The Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Terrorists

Most counterterrorism policies fail, not because of tactical problems, but because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what motivates terrorists in the first place. If we’re ever going to defeat terrorism, we need to understand what drives people to become terrorists in the first place.

Conventional wisdom holds that terrorism is inherently political, and that people become terrorists for political reasons. This is the “strategic” model of terrorism, and it’s basically an economic model. It posits that people resort to terrorism when they believe—rightly or wrongly—that terrorism is worth it; that is, when they believe the political gains of terrorism minus the political costs are greater than if they engaged in some other, more peaceful form of protest. It’s assumed, for example, that people join Hamas to achieve a Palestinian state; that people join the PKK to attain a Kurdish national homeland; and that people join al-Qaida to, among other things, get the United States out of the Persian Gulf.

If you believe this model, the way to fight terrorism is to change that equation, and that’s what most experts advocate. Governments tend to minimize the political gains of terrorism through a no-concessions policy; the international community tends to recommend reducing the political grievances of terrorists via appeasement, in hopes of getting them to renounce violence. Both advocate policies to provide effective nonviolent alternatives, like free elections.

Historically, none of these solutions has worked with any regularity. Max Abrahms, a predoctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, has studied dozens of terrorist groups from all over the world. He argues that the model is wrong. In a paper published this year in International Security that—sadly—doesn’t have the title “Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Terrorists,” he discusses, well, seven habits of highly ineffective terrorists. These seven tendencies are seen in terrorist organizations all over the world, and they directly contradict the theory that terrorists are political maximizers:

Terrorists, he writes, (1) attack civilians, a policy that has a lousy track record of convincing those civilians to give the terrorists what they want; (2) treat terrorism as a first resort, not a last resort, failing to embrace nonviolent alternatives like elections; (3) don’t compromise with their target country, even when those compromises are in their best interest politically; (4) have protean political platforms, which regularly, and sometimes radically, change; (5) often engage in anonymous attacks, which precludes the target countries making political concessions to them; (6) regularly attack other terrorist groups with the same political platform; and (7) resist disbanding, even when they consistently fail to achieve their political objectives or when their stated political objectives have been achieved.

Abrahms has an alternative model to explain all this: People turn to terrorism for social solidarity. He theorizes that people join terrorist organizations worldwide in order to be part of a community, much like the reason inner-city youths join gangs in the United States.

The evidence supports this. Individual terrorists often have no prior involvement with a group’s political agenda, and often join multiple terrorist groups with incompatible platforms. Individuals who join terrorist groups are frequently not oppressed in any way, and often can’t describe the political goals of their organizations. People who join terrorist groups most often have friends or relatives who are members of the group, and the great majority of terrorist are socially isolated: unmarried young men or widowed women who weren’t working prior to joining. These things are true for members of terrorist groups as diverse as the IRA and al-Qaida.

For example, several of the 9/11 hijackers planned to fight in Chechnya, but they didn’t have the right paperwork so they attacked America instead. The mujahedeen had no idea whom they would attack after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, so they sat around until they came up with a new enemy: America. Pakistani terrorists regularly defect to another terrorist group with a totally different political platform. Many new al-Qaida members say, unconvincingly, that they decided to become a jihadist after reading an extreme, anti-American blog, or after converting to Islam, sometimes just a few weeks before. These people know little about politics or Islam, and they frankly don’t even seem to care much about learning more. The blogs they turn to don’t have a lot of substance in these areas, even though more informative blogs do exist.

All of this explains the seven habits. It’s not that they’re ineffective; it’s that they have a different goal. They might not be effective politically, but they are effective socially: They all help preserve the group’s existence and cohesion.

This kind of analysis isn’t just theoretical; it has practical implications for counterterrorism. Not only can we now better understand who is likely to become a terrorist, we can engage in strategies specifically designed to weaken the social bonds within terrorist organizations. Driving a wedge between group members—commuting prison sentences in exchange for actionable intelligence, planting more double agents within terrorist groups—will go a long way to weakening the social bonds within those groups.

We also need to pay more attention to the socially marginalized than to the politically downtrodden, like unassimilated communities in Western countries. We need to support vibrant, benign communities and organizations as alternative ways for potential terrorists to get the social cohesion they need. And finally, we need to minimize collateral damage in our counterterrorism operations, as well as clamping down on bigotry and hate crimes, which just creates more dislocation and social isolation, and the inevitable calls for revenge.

This essay previously appeared on

EDITED TO ADD (10/9): Interesting rebuttal.

Posted on October 7, 2008 at 5:48 AM90 Comments


bob October 7, 2008 6:42 AM

I consider a huge factor in terrorism to be the almost total lack of education available to children in middle eastern countries, outside of big cities. They then wind up being sent to madrassas (kind of a cross between a day care, school, lemonade stand and prison isolation cell), where they are taught basically one thing: the Koran.

And the viewpoint with which they are taught is completely up to the guy running the school. It could be benign or it could teach a radicalized violent version where the child is rejecting god if he does not die while killing infidels.

If the UN wants to do something useful (I know, why break a 50 year track record) instead of passing resolution after resolution encouraging governments to punish people who say unfriendly things about Islam, they could put some schools in these backward places that teach things like arithmetic, history or geography so that the kids would have value to their societies as adults and not HAVE to blow themselves up as a rite of passage.

Clive Robinson October 7, 2008 7:01 AM

@ Bruce,

A look back through your blog will show I have been saying this for a long while.

However I must urge caution in the way you interpret it.

I have realised for many years now that one thing many terrorists share is a family life with a very very dominant adult, either a parent or other relative to whom the rest of the family kowtow to effectivly this person acts as a compass for the family to follow.

When a (usually male) member of this family is outside of the influence of the family they have no “compass” to follow which leaves a significant vacum in their life and they will often actively seek out a new compass or suragate family group.

Now this is where you have to be very carefull. Does this lack of compass make them prot-terrorists or does it make them vulnerable to being influenced to be a terrorist.

The distinction is very important, because if it is the former then ther is little you can do except rely on informers and planted agents.

However if it is the latter (which I strongly suspect is the case) then setting up clubs and other organisations to provide surragate families and a replacment compass might be all that is required to limit terrorist recruitment.

Of the two solutions the latter is definatly preferable simply because it also helps a lot of other people at realy quite minimal cost (financialy) and helps build communities that we are sadly lacking in the WASP countries.

This lack of communities is one of the (supposed) prime motivators for gang / drug / thug / violent etc crime.

I also suspect the same lack of community will shortly be blamed for the colapse of the financial markets and banking industry, and I guess will land at the feet of Ronald Regan and Maggie Thatcher.

Raymond October 7, 2008 7:03 AM

“they could put some schools in these backward places that teach things like arithmetic, history or geography”

Bob arithmetic, at least the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, and most math and science was founded in these “backward places”.

The best way to combat terrorism is to stop the exploitation of the world’s poor.

In the last fifty years the United States has bombed 38 countries. Many of these attacks served an imperialist economic agenda.

Terrorism = blow back.

Furthermore xenophobic comments about Islam do nothing but inflame terrorism.

Educate yourself first.

Joe October 7, 2008 7:07 AM

It does seem to bring up the concept of fighting global terrorism with Facebook. It sounds silly, but we’ve seen a powerful communist empire brought to its knees by Levi jeans.

When it comes to point 2, using terrorism as a first recourse, I’d be very curious to know, at least about American terrorists: For people like Timothy McVeigh or Richard Reid, what was their voting history? Not so much who they voted for, but whether they voted in elections, of if they felt like their goals were so far out in left field that voting didn’t matter.

