Correspondent Inference Theory

Two people are sitting in a room together: an experimenter and a subject. The experimenter gets up and closes the door, and the room becomes quieter. The subject is likely to believe that the experimenter’s purpose in closing the door was to make the room quieter.

This is an example of correspondent inference theory. People tend to infer the motives—and also the disposition—of someone who performs an action based on the effects of his actions, and not on external or situational factors. If you see someone violently hitting someone else, you assume it’s because he wanted to—and is a violent person—and not because he’s play-acting. If you read about someone getting into a car accident, you assume it’s because he’s a bad driver and not because he was simply unlucky. And—more importantly for this column—if you read about a terrorist, you assume that terrorism is his ultimate goal.

It’s not always this easy, of course. If someone chooses to move to Seattle instead of New York, is it because of the climate, the culture or his career? Edward Jones and Keith Davis, who advanced this theory in the 1960s and 1970s, proposed a theory of “correspondence” to describe the extent to which this effect predominates. When an action has a high correspondence, people tend to infer the motives of the person directly from the action: e.g., hitting someone violently. When the action has a low correspondence, people tend to not to make the assumption: e.g., moving to Seattle.

Like most cognitive biases, correspondent inference theory makes evolutionary sense. In a world of simple actions and base motivations, it’s a good rule of thumb that allows a creature to rapidly infer the motivations of another creature. (He’s attacking me because he wants to kill me.) Even in sentient and social creatures like humans, it makes a lot of sense most of the time. If you see someone violently hitting someone else, it’s reasonable to assume that he’s a violent person. Cognitive biases aren’t bad; they’re sensible rules of thumb.

But like all cognitive biases, correspondent inference theory fails sometimes. And one place it fails pretty spectacularly is in our response to terrorism. Because terrorism often results in the horrific deaths of innocents, we mistakenly infer that the horrific deaths of innocents is the primary motivation of the terrorist, and not the means to a different end.

I found this interesting analysis in a paper by Max Abrahms in International Security. “Why Terrorism Does Not Work” (.PDF) analyzes the political motivations of 28 terrorist groups: the complete list of “foreign terrorist organizations” designated by the U.S. Department of State since 2001. He lists 42 policy objectives of those groups, and found that they only achieved them 7 percent of the time.

According to the data, terrorism is more likely to work if 1) the terrorists attack military targets more often than civilian ones, and 2) if they have minimalist goals like evicting a foreign power from their country or winning control of a piece of territory, rather than maximalist objectives like establishing a new political system in the country or annihilating another nation. But even so, terrorism is a pretty ineffective means of influencing policy.

There’s a lot to quibble about in Abrahms’ methodology, but he seems to be erring on the side of crediting terrorist groups with success. (Hezbollah’s objectives of expelling both peacekeepers and Israel out of Lebanon counts as a success, but so does the “limited success” by the Tamil Tigers of establishing a Tamil state.) Still, he provides good data to support what was until recently common knowledge: Terrorism doesn’t work.

This is all interesting stuff, and I recommend that you read the paper for yourself. But to me, the most insightful part is when Abrahms uses correspondent inference theory to explain why terrorist groups that primarily attack civilians do not achieve their policy goals, even if they are minimalist. Abrahms writes:

The theory posited here is that terrorist groups that target civilians are unable to coerce policy change because terrorism has an extremely high correspondence. Countries believe that their civilian populations are attacked not because the terrorist group is protesting unfavorable external conditions such as territorial occupation or poverty. Rather, target countries infer the short-term consequences of terrorism—the deaths of innocent civilians, mass fear, loss of confidence in the government to offer protection, economic contraction, and the inevitable erosion of civil liberties—(are) the objects of the terrorist groups. In short, target countries view the negative consequences of terrorist attacks on their societies and political systems as evidence that the terrorists want them destroyed. Target countries are understandably skeptical that making concessions will placate terrorist groups believed to be motivated by these maximalist objectives.

In other words, terrorism doesn’t work, because it makes people less likely to acquiesce to the terrorists’ demands, no matter how limited they might be. The reaction to terrorism has an effect completely opposite to what the terrorists want; people simply don’t believe those limited demands are the actual demands.

This theory explains, with a clarity I have never seen before, why so many people make the bizarre claim that al Qaeda terrorism—or Islamic terrorism in general—is “different”: that while other terrorist groups might have policy objectives, al Qaeda’s primary motivation is to kill us all. This is something we have heard from President Bush again and again—Abrahms has a page of examples in the paper—and is a rhetorical staple in the debate. (You can see a lot of it in the comments to this previous essay.)

In fact, Bin Laden’s policy objectives have been surprisingly consistent. Abrahms lists four; here are six from former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer’s book Imperial Hubris:

  1. End U.S. support of Israel
  2. Force American troops out of the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia
  3. End the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and (subsequently) Iraq
  4. End U.S. support of other countries’ anti-Muslim policies
  5. End U.S. pressure on Arab oil companies to keep prices low
  6. End U.S. support for “illegitimate” (i.e. moderate) Arab governments, like Pakistan

Although Bin Laden has complained that Americans have completely misunderstood the reason behind the 9/11 attacks, correspondent inference theory postulates that he’s not going to convince people. Terrorism, and 9/11 in particular, has such a high correspondence that people use the effects of the attacks to infer the terrorists’ motives. In other words, since Bin Laden caused the death of a couple of thousand people in the 9/11 attacks, people assume that must have been his actual goal, and he’s just giving lip service to what he claims are his goals. Even Bin Laden’s actual objectives are ignored as people focus on the deaths, the destruction and the economic impact.

Perversely, Bush’s misinterpretation of terrorists’ motives actually helps prevent them from achieving their goals.

