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Terrorism is not about Terror

32 Post author: gwern 24 March 2009 05:08PM
Statistical analysis of terrorist groups' longevity, aims, methods and successes reveal that groups are self-contradictory and self-sabotaging, generally ineffective; common stereotypes like terrorists being poor or ultra-skilled are false. Superficially appealing counter-examples are discussed and rejected. Data on motivations and the dissolution of terrorist groups are brought into play and the surprising conclusion reached: terrorism is a form of socialization or status-seeking.



Comments (25)

Comment author: scientism 24 March 2009 11:43:52PM *  16 points [-]

I believe there are studies of crime that come to similar conclusions - i.e., criminality tends not to be profitable and it's more about social networks. I think a lot of irrational behavior has similar explanations. We need to cast our net wider. Why do people become musicians? Why do they become artists and entertainers? In these cases there's the complication of the audience but all of the activities are very strange indeed if you take a step back and look at them. Playing one of the many odd instruments available or putting paint to canvas are strange behaviors (putting aside talk of creativity, expression, etc, which offer little insight IMO and just serve to obscure what's genuinely interesting about these activities). It's all about niche building. A set of historically contingent social and technological factors have coalesced on the possibility of finding a place in society doing something as odd as playing the violin. Nobody just woke up one morning and thought "let's blow into a hollowed out piece of wood" or "let's get a group of people together and pretend to be other people while a larger group of people watch." There's a long, strange history to these things. The factors involved are super-personal.

Religion is another excellent example. Some people have managed to find a place in the world as celibate monks. It's not a matter of personal irrationality but rather a society that, through a sequence of strange and historically contingent machinations, has settled on a state where one can indeed "have a living" as a celibate monk. Given this, it's little wonder we find people who choose to be celibate monks in our society; such a choice is not irrational on the personal scale on which most people live their lives. Terrorism is the same; we have terrorists because society, for whatever reason, has coalesced on a situation where one can find satisfaction through being a member of a terrorist organization. One can have ones human needs satisfied; including social relationships, status and a sense of worth. Ideologies don't physically exist. Groups have ideologies. To have an ideology there must first be a set of people, a tightly knit social group, to espouse it. Much like religion I doubt the content of the ideology matters much; the form of the ideology, indeed, probably has more to do with how it fits the daily activities of group members rather than as something outsiders can understand (as is probably the case with religion). The concepts probably form a social exchange for in-group cohesion and should be analyzed as such.

This, I think, is the correct level to study these things. Don't look at the ideology; look at the actual material embodiment of that ideology, the group that espouses it, and ask yourself not "How do people believe this nonsense?" or "Why do people believe something so irrational?" but "How does this group of people sustain itself?" and "What role does this way of speaking and way of interpreting events play in sustaining in-group cohesion?"

Comment author: Annoyance 24 March 2009 05:27:36PM 7 points [-]

People like belonging to tribes. They like believing that the tribe to which they belong is powerful and can exercise its influence.

Isn't it possible that many terrorist acts are really for the purpose of making the terrorists feel better about themselves and their in-groups? Like teenagers playing pranks, only with often-lethal consequences.

Another question: how well would you say the movie Fight Club demonstrates this hypothesis in action?

Comment author: gwern 24 March 2009 11:09:34PM 6 points [-]

I'd say Fight Cub illustrates it very well. Just compare the protagonist's social life before the movement (he knows no one, he's doing very strange things for companionship), and all the friends/followers he has during it.

As for the in-group: I'm not sure it fits. The surveys cite friends, remember, not specific grievances. And the waves of recruitment to al-Qaeda such as the 9/11 one seem to follow humiliation of out-groups. This fits with the social model - al-Qaeda has become of higher social status, and possibly safer to join - but not with the feel-better model. 9/11 made them feel better! Why would they join after feeling better, instead of joining before to contribute to feeling better?

Comment author: [deleted] 25 March 2009 12:28:53AM *  4 points [-]

Fight Club demonstrates this perfectly (even more perfectly in the book, when it's made clear that the main characters entire goal is to get a woman). Men who feel pointless, empty, marginalized by the system they live in are willing to do anything to achieve high-status and a sense of purpose. This so closely resembles terrorism that I would be more interested in terrorist groups and acts that can't be traced to some sort of status or purpose-seeking, as I imagine they are few and far between.

Comment author: InsertUsernameHere 06 October 2015 05:01:48AM 1 point [-]

Fight club doesn't demonstrate anything, because it didn't happen (on account of being a story).

Comment author: cabalamat 24 March 2009 08:48:17PM 4 points [-]

Terrorism is partly about socialising, but I don't think that can be the whole story, for two reasons:

  • If terrorism is just about socialising why don't they just go down the pub or whatever -- it's far less likely to get you killed or banged up.

