With the recent ceremonies in Australia and Bali commemorating the lives lost in the Bali terrorist attacks, the impact of violent acts of terrorism cannot be ignored.
To protect the public from possible future attacks, a proper understanding of terrorist organisations is essential but the conventional explanation for terrorism has been brought into question in recent years.
Historically, terrorism has be understood as frustrated political aspirations manifesting as violence in the interests of the political agenda. This position is known as the”Strategic Model”. The strategic model is derived from classical economic theory pertaining to human behaviour, with the exception that this model’s scope is limited to understanding terrorists as political utility maximisers.
The current state of classical economic theory requires that a rational person maintain relatively stable and consistent goals over time, that he or she must assess the costs and benefits of the most obvious options for their decisions and that such a person select a course of action that he or she deems to offer the optimal expected utility i.e. the option that is likely to generate the most desirable balance of least cost coupled with greatest benefits (Abrahms, 2008).
Max Abrahms describes seven tendencies exhibited by terrorist groups and that are apparently inconsistent with the Strategic Model. The organisational tendencies presented are, as follows:
1. Terrorist attacks against civilians do not achieve a terrorist group’s stated political goals
2. Terrorist groups rarely use non-violent opportunities available to achieve their stated political goals and additionally do not turn to terrorist activities as a last resort
3. Terrorist organisations reflexively compromise policy concessions by governments they claim to be their adversaries
4. Terrorist groups exhibit changing political inclinations
5. Most terrorist organisations carry out anonymous attacks, practically precluding policy concessions by the target country
6. Terrorist organisations often attack organisations with similar, and even identical, political motivations and do so more often than attacking the explicitly stated common enemy
7. Terrorist organisations resist disbanding when their political aspirations have consistently failed or when their stated political grievances have been resolved
Supposing the veracity of evidence put forward by Abrahms, the inconsistency between predictions made from the strategic model and observed behavioural tendencies of terrorist organisations suggests the following two conclusions:
1. Terrorist organisations are irrational entities and are therefore not subject to predictions and descriptions of their behaviour generated by the strategic model. This is because the assumptions underpinning classical economic theory pertain only to rational people with stable and consistent goals, who assess the cost and benefits associated with the most obvious possible courses of action, and who select the course of action deemed to offer an optimal utility to them.
2. Terrorist groups are not political utility maximisers, therefore, the strategic model misconstrues their fundamental motivations leading to erroneous behaviour predictions and ineffective anti-terrorist strategy being developed.
Abrahms refers to studies that have shown terrorists are not irrational usually and suggests the fundamental motivation to become a terrorist is social solidarity, not political action. Studies based on interviews with large samples of terrorists found that most did not even have a clear understanding of their organisation’s purported political orientation. Remarkably, a similar lack of awareness of clear organisational purpose was observed in the leadership of such organisations.
If we suppose that social solidarity is the dominant motivation for someone to join and participate in the activities of terrorist activities, two behaviours can be predicted that are incompatible with the notion that terrorist organisations are political utility maximisers, as the strategic model suggests. These predicted behaviours are:
1. People attracted to terrorist groups would predominantly be motivated by developing strong emotional ties with other members of the organisation, not the political orientation of the group
2. At an organisational level, terrorist groups would endeavour to sustain the organisation regardless of its stated reasons for existence
Evidence for the first prediction comes from the demographic and psychological profiles terrorists tend to exhibit. These traits include people who are socially alienated, unmarried young men, widowed women, and people who have been dislocated from their homeland.
An additional salient factor associated with membership of a terrorist group is knowing someone who is already a member, such as a friend or family member. A study conducted with Guantanamo Bay detainees found that knowing a member of al-Quaida was a significantly better predictor than believing in jihad, as a reason for becoming a terrorist.
In a study examining members of the IRA, Robert White found that nearly half of the terrorists interviewed were unaware of discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland despite this matter significantly featuring in the organisation’s official communications. Another study claimed that members of al-Qaida are often unaware of the basic tenants of Islam.
It has been found that terrorist organisations target individuals who are socially isolated, not people who demonstrate accord with the organisations apparent political aspirations. Factors attracting such recruitment include young men who are unemployed and apparently never found their place in their communities.
Terrorists tend to prefer activities and locations conducive to the development of strong emotional ties such as with a centralised distribution of members. It has been noticed that turbulent regions involved in conflict attracted terrorists from other countries, regardless of an individual’s political belief system.
Another aspect of the behaviour of terrorist organisations historical is a tendency to collapse due to a change in how membership is perceived by potential new members. Research based on circumstantial evidence has found that terrorist groups are prone to disbanding when they no longer appeal to the next generation of members and that this occurs regardless of the state of the organisation’s political agenda.
Relevance and Potential Application to Counter-Terrorism Strategy
The three most common counter-terrorism strategies are based on the assumption that terrorist organisations are political utility maximisers. The dominant strategies are:
1. government no concessions policies
2. political accommodation for terrorist demands
3. the promotion of democracy in countries fertile for terrorist groups
Abrahms reports poor track records for these strategies, stating that terrorist groups tend to endure the continual failure of their stated cause, and even accomplishment or progress towards purported goals.
Nothing can justify stealing a person’s entire future in a single reckless act of violence. In the same vane, every human is worth knowing and deserves acknowledgement. Each of us has the power to make others feel real and connected in some small way.
What can we do, in light of understanding what motivates terrorism, to combat factors that make it more likely to continue? Extend a smile or nod of acknowledgement to strangers you pass. Let them know, at the very least, that you care they are there. It may seem silly but a simple smile for someone feeling lonely and isolated is often the difference between them having a good day with one positive event, and a bad day that may be the final straw that breaks the horse’s back.
Action taken at the end of the path of extremism is untenable but it is important for everyone to understand that path began with a fundamental human need neglected: to feel connected and understood by others. This is a gift we all have to give.
What Terrorists Really Want, Max Abrahm, Terrorist Motives and Counterterrorism Strategy, International Security, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Spring 2008), pp. 78–105