None of this is meant to either excuse or justify terrorism. In fact, it does the exact opposite, by demonstrating why terrorism doesn’t work as a tool of persuasion and policy change. But we’re more effective at fighting terrorism if we understand that it is a means to an end and not an end in itself; it requires us to understand the true motivations of the terrorists and not just their particular tactics. And the more our own cognitive biases cloud that understanding, the more we mischaracterize the threat and make bad security trade-offs.

This is my 46th essay for, based on a paper I blogged about last week (there are a lot of good comments to that blog post).

Posted on July 12, 2007 at 12:59 PM62 Comments


suomynona July 12, 2007 1:17 PM

“Perversely, Bush’s misinterpretation of terrorists’ motives actually helps prevent them from achieving their goals.”

Wow. Was this by accident, or some clever strategy? Perhaps we should not misunderestimate the President.

Sez Me July 12, 2007 1:24 PM

Alan Dershowitz wrote some good pieces on suicide terrorism. He said suicide terrorists are tough to deter because death motivates them, not scares them (because they believe it is their way to heaven). However, front line suicide terrorists are a tool used by those with a bigger purpose. They seldom act alone, but are usually sent by those with a bigger plan in mind. He believes, correctly I think, that there an effective way to deter suicide terrorism is to cut off those who send them (and as we see, this is very difficult, as such action often motivates more to the cause), and that the causes of suicide terrorists must be made worse off after the terrorism than it was before, and potential suicide terrorists must see it making their cause worse.

Of couse, they will change tactics. They’re not stupid, they always will.

A difficult problem.

Rr July 12, 2007 1:32 PM

Given that terrorism apparently doesn’t work, and OBL is purportedly an intelligent individual, wouldn’t it be fair to think that he should have known the WTC attacks wouldn’t bring him closer to achieving his stated objectives, and thus support the view held by the American people that the action was meant as nothing more than a bid to inflict massive loss just to make the point that he could ‘hurt us’ if he wanted to?

I tend to agree with a lot of the points about the correspondent inference theory, but to solely put the blame for this difference in opinion on the viewer is a little too simple for my taste.

Rr July 12, 2007 1:50 PM

I just realized I’m possibly unfairly mixing OBL and WTC here – he has stated before that he was not involved. Replace OBL with name of planning powers – same argument remains.

Roy July 12, 2007 1:55 PM

The espoused goals are only part of it. That’s only the public relations angle.

The motivation for financing may have nothing to do with the stated goals. It may be shrewd business practice to support terrorism simply to keep an ocean of cheap oil off the market. If this is the case, the terrorism is working spectacularly well.

The motivation of the terrorists themselves may have nothing to do with any of the above.

Think back in US history to the prior century. ‘When Johnny goes marching off to war’ was a popular idea among the youth (and their parents) — Johnny going away to war, risking life and limb for some grand adventure (often including sex, drugs, and violent crimes).

Becoming a terrorist fighter or suicide bomber may have a lot of attractions as a great adventure. It sure beats living alone in your parents’ basement.

Tk July 12, 2007 2:10 PM

I dont think this conclusion works, because the relationship between the acting parties are more complicated.

First I think there are are least three parties to consider: the terrorists, the government and the normal people.

Because the terrorists lake the (military) strength to take on the government directly they terrorize the people to bully the government to give into there goals.

So any attack does not have the target to make the real goal happen, but to create terror so that the government is forced give in by its own populace.

Why should OBL (or whoever, its not important for the argument) attack the WTC, if he really wants to attack the american troops in Saudi Arabia? I doubt there is a large relation between the victims of the WTC and the troops.
What he really wanted is to create terror in America. And that target was achieved.
Only the second step from terrorized people to a government giving in seems not to work, but because that is more of a long term goal for the terrorist, opposing the short term goal of causing terror, its failure is not as visible to the terrorists comparing to the obvious success at creating terror.

This interpretation also makes sense if you consider that terrorist that are attacking military targets are more successfull.
Using terror to bully governments does not work, so tactings trying to create terror (attacking civilians) will not work.

Attacking military targets is a much more direct attack that directly weakens the government. And that seems to work better.
Maybee because the governments care more about there military than there people. 🙁

John Scholes July 12, 2007 2:16 PM

This all seems completely silly to me.

History is replete with examples showing that terrorism does work. Look at the success of the IRA in Northern Ireland, for example.

Obviously, if you have some hugely ambitious goal and put minimal resources into it, your chances of success are close to nil. But compared with full-scale invasions etc (ie compare inputs and outputs), terrorist actions are remarkably effective.

It is also easy to see how it could be much more effective. Almost terrorists use techniques like car bombs which cause relatively trivial numbers of casualties in Western states. (Compare deaths from car crashes or handguns with terrorist deaths in the US, for example). They only have an effect at all because we are feeble and easily panicked.

If a terrorist organization wants to get serious they should start using nuclear weapons. Excellent work has been done in the safeguards area, but it is still far too easy to make the wretched things. To quote Teddy Taylor (a legendary Los Alamos weapons designer): everyone in history who has tried to make a fission weapon has succeeded first time.

I know some things are being done to guard against this (and the worse danger of fusion weapons, where all the key ideas are now in the public domain), but not enough. Part of the trouble is that the security services are always saying we cannot discuss anything because of national security. The consequence, of course, is serious incompetence.

Bryan Feir July 12, 2007 2:20 PM


Once you go into levels of motives like that, it’s hard to know where to stop…

For example, take the video speech released by OBL a few days before the 2004 elections. There’s evidence that it helped push some undecided voters toward Bush by playing up the fear angle. And there’s little doubt that things like the war in Iraq have actually made it much easier to recruit people to act as suicide bombers if they think that’s the only approach left.

So you can speculate that OBL wants people in the U.S. to think that he wants to wipe them out… because their corresponding overreaction and ‘us vs. them’ attitude will help foster an equal overreaction and ‘us vs. them’ attitude among various Muslim populations, with the radicals gaining more converts and him in particular getting a lot more people willing to follow his every word.