  • Socialising is a human universal, so what makes different societies have different amounts of terrorism?

Comment author: gwern 24 March 2009 11:01:33PM 8 points [-]

If terrorism is just about socialising why don't they just go down the pub or whatever -- it's far less likely to get you killed or banged up.

If I may, can't this question be asked another way? If we look at non-terrorist mass murders (curiously, Koreans have set records both in America and worldwide; Woo Bum-kon killed 58 people, and Seung-Hui Cho 32), we notice that they rarely involve extremely elaborate preparations. One has the impression that Seung could've finished all his preparations in just a few hours, even counting the trips to the gun store, videos, letters etc.

Given that it's so easy to kill a large number of people in an immediately doable way, and that methods like just walking around and shooting people are so effective, why do terrorists so rarely actually attack? And why do they carry out such elaborate and relatively ineffective attacks when they actually do? For every effective attack like 9/11, there are multiple attacks which kill only 1 or 2 people or even just the terrorist.

If I may, the social explanation works better. Have you never discussed flipping out or going postal or carrying out a terrorist attack with your friends? Have you noticed that always it is the elaborate and fun-to-discuss attacks you discuss?

No terrorist says to himself, I'm going to follow a boring but effective strategy: I'll enlist, get sniper training, and kill a couple hundred civilians - even though Simo Häyhä killed over 500 Russians under conditions of war and even as the Russians were specifically targeting him and calling in artillery strikes. This kind of strategy would accomplish much more than a regular suicide bombing, but they never do it or any halfway effective strategy. (I refer again to "Why Terrorism doesn't work"; if many terrorists failed to adopt effective strategies, that'd be one thing - but just about all of them?)

Comment author: talisman 25 March 2009 02:33:56AM *  4 points [-]

Modeling terrorists as trying to kill as many people as possible strikes me as insufficient. In Terror and Consent, Philip Bobbitt models their aims as propagandistic, which feels more like the right angle---hence the focus on inefficient but spectacular killing.

Comment author: gwern 25 March 2009 03:38:30AM 4 points [-]

This would, I think, fall afoul of Abrahm's point, '5) terrorist organizations generally carry out anonymous attacks, precluding target countries from making policy concessions;'. It's hard to be propagandistic if it's unclear what this deed is the propaganda of.

Comment author: talisman 25 March 2009 03:55:09AM 3 points [-]

Hm. I'm far from an expert, and it could well be that there are ten times as many anonymous attacks, but off the top of my head I think of WTC '93, the Millenium plot, 9/11, London trains, Madrid trains, Israel suicide bombings, Munich massacre, Iraq beheadings, USS Cole, bombings of US embassies.

Not off the top of my head: Golden Mosque bombing, Tamil Tigers numerous bombings, IRA-related terrorism, etc. Scanning through this I find many more terrorist attacks that were done with a clear political or propaganda purpose.

Comment author: gwern 25 March 2009 04:57:03PM *  2 points [-]

...it could well be that there are ten times as many anonymous attacks...

No, it's not quite that bad! It's more like twice as many:

"Since the emergence of modern terrorism in 1968, 64% of worldwide terrorist attacks have been carried out by unknown perpetrators. Anonymous terrorism has been rising, with 3 out of 4 attacks going unclaimed since September 11, 2001. Anonymous terrorism is particularly prevalent in Iraq, where the US military has struggled to determine whether the violence was perpetrated by Shiite or Sunni groups with vastly different political platforms."

Abrahms references his analysis of a RAND dataset, and also Bruce Hoffman's "Why Terrorists Don't Claim Credit" (in Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol 9 #1 1997). I haven't read the latter, but his analysis seems enough for me.

I think there's definitely something of a mental bias here - it's vastly easier to remember the rare dramatic attack (which sooner or later someone will claim credit for) than the many anonymous ones.

Comment author: thomblake 02 April 2009 03:51:11PM 1 point [-]

A good heuristic I use when I'm tempted to write comments such as these: "The plural of anecdote is not data!"

Note also that attacks for a reason may well be more memorable than anonymous attacks.

Comment author: gwern 02 April 2009 07:39:01PM 0 points [-]

Funny thing about your comment is that just yesterday I was reading about a large anonymous terrorist attacks that authorities were trying to figure out who was responsible for.

I'd tell you more, but I've forgotten how many people died and where it was.

Comment author: gwern 29 November 2010 12:44:31AM *  0 points [-]

Incidentally, I've expanded my above comment into an essay called 'Terrorism is not Effective' (http://www.gwern.net/Terrorism%20is%20not%20Effective).

