Saturday, October 11, 2008

What terrorists really want

Max Abrahms, a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, has written an excellent paper What Terrorists Really Want: Terrorist Motives and Counterterrorism Strategy

"What do terrorists want? No question is more fundamental for devising an effective counterterrorism strategy. The international community cannot expect to make terrorism unprofitable and thus scarce without knowing the incentive structure of its practitioners. The strategic model—the dominant paradigm in terrorism studies—posits that terrorists are political utility maximizers. According to this view, individuals resort to terrorism when the expected political gains minus the expected costs outweigh the net expected benefits of alternative forms of protest. The strategic model has widespread currency in the policy community; extant counterterrorism strategies seek to defeat terrorism by reducing its political utility. The most common strategies are to fight terrorism by decreasing its political benefits via a strict no concessions policy; decreasing its prospective political benefits via appeasement; or decreasing its political benefits relative to nonviolence via democracy promotion. Despite its policy relevance, the strategic model has not been tested. This is the first study to comprehensively assess its empirical validity. The actual record of terrorist behavior does not conform to the strategic model's premise that terrorists are rational actors primarily motivated to achieving political ends. The preponderance of empirical and theoretical evidence is that terrorists are rational people who use terrorism primarily to develop strong affective ties with fellow terrorists. Major revisions in both the dominant paradigm in terrorism studies and the policy community's basic approach to fighting terrorism are consequently in order...

Demand-side strategies should focus on divesting terrorism's social utility, in two ways. First, it is vital to drive a wedge between organization members. Since the advent of modern terrorism in the late 1960s, the sole counter-terrorism strategy that was a clear-cut success attacked the social bonds of the terrorist organization, not its utility as a political instrument. By commuting prison sentences in the early 1980s in exchange for actionable intelligence against their fellow Brigatisti, the Italian government infiltrated the Red Brigades, bred mistrust and resentment among the members, and quickly rolled up the organization. Similar deals should be cut with al-Qaida in cases where detainees' prior involvement in terrorism and their likelihood of rejoining the underground are minor. Greater investment in developing and seeding double agents will also go a long way toward weakening the social ties undergirding terrorist organizations and cells around the world. Second, counter-terrorism strategies must reduce the demand for at-risk populations to turn to terrorist organizations in the first place. To lessen Muslims' sense of alienation from democratic societies, these societies must improve their records of cracking down on bigotry, supporting hate-crime legislation, and most crucially, encouraging moderate places of worship—an important alternative for dislocated youth to develop strong affective ties with politically moderate peers and mentors."

Makes a lot of sense. The full paper is here. Thanks to Ian Brown and Bruce Schneier for the pointer. Schneier says:

"This kind of analysis isn't just theoretical; it has practical
implications for counterterrorism. Not only can we now better understand
who is likely to become a terrorist, we can engage in strategies
specifically designed to weaken the social bonds within terrorist
organizations. Driving a wedge between group members -- commuting prison
sentences in exchange for actionable intelligence, planting more double
agents within terrorist groups -- will go a long way to weakening the
social bonds within those groups.

We also need to pay more attention to the socially marginalized than to
the politically downtrodden, like unassimilated communities in Western
countries. We need to support vibrant, benign communities and
organizations as alternative ways for potential terrorists to get the
social cohesion they need. And finally, we need to minimize collateral
damage in our counterterrorism operations, as well as clamping down on
bigotry and hate crimes, which just creates more dislocation and social
isolation, and the inevitable calls for revenge."

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