John October 7, 2008 7:14 AM


I follow you up to the last paragraph. Would you please elaborate? If you were the gov’t and had several gigabucks to spend on anti-terrorism programs, how would you spend it under this theory?

dmx October 7, 2008 7:24 AM

“. They then wind up being sent to madrassas (kind of a cross between a day care, school, lemonade stand and prison isolation cell), where they are taught basically one thing: the Koran”

Actually madrass is just a word that means “School”. Like how the western press has hijacked the words “Jihad” and “Fatwa” to mean “terrorism” and “death sentence” instead of their actual meanings of ‘spiritual growth’ and ‘religious declaration’. (For instance I could have a jihad to learn the koran better, and maybe make a fatwa that “its unmuslim to be rude to old people”. Others might chose to disagree with my fatwa however!)

And so likewise we actually want people to learn better, so we DO want them to go to Madrassass. I went to a Madrassass, a catholic one. My brothers went to secular state Madrassess. And in fact everyone who posts here went to a Maddrassass, unless they where homeschooled or somehow taught themselves to read and write.

But otherwise, I agree with you Bob 🙂

Jim Ramsey October 7, 2008 7:26 AM

Eric Hoffer, “The true believer : thoughts on the nature of mass movements” came to the same conclusions more than 50 years ago.

stupidity quotient October 7, 2008 7:30 AM

I consider a huge factor in terrorism to be the almost total lack of education available to children in middle eastern countries, outside of big cities.

So what should I make of the shop assistant yesterday who needed a calculator to divide 120 by 12? In a western big city.

Mike Lambrellis October 7, 2008 7:37 AM

Bob, difficult for the UN to build schools (which they do) in countries without local government approval.

Clive, Bruce, I posit that there is a difference between supporting terrorist groups (as in “Ra! Ra! You go Usama!”) vs actually becoming/being a terrorist. Abrahms thesis does not invalidate the theory that large swathes of the world tacitly support the purported AIMS of these groups (without necessarily supporting the means) as a result providing direct and indirect assistance to their (terrorist groups) survival. There will always be disaffected people who find in terrorist acts a way of belonging with like minded people. Addressing the issues at the heart of these groups’ purported aims will cause popular support for the groups to vanish depriving them of oxygen. The war on drugs provides an analogy here. Large segments of the world have a relaxed attitude to drug use (being at one time users themselves), however not all drug users become involved in organised crime. Nevertheless, the “war” on drugs will continue to fail because we are not addressing the demand side of the equation. People want drugs and someone will always pop up to try and satisfy that demand. Similarly, large segments of the world feel aggrieved at Western actions creating an implicit demand for some sort of action that will continue to generate groups purporting to address it, even if the reason the individual members join has nothing to do with those aims. If we dealt with the issues, then we would still be left with disaffected people who will find something (probably bad) to do with their energy. Dealing with them is an “also” issue not an “instead of”.

sooth sayer October 7, 2008 7:56 AM

After a long dry spell a good analysis.

There is a solution to this problem — after every terrorist act — do the same to their families — life and property with 10x multiplier — no exceptions.

Terrorism will stop worldwide in one day.

This is how it was drug dealers were stopped in Columbia.

Of course this is a near impossible thing to implement “now” – Israel tried it with little success largely because they limited themselves to property!!

Moguls had this policy against Afghans and they were able to keep piece in that area for a long time.

John Waters October 7, 2008 8:01 AM


So it would follow, then, that the hundreds upon hundreds of millions of people who have in the past and are currently in “madrassas” are at a significant risk of becoming violent extremists. If this is the case, where are they? At 1.5 billion muslims worldwide, a 1% success rate across even 1/10 of this population would mean a huge number of violent militants just itching to “blow themselves up”.

Where are they? Why aren’t there hundreds of attacks per day? per year? per DECADE?

I have read the Qur’an, several times over and all of the ayat permitting violence are bounded with limitations and reminders that God is watching everything you do, does not like the unjust, or prefers reconciliation.

In fact, it is these schools in “backwards places” that tend to temper the abhorrent tribal laws and violence that exist in its stead. All muslims that have spent time in even the most rudimentary madrassa, for instance, will find stories like that of Mukhtar Bibi (gang-raped at the command of a yokel-run tribal council in remote pakistan to punish her family) disgusting and criminal. It was probably a madrassa-educated judge that order the arrest and execution of some of the men involved in the Bibi case…

The problem is that we have a bunch of sociopathic killers applying themselves regardless of their religion or position on the political spectrum. They can be of a single ethnic identity but differing religious affiliations (like the Tamil Tigers), homogeneous like the IRA or ETA, or ad hoc and novel like the SLA. These people are all thugs, they just can’t wait to “F stuff up”, that is what they do. Don’t think for a minute that we don’t have hundreds of them running around the depressed and disenfranchised neighborhoods of US cities, all they need is someone to get them organized and motivated.

Incidentally, Islam commands muslims to take care of the poor and needy. I suspect it does so to keep things like this from happening. I say that if leadership in the muslim world would actually pay attention to the Qur’an and assist the needy year round, not just during Ramadan, we would probably see a significant drop in this kind of activity a few years down the road.

Bruce: I like the fact that you discuss security as a whole on your blog. I would buy your book if I could get a copy of it here in Riyadh. Thanks and please keep up the great work.

jcw October 7, 2008 8:09 AM

@sooth sayer: Really? You can accurately and rapidly identify terrorists? You can find their families, life and property? What if the terrorist in question hates them? What if the terrorist group frames members of another terrorist group that they hate for the attack?

What if you ever become a moral person, and have to live with yourself for doing such a thing?

Eugene October 7, 2008 8:09 AM

I’m pretty sure the cause of terrorism is because they’re “evil” and “hate our freedom”. </sarcasm

Cos October 7, 2008 8:29 AM

Political goals do matter: They determine the general level of social support for a terrorist group in its environment, which not only determines how easy it is for them to operate and fundraise, but also affects the social “coolness” factor of the terrorist group, which is an important factor in why people join.

Addressing the political aims of a terrorist group effectively, can marginalize that group, reducing their “coolness” and therefore their recruitment, while making it more difficult for them to operate. The committed members of the group won’t change their minds, but the group will slowly atrophy in such circumstances.

Witness today’s weaker, more marginalized ETA. Look at the dramatic decline of the Shining Path in the years since Peru’s government got better – ETA is headed in that direction.

Conversely, look at the amazing growth of Hamas, which was a fringe group when the initial Oslo accords were signed in 1993. They grew by running schools, clinics, and other basic services that the Palestinian Authority failed to supply enough of.

MickMac October 7, 2008 8:40 AM

The only true way to stop the terrorists, especially RADICAL Islamic ones, is to kill them all. Like exterminating pests.

It’s what they plan to do to us. Anyone and EVERYONE who does not believe that or thinks they can negoiate or co-exists with these people does NOT understand them at all.

bim October 7, 2008 8:42 AM

Good examples of ETA and Hamas, but I’m struggling to see how the IRA fit into this analysis. They were a violent terrorist group that were committed to ending UK rule of Northern Ireland.

Then they gave up violence, decommissioned their arms (maybe) and their leaders are now political leaders in NI.

Were they an “effective” terrorist group? Are they an exceptional case of a group whose stated political ends really were important to them, ie more important than maintaining their social grouping?

Or are they still going, as a set of evolved splinter groups : Sinn Fein moving into “proper” politics, the enforcers finally becoming a full-on organised crime syndicate, the border smugglers changing goods?

Anonymous October 7, 2008 8:42 AM

The description above is far from accurate in the case of the IRA, at least according to my recollection of growing up in the UK during the second half of “the troubles”.

1) Attack civilians – they did this some of the time, but many of their attacks were against the military or politicians (including attacking Downing Street and a Conservative party conference). And many of the attacks against civilians involved warnings which saved many lives while still causing massive disruption and financial costs. But yes, there were also significant civilian deaths outside Northern Ireland, including young children killed in Warrington which was definitely counterproductive.

