“The Puzzle of Terrorism: Which Groups Attack Civilians, When & Why?”

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In light of recent events, GIMUN’s blog has decided to publish a special series on the theme of terrorism. This week, Ashlee Pitts presents us with a review of a lecture given by Max Abrahms, assistant professor of political science at Northeastern University, on September 30, 2015.

Source: Creative Commons

On September 30, 2015, assistant professor of political science at Northeastern University, Max Abrahms, started off the semester-long 2015 NU@Noon series by presenting his views on the effectiveness of civilian targeted attacks carried out by terrorist organizations. Not only did he provide insight based on his research on the topic, but he gave his own personal take on several highly publicized and recent events reported by the mainstream media. He spoke extensively on the recurring and excessive media coverage of ISIS, their violent rampage throughout Syria and Iraq, their strong social media presence, online recruitment tactics, merciless attacks on civilians and hierarchy within the organization that has allowed them to take such an extravagant presence on the world stage.

“The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism”

Abrahms cites an academic article published in the American Political Science Review journal written by Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago, called “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism” which essentially addresses why, in the author’s view, people engage in terrorism. Without citing a specific terrorist organization, Pape argues that people within terrorist organizations commit heinous acts of violence on civilians because they believe that killing civilians is their best chance at achieving a political objective and also find success from this approach. Abrahms refers to Pape’s theory as the “Strategic Model”, providing a rather simple explanation as to how angry and irrational individuals come to this conclusion. In his view, they believe that by blowing up a school, publicly executing innocent civilians, or even threatening the community with suicide bombers, will compel the targeted government to comply with the terror organization’s demands. While Pape works under this theory that States are more likely to give in to terrorists’ demands given that the casualties are civilians, Abrahms goes on to challenge this idea. He recounts his experience in the West Bank, speaking with both Israelis and Palestinians, and hearing their perspectives on whether or not this theory holds true. He states: “I did not meet a single Palestinian who thought that their terrorism was paying politically.” In reference to the security wall that Israel constructed separating the predominantly Palestinian West Bank from the rest of Israel, he goes on to say that the Palestinians “understood that this wall was being created in response to their terrorism and that it affected them in all sorts of ways, both personal and political.” In no way would Abrahms consider the terrorist activity associated with the Palestinians a success story, in this context, to support the idea that violence pays off.

Define “Success Story”

Abrahms calls on another example of suicide terrorism that would contradict the “Strategic Model.” In his counter argument, he addresses the primary objectives that Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden set out to achieve on September 11, 2001. Bin Laden sought to cripple the United States government by taking the lives of thousands of Americans and paralyzing an entire nation with fear in order to force American leadership to comply with Al Qaeda demands. One of the four main demands was focused primarily on the United States severing ties with Israel. As we can see today and since the attack, the United States has not wavered in their support and continues to foster a positive, collaborative and stronger relationship with Israel. If we were to conclude that a “success story” for a terrorist organization is crippling a government to the point that the leadership is willing to comply with any and all demands from the terrorist group, stating that Al Qaeda fulfilled its mission on September 11, 2001 and achieved the success story would be false. Not only did the United States refuse to comply with any of Bin Laden’s demands, but the nation also responded with the utmost defiance. The American people fought back hard and with a vengeance sparking what would eventually become the “war on terror.”

Among other “anecdotal examples”, Abrahms used the ISIS affiliate attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the brutal murder of Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot Lieutenant Moath Youssef al-Kasasbeh as examples of the ineffectiveness of the terror group’s tactics. After the Charlie Hebdo attack which left twelve people dead, the French people rallied together like never before, attracting world leaders and supporters from all over the world. The Jordanians sparked a wave of nationalism throughout the country in honor of their slain Royal Jordanian polite. Jordan’s King Abdullah fiercely vowed relentless vengeance on the terror group. Abrahms shares a similar view with many people throughout the international community that ISIS is not unstoppable. There is no denying the catastrophic damage that the Islamic State has inflicted on countless innocent men, women and children, nor is there any denying of their high capability of recruiting young, vulnerable and aggrieved individuals to engage in their mayhem.

WTC damage
Source: Creative Commons

“Weapon of the Weak”

In addition to bringing fear and destruction on its enemies, one of the main objectives for a terror group is forcefully compelling a government to comply with their demands to achieve their political goals. The usefulness of a terror group’s tactics can be judged largely by the targeted government’s response. Throughout Professor Abrahms’ research on Which Groups Attack Civilians, When & Why, he has found evidence that attacking civilians is actually a weak tactic and very rarely results in political gain. “In dividing up the groups that mainly attack civilians and the groups that mainly attack military, I was able to establish that contrary to the “Strategic Model”, there’s actually a very strong correlation between groups that engage in terrorism, i.e. by attacking civilians targets, and those that come up empty in terms of inducing governments into making concessions.” He considers civilian targeting a poor and ineffective tactic. Regardless of whether a group’s tactic plays a critical role in examining and analyzing their effectiveness as a unit and organization, Abrahms notes that most scholars in the field would agree that terrorism does not work in achieving a political objective. In his view, terrorism only gives lower-level foot soldiers an incentive to act as barbaric as possible in order to move up within the organization’s ranks; but fails to help the organization meet its overall mission. He goes on to say that attacks on civilians are more likely to occur when we consider how decentralized the group may be. Leaders of terror groups are typically very strategic in their ways of operating, influencing their lower level operatives and carrying out planned attacks. Through his research he found that the more autonomy given to lower ranking members of the organization, the more likely it is that they will attack civilians; due to lack or direction and guidance from the group’s leadership. He theorizes that lower level soldiers gain autonomy when the group’s leadership are killed, dismantled or intimidated because “all of a sudden lower level members of the organization are calling the shots.”

The barbaric nature of the Islamic State is actually nothing new to the international community. Ruthlessness and savagery are not unfamiliar territory in the world’s history. What makes ISIS distinguishable from other equally barbaric groups like Al Qaeda and Boko Haram is their tech savviness and social media presence. History has shown us haunting displays of how much damage we as people can inflict on one another. While the mainstream media chooses to focus primarily on ISIS, especially in light of the highly publicized beheadings of several US, British and Japanese nationals, Professor Abrahms reminds the audience to consider other groups that also pose a grave threat to the international community. From the presentation, one can conclude that the extreme and far out political views that drive terrorists organization will ultimately become the source of their demise and downfall, thus rejecting the “Strategic Model.”


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