform to the conventional wisdom on that level of analysis, either. For example, a survey in the Palestinian territories found that unemployment actually reduced support for terrorism against the Israelis. Another study found that, after controlling for civil liberties (on account of the fact that poorer countries are more likely to have fewer political freedoms), there is no statistically significant difference between poor and rich countries in terms of the number of terrorists that they spawn (Krueger & Maleckova, 2003).
B. The Effects of Terrorism
The rational choice approach is particularly helpful in examining the strategic expectations that terrorist practitioners have for the consequences of their acts. Specifically, there is evidence that terrorism is used to goad an overreaction from the target government or societal group (Bueno de Mesquita & Dickson, 2007; Lake, 2002). This strategy appeared to be in play among jihadist elements of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq.
Following the 2003 invasion by the United States, Iraq experienced an influx of religiously motivated fighters from neighboring Muslim countries (quite similar to the influx of fighters into Afghanistan in response to the Soviet invasion), who claimed to battle on behalf of the minority Sunni population. The Sunnis had held a position of privilege over their Shi‘a counterparts during the rule of Saddam Hussein and were now facing the possibility of losing that status. These fighters, along with indigenous radical Iraqi Sunnis, formed the backbone of what would be known as al Qaeda of Mesopotamia. This regional al Qaeda franchise embarked on a series of gruesome executions and suicide bombings directed at the majority Shi‘a population, killing scores of civilians. While some Shi‘a leaders counseled restraint in the face of such attacks, the Shi’a population evinced a growing inclination toward self-protection and revenge. By the time al Qaeda of Mesopotamia blew up the Golden Mosque, one of Shi‘a Islam’s holiest shrines, reprisal killings directed at Sunni civilians were well under way by Shi‘a militants. In the following months, the country of Iraq descended into a vicious period of civil conflict, with spasms of indiscriminant killing on both sides (Frontline, 2007).
There is a coherent logic in attempting to spark a wider conflict through the use of terrorism. In provoking a disproportionate response by using terrorism, radical groups are able to pressure or shame moderate members of their community into supporting a violent approach. An extremist group without a large base of support can use as a recruitment tool the overreaction that they have intentionally caused. The Iraqi example was largely one of a disproportionate response from nonstate actors from one element of society directed at nonstate actors from another, but there are also examples of groups using terrorism to cause a government to overreact. The end result is the same: A disproportionate government response can radicalize previously fence-sitting moderates and drive them to support the extremists in their midst. Several rational choice studies have explicitly identified the causal link between overreaction and its effect of provoking further violence (Bueno de Mesquita & Dickson, 2007; Mason & Krane, 1989). Specifically, governments and subnational groups seeking to respond to a terrorist attack often suffer from an information problem. Because of the secretive nature of terrorist organizations, it is exceedingly difficult to identify the specific perpetrators and punish only them. Often, the counterattack response to terrorism is indiscriminate, harming people who had no connection with the original terrorist activity. This was certainly the case in Iraq, where simply having a Sunni-sounding last name was often enough to warrant execution by Shi‘a militia members. Imagine, then, how the calculated expectation of the risk of participating in violence changes for an individual in the face of indiscriminant violence. Beforehand, the level of risk derived from joining a violent organization exceeded the potential payoff gained by simply sitting on the sidelines and waiting the conflict out. In the face of indiscriminant violence, where one is equally likely to be harmed regardless of whether he or she had previously participated in violent activity, it becomes less risky to join a violent organization. In fact, it may appear to be in an individual’s best interest to join such a group because at least the individual is offered an element of protection by doing so. It is no surprise, then, that from the Sicarii to al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, terrorism has been strategically employed to foment higher levels of violence and gain supporters.
