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.
I believe there are studies of crime that come to similar conclusions - i.e., criminality tends not to be profitable and it's more about social networks. I think a lot of irrational behavior has similar explanations. We need to cast our net wider. Why do people become musicians? Why do they become artists and entertainers? In these cases there's the complication of the audience but all of the activities are very strange indeed if you take a step back and look at them. Playing one of the many odd instruments available or putting paint to canvas are strange behaviors (putting aside talk of creativity, expression, etc, which offer little insight IMO and just serve to obscure what's genuinely interesting about these activities). It's all about niche building. A set of historically contingent social and technological factors have coalesced on the possibility of finding a place in society doing something as odd as playing the violin. Nobody just woke up one morning and thought "let's blow into a hollowed out piece of wood" or "let's get a group of people together and pretend to be other people while a larger group of people watch." There's a long, strange history to these things. The factors involved are super-personal.
Religion is another excellent example. Some people have managed to find a place in the world as celibate monks. It's not a matter of personal irrationality but rather a society that, through a sequence of strange and historically contingent machinations, has settled on a state where one can indeed "have a living" as a celibate monk. Given this, it's little wonder we find people who choose to be celibate monks in our society; such a choice is not irrational on the personal scale on which most people live their lives. Terrorism is the same; we have terrorists because society, for whatever reason, has coalesced on a situation where one can find satisfaction through being a member of a terrorist organization. One can have ones human needs satisfied; including social relationships, status and a sense of worth. Ideologies don't physically exist. Groups have ideologies. To have an ideology there must first be a set of people, a tightly knit social group, to espouse it. Much like religion I doubt the content of the ideology matters much; the form of the ideology, indeed, probably has more to do with how it fits the daily activities of group members rather than as something outsiders can understand (as is probably the case with religion). The concepts probably form a social exchange for in-group cohesion and should be analyzed as such.
This, I think, is the correct level to study these things. Don't look at the ideology; look at the actual material embodiment of that ideology, the group that espouses it, and ask yourself not "How do people believe this nonsense?" or "Why do people believe something so irrational?" but "How does this group of people sustain itself?" and "What role does this way of speaking and way of interpreting events play in sustaining in-group cohesion?"
People like belonging to tribes. They like believing that the tribe to which they belong is powerful and can exercise its influence.
Isn't it possible that many terrorist acts are really for the purpose of making the terrorists feel better about themselves and their in-groups? Like teenagers playing pranks, only with often-lethal consequences.
Another question: how well would you say the movie Fight Club demonstrates this hypothesis in action?
I'd say Fight Cub illustrates it very well. Just compare the protagonist's social life before the movement (he knows no one, he's doing very strange things for companionship), and all the friends/followers he has during it.
As for the in-group: I'm not sure it fits. The surveys cite friends, remember, not specific grievances. And the waves of recruitment to al-Qaeda such as the 9/11 one seem to follow humiliation of out-groups. This fits with the social model - al-Qaeda has become of higher social status, and possibly safer to join - but not with the feel-better model. 9/11 made them feel better! Why would they join after feeling better, instead of joining before to contribute to feeling better?
Fight Club demonstrates this perfectly (even more perfectly in the book, when it's made clear that the main characters entire goal is to get a woman). Men who feel pointless, empty, marginalized by the system they live in are willing to do anything to achieve high-status and a sense of purpose. This so closely resembles terrorism that I would be more interested in terrorist groups and acts that can't be traced to some sort of status or purpose-seeking, as I imagine they are few and far between.
Fight club doesn't demonstrate anything, because it didn't happen (on account of being a story).
This is a fine X is not about X example. :)
Terrorism is partly about socialising, but I don't think that can be the whole story, for two reasons:
If terrorism is just about socialising why don't they just go down the pub or whatever -- it's far less likely to get you killed or banged up.
Socialising is a human universal, so what makes different societies have different amounts of terrorism?
If I may, can't this question be asked another way? If we look at non-terrorist mass murders (curiously, Koreans have set records both in America and worldwide; Woo Bum-kon killed 58 people, and Seung-Hui Cho 32), we notice that they rarely involve extremely elaborate preparations. One has the impression that Seung could've finished all his preparations in just a few hours, even counting the trips to the gun store, videos, letters etc.
Given that it's so easy to kill a large number of people in an immediately doable way, and that methods like just walking around and shooting people are so effective, why do terrorists so rarely actually attack? And why do they carry out such elaborate and relatively ineffective attacks when they actually do? For every effective attack like 9/11, there are multiple attacks which kill only 1 or 2 people or even just the terrorist.
If I may, the social explanation works better. Have you never discussed flipping out or going postal or carrying out a terrorist attack with your friends? Have you noticed that always it is the elaborate and fun-to-discuss attacks you discuss?
No terrorist says to himself, I'm going to follow a boring but effective strategy: I'll enlist, get sniper training, and kill a couple hundred civilians - even though Simo Häyhä killed over 500 Russians under conditions of war and even as the Russians were specifically targeting him and calling in artillery strikes. This kind of strategy would accomplish much more than a regular suicide bombing, but they never do it or any halfway effective strategy. (I refer again to "Why Terrorism doesn't work"; if many terrorists failed to adopt effective strategies, that'd be one thing - but just about all of them?)
