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Global (Un)Civil Society. Terrorism. The Puzzle. Peter Benenson, Founder, Amnesty International. Osama bin Laden, Founder, al-Qaeda. Why do some transnational groups -- commonly known as terrorists -- resort to violence to achieve their aims?

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Presentation Transcript
the puzzle
The Puzzle

Peter Benenson, Founder, Amnesty International

Osama bin Laden, Founder, al-Qaeda

  • Why do some transnational groups -- commonly known as terrorists -- resort to violence to achieve their aims?
  • Or, what do these two guys have in common -- and not?
what is terrorism
What is Terrorism?
  • Premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience .
    • Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f(d)).
  • “State terrorism” replaces “sub-national groups or clandestine agents” with “governments.”
why violence
Why Violence?
  • Like states, groups use violence to impose a solution or raise costs to other side to elicit concessions. Terrorism is a form of bargaining.
  • Do not need to agree on principles to negotiate and find compromises. Bargaining is zero-sum.
  • Terrorism is simply another bargaining failure. The same reasons that lead states to go to war, lead groups to use violence.
are terrorists rational
Are Terrorists Rational?
  • Terrorist demands are “unreasonable.”
    • Rationality refers only to strategy, not goals.
  • Suicide bombers are “nuts” or deluded.
    • Willingness to sacrifice one’s self for a cause is a general phenomenon.
  • Attacks are random and, therefore, are not “strategic.”
    • If object is to induce fear, then randomization can be a strategy.
which groups choose terror
Which Groups Choose Terror?
  • Terrorism is asymmetrical warfare.
    • States are always stronger than terrorist groups, but not so strong that they can deter all attacks.
    • Object of terrorist is not to defeat the target’s military, but to inflict pain to induce political change.
    • Terrorists are not inherently weaker than states; rather groups choose terrorism when they are too weak to fight the state directly.
which groups choose terror11
Which Groups Choose Terror?

“Extremists” are weak relative to the goals they seek. That is, they lack significant popular support.


Left Extremists






terrorist organizations
Terrorist Organizations
  • Terrorist organizations take many forms, but often are highly decentralized networks with many “cells.” Networks are robust to penetration or counter-attack.
    • Al-Qaeda has metastasized from a “networked” hierarchy to a decentralized network after the fall of Afghanistan.
  • Terrorists hide within sympathetic populations.
fear of defection
Fear of Defection
  • Terrorist groups are extremely sensitive to defection, which threatens to reveal information about members, supporters, strategies, etc.
    • Networked organization limits consequences of information leakage.
  • Religious organizations that have solved the defection problem have a “comparative advantage” in terrorism should they choose to be violent.
    • Religious groups are not more violent, but successful terrorist groups are likely to be religious.
terrorism from incomplete information
Terrorism from Incomplete Information
  • Terrorists have private information that they cannot credibly reveal to targets.
    • Information asymmetries likely to be large -- groups have uncertain capabilities.
    • Groups have incentives to exaggerate their capabilities and resolve.
    • Cannot reveal their strategies without vitiating their effectiveness.
    • Threats are often inherently not credible.
terrorism from commitment problems
Terrorism from Commitment Problems
  • To reach agreement, terrorists must credibly commit not to stage future attacks.
  • Most effective way is to disarm and give third party access to organization, but this then reduces the power of the group and the likelihood that the target will honor the agreement.
strategies of terrorism coercion
Target is uncertain about group’s capabilities or resolve (purple arrow).

Group attacks to make its demands credible (red arrow). Attack is a form of costly signaling.

Strategies of Terrorism: Coercion





Ex.: Sunni attacks on U.S. and Shiites in Iraq.

strategies of terrorism provocation
Home society or state is uncertain about preferences of Target.

Is Target imperialist?

Terrorist attacks Target to provoke a response.

Since Target cannot identify Terrorist precisely, collateral damage to Home.

Home “updates” its beliefs about Target’s preferences.

It really is imperialist.

Strategies of Terrorism: Provocation





Ex: Al-Qaeda attacks on 9/11; Palestinian attacks on Israel.

strategies of terrorism spoiling
Target is uncertain about Home’s ability or desire to honor agreement and restrain extremists.

Terrorists attack Target, and Target updates its beliefs that Home cannot control Terrorists.

Target more likely to reject agreement as not credible.

Strategies of Terrorism: Spoiling





Ex.: Hamas attacks prior to Israeli elections in 1996 and 2001.

strategies of terrorism outbidding
Home is uncertain about Terrorist’s preferences

Which group is more committed?

Terrorists attack Target to demonstrate capabilities and commitment to Home.

Strategies of Terrorism: Outbidding





Ex.: Fatah v. Hamas in West Bank.

can terrorism be prevented
Can Terrorism Be Prevented?
  • Problems of incomplete information and credible commitment will require groups to launch attacks to demonstrate that they can.
  • We will never “win” a “global war on terror.”
can terrorism be deterred
Can Terrorism Be Deterred?
  • Threats intended to prevent an actor from taking an undesired action.
    • Nuclear deterrence during Cold War.
  • “Terrorists do not have an address.”
    • But all individuals and groups operate from somewhere.
  • Real issue is credibility of target’s threat.
    • Would we be willing obliterate Pakistan because al-Qaeda operates from within its borders?
what can be done
What Can Be Done?
  • Defensive measures (airport security, border defenses).
  • Criminalize terrorism and hunt down terrorists.
  • Preventive attacks on terrorist networks.
  • Benign counter-terrorism.
should we bargain with terrorists
Should We Bargain with Terrorists?
  • More and better information is always better than less. Intelligence is essential. Must understand your enemy.
    • Today, intelligence is directed mostly toward counter-terrorism to prevent attacks and destroy groups.
  • Should we negotiate?
    • Current stance is that we do not negotiate with terrorists,
    • but we do make concessions (ex.: U.S. withdrawal of combat forces from Saudi Arabia in 2003).
    • If terrorism is a product of bargaining failures, should we bargain with terrorists?