2) The IRA had a political wing – Sinn Fein. They are now part of the Northern Ireland government. Violence may often have been the first resort, but the political side, including elections, was also a very important part of their strategy.

3) Compromises were made in negotiations (initially secret) with the British government. They are not now part of a united Ireland, as they wanted, but are more independent, have power, have the military off the streets and mostly withdrawn …

4) I don’t know the details, but the core of their political aims was to have Northern Ireland become part of the Republic of Eire. While compromise has been made, that hasn’t changed.

5) There were very few anonymous attacks during the troubles.

6) There was certainly infighting in the troubles, though more on the Loyalist side as I remember. Then again look at any political party and you can find a lot of infighting in the political sense.

7) The IRA has pretty much disbanded. There was resistance, but a rational case can certainly be made as they were compromising, still wary of the other side after many years of open hostility, the status quo was only slowly being changed …

Many similar points could also be made about Hamas, and doubtless other groups. Although I am sure there are also many terrorist groups who were far less rational and better fit the picture you paint above.

The above is not to say that the other factors such as social solidarity were not important in the case of the IRA. And lots of anger (at injustice or otherwise) does not tend to lead to entirely rational trade offs, which seems a fair explanation of some of the “going too far” with counterproductive outcomes.

But ultimately I think we have to say that a large part of the motivation, in some cases, is a reaction to (at least perceived) injustices, and as a path to political ends. And they are as rational as many other areas of life – markets, politics …

FBC3 October 7, 2008 8:44 AM

I suspect this analysis is generally accurate for the hoi polloi of terrorist organizations. However, it’s unlikely that it applies to their leadership, who, like mainstream politicians, are more interested in maintaining power and prestige than actually accomplishing anything of real value.

kangaroo October 7, 2008 8:49 AM

In short, terrorist groups are like other religious groups — they will believe and do anything for the propagation of the group. “Beliefs” of the group are just a form of loyalty oath; the rationality of the belief is irrelevant (and may actually be counterproductive).

Henning Makholm October 7, 2008 8:53 AM

Bruce: “planting more double agents within terrorist groups”

Unfortunately it seems that if such “double agents” cannot find a bona fide terrorist group to infiltrate, they’ll just as easy create one out of thin air (and whatever socially maladjusted youth they can rope in) simply to make quota and justify their spot on the payroll.

At least, government provocateurs are fairly often alleged to BE the radicalizers in recent terrorist cases. They need closer supervision than today’s law enforcement agencies appear to be able to deliver.

(Hm, perhaps that is where the “double” in “double agent” came from).

Seth October 7, 2008 8:57 AM

@Raymond, the fact that someone who lived someplace some centuries ago was a great mathematician has no implication on the level of arithmetic knowledge of people who live there today.

kangaroo October 7, 2008 8:58 AM

soothsayer: There is a solution to this problem — after every terrorist act — do the same to their families — life and property with 10x multiplier — no exceptions.

No, that is exactly the short term solution that leads to losing in the long-term. In the Southern Cone and Brazil, that was exactly the strategy used against the left by pro-American governments in the ’70s.

In the short-term, it appeared to work. However, 30 years later, what do we see? All those countries are now lead by the very survivors of those purges: Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, creating at least a no-opposition policy, if not an outright supportive policy to the more radical governments in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. Always thinking in the short term.

Al October 7, 2008 9:18 AM

Education IS a big deal, especially educating the women in these countries.

Read Greg Mortensen’s “Three Cups of Tea”.

It seems like a good approach.

Winter October 7, 2008 9:19 AM

Bruce, this study can easily be redone as

“The Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Anti-Terrorist Agencies”

Many of the Anti-Terrorist efforts show the same disfunctional habits that try to use terrorists as an excuse for “bonding”. The other great terrorist motivator, power and money, also motivates quite some of the anti-terrorists.


wsinda October 7, 2008 9:24 AM

FBC3: “I suspect this analysis is generally accurate for the hoi polloi of terrorist organizations. However, it’s unlikely that it applies to their leadership […]”

The distinction in motives between “workers” and leaders is exactly what I was missing in the essay. (I’ve yet to read the Abrahms paper.)

With suicide terrorism, the difference could be much larger, because the workers have no future interests to care about, while the leaders do. Thus, it’s not surprising if ETA and IRA do not fit the picture.

Clive Robinson October 7, 2008 9:27 AM

@ Henning Makholm,

‘Hm, perhaps that is where the “double” in “double agent” came from’

As far as I’m aware it comes from the sporting expression “to double cross ones oponent” or to confuse them into making a mistake (from which tennis’s “double fault” comes from).

However like many of these sayings and terms their origins may be actualy lost in history (such as football/socers “nutmeg”).

However what is known is that during WWII one group was known as “twenty” from the Roman numerals “XX” which was also a “double cross” there was also another group named after a religious symbol that was a two armed cross or a cross above a cross but I cannot remember the name (something like Loraine).

Brandioch Conner October 7, 2008 9:32 AM

Almost all the above comments are accurate. Even those that contradict each other.

The problem is that we still have not defined the terms.

What is “terrorism”.

What is a “terrorist”.

Until you do that, any situation can apply to a sub-set of the “terrorists” that you’re identifying.

Poverty? Yes, some “terrorists” are “terrorists” because of poverty.

Political / Religious affinity? Yes, see above.

Community? Yes, see above.

Lack of education? Yes, see above.


The problem is that it is also very easy to find “terrorists” who completely contradict whatever the current model is.

McVeigh, bin Laden, Kaczynski, the IRA, etc. The differences seem to out-weigh the similarities.

Yosi October 7, 2008 9:32 AM

One more “academic” analysis of terrorism by one that only seen terrorists on TV.

“attack civilians, a policy that has a lousy track record of convincing those civilians to give the terrorists what they want”
Are you for real?! This is ONLY policy that convince civilians to give in. Learn some history before writing such nonsense.

Yes, radical Muslim hate America. There’s no solution to that. Fight them. Kill them all.

Beta October 7, 2008 9:49 AM

I agree with FBC3. This paper suggests two interesting follow-up questions:

1) Do other, non-terroristic social groups with overt political or religious stances follow the same pattern?

2) What makes a group terroristic? That is, why does rural Afghanistan give rise to groups that like to attack in paramilitary style, while urban U.S. groups like to sell narcotics? Is it just because of their respective traditions of warrior and entrepreneur? (Note that both paths yield rich rewards for those at the top– would you rather be a General or a tycoon?).

Norm October 7, 2008 9:52 AM

I really love the Muslim concept of “paradise,” complete with 72 virgins, as a reward for a jihadist act well-done.

But I don’t think the Koran really makes it clear that those 72 virgins are necessarily girls. What if it was a place with 72 boys? Or, 72 roly-poly boys with B.O. and bad acne? If this became a revelation, jihadist homicide-bombing would screech to a standstill.

Steve October 7, 2008 9:55 AM

Any discussion of the motivations of terrorists that doesn’t include Robert Pape’s “Dying to Win”
is incomplete and suspect.

Mr. Pape has by far the most comprehensive study of terrorist attacks.
His database and reasoning make a powerful argument that terrorism arises when an occupying force threatens the religious and social roots of the oppressed society. His theories are backup up by solid evidence gathered over thirty years.

If his is correct, and I believe he is, the solution to terrorism is to withdraw occupying armies from areas where the local population believes, often with cause, that the occupation forces pose an existential threat to their culture, religion, and way of life.

Everything the US government has done for the past 20 years runs precisely counter to this advice. We are in far more danger as a direct result.

DaveL October 7, 2008 9:59 AM

Back in the late 70s the PLO wanted to shut down Black September. They found that the best way to do it was to get the terrorists introduced to beautiful young women. Within a fairly short time, most of them were married and had retired from the terrorism business.