Comment author: pwno 24 March 2009 11:48:45PM 0 points [-]

Maybe they want to associate themselves with a high status group rather than any other one? Terrorist organizations have money and a purpose after all.

Comment author: teageegeepea 25 March 2009 06:18:31AM *  3 points [-]

There was a Slate article that discussed the theory here, among others. The RAND corporation seem to give the most direct response to this theory.

Comment author: RobinHanson 25 March 2009 07:54:20PM 4 points [-]

This is a fine X is not about X example. :)

Comment author: PhilGoetz 25 March 2009 09:50:51PM 1 point [-]

1) terrorist organizations do not achieve their stated political goals by attacking civilians; 2) terrorist organizations never use terrorism as a last resort and seldeom seize opportunities to become productive nonviolent political parties; 3) terrorist organizations reflexively reject compromise proposals offering significant policy concessions by the target government; 4) terrorist organizations have protean political platforms; 5) terrorist organizations generally carry out anonymous attacks, precluding target countries from making policy concessions; 6) terrorist organizations with identical political platforms routinely attack each other more than their mutally professed enemy; and 7) terrorist organizations resist disbanding when they consistently fail to achieve their political platforms or when their stated political grievances have been resolved..."

These claims are false. The IRA, the PLO, Hezbollah, and Hamas, who are AFAIK the prototypical terrorist organizations, aren't described by any of them except sometimes point 6. (Correct me if I'm wrong; I'm not an expert.)

Let's stop pretending that terrorism doesn't work. Do you think England would ever have talked with the IRA, or that Israel would have given territory to the Palestinians, if not for terrorism?

Comment author: gwern 28 March 2009 02:54:04PM 6 points [-]

I'm a little surprised that you're arguing anecdotally against a statistical generalization. But once more into the breach...

You're citing the IRA as a terrorism success? Let's look at that:

"The IRA's stated objective is to end "British rule in Ireland," and according to its constitution, it wants "to establish an Irish Socialist Republic, based on the Proclamation of 1916."[3] Until the 1998 Belfast Agreement, it sought to end Northern Ireland's status within the United Kingdom and bring about a united Ireland by force of arms and political persuasion."

Yeah, how's that worked out for them? Oh right, Northern Ireland still exists! How about that.

"In 1988, the PLO officially endorsed a two-state solution, with Israel and Palestine living side by side contingent on specific terms such as making East Jerusalem capital of the Palestinian state and giving Palestinians the right of return to land occupied by Palestinians prior to the 1948 and 1967 wars with Israel."

Funny thing, one never hears of any Palestinian legislation being passed in East Jerusalem, or any rights of returns. That's because, you know, the PLO accomplished jack squat.

"Hamas wants to create an Islamic state in the West Bank and the Gaza strip, a goal which combines Palestinian nationalism with Islamist objectives.[41] Hamas's 1988 charter calls for the replacement of Israel and the Palestinian Territories with an Islamic Palestinian state."

Israel is still there, and still killing as many Palestinians as it pleases. Your vaunted organizations haven't achieved a heck of a lot of their goals.

As for Hezbollah:

"Hezbollah's 1985 manifesto listed its three main goals as "putting an end to any colonialist entity" in Lebanon, bringing the Phalangists to justice for "the crimes they [had] perpetrated," and the establishment of an Islamic regime in Lebanon.[12][13] Recently, however, Hezbollah has made little mention of establishing an Islamic state, and forged alliances across religious lines.[11] Hezbollah leaders have also made numerous statements calling for the destruction of Israel, which they refer to as a "Zionist entity... built on lands wrested from their owners.""

I'd note that what notable successes they've had stem from guerrilla campaigns and open warfare; and not primarily terrorism.

Finally, I get the impression you didn't even bother to read the paper I carefully linked, Why Terrorism Does Not Work, specifically to address such objections. Let's spoonfeed some important bits...

"Not only is his sample of terrorist campaigns modest, but they targeted only a handful of countries: ten of the eleven campaigns analyzed were directed against the same three countries (Israel, Sri Lanka, and Turkey), with six of the campaigns directed against the same country (Israel).19 More important, Pape does not examine whether the terrorist campaigns achieved their core policy objectives. In his assessment of Palestinian terrorist campaigns, for example, he counts the limited withdrawals of the Israel Defense Forces from parts of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in 1994 as two separate terrorist victories, ignoring the 167 percent increase in the number of Israeli settlers during this period—the most visible sign of Israeli occupation.20 Similarly, he counts as a victory the Israeli decision to release Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin from prison in October 1997, ignoring the hundreds of imprisonments and targeted assassinations of Palestinian terrorists throughout the Oslo “peace process.”21 Pape’s data therefore reveal only that select terrorist campaigns have occasionally scored tactical victories, not that terrorism is an effective strategy for groups to achieve their policy objectives."

