Does Terrorism Really Pay Politically?

If the conventional wisdom is correct that terrorism pays politically, then blowing up civilians is perfectly rational political behavior, and deterring aggrieved groups therefore rests on issuing moral appeals to depraved leaders such as Osama bin Laden. Fortunately, terrorism is a suboptimal political tactic, arming governments with a ready-made message to deter the aggrieved from attacking our populations. Paddy Hillyard raises two methodological objections with this empirical finding of mine, but both are misplaced.

His first objection pertains to my coding of whether terrorism is politically effective behavior. In my large-n regression analyses, the dependent variable I typically employ is the extent to which terrorism advances the political platforms of the perpetrators relative to alternative tactics available to them. Only if terrorism were not generally understood as a tactic used mainly for coercing policy concessions would progress on them be an inappropriate measure of success. In fact, Hillyard’s recommendation for the international community to provide terrorists with nonviolent outlets for realizing their policy demands likewise assumes that progress in realizing them is how terrorists evaluate their own political advancement. Yet rather than showing how terrorists achieve their political platforms by coercing government compliance, Hillyard focuses on how this tactic tends to lead to government overreaction. In practice, these two government responses—compliance and overreaction—are actually polar opposites. According to his logic, terrorism invariably becomes a win-win political proposition; regardless of its effect on governments, the tactic always pays.

To be fair, this common conceptual error is rooted in our genes. In the 1970s, the social psychologist Edward Jones developed a concept called Correspondent Inference to explain the cognitive process by which an observer infers the intentions of an actor. In the lab, Jones discovered that people typically infer the intentions of others directly from the immediate consequences of their actions. To illustrate the correspondence that observers draw between the effect and objective of an actor, he offered this simple example: if a boy notices his mother close the door and the room becomes less noisy, he will naturally conclude that she shut the door to silence the racket from outside. Due to this common heuristic of inferring intentions directly from visible outcomes, terrorists are often credited with purposefully achieving the exact opposite of their stated political preferences—namely, by mobilizing target countries into becoming more hawkish militarily toward the very people the terrorists claim to be defending. We saw my theory in action after 9/11, when the terrorist “masterminds” were exalted for the “sophistication” of their attacks that led the United States to increase its troop presence in the Persian Gulf by a factor of fifteen. In the minds of many observers, bin Laden’s goal had apparently shifted overnight from trying to drive the United States out of the Gulf to trying to provoke the long-term Western occupation of it.

Observers have drawn the same kind of faulty correspondence from the consequences of terrorism inside of the American homeland. When Americans became hesitant to fly after the four planes were hijacked on 9/11, President George W. Bush concluded that the terrorists evidently “want us to stop flying.” To Bush, the post-9/11 economic contraction likewise revealed that “The terrorists want our economy to stop.” Similarly, with American civil liberties restricted in the wake of the attacks, he proclaimed that al-Qaeda apparently “hates freedom” and “seeks to destroy our freedom.”[1] Because al-Qaeda and its affiliates are essentially mute on these topics, it is difficult to imagine anymore ascribing them to the terrorists had Americans not been hesitant to fly and worried about their economic and political future in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Certainly, the post-9/11 response has been extremely costly to the United States, but war is not a zero-sum game in which our losses necessarily spell al-Qaeda gains. Taking my shoes off at O’Hare does not curb U.S. Middle East policy.

Hillyard’s second objection pertains to my coding of the independent variable. As a terrorist splitter, I define terrorism narrowly as a substate attack against a civilian target for a putative political goal. As a terrorist lumper, by contrast, Hillyard brooks no distinction between this tactic and a guerrilla attack against a military target. Hillyard rejects on practical grounds our ability to distinguish terrorist attacks against civilians versus guerrilla attacks against military personnel, offering the admittedly ambiguous case of a pub occupied by off-duty soldiers. Like international law, however, the leading terrorism datasets which I use for the coding, such as the Global Terrorism Database, are almost always able to distinguish between civilian and military targets. The more interesting question, it seems to me, is not whether a perceptible difference exists between the many disparate forms of behavior that are regularly lumped together under the clumpy rubric of terrorism or political violence, but whether splitting up these behaviors into conceptually like units can yield clearer insights for formulating government countermeasures.

[1] Quoted in Richard A. Clarke, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror (New York: NY, Free Press, 2004), 17.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In his lead essay, sociologist Paddy Hillyard argues that “terrorism,” as a term, unduly empowers both state and non-state actors who engage in violence: Terrorists, so called, gain in prestige and publicity; governments, who claim to protect us against terrorists, typically resort to improper coercion, destroy civil liberties, and alienate large segments of the governed population — who then turn to terrorism. Hillyard suggests that “political violence” would be a more useful because more analytically neutral term, one that potentially embraces both state and nonstate violence for political ends.

Response Essays

  • Max Abrahms cautions against lumping together all groups found under the terrorist label. Not all political violence is alike. Significant differences exist, he argues, between terrorists who target civilians and those who attack military targets. The former tend not to achieve their stated political goals — and this is a usable message for governments wishing to protect their populations. If terrorists don’t achieve their political objectives when they attack civilians, we should ask what other motivations they may have, and address those as well.

  • Risa Brooks casts doubt on the correlation between democracy and terrorism prevention, and likewise the correlation between prosperity and terrorism prevention. We commonly observe terrorist organizations with political wings or allied political parties, for example. And many terrorists are well-educated, middle-class individuals. Further, many very poor societies have little terrorism to speak of. Addressing the root causes of terrorism is a noble goal, but these causes may be so idiosyncratic or so driven by small group dynamics that we can’t easily reach them via public policy.

  • Paul Pillar makes the case for clarity of terms in the debate over terrorism. He first argues that this area of public policy is especially burdened by loaded language. He next proposes a definition of the word terrorism on which he thinks he and Paddy Hillyard can agree. Finally, he suggests that labels for various violent acts may work to obscure the difficult issues underlying them. If so, we should return to these fundamentals, and agree to put debate over the labels aside.