So now you have the public motives (U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia), the believed motives (kill us all), and the personal motives (radicalization and swelling of the ‘cult’ ranks). You can try to outthink yourself in circles like this…

Andy July 12, 2007 2:22 PM

“Perversely, Bush’s misinterpretation of terrorists’ motives actually helps prevent them from achieving their goals.”

It’s a mistake to divine Al Qaeda’s motives from President Bush’s public statements– like most politicians, he’s dumbing it down for the dumb. Most public statements are meant to acheive certain end results as opposed to simply informing.

aikimark July 12, 2007 2:31 PM

It also relies, in part, on actions being driven by rational thought. The current Whitehouse policies seem to be driven by ideology.

Rr July 12, 2007 2:32 PM


Exactly the point.

Take for example the goals stated in the post – these are obviously not the ultimate goals, but tactical objectives that need to be accomplished in order to (partial of quote attributed to OBL)

” … fight them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah.”

The first being another intermediate goal that sounds a lot better than “wipe Israel off the map and establish an Islamic state without potent enemies.”, but that’s beside the point (or not?)

I’m not buying either side’s arguments these days. But I’m not just buying an over-simplification by invoking correspondent inference theory either.

Jim July 12, 2007 2:36 PM

This theory explains, with a clarity I have never seen before, why so many people make the bizarre claim that al Qaeda terrorism — or Islamic terrorism in general — is “different”: that while other terrorist groups might have policy objectives, al Qaeda’s primary motivation is to kill us all.

In February 1998 bin Ladin issued a statement under the banner of “The World Islamic Front for Jihad Against The Jews and Crusaders,” saying it was the duty of all Muslims to kill U.S. citizens, civilian or military, and their allies.

I guess you’re correct, he never said “all of us???.

I just hope you or I are not next.

derf July 12, 2007 2:38 PM

Depends on the terrorist. OBL’s goals may be listed above, however, other terrorist leaders within AQI or Iran, for example, have rather different goals.

Ahmadinejad was very specific – “Israel must be wiped off the map”. However, he left it to the viewer of his Powerpoint slide graphic to infer that the USA will be destroyed first:

Unfortunately, he didn’t make any specific demands of the US. The USA is just a broken glass ball in his slide with the Israel ball falling, we assume, to its being “wiped off the map”. Since it’s in an hourglass we’re to assume “it’s only a matter of time”. We all know that if Iran were to act overtly with their military they’d be crushed, so that leaves terrorism. Maybe there is something brewing in Iran that’s “only a matter of time” that could be used by terrorists to destroy the USA and Israel?

Yes, he wants to kill us.

Rr July 12, 2007 2:41 PM


You’re leaving out a key part of the quote, though – one that indicates the ultimate goal is not the killing, unlike what you imply.

I believe this is where Bruce’s argument comes in: Bush et al. may be trying to convince people the killing is the ultimate goal, using WTC as an example, even though this doesn’t reflect the stated goals.

Quoting from Wikipedia.

“[t]he ruling to kill the Americans and their allies civilians and military – is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque (in Jerusalem) and the holy mosque (in Makka) from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. This is in accordance with the words of Almighty Allah, ‘and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together,’ and ‘fight them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah”

Stephen Touset July 12, 2007 2:47 PM

I believe the article ignores one major aspect of the problem. The question shouldn’t be whether or not terrorism is effective at achieving goals, but whether or not it’s effective than other common strategies.

Terrorism may have a 7% success rate, but what kind of success rate do forming political organizations, hosting letter writing campaigns, or distributing petitions have? Sadly, I’d suspect far lower.

sehlat July 12, 2007 3:30 PM

Sure. Just because somebody murders several thousand people, it doesn’t mean he really WANTED to kill them.

“Look what you terrible people made me do!” (spits derisively)

Stephen Smoogen July 12, 2007 3:36 PM

@John. I wouldnt say that terrorism in Northern Ireland was successful. While minority rights have been increased… NI is not part of the Irish Republic.. and probably wont be in any time soon.

@Stephen Touset

It depends on the amount of change that a group is trying to do, and the time-frame they are working in. Plus it includes factors like how persuasive they are and how good they are at marketing. It ends up as marketing. Blowing up things is horrible marketing, walking around pushing flyers in people faces is bad marketing, showing people that they already agreed with your point of view is good marketing and is how one gets change done.

Carlo Graziani July 12, 2007 4:03 PM

At the risk of stirring a hornets nest, a noteworthy omission from the article appears to be the operations of Haganah, Irgun, and the Stern Gang in British-Mandated Palestine in the 40s. The British certainly categorized those organizations as terroristic — and the bombing of the King David Hotel and “cleansing” actions taken again Arab villages makes it hard to argue the contrary for at least some of them.

The noteworthiness of the exception is in the fact that they succeeded — the British bailed out. Of course, they were downsizing their colonial holdings everywhere at the time, so they probably would have left anyway. Nonetheless, it’s data, so it belongs on the plot.

Filias Cupio July 12, 2007 5:23 PM

@sehlat: “Look what you terrible people made me do!”

That can cut both ways. The U.S. lead international blockade and later invasion of Iraq lead to the loss of many innocent lives, but was justified as “We don’t want to do this, but Saddam Hussein leaves us no choice – it is his fault.”

Occasionally, the argument is justified. Here is a (hypothetical?) example: Palistinian ambulances are used to transport militants and arms past Israeli checkpoints. Isrealis respond by stopping ambulances, and the delay causes some patients to die who otherwise would not have. The blame for the deaths belongs with the Palistinians who used the ambulances for military purposes.

Canuckistan Bob July 12, 2007 6:26 PM

Interesting take on the response.