Here’s the story, from The Atlantic: –“All You Need is Love.” I think it fits the analysis you are writing about very well.

cgr October 7, 2008 10:03 AM

The basic thesis is clearly correct. The psychological status of people who engage in terror is all too often neglected.

In any case, it’s a huge error to consider that “terrorist” is a description of a single type of behavior. The word is used lazily to describe a wide range of people with different patterns of behavior, usually but not always, fatal. It is a cliche that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter: the situation of Northern Ireland was cited above, where in the end the leaders have become mainstream politicians. But remember also the many anti-imperial ‘freedom fighter/terrorist’ groups. Ironically, Israel itself was created amid the activities of Irgun, called ‘terrorists’ by the British. What about the French resistance during WWII? the French Revolutionaries? the American Revolutionaries? the Russian Revolutionaries? Timothy McVeigh?

It gets worse. Return to the IRA and you will find not a uniform group of easily identifiable ‘Irish republicans’ but a coalition of the politically aware, religious fanatics, the naive, the angry and the crooks – a situation that is far from unique.

And I haven’t even started on the actions of governments who deploy national resources to terrorize their own and foreign citizens.

The opposition to terror has to be way more sophisticated than simple knee-jerk reflected violence. There is no completely correct solution, but it seems to me that the phenomenon should be opposed by legal process and anti-criminal measures rather than military adventures and ‘state oppression’.

Although of course that might not achieve the outcomes desired by those who run the state. But then the military adventure doesn’t always work, either..

Anonymouser October 7, 2008 10:19 AM

“He theorizes that people join terrorist organizations worldwide in order to be part of a community, much like the reason inner-city youths join gangs in the United States.”

By this theory, there should be many more terrorists than there are – what with the gangster and terrorist careers being equally attractive to estranged youths, there should be as many Al-Qaeda as there are Crips and Bloods.

This is a good indicator of a bad theory :).

Is there any evidence that countries where there are active terror movements have lower levels of gang-related crime? Northern Ireland should be a nice case study.

Another thing that doesn’t fit is that terrorists (Osama included) tend to be not youths, but rather 30-something and older guys, most of them people with families and friends who do not participate in violence in any way and sometimes do not even condone it.

I hope this theory never becomes true. The thought of niche gangs/cartels like the Mara Salvatruchas or the ‘Ndrangheta being squeezed into becoming bona-fide terrorist organizations gives me the heebie-jeebies. I’d much rather they pay their politicians like everyone else.

Preston L. Bannister October 7, 2008 10:35 AM

What about funding?

Interesting paper (read it) and I suspect the points it makes are largely correct. What the paper does not touch is the source of funds, and the motivations of those who provide funds.

Some “terrorist” organizations seem to be surprisingly well funded. The well funded outfits seem to be the ones that cause the most damage.

Who provides the funding? Why?

My guess is that we should look for “weekend warlords” – folk with money, an aim, and who “hire” one or more “terrorist” groups to pursue their interest (or passion?).

Could it be that “terrorist” organizations fade away when they can no longer find sufficient funding – when those that provided funds are no longer interested?

But this is only a theory.

Rich October 7, 2008 10:38 AM

I have an observation on the comments about education. In “The Places In Between” by Rory Stewart he walked across parts of Afghanistan untouched by westerners (directly). He met a youth who had studied the Koran. The youth had it memorized and could recite any part. However, he did not understand a word since it was in Arabic, a language he did not speak. My take on this is that the only understanding of the Koran would come from the instructor. A radical-believing instructor would be in a position to warp the youth’s view of Islam. Such a youth may have no opportunity to find the Islam that most know.

Clive Robinson October 7, 2008 10:50 AM

@ Mike Lambrellis,

“I posit that there is a difference between supporting terrorist groups… vs actually becoming/being a terrorist.”

Yes, and several levels in both camps.

With regards to supporting, the IRA did very well out of American citizens (many being Police/Fire officers) who had a romantic notion of kinship with the “homeland” etc. and would slip a couple of dollars in the box “for the boys” when out drinking etc.

You could say these where the willing supporters, the unwilling where back in the U.K.&N.I and Eire such as the shop keepers and business men who paid “protection money” etc, and workers on building sites paying “the dues” to the gang boss. Then there where those who “had a need” who robbed to feed drug habits from drug dealers who where either directly or indirectly giving a cut of the business back.

But by far the larget where the state sponsors the U.S. Russia and China. All of whom used terrorists in other countries as proxies for their political agendas. With the colapse of the USSR and the end of the cold war the US and Russia pulled out of active sponsorship creating a considerable vacum. China still sponsors both terrorists and opressive states to provide a buffer or “zone of influence” around their boarders.

With regards terrorist organisations there is an assumption that they have a pyrimid structure, and that within this is a “cell” structure.

Although this almost certainly true of the likes of the IRA and ETA and other long running and well established “old terrorist” organisations, this does not appear to be the case for this centuries “new terrorists”.

Whilst it appears that the U.S. Invented “al qaeda” to be able to gain judgment against “Osama bin Laden” it is doubtfull if it actuall has any real substance as an organisation other than for propogander.

The organisations that provided terrorist training camps in Pakistan / Syria etc where most definatly around long before “al qaeda” and importantly at that time and “Osama bin Laden” was doing very nicely out of the CIA amongst others training people to fight the Russians in Afganistan.

But since the end of the cold war “new terrorism” appears not to be organised in the way of “old terrorism”.

“New Terrorists” appear to be of two types, home grown groups of individuals lacking either training or funding and those recruited by those with resources.

The financial support appears to come from very wealthy individuals who have connections with the House of Saud or equivalent not directly from states.

Put simply the “new terrorists” are not state sponsored and in some cases are not funded at all.

The personel of “new terrorists” falls into footsoldiers and backers.

With a notable exception (US-9/11) The footsoldiers are not organised or particularly well trained and as an organisation may actuall consist of just a small handfull of people who are self trained with home made explosives etc (UK-7/7).

Likwise the backers appear to be those with resources and those with just ideology. Of these those with resources appear to be keeping an extreamly low profile of late.

Due to the politics of the issue it has of recent times been difficult to get reliable data on terrorist organisations and as noted above there appears to be only a “flag of conveniance” organisation and no structure.

kangaroo October 7, 2008 11:03 AM

Anonymouser: By this theory, there should be many more terrorists than there are – what with the gangster and terrorist careers being equally attractive to estranged youths, there should be as many Al-Qaeda as there are Crips and Bloods.

And what leads you to believe that the Crips and Al-Qaeda are essentially different? Both use terror to gain funding – one is politically oriented because of the local environment, and the other is more entrepeneurially oriented. In Columbia, the line is even more blurred, with left and right wing groups acting both as political terrorists and simple armed gangs terrorizing the local population for economic advantage.

abc October 7, 2008 11:03 AM

I suggest an excersice: Let us call A-groups those groups with habits (1) -(7). Let us replace everywhere in the article “terrorist” by “member of an A-group” and “terrorism” by “products of the activities of A-groups”.

I think the article would shed more light on the importante problem discussed and in parallel would show the need to demarcate more precisely some concepts.

kangaroo October 7, 2008 11:05 AM

Anonymouser: The thought of niche gangs/cartels like the Mara Salvatruchas or the ‘Ndrangheta being squeezed into becoming bona-fide terrorist organizations gives me the heebie-jeebies. I’d much rather they pay their politicians like everyone else.

Where do you think Stalin got his start? Georgian mountain bandit who got ambitious.

James October 7, 2008 11:10 AM

Michael Burleigh has said that one of the reasons muslims join terrorist groups in Britain is so they can choose their girlfriend (from the sisters of other members) instead of being set up with an arranged marriage.

sooth sayer October 7, 2008 11:27 AM

@ Seth
I didn’t say there are no drug dealers in Columbia, all I said is it was an effective way to deal with the violent form of drug dealers —
Drug dealers are businessmen and some are gentler and even compassionate, one of them is trying to become president of US.