Modeling terrorists as trying to kill as many people as possible strikes me as insufficient. In Terror and Consent, Philip Bobbitt models their aims as propagandistic, which feels more like the right angle---hence the focus on inefficient but spectacular killing.
This would, I think, fall afoul of Abrahm's point, '5) terrorist organizations generally carry out anonymous attacks, precluding target countries from making policy concessions;'. It's hard to be propagandistic if it's unclear what this deed is the propaganda of.
Hm. I'm far from an expert, and it could well be that there are ten times as many anonymous attacks, but off the top of my head I think of WTC '93, the Millenium plot, 9/11, London trains, Madrid trains, Israel suicide bombings, Munich massacre, Iraq beheadings, USS Cole, bombings of US embassies.
Not off the top of my head: Golden Mosque bombing, Tamil Tigers numerous bombings, IRA-related terrorism, etc. Scanning through this I find many more terrorist attacks that were done with a clear political or propaganda purpose.
No, it's not quite that bad! It's more like twice as many:
Abrahms references his analysis of a RAND dataset, and also Bruce Hoffman's "Why Terrorists Don't Claim Credit" (in Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol 9 #1 1997). I haven't read the latter, but his analysis seems enough for me.
I think there's definitely something of a mental bias here - it's vastly easier to remember the rare dramatic attack (which sooner or later someone will claim credit for) than the many anonymous ones.
A good heuristic I use when I'm tempted to write comments such as these: "The plural of anecdote is not data!"
Note also that attacks for a reason may well be more memorable than anonymous attacks.
Funny thing about your comment is that just yesterday I was reading about a large anonymous terrorist attacks that authorities were trying to figure out who was responsible for.
I'd tell you more, but I've forgotten how many people died and where it was.
Incidentally, I've expanded my above comment into an essay called 'Terrorism is not Effective' (http://www.gwern.net/Terrorism%20is%20not%20Effective).
Maybe they want to associate themselves with a high status group rather than any other one? Terrorist organizations have money and a purpose after all.
There was a Slate article that discussed the theory here, among others. The RAND corporation seem to give the most direct response to this theory.
These claims are false. The IRA, the PLO, Hezbollah, and Hamas, who are AFAIK the prototypical terrorist organizations, aren't described by any of them except sometimes point 6. (Correct me if I'm wrong; I'm not an expert.)
Let's stop pretending that terrorism doesn't work. Do you think England would ever have talked with the IRA, or that Israel would have given territory to the Palestinians, if not for terrorism?
I'm a little surprised that you're arguing anecdotally against a statistical generalization. But once more into the breach...
You're citing the IRA as a terrorism success? Let's look at that:
Yeah, how's that worked out for them? Oh right, Northern Ireland still exists! How about that.
Funny thing, one never hears of any Palestinian legislation being passed in East Jerusalem, or any rights of returns. That's because, you know, the PLO accomplished jack squat.
Israel is still there, and still killing as many Palestinians as it pleases. Your vaunted organizations haven't achieved a heck of a lot of their goals.
As for Hezbollah:
I'd note that what notable successes they've had stem from guerrilla campaigns and open warfare; and not primarily terrorism.
Finally, I get the impression you didn't even bother to read the paper I carefully linked, Why Terrorism Does Not Work, specifically to address such objections. Let's spoonfeed some important bits...
(Personally, I wouldn't even count the Tamil Tigers, as they currently seem to be screwed.)
Already read that paper. It uses the unrealistic criteria of "achieving objectives". Nobody achieves their objectives. The Republicans were in control of the US for 8 years and didn't achieve their objectives. What percentage of US Presidents "achieved their objectives"? Less than 7%, I'll bet.
England made compromises with the IRA. Israel has made compromises with the Palestinians. This would not have happened without terrorism.
GWB was tremendously successful in achieving stated objectives. Lowering taxes, passing PATRIOT, No Child Left Behind, invading Iraq, invading Afghanistan, the surge, the Medicare private insurance revamp, blocking stem cells, and even more than that. There were, what, 3 noteable failures? (Privatizing Social Security, Clear Skies, and immigration.) That these policies were all miserably ruinous in the real world doesn't matter. A lot of his programs went through. 7%? Not hardly! You've just pulled that assertion out of your arse.
If we really believed that <7% of presidents achieved their goals, then that implies less than 3 US presidents were successful, and the other 41 failures. We can obviously count FDR, Lincoln, and Washington as successful (which technically is all we need to disprove x<7%); is it really plausible that no other president achieved their goals? Of course not. Goetz's reading of 'achieving objectives' is absurd. To quote the paper again:
The decks are heavily stacked in this analysis in favor of the terrorist groups.
Incidentally, the Tamil Tigers are now dead as a doornail and complete utter failures, with no policy successes to their name.
Was looking for this article but couldn't find it anywhere. Turns out it had been edited.
Original version: https://web.archive.org/web/20110727223802/http://lesswrong.com/lw/51/terrorism_is_not_about_terror