But I thought that it was well understood after all the hijackings and hostage assassinations in the 60s & 70s, that the primary motivator for terrorist groups was not the end game, the ultimate purpose, but the short-term goal of attention, glory, recognition, and ultimately, recruitment & public support?

Basically, most terrorist groups, like wayward children, just want people to pay attention to them (and don’t care much what kind of attention that is). And for that, terrorism works like 99% of the time.

At a minimum, they all made it onto The List, didn’t they?

Anonymous July 12, 2007 6:41 PM

Terrorism, terrorism, terrorism.

Can we get back to cryptography please ? 🙂

sooth_sayer July 12, 2007 7:05 PM

Bruce .. when you are ready for your towel tying ceremony .. let us know..

These are bizarre conclusions reached by relying on deliberately obscure and nebulous ideas sent to you dopes and theorists you like who think they are “sec urity experts”.

Pray tell WHAT WAS BLOWING UP BAMIAN BUDDHA’s .. I didn’t see it in your your fix point charter…

Do I need to give you at least 1000 examples of “goals” attempted without any viable link to your six points.

You guys are sick .. sick .. sick .. sick for justifying the nuts

Ralph July 12, 2007 8:14 PM

Good piece of work Bruce, but whilst explaining much the theory tends to let us off the hook.

The internet has given us unparalled access to large amounts of good quality information, so there is less excuse than ever to rely on primitive ‘gut reaction’ thinking.

The question arises as to why, if the truth is more accessible to the common man, as to why we must be reactionary in this manner and acquiesce to correspondent inference theory?

Do we hide behind the excuse of believing what the government told us?

Shall we excuse ourselves and say this is merely human nature, something we evolved as and therefore is thrust upon us?

Must we assume the roll of victim in the matter?

I should say not.

We have become lazy in our thinking and this is the source of arrogant, simplistic viewpoints and prejudice conclusions.

God help us if we become the dog of Pavlov, subject to such a theory.

Jon Sowden July 12, 2007 9:24 PM

Why on earth would anyone think that blowing up the Bamyan Buddhas was “terrorism”, rather than simple “cultural vandalism based on religious beliefs”?

Furthermore, Taliban != OBL

Brandioch Conner July 12, 2007 9:37 PM

Too many of the comments here miss the point.

Defeating terrorism means increasing security.

But there are almost an infinite number of ways to lose your Freedoms while “fighting terrorism” that do nothing to decrease terrorism.

The first step is to understand terrorism and terrorists. They aren’t all the same.

Once you understand them, you can take whatever measures and EVALUATE those measures to see whether you are reducing terrorism/terrorists or not.

Check the newspapers. Our current actions are not decreasing terrorism or terrorists. And right now we do not have the understanding of how they’re failing or why which means we will not be able to alter them to improve the results.

Fredrik July 12, 2007 9:44 PM

For every terrorist act, there is a third possibility for the reason of action – the irrational. In the West in particular, I believe we are more threatened by this third (non-)reason – terrorist acts by disturbed individuals which are not means of a political motive or a plan “to kill us all”, they are just single events of a psychological breakdown (e.g. Columbine shootings).

Maybe this third category doesn’t count as terrorism (a bad and mis-used term anyway). But I believe individual acts of this category are often inspired by political terrorism, with the media attention it gets.

YouWho July 12, 2007 10:42 PM

On an existential level, terrorism does work.

The suicide bomber wishes to kill and be killed. If that is achieved then HIS OWN GOAL IS MET. The suicide bomber does not need the state of Israel to be vanquished by his actions, the bloody gore of Jewish bodies will satisfy him plenty.

Read M. Heidegger for more details on existentialism and terrorism.

WhoYou July 12, 2007 10:59 PM

Bin Laden claims that he has been misunderstood and it is for this reason: he wishes to save face.

I believe the President was right about 9/11, that the goal of 9/11 was the most awful death of as many Americans as possibly imaginable.

DO NOT THINK IT MORE! To save face Bin Laden wants the world to think it more.

Bin Laden is a sadist. If there were a button to destroy world he would push it as would any sadist who hates the world.

Jon Sowden July 12, 2007 11:10 PM


rofl. Looks like you got that one covered already. You just leave the thinking to the rest of us, m’kay?

ARM July 12, 2007 11:52 PM

@ sehlat

“‘Look what you terrible people made me do!’ (spits derisively)”

Please don’t be deliberately obtuse. During the first Gulf War, a number of Iraqi solders were killed. Their deaths were not the goal of Operation Desert Storm. The goal was the liberation of Kuwait, some degradation of the Iraqi capacity to wage war, and so on. If these goals could have been accomplished more easily by other means, it likely would have been used.

The point is not that the murder of civilians by terrorists is unintentional. It’s that the murder of civilians is not the goal. It is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

Anonymous Coward July 12, 2007 11:52 PM

How about the effect of the Spanish train bombings on the subsequent elections and Spain pulling out from the Iraq war?

Prohias July 13, 2007 1:09 AM

Among Bin Laden’s top 5 goals per articles I’ve read in credible Asian media is to “liberate Kashmir through Jihad”. 9/11 had massive loss of life at once, but with terrorist outfits in Pakistan, Al Qaeda has been killing way more in India, cumulatively.

His goals are not primarily anti Israel and anti US as Scheuer depicts. He wants a pan-Islamic world and has financed and supported all sorts of terrorism in SE / East Asia.

Anonymous July 13, 2007 2:25 AM

So if THE TERRORISTS take a deep breath, think it over and change their objective to KEEP the US in Iraq and continue bombing they will fail because terrorism doesn’t work and the US will leave.

Shachar Shemesh July 13, 2007 3:06 AM

Hizbollah is an interesting “win”. True, they applied pressure, which was (a major) part of the reason Israel left Lebanon. HOWEVER, the only reason Israel was in Lebanon to begin with was that Fatah was firing missiles at Israeli cities.

