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  • What Makes Terrorists Tick
  • Erica Chenoweth (bio), Nicholas Miller (bio), Elizabeth McClellan (bio), Hillel Frisch (bio), Paul Staniland (bio), and Max Abrahms (bio)

To the Editors (Erica Chenoweth, Nicholas Miller, and Elizabeth McClellan write):

Max Abrahms’s article “What Terrorists Really Want: Terrorist Motives and Counterterrorism Strategy” is a welcome critique of the many points taken for granted by rational choice interpretations of terrorist group behavior.1 His systematic review of the observable implications of rational choice perspectives on terrorism reveals some of the important shortfalls in the current literature. Abrahms overreaches, however, in rejecting strategic models of terrorism without providing ample empirical evidence or qualifications to his claims.

Abrahms presents seven “puzzling” tendencies of terrorist organizations as anomalies for the strategic model. We argue, however, that a strategic perspective can account for these anomalous behaviors when one examines the group’s internal dynamics— particularly the relationship between the group’s leadership and its constituents— which may require scholars to consider this level of analysis to explain terrorist group behavior. We consider each of Abrahms’s puzzles in turn.

Puzzle #1: Coercive Ineffectiveness

Abrahms’s argument that terrorism is ineffective, and therefore not rational, has two main flaws. First, by relying on the State Department’s current list of foreign terrorist organizations, Abrahms misses the large number of terrorist groups that have ceased to [End Page 180] exist and inherently selects groups that are still operating precisely because they have not yet achieved their goals. Seth Jones and Martin Libicki have found that since 1968, 268 terrorist groups have disbanded and an additional 136 have splintered into other violent groups.2 Indeed, Jones and Libicki found that 27 groups disbanded after achieving their goals, for a success rate of 10 percent.3 Although not an overly impressive rate, there is a critical difference between never succeeding and succeeding one out of ten times when an organization surveys its strategic options.

Second, Abrahms does not explore alternative measures and perceptions of success upon which terrorist organizations may rely. There may not be a clear causal link between the terrorist campaign and the realization of the organization’s goals, but if leaders perceive that terrorism can be successful relative to other alternatives, then choosing terrorism is rational. This is an issue that Robert Pape addresses in his discussion of suicide terrorism, noting that “in this search for an effective strategy, coercers’ assessments are likely to be largely a function of estimates of the success of past efforts; for suicide terrorists, this means assessments of whether past suicide campaigns produced significant concessions.”4 Because it is often ambiguous whether a government’s decisions are driven by terrorism or unrelated factors, it is rational to consider terrorism successful as long as this interpretation is “shared by a significant portion of other observers.”5 For instance, Abrahms was probably right that the 2004 Madrid bombings had a “questionable” effect on the results of the Spanish elections and Spain’s subsequent withdrawal of its military forces from Iraq. But many observers have interpreted these outcomes as examples of terrorist success—an opinion likely shared by many terrorists and leaders who are contemplating adopting a terrorist strategy.6 Many terrorist leaders cite prominent examples of perceived terrorist successes in explaining their tactics, whether they refer to Irgun, Hezbollah, the African National Congress (ANC), the Tamil Tigers, or al-Qaida.7

Puzzle #2: Terrorism as the First Resort

Abrahms argues that “terrorist groups do not embrace terrorism as a last resort and seldom elect to abandon the armed struggle to become nonviolent political parties,” and that this undermines the strategic model (p. 84). But the strategic model does not require [End Page 181] groups to adopt a number of other alternatives before adopting terrorism. They only consider other alternatives and decide that terrorism is the optimal strategy. This was the case with the ANC, which “considered four types of violent activities” before judging that “open revolution was inconceivable.”8 That terrorists’ assessments are rarely correct or justifiable does not mean that they have made a priori irrational choices.

Furthermore, Abrahms’s assertion that terrorist groups rarely transform into “nonviolent political parties” is empirically weak. Jones and Libicki found...


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pp. 180-202
Launched on MUSE
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