Understanding Terrorist Behavior

Two items, one short and one long.

The short one: "A Look at Terrorist Behavior: How They Prepare, Where They Strike," by Brent Smith, National Institute of Justice Journal, No. 260, 2008.

The long one: How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa'ida, by Seth G. Jones and Martin C. Libicki, RAND Corporation, 2008.

Posted on November 3, 2008 at 6:57 AM • 23 Comments

Comments

BillNovember 3, 2008 8:16 AM

Re: A Look at Terrorist Behaviour

Firstly it's an interesting read; secondly it's pseudo-science.

"We studied.." add them up - 59 attacks.

Beware the logcal fallacy called 'statistics of small-numbers'. Less than 100 incidents are 'analysed' yet the results are expressed in percentage terms. That's a red flag folks.

"..this growing knowledge should help officers prevent and respond to attacks."

Nope it shouldn't. Terrorism is an outlier as far as other crimes are concerned, therefore it follows that scant resources are best employed elsewhere.

JeroenNovember 3, 2008 8:30 AM

@Bill:

How many terrorist attacks occur in total? 59 may still be a significant percentage. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, people intuitively tend to overestimate the number of samples required for a statistically representative test. In certain situations, interviewing a few dozen people is enough to predict the behaviour of an entire population of millions.

Note that I do not know enough of this investigation to say whether the same applies here. I'm just saying that claiming a "statistics of small numbers" fallacy is not always justified.

Trichinosis USANovember 3, 2008 9:09 AM

@Bill

Perhaps if they want to add to the number of incidents studied they can include various war crimes and criminal acts of terrorism perpetrated by agents of the Bush administration itself.

I read both papers and the interesting part is if you apply that perspective, the ideas presented still appear to apply and make sense.

JeroenNovember 3, 2008 9:33 AM

The long item concludes that the most common way for terrorist groups to end is by joining the political process.

It occurred to me this is actually contrary to a post from last month: The Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Terrorists. In that post, the conclusion was that terrorists did NOT joing a group because of a political cause.

Or if this is not contrary, it at least implies that while the cannon-fodder joins a group for social reasons, the leaders are, in fact, politically motivated.

Timmy303November 3, 2008 10:02 AM

48% of "ended terrorist groups" that transitioned to politics vs. 40% that required policing. The authors diligently point out the factors that make policing more effective over military action: local permanent presence in municipalities, better understanding of the threat environment, etc. This is a self evident explanation that side-steps the fact that this is more often a pipe dream than not; local police forces in many municipalities where terrorist ideologies breed are typically blindly atavistic and often quite corrupt.

The finding that religiously-motivated terrorists don't quit the field easily was interesting. This, coupled with the stated inverse relationship between religious motivation of terrorist and general living standards should have been explored further ...

Bryan FeirNovember 3, 2008 10:05 AM

@Jeroen:
That's one point, yes; especially in organizations that do much in the way of suicide bombing, the lower-level people are almost certainly not there for the same reasons as the leaders. They get treated as pawns.

The other point is that the item was talking about how terrorist groups END. If they get fully involved in the political process, they stop being a terrorist group. Those that don't get involved tend to still be around.

Of course, the other aspect of this is that many of these groups don't really WANT to get involved in the political process, they want to make the political process untenable so that the people on the ground will have only them to turn to.

billswiftNovember 3, 2008 10:06 AM

It doesn't make any difference how many total attacks there are. The numbers are too small to be reliable. Though they are indicative, and likely the best available - just don't lean on them too hard.

Not the Bill who posted earlier.

RoyNovember 3, 2008 10:57 AM

Apparently their research somehow missed the 2004 March 11 events in Madrid, where 10 bombs exploded on 4 trains.

Pat CahalanNovember 3, 2008 11:06 AM

@ Bill

Small sizes don't equal pseudo-science (particularly when small sizes are still representational); while you undoubtedly have problems with long term generalizations with small sizes, that doesn't mean that you can't glean useful knowledge out of studying them.

cricketNovember 3, 2008 11:11 AM

@Jeroen

"Or if this is not contrary, it at least implies that while the cannon-fodder joins a group for social reasons, the leaders are, in fact, politically motivated."

This seems correct, as the motivational differences between leadership/rank and file is a dynamic that applies across many organizations - legitimate or not.

The example that comes to mind is the crack gangs studied by Sudhir Venkatesh (the researcher introduced in Freakonomics). The higher ups are in it strictly for the money, but the street level dealers have functional earnings well below even minimum wage. While of course the street level guys are in it for the money as well, in their case the chance of making it big is remote, so other motivations come into play (social connections, respect, protection, etc).

dragonfrogNovember 3, 2008 11:19 AM

nice scare graphic on the cover of the first one - an black bloc anarchist in a hoody.