We can also see that Hizbollah did not stop its fight once Israel retreated out of Lebanon, which caused Israel to come back again a year ago. We therefor conclude that, perhaps, the true motivations of terrorists are not, strictly speaking, those they claim they are. Obviously, Hizbollah did no take two soldiers prisoners because it wanted Israel out of Lebanon. It was, already, out. It took those prisoners because it wanted to gain power internally. Of course, it didn’t achieve that goal either (Hizbollah today is far weaker than it was a year ago, internal Lebanon politics wise).

What it does show us, however, is that once a group resorts to violence as a means to achieve goals, it may get hooked on it. This means that once the goals were achieved, newer goals will pop up to justify the new violence. In a way, you may draw the conclusion that a terrorist’s ultimate goal IS, after all, killing, and the official aims are just an excuse.

I can bring more examples. Be it Yasser Arrafat, that given the option between being given a country (and, thus, apparently achieving the goals they have been using terror to try and achieve) and continuing applying terror, consistently chose the later. There are other, more specific, examples as well.

It seems, at least on the face of things, that the general consensus regarding what terrorists want, at least where Islamic terror is involved, is not that far from what they really want when you apply the behavioristic approach to analyzing it (i.e. – where you are judged but what you do, rather than what you think your motives are).


Emmanuel Goldstein July 13, 2007 3:13 AM

Bin Laden is a phantom, he doesn’t exist. Only the New World Order is here to come and stay forever. Your mental freedom already has turned to mental slavery. When your mass media tell you that 2 and 2 is 5, you will believe it for your own convenience.

Colossal Squid July 13, 2007 3:23 AM

“@John. I wouldnt say that terrorism in Northern Ireland was successful.”

The IRA (and others) have found that the infrastructure they have created, the men they have trained and the terror tactics they use very, very effective in the drugs trade.
Profit trumps nationalism it seems.

Aaron Aardvark July 13, 2007 4:12 AM

@John Scholes

History is replete with examples showing
that terrorism does work. Look at the success
of the IRA in Northern Ireland, for example.

What ‘success’ would that be? The aim of the IRA was to unite Ireland into one country and this hasn’t happened. Northern Ireland is still an administrative division of the United Kingdom. There is an independent parliament in Northern Ireland, but this was never an aim of the IRA and the independent parliament does not decide things like defence policy, which are controlled by the British parliament in London.

Colman July 13, 2007 4:16 AM

John Scholes: the success of the IRA in Northern Ireland? What success? Did a united Ireland under Sínn Fein rule come into existence without my noticing?

The IRA had no success in the North: the recent peace process was a process of giving them an “honourable” way of putting down their guns after the enabling circumstances – economic and political discrimination against Catholics – had pretty much gone away.

Which is a lesson people very often fail to take from the North: you can’t stop terrorism until the enabling circumstances have changed.

Frank P. Harvey July 13, 2007 8:03 AM


There are at least four serious (and obvious) logical problems with correspondent inference theory that come to mind…

  1. The ‘real’ motivations and associated objectives of bin-Laden and al-Qaeda’s leadership may be those listed, but if there is virtually no realistic chance (none) that most of these can ever really be met (or that terrorist organizations have a common understanding of the conditions that need to be satisfied to ‘meet’ these ‘demands’), then killing innocent people to achieve these unachievable goals IS killing people for the sake of killing. That’s how the public (and most western leaders) see and respond to the problem, and they’re right.

  2. The theory assumes that al-Qaeda is a centralized entity with the capacity for top down management of global terrorist efforts — I’m not convinced. Since 9/11 al-Qaeda has become considerably more decentralized. Attacks (like those in London on 7/7, 2005) were certainly inspired by bin Laden but they were not orchestrated by him — although al Zawahiri did take credit for the attacks and connected them to his ‘objectives’). If true, then the threat we face is from multiple actors with multiple motivations well beyond those listed by the author.

  3. The theory assumes that if the specified ‘objectives’ are met we would see a noticeable decline is global terrorism. This is certainly possible, but consider the lessons learned by thousands of other organizations motivated by a different set of objectives they consider equally important. Terrorism works.

  4. The theory requires making inferences about motivations, and then distinguishing these ‘real’ motivations from those ‘perceived’ by a misinformed public. But I’m not convinced these are the ‘real’ motivations or capture/encompass ALL of the motivations inspiring these attacks. There is every reason to believe bin Laden’s motivations go well beyond those listed — e.g., toppling moderate Arab governments throughout the Middle East, including Egypt and a nuclear Pakistan.

  5. Objectives and motivations tend to shift when goals are achieved.

  6. The assertion that terrorism doesn’t work is, in a word, absurd. It obviously depends on what you decide select as benchmarks for measuring success and failure. If we focus on terrorist recruitment, al Qaeda’s stock (popularity), the anti-Americanism, the level of fear and anxiety throughout the west, billions of dollars wasted on counter-terrorism and two major counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, collapse of multilateral support for any American foreign policy initiative, election outcomes in Spain, ongoing tensions in NATO over the Afghanistan deployment, declining public support for the wars, etc. ALL of these system transforming effects produced by 19 individuals and a successful attack on US soil. Terrorism doesn’t work?

  7. Our failures, not theirs, will remain the only relevant facts that determine perceptions of progress in the war on terror.

FooDooHackedYou July 13, 2007 9:51 AM

I respect your work on cryptography. However, I must respectfully disagree with you on this one. Perhaps you should research this a bit more. Areas to look into would be: transcripts of Al Qaeda videos, intelligence on Al Qaeda, an interview by a journalist with Bin Laden, etc…

paul July 13, 2007 6:04 PM

@brandloch: Defeating terrorism means increasing security.

to some degree, you are allowing the terrorist to control your behavior (witness the ban on lotions of mass destruction at airport checkins). Does evaluating their stated goals and, where possible without capitulating or abandoning one’s own principles, addressing them enter into this?