In the long term we are all dead, we can only plan for short term. Most “older” causes tend to die with time themselves.
I am glad ex-terrorists are running(ruining) their countries now — My point is to save innocent people from violent death — give them time so that the can migrate to safer shores of US.

@DaveL — it’s hard to compete against a promise of a 72 hoories for someone who doesn’t have money to buy a single one on this earth.
Love may be free, but wives cost mehr, the more beautiful ones demand more goats .. or camels or lexus .. whatever

@Norm .. No they are no promises of virginity .. only that there be “hoories” — I wonder if the etymology of “xhore” is to be found here 🙂

Winter October 7, 2008 12:05 PM

“Everything the US government has done for the past 20 years runs precisely counter to this advice. We are in far more danger as a direct result.”

Actually, many terrorist organizations were funded, trained, and armed by the USA. Most notoriously, Bin Laden and the Mujahedeen. The Americans even taught them how to make road bombs.

This is not new, Lenin was helped by the German government.


kiwano October 7, 2008 1:01 PM


Levi’s jeans?!?!? And here I thought that resource exhaustion, military overengagement, and civil unrest sponsored by the Vatican were somewhat more pressing factors.

Of course maybe I just mistook the Levi’s logo on the gate of the Gdansk shipyard for a religious symbol.

Eric October 7, 2008 1:09 PM

“….the great majority of terrorist(s) are socially isolated: unmarried young men or widowed women who weren’t working prior to joining.”

So, We should round up all the gamers, you know just to make sure they don’t go terrorist on us?

Joshua October 7, 2008 2:02 PM

There is a central issue to terrorism, which is that it is not a type of warfare effective for change. It’s a war for publicity. It can be differentiated in this way from Guerilla warfare. Terrorism is a tactic which aims to destabilize rather than reaching particular political goals.

Samantha October 7, 2008 2:12 PM

I think that desperation drives terrorism, if people are economically poor, in a state of political unrest, feel that their rights are being violated, or are being controlled by outside forces – they tend to resort to violence as a means of resisting and coping with the difficulties they face.

Building structure, providing jobs, law enforcement, and proper education can greatly reduce terrorism.

Caleb Jones October 7, 2008 2:31 PM

Good read!

I’ve always felt that terrorism (or more generally radicalism) feeds primarily off of two things: hopelessness and ignorance. Whether its hopelessness due to familial, social, economic, political, religious, etc., when an individual feels that aspects important to the core of their existence are threatened, taken away, or otherwise unattainable, they are at risk to look for it in ways they normally would not (gangs, cults, terrorism, etc.).

Coincidentally, I just listened to a piece on NRP (their podcast library is great!), about natural social instincts we, as humans, have that when we feel important matters to us are out of control we are much more likely to give into conspiracy theories or superstitions ( This, perhaps not so coincidentally, is employed heavily by these kinds of groups to give a false sense of control/hope that their members come looking for.

Following this line of thinking, I’ve always seen the way to battle extremism/terrorism is to provide both the hope the population wants (again whether it is familial, social, economic, political, religious, etc.) as well as the education (that comes from within, not just indoctrination specific to an outside entity) that is needed to sustain the hope as well as prevent such extremism/terrorism from feeding off of the ignorant.

Also hear recently on NPR (sorry, I’m an NPR junkie… but hey it’s some of the most informed journalism out there right now), is the US military’s new field manual which, in some respects, does the above ( It’s interesting to see the military’s strategy go from traditional tatics -> counter insurgency -> peace keeping & nation building. It does seem that in all the military does get wrong, that they are taking positive steps in this area.

Eric Lauzon October 7, 2008 2:59 PM

Well the simple notion of terrorism is flawed.

Its a plagued word used by new events to terrorise a population, mainly the US population.

The history is full of those example.

Behind terrorism there is the motive, the money and politics.

people who have no real financial mean will probably just end up straping them self with TNT and killing 5 people.

Eco October 7, 2008 3:03 PM

“2) What makes a group terroristic? That is, why does rural Afghanistan give rise to groups that like to attack in paramilitary style, while urban U.S. groups like to sell narcotics? Is it just because of their respective traditions of warrior and entrepreneur?”

More likely, it’s the localized density of economic opportunities. Think about it from a business perspective.

On urban streets, with high population density and high per-capita income, the opportunities to sell narcotics under an organized model is substantially higher than it is in rural Afghanistan. Or, come to think of it, in rural America.

Conversely, the way to the top in rural Afghanistan (or rural anywhere else) is to join an existing organization that has advancement and profit potential. There aren’t many such organizations in places where subsistence agriculture is the dominant economic model. Also note that a lucrative cash-crop agriculture, e.g. opium poppies in Afghanistan, would be another alternative. Then it’s just a question of which local group of violent thugs you, the farmer, has to pay a share too. That part isn’t any different than urban gangs: very few independent narco peddlers would survive street-level sales from an established gang’s turf.

To understand local politics in the deepest sense, one must first understand local business operations, both legal and extra-legal.

Ned October 7, 2008 3:03 PM

@ Cos

I agree. This calls for a two-prong strategy. First, against the terrorists themselves, good, solid police work like that which has already busted several rings around the world. Second, social or political policies that address the terrorists’ ostensible political goals, thereby decreasing their appeal to the network of supprters who help but are not themselves terrorists. Society will always need anti-terrorist capability for those who can’t be swayed, but addressing the concerns of those who can makes the policing a lot easier.

This approach worked in the case of the IRA. The early, military/police-only policies of the UK kept the fight going by creating a social scene in which the IRA could thrive. When the UK began to address the political goals of Sinn Fein and take a more police, less military approach to handling the IRA itself, the people with actual political goals turned to politics. The minority in it for the solidarity of violence either became out-and-out criminals (thereby further marginalizing themselves) or left to train terrorists elsewhere.

bob October 7, 2008 3:34 PM

@Norm: Ive wondered about that too. Whats so great about virgins? I think 1 Jenna Jameson would be worth more than 10 virgins. Especially if gender is not guaranteed in the generic virgins. And what do women get in heaven? Conversion to lesbianism? Or does Islam not allow women into heaven at all?

@Raymond: I live in Dayton, OH. The airplane was invented here a while back but It doesn’t mean I could build one.

@dmx: Stipulated that madrassa means school. And that some are very good. But you’re missing my point – SOME of them have completely diverted from what any reasonable person would expect from a school, and if the UN would spend some money there building legitimate ones instead of lining the pockets of their own leaders to a degree which would make the most vehement anti-Cheney Liberal vomit, everyone would benefit (except the guy building private armies of suicide bombers).

If the US would drop out of the UN and dedicate 10% of their previous contribution to the UN, they could probably build, equip AND STAFF a school in every “county” in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Steve October 7, 2008 3:36 PM

Interesting article. It matches very well with my experience of reversing gang members in LA.

It was something I sort of stumbled on in “colliding” with gang members. Plus having been one myself for a short while when I was a kid.

My experience is this; As a child you want to learn, to be part of society and you feel all you need to do is to learn things and then the world will be your oyster.

Then you run into study issues, and let’s face it schools are not familiar with the barriers to study. If you end up with a lack of understanding you can easily fall behind the rest of the class.
If you reach the point where you give up on trying to keep up, you in effect started to slowly disassociate yourself from society. In this case the class.

As this gets worse you end up reaching a point where you set out to succeed on your own terms. It’s now you versus society.

To reverse a gang member all I had to do (with the individual) is to show him how he can contribute to and be part of society and win.

Once he saw that, he was mentally ready to leave.

This matches exactly with your article. Interestingly enough the lack of understanding that stopped the study came from things like misunderstood words and skipped gradients. Things that are easily remedied when they happen.

