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What Terrorists Really Want:
Terrorist Motives and Counterterrorism Strategy

Original Article By: Max Abrahms
International Security Fall 2008 vol 32 no 4
Major Topic: Politics
Minor Topic: Psychology


         The most popular paradigm that is thought to explain terrorist behavior, is called the strategic model. It claims that terrorists are political utility maximizers. If it is valid then the best counterterrorism strategy involves actions that reduce the utility of terrorism as a political tool.

         The strategic model has three premises: (1) Terrorists have stable and consistent political goals which are their primary motivation. (2) Terrorists engage in a cost-benefit analysis before deciding on a course of action. (3) Terrorism is chosen when it has a better chance of succeeding in achieving the terrorists' political goals than other courses of action. However there are seven widespread proclivities among terrorist groups that call into question the strategic model's assumptions.

         The Author's Thesis is that: “... the strategic model misspecifies terrorists' incentive structure; the preponderance of empirical and theoretical evidence reveals that terrorists are rational people who use terrorism primarily to develop strong affective ties with fellow terrorists.” (page 80)

         The strategic model is an adaptation of classical economics' rational agent theory which assumes all rational agents have a goal, make calculations and choose the best option in terms of the goal. Terrorists are assumed to have a certain political objective (or objectives) as a goal. They are assumed to make calculations to determine the best coarse of action to reach their goal. They are assumed to choose terrorism because of its high utility. However, terrorist organizations exhibit puzzling behavior that cast doubt on the strategic model's presumptions.

         First puzzling behavior, strategic (as opposed to redemptive) terrorist attacks on civilians have always failed to get all of their political objectives. In fact attacking civilians usually makes the terrorist's goals harder to accomplish. This form of terrorism is politically fruitless so one wonders how rational actors can continue to choose it as means to their ends.

         Second puzzling behavior, since there are often other means to achieve political goals (except in the case fiercely totalitarian states – which seem to be immune to terrorist attacks), it would seem that terrorism is not actually a last resort. Democracies have been willing to negotiate and redress grievances yet it seems that some terrorist groups start off by engaging in terrorism rather than reconciling their differences with the state.

         Third puzzling behavior, terrorists seem to be unwilling to negotiate even directly and when it is clear that they could make huge gains in their program. It seems they prefer continued confrontation which seems to be working against their official goals.

         Fourth puzzling behavior, terrorist leaders seem to be forever changing their political goals. Sometimes even adopting contrary or opposing goals. This is evidence against the strategic model's assumption of terrorists having consistent goals.

         Fifth puzzling behavior, most terrorist attacks are anonymous and the percentage is rising. Furthermore many attacks for which responsibility is claimed, do not come with any demands. How do terrorists expect to get concessions if they do not ask for them?

         Sixth puzzling behavior, terrorist groups often fight each other even when they have similar goals. If goals were of primary importance, rational agents would work together yet this does not appear to be the case.

         Seventh puzzling behavior, some terrorist groups can last a long time without any success in reaching their goals. It may be that at first they made a mistake but after many years of failure, it seems that the goals are not the real reason.

         We are left with two possible solutions: terrorists are irrational (for which there is plenty of evidence to the contrary) or terrorists' goals are different from the official goals they claim.

         The author claims that a better reason, one that takes into account the seven puzzling behaviors, is that terrorists join terrorist groups for “social solidarity, not for their political return” (page 94)

         Organizational theories, in particular the natural systems model can give some important insight.

         The natural systems model claims that there is a difference between the official goals of an organization and the goals of the individuals in the organization. Sometimes the goals may be in concert but more often they are not related. Further, in difficult times when the organization is in danger and if the organization's benefit to individuals is high, the organization will act more to further its own continued existence rather than work towards its official goals.

         The author believe that it is more accurate to say terrorists join terrorist groups for social solidarity. If this is true then there should be some evidence that (1) people have joined for personal reasons rather than for the official reasons the group promotes and (2) that, at the organizational level, terrorist groups have worked to keep the group going strong at the expense of their official goals. There is evidence and growing support for this claim.

         The author elucidates nine points in support of his belief.

         First, terrorist groups seem to inordinately attract people who are socially disaffected and/or alienated.

         Second, a huge percentage of captured terrorists claim that they joined for friendship rather than for a cause.

         Third, the proximate cause for joining a terrorist group was because a friend or family member was involved.

         Fourth, case studies have shown that terrorists stay in and continue with the group to improve relationships and/or reduce their feelings of loneliness.

         Fifth, in interviews with many terrorists (even their leaders), it has become clear that very few develop a strong comprehension of their group's official goals and philosophy.

         Sixth, recruitment is focused on the lonely and rejected rather than on people who have expressed commitment to the official goals of the group.

         Seventh, although terrorist acts rarely achieve their goals, they have been shown to help increase fellowship, esprit de corps and membership.

         Eight, terrorists seem to like hanging out together regardless of their political cause as the ethnic diversity and popularity of training camps has shown.

         Ninth, the death of some terrorist groups seems to be related to a generation gap which has made some groups less socially interesting to join. In these cases the dearth of recruits ended the terrorist group.

         For these reasons the author believes that terrorist groups are better defined as social solidarity maximizers rather than as political utility maximizers. If this is true then the seven puzzling behaviors make more sense. These behaviors do not promote the groups political agenda rather they reinforce the terrorist group's reason for being and prolong the group's existence.

         Today the top three most popular counterterrorism strategies assume terrorist are political utility maximizers. The fist strategy to reduce terrorism's political utility is a non-negotiation policy. The second strategy is to negotiate (but not directly with the terrorist group) in order to reduce conflict and make accommodations. The third strategy is to promote democracy so as to empower citizens. The author believes that these strategies have not worked well.

         A better counterterrorism strategy should take into account supply side and demand side factors in light of terrorists' true motivations. On the supply side law enforcement should look closer at the estranged groups in society and then look specifically at the contacts of known terrorists. On the demand side there are two strategies. First, the government should seek to reduce the social utility of terrorist organizations by seeking individual betrayals and infiltrating the groups with double agents. Second, the government ought to find better ways to integrate the alienated populations into the mainstream.

Added on: 2009-04-20 00:36:16
Précis by: James Jeff McLaren
© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren