Posted by: Tobias | October 8, 2008

Models of terrorism

Bruce Schneier writes on what motivates people to become terrorists and what this means for how to deal with them most effectively:

Conventional wisdom holds that terrorism is inherently political, and that people become terrorists for political reasons. This is the “strategic” model of terrorism, and it’s basically an economic model. It posits that people resort to terrorism when they believe — rightly or wrongly — that terrorism is worth it; that is, when they believe the political gains of terrorism minus the political costs are greater than if they engaged in some other, more peaceful form of protest. It’s assumed, for example, that people join Hamas to achieve a Palestinian state; that people join the PKK to attain a Kurdish national homeland; and that people join al-Qaida to, among other things, get the United States out of the Persian Gulf.

[Max Abrahms, a predoctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation] has an alternative model to explain all this: People turn to terrorism for social solidarity. He theorizes that people join terrorist organizations worldwide in order to be part of a community, much like the reason inner-city youths join gangs in the United States.

The evidence supports this. Individual terrorists often have no prior involvement with a group's political agenda, and often join multiple terrorist groups with incompatible platforms. Individuals who join terrorist groups are frequently not oppressed in any way, and often can't describe the political goals of their organizations. People who join terrorist groups most often have friends or relatives who are members of the group, and the great majority of terrorist are socially isolated: unmarried young men or widowed women who weren't working prior to joining. These things are true for members of terrorist groups as diverse as the IRA and al-Qaida.



  1. Interesting aspect. I find it harder however to reconcile suicide bombers with the second theory, than with the first one.

    In case of the first theory, the costs of a suicide attack, incl. above all the own life, is traded off by the expected gains, in terms of political consequences and the benefits of become a martyr (honour, fame, loads of virgins and that kind of stuff…). Maybe it’s my conditioning as an economist, but I perceive this cost-benefit analysis to be fairly realistic.

    The alternative theory argues that people become terrorists for the spirit of being involved in such a group. This resembles the explanation of why (mostly young) people are attracted by right wing extremist groups. If Abrahms claims now however that these individuals are neither oppressed by other members of the group, nor very dedicated to the goals of this group, I find it hard to explain why they would sacrifice their life in a suicide bombing.

    Maybe you have an explanation for this.

  2. My guess would be that when joining the group you don’t plan to become a suicide bomber. But once you get accustomed to the appreciation received in the group, the internal social pressure can force you to do so: better to die in honour than to live in shame; you need to practice what to preach; things like that.

    Why do they then join in the first place? Same reason people start smoking or take drugs, the behaviouralist in me needs to say: temporal discounting.

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