Having lived on various continents I’ve seen how people are basically good, but end up in situations due to lack on basic education. I’ve seen the same happen in Europe, Africa, America where “having the heart in the right place” is not always enough.

It would be nice if we could rehabilitate the locals to a point where they can provide for themselves and where people can improve their own living conditions, in other words be able to reach their dreams. Once that happens its all over with.

Seth October 7, 2008 3:43 PM

bob, women get 72 virgins too. Isn’t that just what they want? 72 pimply gamers who live in their mother’s basements.

Karellen October 7, 2008 4:34 PM

@Steve: I have a copy of Pape’s book myself, and also consider it to be and excellent must-read.


Pape’s book is a look exclusively at suicide terrorism.

I don’t have hard evidence, but I suspect that there are many more non-suicide-terrorists in the world than suicide terrorists. It further appears that Abrahm’s work is not intended to apply to all terrorists, just many/most of them. Therefore it is possible that his work may be correct in its central premise and provide us with useful ways of finding and/or catching many groups of terrorists, while at the same time being completely inappropriate for (the particular minority of) suicide terrorists.

Henning Makholm October 7, 2008 4:45 PM

Clive: I was not asking about the etymology of “double agent” as much as wondering — perhaps too subtly — why Bruce specified double agents instead of single ones in this case.

A double agent would be sombody such that the police (P) and the terrorists (T) both know that the agent speaks with both of P and T – but each of P and T think that the agent is ultimately loyal to their own side. Where his actual loyalty lies is anyone’s guess.

This seems to me to be a somewhat more complex set-up than you’d want to use when infiltrating a terrorist group.

Spider October 7, 2008 5:14 PM

Yes, but also no. The community cannot be ignored, but there are also sometimes political goals. They get these two things confused sometimes.

All of Bruce’s suggestions for fighting terrorism that arise from this are already being pursued. We are trying to infiltrate these groups as much as possible. We are offering bribes for defectors, ect. Maybe we should also focus on putting boys clubs in terrorist hot spots?

Reed October 7, 2008 5:15 PM

This seems simplistic to me. While it is undoubtedly an important element, political grievances clearly both real and a powerful recruiting tool. Having members of your community abused or killed by the authorities (whether as part of a legitimate operation or not) strikes me as a far greater motivator than some generalized community. It’s no surprise that places like Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and so on have an endless stream of recruits, while numbers in the west are relatively small.

It is clear that terrorist organizations (especially small, extremist ones like al-qaeda and the ETA) do become self perpetuating criminal enterprises, without any real hope of accomplishing their stated goals. But it strikes me as the height of foolishness to think that is the whole story.

The idea that terrorist organizations don’t get political concessions seems unfounded. Others have mentioned the IRA, but you can find many other examples. Furthermore, terrorists actions frequently promote concessions with moderates. This is frequently (and IMO legitimately) framed as isolating the extremists, but if those concessions would not have been given without the threat of terrorism, then the terrorists have actually been effective.

The ETA is ineffective and reviled, but would the government of Spain have consider giving the the Basques substantial autonomy if they had never existed ? Nepals Maoists were called terrorists, yet they are now in government. Would they be if they hadn’t engaged in a campaign of brutal violence ? Would Israel consider any concessions at all to the Palestinians if they had stuck to nonviolent action ? Would Turkey have made concessions to mainstream Kurds (like allowing their language to be used in schools) if it weren’t for the violent acts of the PKK ? The Tamil Tigers practically invented suicide bombing, but they very nearly won autonomy before the recent collapse.

This is particularly obvious when you consider the line between “revolutionary” and “terrorist” frequently depends on on who won the most concessions (at risk of Godwin, I must point out that the people we called “resistance fighters” in WWII were called “terrorists” by the Nazis)

It seems to me that the really effective terrorists are the ones who escape the terrorist label.

Tom Welsh October 7, 2008 5:17 PM

The thesis is a very naive one, which ignores history. The list of terrorists who did have political goals, and achieved them in fine style, includes (but is far from limited to) the IRA in Ireland, Eoka in Cyprus, and national liberation movements in such countries as South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and many South American nations. Some would be inclined to include the leaders of the American Revolution (sic).

Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.
– Sir John Harrington (1561-1612) (Epigrams, Book iv. Ep. 5).

Davi Ottenheimer October 7, 2008 5:29 PM

I agree with Brandioch Conner.

Sure is easy to find a sample of “terrorist” that proves any argument since just about anything/anyone can fit the label, no?

Clive Robinson October 7, 2008 5:54 PM

@ Henning Makholm,

“why Bruce specified double agents instead of single ones in this case.”

Possibly because they are the ones that get the best intel.

Also to get into a tight nit group is well neigh impossible therefor you need to turn sombody who is already in it or use survalence.

Survalence is generaly not a reliable method with a tight nit established group that is aware of the possibility of it or infiltration.

The best people to “turn” are the “quatermasters” as they have to know a lot about what a group is plannig. And to do the job the group usually knows and accepts they will have clandestine meetings with people. So they are idealy placed.

However as you noted their loyalty is somewhat unknown at the best of times. Partly because their motivation will be well hidden (otherwise they would not be able to negotiate effectivly) but also because they usually know the value of any information they have.

The art of turning them usually involves “getting them by the b***s” that is put them in a position where their choices are strictly limited and in the controlers favour.

However the history of double agents sugests that their life expectancy is short..

Andrew October 7, 2008 6:27 PM

As a former sociologist, I am bitterly amused to read the various comments on this post.

People don’t engage in political violence because they’re poor, enslaved, or oppressed. Effective oppression keeps would-be rebels / traitors / unlawful combatants / whathaveyous poor, busy or dead. The Roman Empire offered a choice of deaths: stabbed if you fought, crucified if you rebelled, or starved if you did nothing. This is not an option open to modern empires — and even if it were, do we really want to go down this path? Gitmo and Abu Ghraib have been bad enough, thanks.

The amateur terrorist is painted as a poseur, a rebel without a clue whose leisure and misdirected angst allows them to flirt with sabotaging their own civilization. In fact they are often ambitious if miseducated youth who are acting out their own frustrated goals (however briefly) on a grisly stage.

Offering them more education is not the answer, as some terrorists have been the products of higher education. Threatening to kill them isn’t either — they’re too stupid to realize how much danger they are in from good people who don’t believe that their loved ones are “stationery to send a message with.” Granting them their so-called goals has no effect, because they are playing a game with themselves where only the bodies are real results.

The challenge is to interfere in terrorist recruitment efforts so that we have fewer of them, and ultimately none.

How do we keep misguided youths away from paths that will make them murderers? Much of the road to terror is paved with freedom of speech. I do not believe that we should give up free speech to fight terror, rather the reverse.

Perhaps the best we can do is to make it clear to everyone, even the frustrated and ambitious, that terrorism is strictly for pathetic losers.

Steve October 7, 2008 6:36 PM

@Karellen, I don’t know anything about who Pape is, or much less any book he has. I’m not sure what reference you make here.

@Others, gang members are operating very similarly to terrorists, even though in the west they usually don’t want to go off and die to see the mid eastern virgins, and they are more overt about their activities. The similarities are very obvious to me. I’m surprised I did not see it earlier.

It does not mean that someone with political motivations won’t use the others to accomplish their political goals.

Finally, some will of course be so motivated and be obvious terrorists.

Canuckistan Bob October 7, 2008 7:13 PM

I don’t have time to read all the comments, so I may well be repeating something.

Bruce, your conclusions are correct, but your analysis is missing one piece: the role of the leadership of terrorist organizations. The vast majority of terrorist strikes are not at all intended to scare the civilians of the target nations (though that is an extra plus of course), it is to be seen to be doing so.

Most terrorist activity, like most Amway sales events, are designed not to achieve any kind of progress itself, but to recruit more foot soldiers. Al Quada is basically Amway writ large; they grew from a relatively insignificant group to superstardom in terms of recruitment in no time at all.

I can remember back in the 70s in the Middl East, every time something happened, every tiny little obscure group would try and claim credit for it. Which is the root of the problem: terrorism is not about damage, it is about publicity. (I often think the thing that stings the US most about terrorism is that the US is getting beat on it’s own home ground: hucksterism.)

The key thing is that terrorism basically functions on the multi level marketing model. Recruits are far more important than sales, really, from the bosses’ point of view.

Being the The Big Bad does not hurt donations and recruitment at all. Therefore the security mistake is to make them the Big Bad. Kinda hard to do, I admit. Social engineering has always been the greatest weakness of any kind of security system.

n October 7, 2008 7:34 PM

For those thinking education is the key I recommend an old Ben Bova short story, I can’t remember the title, but it was in the collection “Escape Plus”.

In it, the government took young street criminals and put them in a school, I don’t remember the techniques used to get them learning, it may have been merely boredom with nothing else to do.

They learned all right. Studied “Mein Kampf”, military history, technical subjects. After they were returned to the streets, it took the military to put them down and rescue the city they seized.

Dog October 8, 2008 1:47 AM

“attack civilians, a policy that has a lousy track record of convincing those civilians to give the terrorists what they want”

I don’t quite agree; terrorism usually does not involve the point of proving “admire me, look how good I’m to hit you”, but rather simply “be feared, your governament can’t help you”.

It usually points only to a disruptive goal, stop the trust between the victims and the governament.
“alternatives” to the attacked status quo are introduced more quietly, with links with terrorism cautionously hidden.

Joe's Pizza October 8, 2008 7:31 AM

Bruce’s theory explains why the Fort Dix Six did not carry out the attack. They had weapons and access to the base. But instead of attacking they made videos of themselves, and then went to turn those videos into DVDs. It was a social activity for them, not a political one.

Sven October 8, 2008 9:21 AM

What about the Red Brigades? Did they
have actual aims? I guess I could look them
up on Wikipedia, but they seemed to be doing
it for its own sake.

Steve October 8, 2008 10:18 AM

@n, learning to read and write does not equal education. In the first case they are simply shown how to read and write.

Whereas with the second you show them how to be productive and able to belong to society at large. This is what I did with gang members.

Obviously not all people join for the same reasons, but it does not take much experience of talking to people like this to realize they are very unhappy and would love to do something different. Once you get to that point with someone you have that desire to work with. You strengthen it by showing the way out. Not easy but doable.

The study Max Abrahms did showed that a lack of education was one thing that they had in common. Which is easily correlated with gang members. They too want to belong to something. They all seem to have a failed education in common. Education gives you options. This does not mean that someone with education cannot go the “wrong” way, if you are a psychopath then that’s probably the only way you will go.

You can see how some gangs deal with the fact that people learn things as they go, and develop desires to seek to better lives. The counter measure has become to create a rule that says you can only leave if you’re dead. That’s one way to keep your membership intact. Rules and laws comes from trying to solve a problem. The more sever the bigger the problem is perceived.

Anyone can see that being against the whole society is not good for your long term health, but when you, rightly or wrongly, don’t see any options it is not so clear anymore.

What’s interesting with groups outside society is that they immediately try to create their own society. They mimic others but with little or no education only come up with stone age type of societies. Very similar to the Nazi organization. Degraded and outcast became the surest way of belonging.

Bill October 8, 2008 10:31 AM

How exactly does blowing yourself up aid cohesion?

No, I don’t buy any of the models on offer, they seem to be post-hoc rationalisations without predictive value.

Can we talk about the LHC now, far more interesting. I predict they’ll find the Bruce particle responsible for quantum security. 😉

tim October 8, 2008 11:56 AM

a dutch scolar on terrorism gave a lecture a while ago about the links between art, media and terrorists. He made it pretty confincing that some terrorists modeled themselves on terrorists they found in literature or movies. The other way around also occured of course (artists inspired by terrorists), developing into a complicated feedback loop. In the end the scolar said terrorism is not only explained by looking at the root causes (occupied land, religion) you also have to look at the media influences, the role models etc. Some terrorists become terrorists because of the danger, excitement and freedom.

Baby October 8, 2008 1:07 PM

This is a classic piece of writing. You only have to watch the sort of videos these guys create post suicide to see how fundamentally crazy many of them are – and I live in Israel so I should know!

Pat Cahalan October 8, 2008 1:22 PM

@ Canuckistan Bob

Bruce, your conclusions are correct, but your analysis is missing
one piece: the role of the leadership of terrorist organizations.

This was going to be my comment, as it explains a lot of the dichotomies that people have mentioned here regarding the behaviors of terrorist groups.

Urban gangs and Al-Qaeda have different operational goals and tactics because of differing leadership; but as mentioned in the piece that Bruce wrote, the actual leadership goal and position has very little to do with why individual members join the group to begin with.

The groups form as social constructs, the leaders take the social construct and point it in a direction that the leader finds suitable, whether that direction is a political goal, the self-aggrandizement of the leader in question, or other. This has an effect on what the group does, but doesn’t appear to have an effect on why the group exists in the first place.

Fighting what the group does is challenging the leadership – this is something that of course ought to be done if that leadership is espousing something that has short-term bad implications for society in general.

Fighting how the group forms is trying to channel the root forces described in the piece towards some other social group formation, preferably one that is constructive.

These counter-terrorism tactics don’t need to be mutually exclusive, but certainly trying to focus on one without challenging the other as well is tilting at windmills.

Dan October 8, 2008 3:29 PM

Based on all the comments above, what I see lacking is the simple comparison of Terrorists to Cults. If Jim Jones could get all his followers to kill themselves and some of people visiting them in South America, don’t you think he could have just as easily gotten them to crash a plane if that was his objective. And on a smaller scale, Charles Manson convinced others to kill. I would put both of those examples in the same league as Al Qaeda. While their supposed motives were clearly different, the ability to get people to kill others without concern for their own lives, has the same end result – innocent people die.

Now on the other side of the Terrorist equation is the corrolary to the drug war. But the users in the case of Terrorism aren’t drug addicts, but Politicians, the Military, and the Defense Contractors. Without Terrorism, how could any of them survive and prosper with undeniable support? So while not everyone in those areas is interested in continuing Terrorism, there are definitely those who are and they should never be trusted. The book “1984” is like a script for the War on Terror. An unending conflict that neither side can truly win. The Superpower can’t conquer Terrorists and the Terrorists can’t conquer the Superpower. Again, only the innocent lose. Soldiers and Terrorists and Civilians are crippled or killed and the politicians/leaders on all sides get more followers and the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Please, America, look deeper than the 1984 speak of Rove/Bush/Cheney/McCain/Palin. The real world is not black/white, good/bad, stay the course, etc.

My only hope is Politicians like Obama who will promote diplomacy over killing. Otherwise, to paraphrase, it’s just an eye for an eye until we’re all blind.

Ian Welsh October 8, 2008 8:37 PM

Lots of confusion here. For example Hamas is listed and doesn’t actually have a lot of those habits. In fact, effective organizations which sometimes use terrorism, like Hamas and Hezbollah violate most of these rules regularly.

Not impressed.

David October 9, 2008 11:43 AM

Withdrawal of troops in foreign lands is the first step to peace.

All religions teach about peace, but they most also allow for self-defense.

When a country believes it can station its troops in other countries, it is confused. Almost no country likes to have foreign troops on their soil, and none like to be told how they must act to receive money.

The US has shown its love to Saddam Hussein, then its anger. It has shown the love of the Afghan Mujahideen, then they are terrorists.

The US supports rogue regimes all the time, including Iran’s Shah, current Saudi kings, and the result of most of them have been increases in violence.

First, go back to your home with your troops unless you are being attacked. When you are attacked and you are not pissing on them, world opinion is on your side, and you can fight back and have greater likelihood of support.

But if you piss on people, or stockpile weapons in the hands of tyrants for money, etc., then people get angry.

The US doesn’t want foreign troops in its land, nor Russian/Chinese missiles near its borders, etc. The rest of the world doesn’t appreciate the US for doing these very things in their backyards.

First, gain the moral high ground, and then punish those who abuse it. People tend to agree with this. But pro-active military assaults, propping up tyrants, putting standing armies in other countries (not even allowed by the US Constitution in its own land), etc. simply invites radicalism that can then lead to terrorism.

Most terrorism isn’t even directed at the US, but the US acts as if its suffers terrorist daily, but it simply does not outside of the countries it’s occupying with its military.

Oldcharlie October 12, 2008 4:58 PM

I have to disagree with all who believe that education is the answer. I had a good deal of contact with the SDS in the late sixties. They were a radical group dedicated to the violent overthrow of the US government (they took credit for organizing the riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago). I witnessed first hand the truth in Max Abrahms thoery. I saw members commit to acts of violence for stated reasons that they knew were false. When I asked why, the answer was “I’m a member”.

Almost all of the SDS were college students.

It is NOT about education either.

It really is just as simple as Abrams stated: “People turn to terrorism for social solidarity. He theorizes that people join terrorist organizations worldwide in order to be part of a community, much like the reason inner-city youths join gangs in the United States.”

Clive Robinson October 13, 2008 4:20 PM

@ Oldcharlie,

“It really is just as simple as Abrams stated: ‘People turn to terrorism for social solidarity.'”

Unfortunatly it is an over simplistic explanation of the observed facts.

Not all disafected people turn to terrorism or gangs etc. And most that do, do not do it for “social solidarity”. They tend to join for some perceived reward, be it risk / status / money / acceptance / revenge / justice / etc.

It is only once they have joined that “group think” gives rise to what Abrams perceived as “social solidarity”.

Incidentaly “group think” appears to be a very strong social bonding force. Many companies have found that small successfull teams on being broken up at project end etc present a problem. In that although the members have been re asigned to new teams they still seek out members of the original team to brainstorm and socialise with, often at the expense of the new team they are members of.

The real issue is therfore not in finding and breaking up a dangerous group, but in stopping the group forming in the first place.

It has been observed by myself and others that people are more suceptable to being recruited if they have come from a background or family where there is a dominant “elder” to which the rest of the family defer their own individuality for the “common good”.

Effectivly this is also an abdication of responsability as they are effectivly “acting under orders” therefor they are suceptable to acceptance of others morals etc.

When such an individual is taken out of their background or family they nolonger have an “elder” as a crutch to lean on. This means that they can either learn “to walk” or “find another crutch” to lean on.

The replacment option is usualy easier than learning to stand alone, and I suspect the “recruiters” are fully cognicent of this and use it to their advantage.

The key is of course stoping such an individual either being recruited into a group or forming a group of their own.

The “obvious answer” for the powers that be, appears to be, to set up agents to recruit them into a fake group and encorage them to make plans. At which point you send in the boys in black to round them up and give them complimentry orange jump suits and send them of on a coastal vacation…

Unfortunatly this has a problem in that if there are more disaffected individuals than agents then it is ineffective as a solution. It also will be effective at creating rallying flags for other individuals…

The less obvious solution would be to offer what the individuals need but in a way that thay and the rest of society finds benificial.

This would usually involve the community in which such individuals can be found and providing the community with the resources to set up benificial groups.

Unfortunatly such activities are neither short term or headline grabing, and as yet remain untried as a policy.

Stewart Dean October 15, 2008 8:56 AM

The title made me choke out a laugh as some assonance to the title claimed my mind:
1) Bush, Cheney, et al? Except that, in their misanthropic ideological incompetence, their “terrorism” has been devastating, everywhere turning gold into lead and worse.
2) That the subject line (and my thoughts of the Bush administration’s fell effects) begs that axiom of Occam’s Razor (perhaps of my devising, perhaps of Dick Paddock’s, perhaps someone else…if anyone knows of its earliest provenance, I’d be delighted to know) which states:
Never attribute to malign intent that which can be assigned to sheer stupidity.

And the thrust of Bruce’s argument might be similarly summed up as:
When considering opponents, first determine if they are operating outside of your box. If they are you must, you must simulate their mindset in order to to understand it and devise an effective opposing strategy.

Jim October 15, 2008 11:25 AM

In 1951 Eric Hoffer covered this in detail in his book “The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements.” In particular, he notes that many people that join such movements are neither poor, oppressed, or uneducated.

Abdul Gani October 16, 2008 4:33 AM

I thought Abrahm’s premise was weak. Terrorist organisations as a social club? What rubbish. And the rebuttal is nothing more than an attempt to focus on and malign the Muslim type. Both are extracting the organisations they discuss from the environments in which those organisations operate. Thus they try to use big words in long sentences to muddy what is essentially a simple phenomenon – terrorists/freedom fighters are usually engaged in an insurgency against a militarily superior occupying force.

The acid test is whether these organisations enjoy the support of the communities in which they operate. If they do, then no amount about big words will provide understanding. A more useful lesson can be drawn from the Israeli experience – 60 years of increasing brutality has not blunted the Palestinian desire for freedom, if not justice.

Don’t create an fake argument that terrorists can only be understood by understanding that they are not like us; that they are inherently violent. Rather understand that they are indeed like you, they want to be free of oppressors and occupiers. Of course the problem with that is that you would first have to admit they you are an oppressor and an occupier…

William Fraser October 17, 2008 10:44 AM

I strongly recommend reading “What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat” by Louise Richardson.

One of her points is that having US policies that make people able to view us as the “bad guy” (i.e. torturing suspects, violating the right of habeus corpus, inflicting 10x damage on them, etc.) helps terrorists gain recruits.


Michael Vitsek October 20, 2008 7:19 PM

It makes sense to me.

Particularly if you consider that in many places (some of them in the US and EU), joining the “official establishment” means you and your family have to grovel before thugs, either in the government or the local crime world or both… and that therefore there is, from a certain point of view, a limited number of honorable or respectable ways to advance in that model, there will be a lot of pressure to join an alternative “social group”.

Something like this is said to have been one of the motivations for the 9/11 hijackers. They’d studied to be engineers, in a thug-run society that did not cherish engineering or inventiveness, except in narrow cases where one of the local Pashas was running a pet project of some kind.

If, in a place like New York City or Chicago, you grow up in any but the most luxurious neighborhoods, you and your family have essentially no right or means to protect yourselves or any business you own, unless one or more family members are connected to a local gang.

Kids will be under pressure from gangs to join the gangs, or else. If their parents try to interfere, they may be beaten or killed, and/or their homes or businesses sabotaged. The businesses will need to pay “protection money” to the local gang in any case.

There is no way to move ahead OR to have any kind of “respect” or protection except to join the gang. And even then, if a senior gang member wants to go out with your sister, or steal your wife, there’s not much you can do about it, unless you want to take him out and take his place. Why should standing up for honor or principle need to be such a dangerous and expensive choice?

— Quote —
We also need to pay more attention to the socially marginalized than to the politically downtrodden, like unassimilated communities in Western countries. We need to support vibrant, benign communities and organizations as alternative ways for potential terrorists to get the social cohesion they need. And finally, we need to minimize collateral damage in our counterterrorism operations, as well as clamping down on bigotry and hate crimes, which just creates more dislocation and social isolation, and the inevitable calls for revenge.
— End Quote —


And part of that is not so binding and enslaving civilians in their own societies, and making them absurdly defenseless before the ruthless and lawless, that the only way out for them is for their families to associate themselves with gangs and similar organizations, or to grovel before them and hope for the best.

As Osama bin Laden (apocryphally) says, “I’m still free. Are you?”

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.