Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Highly (In)effective Terrorists

We get news from Iraq, when it pierces the coverage of our tanking economy, that jihadists are scrambling to assert their cause against a population that is turning away from them. Surprising, but not actually. In a country torn by years of violence, people swept up in the initial rhetoric get sick of it all.

National security blogger Bruce Schneier, writing for WIRED, has identified what he calls the “Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Terrorists,” based on a pre-doctoral fellow at Stanford’s latest research.

‘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.

. . .

‘Terrorists, he writes, (1) attack civilians, a policy that has a lousy track record of convincing those civilians to give the terrorists what they want; (2) treat terrorism as a first resort, not a last resort, failing to embrace nonviolent alternatives like elections; (3) don’t compromise with their target country, even when those compromises are in their best interest politically; (4) have protean political platforms, which regularly, and sometimes radically, change; (5) often engage in anonymous attacks, which precludes the target countries making political concessions to them; (6) regularly attack other terrorist groups with the same political platform; and (7) resist disbanding, even when they consistently fail to achieve their political objectives or when their stated political objectives have been achieved.

‘Abrahms 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.’

That’s a fair assessment. Ever see a violent inner-city gang “accomplish” anything? People joining gangs don’t do it for such ends. Understanding terrorism as having political ends, Schneier writes, may mis-read the motivations of jihadists.

The Mind of Jihad will be out in the next few days, and it may fill in some more of the gaps in our understanding. It gives a history and anthropology to terrorists and their methods, effective and otherwise.

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