I wonder how long before the major bogeyman is no longer the terrorist but the anarchist - terrorism is starting to lose its terror, and anarchism has the advantage that you can actually find self-described anarchists. Of course they're generally pacifists too, but that needn't deter anyone from fearing and persecuting them...

mooNovember 3, 2008 11:24 AM

I think we should fear and persecute politicians. And probably lawyers, to be on the safe side.

The planet might be better off, if we got rid of all of the power-hungry people, especially the ones who feel the need to impose their own rules (or their own morals) on other people.

xd0sNovember 3, 2008 12:17 PM

@Bill

"Beware the logcal fallacy called 'statistics of small-numbers'. Less than 100 incidents are 'analysed' yet the results are expressed in percentage terms. That's a red flag folks."

When compared across all crimes, I'd say you were right, but overall is it still true if you JUST study terrorism? I would assert that studying tail events and rare events is useful and valid eve if they have small samples. It's what conclusions you draw from the small samples that matters. (ie you can't assert from sampling terrorism that you learned about crime in general, but you might learn something about terrorism if your samples are representative) The key is to ensure you study events that are really terrorism (whatever that definition is to the writere of the paper) and ensure you don't select certain events only.

@timmy303
"The finding that religiously-motivated terrorists don't quit the field easily was interesting. This, coupled with the stated inverse relationship between religious motivation of terrorist and general living standards should have been explored further ..."

I totally agree, this has lots of potential for further investigation and interesting conclusions. If accurate and proven out by more data (big if), then financial assistance to impoverished areas would reduce religious based terrorism, and reduce the amount of "difficult to end" terrorist groups.

I haven't done enough digging to be sure, but I believe this was (is?) part of Patraeus' strategy in Iraq during the days he ran the 101st. Build infrastructure, help local communities, establish yourself as not just an occupier but as a builder of commuities.

Davi OttenheimerNovember 3, 2008 12:43 PM

"I believe this was (is?) part of Patraeus' strategy in Iraq during the days he ran the 101st. Build infrastructure, help local communities, establish yourself as not just an occupier but as a builder of commuities."

Doh. A little late for that after Bremer and Rumsfeld marched everyone in the opposite direction -- lay waste to the infrastructure (incriminate everyone who had ties to the former administration), create a giant vacuum of power, and then hope market elements for good will magically appear.

The Bush doctrine is to occupy, flatten the power structure of foreign countries to investment opportunities (slyly referred to as responding to "perceived threats to democracy"), and then...oh wait, once a power structure is evaporated, terrorists/mobsters flourish and no one can afford the cost of security to survive, let alone investments.

It is not rocket science to figure out what has generated the most terrorist behavior, like occupying a country and yet leaving giant stockpiles of weapons lying around unguarded....

Davi OttenheimerNovember 3, 2008 12:57 PM

The question I keep asking myself, after reading the report by Brent Smith that focuses on the concept of distance from home to target, is how/why does he define home?

For example, consider an orphan adopted from Africa or the Middle East by Al Qaeda and sent to Afghanistan to train and then operate as a terrorist...where is home?

This seems like a thinly-veiled argument, which may have started from a notion domestic surveillance is justified.

MongoNovember 3, 2008 1:12 PM

The short report is almost worthless. They could have just as easily noticed from their data that political terrorists attacked to the North, while eco-terrorists attacked to the South.

The long report is very interesting.

MarkNovember 4, 2008 7:58 AM

@Trichinosis
Perhaps if they want to add to the number of incidents studied they can include various war crimes and criminal acts of terrorism perpetrated by agents of the Bush administration itself.

One of the biggest problems with just about anything about "terrorism" is that the definition used tends of be highly political. Leading to both "false positives" and "false negatives".

This is even more of an issue where you have militias opposing an occupying army. Though it's hardly a suprise that those connected with such occupying forces will call their opponents "terrorists" if they think they can get away with it.

MarkNovember 4, 2008 8:02 AM

@roy
Apparently their research somehow missed the 2004 March 11 events in Madrid, where 10 bombs exploded on 4 trains.

The first article only appeared concerned with incidents in the USA. Even though this was not explicitally stated and the author dosn't appear to mention Ted Kaczynski...

MarkNovember 4, 2008 8:06 AM

@xd0s
The key is to ensure you study events that are really terrorism (whatever that definition is to the writere of the paper) and ensure you don't select certain events only.

In which case it is important to know what that definition actually is. Something like "those prosecuted under terrorism laws" probably isn't a good definition though.

xd0sNovember 4, 2008 10:39 AM

@Davi

Agreed, the issue with Patraeus' position was he was relieved from the 101st and sent home by those you mention. Presumably for his "failure to execute" their vision. Only much later was his effort recognized and he was brought back, but in a new role as partial political advocate and partial military commander, which limited his success IMO.

@Mark
Agreed

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