"This study analyzes the political plights of twenty-eight terrorist groups—the complete list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) as designated by the U.S. Department of State since 2001.7 The data yield two unexpected findings. First, the groups accomplished their forty-two policy objectives only 7 percent of the time."

"Using this list provides a check against selecting cases on the dependent variable, which would artificially inflate the success rate because the most well known policy outcomes involve terrorist victories (e.g., the U.S. withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 1984). Furthermore, because all of the terrorist groups have remained active since 2001, ample time has been allowed for each group to make progress on achieving its policy goals, thereby reducing the possibility of artificially deflating the success rate through too small a time frame. In fact, the terrorist groups have had significantly more time than five years to accomplish their policy objectives: the groups, on average, have been active since 1978; the majority has practiced terrorism since the 1960s and 1970s; and only four were established after 1990."

"As frequently noted, Hezbollah successfully coerced the multinational peacekeepers and Israelis from southern Lebanon in 1984 and 2000, and the Tamil Tigers won control over the northern and eastern coastal areas of Sri Lanka from 1990 on. In the aggregate, however, the terrorist groups achieved their main policy objectives only three out of forty-two times—a 7 percent success rate.31 Within the coercion literature, this rate of success is considered extremely low. It is substantially lower, for example, than even the success rate of economic sanctions, which are widely regarded as only minimally effective."

(Personally, I wouldn't even count the Tamil Tigers, as they currently seem to be screwed.)

Comment author: PhilGoetz 28 March 2009 09:51:14PM 5 points [-]

Already read that paper. It uses the unrealistic criteria of "achieving objectives". Nobody achieves their objectives. The Republicans were in control of the US for 8 years and didn't achieve their objectives. What percentage of US Presidents "achieved their objectives"? Less than 7%, I'll bet.

England made compromises with the IRA. Israel has made compromises with the Palestinians. This would not have happened without terrorism.

Comment author: gwern 08 April 2009 10:39:24PM 5 points [-]

Nobody achieves their objectives. The Republicans were in control of the US for 8 years and didn't achieve their objectives. What percentage of US Presidents "achieved their objectives"? Less than 7%, I'll bet.

GWB was tremendously successful in achieving stated objectives. Lowering taxes, passing PATRIOT, No Child Left Behind, invading Iraq, invading Afghanistan, the surge, the Medicare private insurance revamp, blocking stem cells, and even more than that. There were, what, 3 noteable failures? (Privatizing Social Security, Clear Skies, and immigration.) That these policies were all miserably ruinous in the real world doesn't matter. A lot of his programs went through. 7%? Not hardly! You've just pulled that assertion out of your arse.

"...one useful measure is to see if Bush met his own goals. We would argue he largely did during his first term, and this is made more impressive because American presidents are institutionally weak, especially in domestic affairs, and because the manner of this election provided very little political capital to bolster his prospects."

If we really believed that <7% of presidents achieved their goals, then that implies less than 3 US presidents were successful, and the other 41 failures. We can obviously count FDR, Lincoln, and Washington as successful (which technically is all we need to disprove x<7%); is it really plausible that no other president achieved their goals? Of course not. Goetz's reading of 'achieving objectives' is absurd. To quote the paper again:

" To construct a hard test for the argument that terrorism is an ineffective means of coercion, I afforded generous conditions to limit the number of policy failures. First, for analytic purposes both a “total success” and a “partial success” are counted as policy successes, while only completely unsuccessful outcomes (“no successes”) are counted as failures. A “limited success” is counted as neither a success nor a failure, even though the terrorist group invariably faces criticism from its natural constituency that the means employed have been ineffective, or even counterproductive. Thus, a policy objective is deemed a success even if the terrorist group was only partially successful in accomplishing it, whereas an objective receives a failing grade only if the group has not made any noticeable progress toward achieving it. Second, an objective is judged successful even if the group accomplished it before 2001, the year the State Department assembled its official list of foreign terrorist organizations. Third, all policy successes are attributed to terrorism as the causal factor, regardless of whether important intervening variables, such as a peace process, may have contributed to the outcome."

The decks are heavily stacked in this analysis in favor of the terrorist groups.

Comment author: gwern 10 October 2010 01:35:26AM 0 points [-]

Incidentally, the Tamil Tigers are now dead as a doornail and complete utter failures, with no policy successes to their name.

Comment author: Houshalter 20 December 2013 05:29:27PM -1 points [-]

Was looking for this article but couldn't find it anywhere. Turns out it had been edited.

Original version: https://web.archive.org/web/20110727223802/http://lesswrong.com/lw/51/terrorism_is_not_about_terror