1. The Economic Effects of Terrorism
Assessing the economic impact of terrorism has proven to be one of the most quantitatively rigorous areas in the field of terrorism studies. Economic damage has been an implicit or explicit motive behind several terrorist movements. Osama bin Laden drew lessons from the economic toll inflicted on the Soviet Union during its invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and advised his followers to conduct strikes on Middle Eastern oil facilities in hopes of causing similar economic pain on the energy-reliant Western nations (Associated Press, 2004). Based on the logic that violence will reduce an important source of revenue for the target government, many high-profile attacks are conducted at popular tourist destinations. Indeed, an economic analysis by Enders and Sandler (1991) of terrorist attacks in Spain found that the average attack caused the number of tourists visiting the nation to decrease by approximately 140,000 people in a year. A similar investigation of terror attacks in Italy determined that a typical strike resulted in a shock to the level of tourism that took a full year to dissipate (Enders, Sandler, & Parise, 1992). Beyond affecting specific industries, terrorism appears to have macroeconomic consequences as well. It is interesting that, although terrorist attacks appear to have only a temporary, and small, negative impact on the gross domestic product of nations, a more significant and positive relationship exists between terrorism and government spending (Blomberg, Hess, & Orphanides, 2004). While the goal of an attack may be to cause economic harm by bleeding a government, an ironic consequence is that governments respond to an attack by investing in counterterrorist measures that require matériel and personnel, thus mitigating some of the economic damage caused by the strike.
2. The Consequences of Suicide Attacks
Scholarly analysis has demonstrated that suicide bombing, although horrific and repugnant, can produce tangible benefits for groups seeking political change through violence. Sprinzak (2000) noted that suicide bombing is one of the most psychologically effective methods because it communicates the message that there is no deterrent that can dissuade the attacker. Before the popularization of suicide bombing by groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka during the 1980s, it was largely, and erroneously, assumed that, although willing to engage in extreme risk-taking behavior, even terrorist practitioners put a certain premium on their own lives. However, as studies by Sprinzak and a highly influential piece by Pape (2003) observed, what may seem irrational on an individual level may be quite logical at the group level. That is, terrorist groups may benefit from the use of individual members to conduct suicide attacks, whereas the individual conducting the attack may not.
In addition to the psychological impact suicide terrorism causes, the tactic offers several advantages for groups willing to engage in extreme violence. First, in terms of material cost, suicide terrorism is cheap. The amount of explosive needed to rig a human bomb is small, and the monetary costs for acquiring the components are minimal to the group. Second, the operational complexity of planning a suicide attack is greatly reduced when there is no need for an exit strategy for the attacker. Third, the suicide attack is, on average, more deadly than any other form of terrorism. Pape’s most controversial argument concerned the effect of suicide attacks. He argued that the reason suicide attacks increased in popularity is that terrorist groups observed that they were successful in gaining territorial concessions from democratic states. For example, Hezbollah successfully drove the U.S. Marines and French paratroopers out of Lebanon following two massive suicide bombings. The use of suicide terrorism by the LTTE coerced the Sri Lankan government into establishing an autonomous region for the ethnic Tamils in the early 1990s. Israel abandoned the Gaza Strip and West Bank in the mid- 1990s as a consequence of being targeted by suicide bombers. Pape believed that democracies are susceptible to the effects of suicide bombing because, unlike autocracies, they are accountable to a public that recoils at such attacks. The free and open media that are characteristic of a democracy are also better able to publicize attacks than are their state-controlled counterparts in autocracies.
There are some shortcomings with Pape’s work. Some of the targeted nations characterized as democracies in his analysis did not possess convincing democratic credentials. There are also cases of suicide attacks directed at decidedly authoritarian regimes, such as the Saudi monarchy. Furthermore, because of the closed nature of the media in authoritarian states, many examples of suicide bombings may have gone unreported. Ultimately, though, Pape’s argument can be extended to terrorism in general: It is popular because it sometimes works in achieving the goals of the groups that use it.
This research paper has illuminated several aspects of the form of political violence known as terrorism. The phenomenon differs from other forms of political violence. It has occurred within many different periods, regions, and cultures and has been executed under a variety of ideological auspices. The theoretical and empirical contributions of various social scientists have advanced the study of terrorism into an academic subfield with significant explanatory power.
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