Does the US need troops in Saudi Arabia? How is our support of an undemocratic kingdom that treats women as it does reflect on our own ideals? Does the US need to appear to control puppet governments in central Asia? I think we know how well the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq are going.

I don’t support Osama bin Forgotten but opposing him just because he attacked or refusing to examine why he and his minions were provoked enough to conceive and execute the 9/11 plot is a recipe for more of the same.

And the comments on the IRA and it’s campaign in the 70s and 80s don’t mention how popular support can affect these movements. I don’t the IRA had the same support for its paramilitary efforts and terror campaigns as it once had and that forced efforts into the political arena and away from the armed struggle.

Camilo July 14, 2007 4:12 PM

First, terrorism cannot be done against military targets. The idea of terrorism is to terrorize civilians and make them defend a political view, even against their will. If the target is a military one, it’s an act of war.

Second, terrorism doesn’t work quite well when terrorist is too weak (like Ben Laden), but works amazingly well when terrorist is strong. Rome build an empire using crucifixion as mean to terrorize conquered people. The French revolution was established on top of terror (actually, the word ‘terrorism’ comes form French regime). And it works because if you are afraid enough, and feel no one is going to protect you, you are likely to obey just to protect your life.

It doesn’t work against the USA, because people feel their current government is strong and can defend them, not because ‘terrorism’ (as political mean) doesn’t work at all.

Loren Pechtel July 15, 2007 11:32 PM

In fact, Bin Laden’s policy objectives have been surprisingly consistent. Abrahms lists four; here are six from former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer’s book Imperial Hubris:

Sorry, but you really missed the ball on this one. Maybe Gmail was saying something when it classed the newsletter as spam!

You’re mixing up his current objectives with his end objectives.

His goals haven’t changed. He wants to bring Sharia to the current Muslim lands and then bring Sharia to anyplace where there are Muslims.

When we intervened in Iraq he realized we weren’t going to stand still for his first objective and thus his focused shifted to getting us to leave him alone.

BRN July 16, 2007 12:25 AM

Bruce, I think you may have fallen prey to a little cognitive bias yourself :-). You (and Max Abrahms) are assuming that the intent of the 9/11 terrorism was to create direct change. In that, it wasn’t terribly successful. Where it has been totally, overwhelmingly successful is to create a huge gulf between the US and most of the rest of the world, caused by the Bush administration’s over-reaction and overbearing response to the events. In addition within the US it’s created a miasma of fear and paranoia that hasn’t been seen since the 1950s, and that in turn has lead to enormous financial damage to the US as business is driven elsewhere or discouraged entirely. I’m not sure whether this was a conscious goal of OBL or whether it was merely a serendipitous side-effect, but in terms of creating opposition to the US and US policies and hurting the US (by causing the US to hurt itself) the attack was astoundingly successful.

Chris V July 16, 2007 9:18 AM

If terrorism rarely achieves its “real” goals, and terrorists are generally smart, then they know their “real” point of killing all those people will be lost on the world. Yet, they continue to kill. Ergo, the point of killing all those people must be simply to kill all those people.

Looks like our correspondence instincts are working just fine.

Bush July 16, 2007 9:37 AM

Sounds like typical left-wing, anti-semetic, blame America first reasoning. Gee, I wonder what Schneier’s political leaning is….

Maybe because the Koran tells these people to kill the infidels…

mish July 16, 2007 9:40 AM

I believe that US troops left Saudi Arabia and moved to Iraq, in (what I believe is) the lone example of US troops entirely leaving a country in the last 50 years. Normally once US troops have a presence in a country they never leave.

So OBL has achieved one of his objectives. And oil prices are still pretty high.

Source for leaving Saudi:

Todd Marshall July 16, 2007 11:36 AM

 Correspondent Inference Theory and Terrorism

In other words, terrorism doesn’t work, because it makes people less likely to acquiesce to the terrorists’ demands, no matter how limited they might be. The reaction to terrorism has an effect completely opposite to what the terrorists want; people simply don’t believe those limited demands are the actual demands.

Ah … but “false flag” experts like Israel also know this. How many so-called terrorist incidents attributed to so-called terrorist organizations are actually false flag operations. The English built there empire on this tactic.


Although Bin Laden has complained that Americans have completely misunderstood the reason behind the 9/11 attacks, correspondent inference theory postulates that he’s not going to convince people. Terrorism, and 9/11 in particular, has such a high correspondence that people use the effects of the attacks to infer the terrorists’ motives. In other words, since Bin Laden caused the death of a couple of thousand people in the 9/11 attacks, people assume that must have been his actual goal, and he’s just giving lip service to what he claims are his goals. Even Bin Laden’s actual objectives are ignored as people focus on the deaths, the destruction and the economic impact.

The 9/11 attacks were not attacks. It was an inside job. It was a false flag operation. And it did succeed, not as a terrorist action, but as an action to create a “war on terror”. Pearl Harbor was also known in advance and allowed to happen … again to further the interest of the Jews who were being deported from (not exterminated from) Germany. The Japanese/German alliance forced Germany into the fight. And the attack on an American base (provoked by an American policy against Japan) brought the USA into the war against Germany who just 6 months before was considered a strong ally.


Perversely, Bush’s misinterpretation of terrorists’ motives actually helps prevent them from achieving their goals.

He misinterpreted nothing. He is a puppet of Israel and he did just as he was told.

Rob July 16, 2007 3:40 PM

That’s a fascinating article. But here’s a thought.

