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.

There is a commonly-believed “strategic model” of terrorism which we could describe as follows: terrorists are people who are ideologically motivated to pursue specific unvarying political goals; to do so, they join together in long-lasting organizations and after the failure of ordinary political tactics, rationally decide to efficiently & competently engage in violent attacks on (usually) civilian targets to get as much attention as possible and publicity for their movement, and inspire fear & terror in the civilian population, which will pressure its leaders to solve the problem one way or another, providing support for the terrorists’ favored laws and/or their negotiations with involved governments, which then often succeed in gaining many of the original goals, and the organization dissolves.

Unfortunately, this model, is in almost every respect, empirically false. Let’s look in some more detail at findings which cast doubt on the strategic model.


From “What Terrorists Really Want: Terrorist Motives and Counterterrorism Strategy”, Max Abrahms 2008:

Does the terrorist’s decision-making process conform to the strategic model? The answer appears to be no. The record of terrorist behavior does not adhere to the model’s three core assumptions. Seven common tendencies of terrorist organizations flatly contradict them. Together, these seven terrorist tendencies represent important empirical puzzles for the strategic model, posing a formidable challenge to the conventional wisdom that terrorists are rational actors motivated foremost by political ends…The seven puzzles…are:

terrorist organizations do not achieve their stated political goals by attacking civilians;

terrorist organizations never use terrorism as a last resort and seldom seize opportunities to become productive nonviolent political parties;

terrorist organizations reflexively reject compromise proposals offering significant policy concessions by the target government1;

terrorist organizations have protean political platforms;

terrorist organizations generally carry out anonymous attacks, precluding target countries from making policy concessions;

terrorist organizations with identical political platforms routinely attack each other more than their mutually professed enemy; and

terrorist organizations resist disbanding when they consistently fail to achieve their political platforms or when their stated political grievances have been resolved.


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