Photo credit: Olivier Hoslet/EPA
By Max Abrahms
The conventional wisdom holds that Islamic State is mean and successful, and that Islamic State is so successful precisely because it is so mean. That’s because most people unwittingly subscribe to what I call the Strategic Model of Terrorism. As the name suggests, the Strategic Model assumes that angry young men turn to terrorism because it’s strategic behavior. Terrorism may be immoral, but it offers them the best chance to redress their grievances by coercing governments into accommodating their political demands.
According to this view, Hamas members are smart to attack Jews; the Kurdistan Workers’ Party is shrewd to kill Turks; and the Islamic State exhibits cunning when it decapitates journalists. The violence may not be pretty, but it’s a dependable way to secure a Palestinian state or a Kurdish state or to force the international community to accept a caliphate.
Although governments say they don’t negotiate with terrorists, the causal logic of the Strategic Model may seem sound: As the pain to their civilians mounts, governments are tempted to grant the terrorists’ demands in order to appease them. Proponents of the Strategic Model highlight how governments soften their political stances when their civilians are attacked in order to help protect them.
There’s just one problem with this common narrative – it lacks empirical support. Over a decade ago, I began publishing the first systematic studies on the political effects of terrorism. What I’ve found is that terrorism is actually a surprisingly ineffective political instrument.
Conventionally, terrorism means violence committed by nonstate actors against civilians for a presumed political goal. If we define terrorism in this standard way, it turns out that the tactic is highly correlated with political failure. There are some anomalous cases in which attacks on civilians worked out politically, such as when Spain decided to withdraw from Iraq after the 2004 Madrid train attacks. But throughout history, there are surprisingly few exceptions to this rule.
Statistically, my research establishes that attacks on civilians actually lower the likelihood of government concessions. This is true even after we account for all sorts of other factors that could possibly explain the association between terrorism and political failure, like the capability of the perpetrators and the nature of their demands. Rather than appeasing the perpetrators, governments almost always go on the offensive when their civilians are struck.
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