Imagine an Al-Qaeda with the same goals, but different tactics. Instead of killing innocent people, they hold love-ins. So, instead of 9-11, a whole bunch of bearded young men go up to the restaraunt at the top of WTC, strip, and commence having bearded man-love there on the tables. A simultaneous assault of lubed brown bodies takes place at the Pentagon. Then it’s periodic orgies in the subway, at bus stops, you know, wherever. Press releases accompanying each event would indicate that a political statement is being attempted, but from their methods, one could reasonably assume that constant man-love is not just a method but an enjoyable pastime for these folks, a priority, not only a means to an end. I think it’s the same way with the death-obsessed methods of the terrorist today.

TexasTrucker July 16, 2007 8:59 PM

Bruce et al..

This level of postulating about motives is pretty useless, and shortsighted. For one, the list of motives contained herein is missing the primary motive shown in Al Qaeda’s history up to the U.S. entering Afghanistan. That motive is to spread Sharia Law. From there, someone must administer that Law, and guess who Al Qaeda has in mind! This from their own mouths.

Left on their own, as Terrorists were before the U.S. response to 9-11, the Terrorists were building their volume of violence. Populations are resilient, and generally fairly inert. Leadership is the catalyst that creates the necessary surface tension to effect a reaction. Of course, being sentient and social beings, human populations can go from memory foam soft, to titanium tipped, depleted uranium projectiles fairly quickly. Once someone with an understanding of what the Terrorists wanted was awakened, we acted. Had we not acted, who knows when the level of violence would have peaked!

Every fight in human history can be broken down to the “haves”, and the “have nots”. Right now, Al Qaeda is the “have nots”. They are trying to prove that a small force can beat a large force in this new information environment. They do have a significant impact, but their success is largely dependent on the decision of their adversary, US.

The U.S. position in the ring of “Inter-National” affairs changed after 9-11 from one of treating Terrorists like criminals, to treating Terrorists like enemy combatants. No longer do we wait to react until after someone has been killed, or worse. Now we preempt the killing, as best we can. Any sergeant will tell you of the need to keep from firing until ordered. The Terrorists, regardless of leadership organization, have fired, repeatedly. The War is on, and we did not kill first!

Being in the position we are in now, we must present a solid, but small target aspect. This is near impossible for a free country, with free speech and free weapons (on paper anyhow). Hence, whether one agrees or not, the primary motive must be assumed, and the enemy closed with and destroyed. A free country can build a fearsome edge, with a lot of weight. The free country must have the will to wield it. Will is something that free countries have lacked historically, and that is what the Terrorists are targeting. Civilizations fall when the intelligencia assumes the military role.

Thus, the war on terrorism is not an intellectual exercise. It is a military application of the power of data bits. When in war, one must make a stand. Characterising that position as wrong is not helpful. Getting people involved, in whatever aspect is more helpful. The fact is that 180,000 of us are having more effect in Iraq and Afghanistan than all of us here at home. We do not even have to alter our daily lives to defeat this enemy. All we have to do is stand behind our troops, every last one of them. Thus, our leader’s “misinterpretation” is not perverse. Leaving out the primary motivation, and developing a postulation on the remaining data is!

Note, if you will, that we have not even touched on accepted rules of warfare as defined by the Geneva Conventions.

We are kicking ass, taking names, and executing our stated objectives, regardless of the enemy’s vote at home, or on the field of battle. You can sleep well at night knowing the Americans are protecting you!

WrightBrothers July 16, 2007 10:26 PM

The original article made it sound as though Mr. Schneier thinks that OBL would be sated once he reached a fixed set of goals. But how often in human history has a leader’s lust for power simply shut down of its own accord, particularly after having been rewarded for aggression up to that point? In other words, if OBL achieves his goals (like getting the U.S. to drop support for Israel), how likely is it that he will say, “OK, I’m satisfied. Terrorism will stop; I have done enough.” Isn’t it more likely that he would find new goals to pursue–using whatever tactics worked up to that point?

rob July 17, 2007 3:35 PM

“Maybe because the Koran tells these people to kill the infidels…

Posted by: Bush at July 16, 2007 09:37 AM”

so does the bible, which proves… what, exactly?

Alastair McKinstry July 18, 2007 8:39 AM


I would disagree and say the IRA did win the ‘war’ in Northern Ireland (though some of their successes were clawed back during the peace process).

Ask yourself what it would look like if the IRA had won its aims, and all involved were intelligent actors. They would be in power, and not waste time playing “Nah, nah , I’m the king of the castle” games like schoolchildren.

By that I mean, the IRA found a tactic that worked: bombing, with as few casualties as possible, economic targets in London: the Baltic Exchange, Canary Wharf., etc. By the 1990s Britain was seriously dependent on the financial sector, and it was apparent one or two more bombs would make a lot of the international business leave to New York, Frankfurt, etc. on the next plane. All sides recognized this, and this forced London to get all sides around the table and implement the Sinn Fein agenda.


The Abrams paper is seriously flawed in that it chooses as its terrorist groups those from the State Depts. FTO list: it picks those ‘terrorist’ organisations that_are_still_fighting and asks if they have achieved their aims. Unsuprisingly, few have.

Once a ‘terrorist’ group succeeds it will stand aside while its ‘political wing’, etc. takes power. Defining what is a ‘terrorist’ group, and whether a political organisation has gained by terror is tough (e.g. did the ANC benefit from terrorism in gaining power in South Africa?), but the FTO list is not a suitable dataset for Abrahms analysis.

Earl Killian July 18, 2007 7:07 PM

From the observation that terrorism achieves the perpetrators’ stated objectives 7% of the time, it does not follow that terrorism “does not work”. One could only conclude that by comparing the outcome to alternative strategies to see if their success rate were higher or lower than 7%. Remember, terrorism is often in response to situations that the perpetrators consider so unacceptable that “something must be done”, regardless of the chances of success. If “something must be done,” the question is then what has the highest chance of success, even if that chance is still low. Let me quote Arundhati Roy here, though I suspect many disagree with her position, I think it gives an idea of why terrorism is still with us (this is a long quote, 3 paragraphs):

“After all, when the U.S. invades and occupies Iraq in the way it has done, with such overwhelming military force, can the resistance be expected to be a conventional military one? (Of course, even if it were conventional, it would still be called terrorist.) In a strange sense, the U.S. government’s arsenal of weapons and unrivalled air and fire power makes terrorism an all-but-inescapable response. What people lack in wealth and power, they will make up with stealth and strategy.”

“In this restive, despairing time, if governments do not do all they can to honor nonviolent resistance, then by default they privilege those who turn to violence. No government’s condemnation of terrorism is credible if it cannot show itself to be open to change by to nonviolent dissent.”

“The judges and generals look down on us from high and shake their heads sternly. There is no alternative they say and let slip the dogs of war. And then from the ruins of Afghanistan, from the rubble of Iraq and Chechnya, from the streets of occupied Palestine, and the mountains of Kashmir, from the hills and plains of Columbia, and the forests of Andrupradeesh and Assam, comes the chilling reply, there’s no alternative to terrorism. Terrorism, armed struggle, insurgency, call it what you want. Terrorism is viscous, ugly, and dehumanizing for its perpetrators as well as its victims. But so is war. You could say that terrorism is the privatization of war. Terrorists are the free marketeers of war. They are people who don’t believe that the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Human society is journeying to a terrible place. But of course there’s an alternative to terrorism. It’s called justice. And it’s time to recognize that no amount of nuclear weapons, or full spectrum dominance, or daisy cutters, or spurious governing councils and loya jirgas can buy us peace at the cost of justice. The urge for hegemony and preponderance by some will be matched with greater intensity by the longing for dignity and justice by others. Exactly what form that battle takes, whether it’s beautiful or bloodthirsty, depends on us.”

Earl Killian July 18, 2007 10:05 PM

As an addendum to my criticism of the MIT study, consider the following article:
The article reports on an analysis by “Jason Lyall at Princeton University and Lt. Col. Isaiah Wilson III at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point that shows that the likelihood of a great power winning an asymmetrical war went from 85 percent during 1800-1850 to 21 percent during 1950-2003.” Now 21% is better than 7%, but it is still pretty miserable considering that the greater power is losing to a lessor one (the opposite of the terrorism situation).

Lydell’s website is
and the paper is titled “Rage Against the Machines: Mechanization and the Determinants of Victory in Counterinsurgency Warfare”. It says “do not circulate”, so it is better for you to get it through his page. Their conclusion is not what you would expect, and thought-provoking.

This may be getting quite off-topic, but distantly related is the following:
This is an old OpEd (May 2004) where the author claims successful occupations need a troop to population ratio of 40 to 1. U.S. troop levels are one fourth that after the surge, so this would seem to indicate the idiocy of the surge.

I went looking for the cited Rand study. This might be the one:

Andrew M July 19, 2007 9:33 AM

This comment board is full of people who are letting their cognitive bias get the better of them, insisting that the terrorists kill us just for bloodlust.

Suppose a gang of thugs beat you up and took your wallet/purse. Some idiots would say “They did it because they didn’t like me!” Of course, there was a reason behind the mugging: Maybe they wanted your cash to buy drugs, or your credit cards to sell to an organized crime ring. That’s not to say they didn’t have some fun.

While I’m sure that terrorists do take delight in offing people, this isn’t like Columbine where it’s just “let’s go kill some people ha ha ha.” There is a reason behind the killing, and the terrorists think it is noble and will work.

I don’t think any of us would agree that their cause (or any cause) is noble enough to justify their tactics. What this research does is show that their confidence is misplaced as well: terrorism only very rarely works. 7 times out 100, those aren’t good chances.

Now, this paper won’t make any terrorists sit up and think “Wow, I should have just had a bake sale instead!” Because every group will think that they will be one of the seven who do win. Just like every rock band thinks they’ll be the one in a thousand that sells a million records.

alqpr July 20, 2007 2:24 AM

Three points:
1. Your evidence that terrorism doesn’t work has already been identified as silly. “Terrorists” who succeed are no longer identified as terrorists, and in any case once they succeed they stop. So to use the non-success of a list of currently active(!) terrorist organizations as evidence of anything is ridiculous.
2. Terrorism does work when the objective is made very clear (which usually is done by rewarding compliance – and which in turn requires the terrorists to dominate the environment sufficiently that significant numbers will comply). Examples include the Norman conquest of Saxon England, and the American and Russian revolutions.
3. It MAY be true that correspondent inference makes it likely that the use of terror to persuade a remote population will be unsuccessful, but since OBL is probably not paying you much attention the use of him as your example is pointless. However, the theory is applicable in both directions. If I was an Iraqi right now I would be much more likely to infer that the goal of shock and awe was to destabilize my country and put my oil in the hands of American interests rather than to bring me peace love and democracy.

alqpr July 20, 2007 3:04 AM

Further to my previous comment – I have just finished reading Max Abrahms paper and, to his credit, he does actually recognize my last point above. In fact his concluding words are “Correspondent inference theory can explain not only why terrorist campaigns rarely work, but also perhaps why counterterrorism campaigns tend to breed even more terrorism.”

john t walker July 7, 2013 12:50 PM

OK .
But 150 million us citizens would spy on the remaining 150 millions ?
Spying is only valid when the person is already involved in criminal activities . Now : what are the criminal activities ? Some are defined by laws , others still not .
All depends on law makers . Who are they ??
WE SHOULD SPY ON THEM . EASIER , FASTER and EFFICIENT to eliminate the corrupted ones .
Xeers .

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