T Nation

Why Terrorism Doesn't Work

The Evolutionary Brain Glitch That Makes Terrorism Fail

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 Abrams 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 Abrams’ 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 Abrams uses correspondent inference theory to explain why terrorist groups that primarily attack civilians do not achieve their policy goals, even if they are minimalist. Abrams 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 – Abrams 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. Abrams 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.

Incredibly interesting stuff. I’ve thought along these lines before, of course, but this is an amazing analysis. Really interesting read.

More academic banalities.

Who among our policymakers - even the ones the Left doesn’t like - believes that terrorism is the ‘end’ to al-Qaeda’s agenda?

In fact, the exact opposite is true - the “non-Left” have been the ones telling anyone who will listen that OBL and his ilk terrorize in the name of his ideology: he has an agenda and he tries to get it done through terrorism.

Meanwhile, the Left has done exactly the opposite of what the article suggests - they have ignored everything the terrorists actually say about why they do what they do and have tried to provide some unconscious reason, in a psychoanalytic fit, to explain why terrorists really do what they do: poverty, racism, post-colonialism, etc.

Now, we see the goalposts have been moved yet again: President Bush doesn’t know the “real” reason why OBL does what he does. But wait - for all his shortcomings, Bush has always stated that al-Qaeda was driven by a radical agenda to get certain policy outcomes, and that terror was a tactic to intimidate other nations into changing policy (see Spain)…that is what has driven the Left mad. They routinely chastised Bush for not seeing the “underlying reasons” for terrorism - and now they want to change their mind and say Bush hasn’t recognized their actual stated agenda?

Please. Just more academic time-wasting.

[quote]thunderbolt23 wrote:
They routinely chastised Bush for not seeing the “underlying reasons” for terrorism - and now they want to change their mind and say Bush hasn’t recognized their actual stated agenda?
[/quote]
Oh Thunder, you must put everything in perspective of partisanship, mustn’t you? If you were an effective analyst you’d probably be able to understand that truth is not left leaning or right leaning but rather somewhere in the middle.

What I have quoted from you above offers no distinction. Knowing the “agenda” is one way of knowing the “underlying cause”.

According to this analysis the reason terrorism doesn’t work is because of the high correspondence of terrorist actions–ie., people link terrorism to the effects of the actions and not the actual goals:

“…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.”

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

You can aptly conclude, no duh, after reading this. Where this analysis is useful, in my opinion, is to help us realize that we as victims of a horrible attack are biased by the effects. Anytime we can help to limit the effects of bias, its a good thing. Something I think this can help us to achieve quite well.

You can keep taking the path of least resistance and blame the left which isn’t useful and makes you come across very weak minded.

[quote]thunderbolt23 wrote:
More academic banalities.

Who among our policymakers - even the ones the Left doesn’t like - believes that terrorism is the ‘end’ to al-Qaeda’s agenda?

In fact, the exact opposite is true - the “non-Left” have been the ones telling anyone who will listen that OBL and his ilk terrorize in the name of his ideology: he has an agenda and he tries to get it done through terrorism.

Meanwhile, the Left has done exactly the opposite of what the article suggests - they have ignored everything the terrorists actually say about why they do what they do and have tried to provide some unconscious reason, in a psychoanalytic fit, to explain why terrorists really do what they do: poverty, racism, post-colonialism, etc.

Now, we see the goalposts have been moved yet again: President Bush doesn’t know the “real” reason why OBL does what he does. But wait - for all his shortcomings, Bush has always stated that al-Qaeda was driven by a radical agenda to get certain policy outcomes, and that terror was a tactic to intimidate other nations into changing policy (see Spain)…that is what has driven the Left mad. They routinely chastised Bush for not seeing the “underlying reasons” for terrorism - and now they want to change their mind and say Bush hasn’t recognized their actual stated agenda?

Please. Just more academic time-wasting.[/quote]

Muslims don’t benefit from terrorism, the war machine does. How is it you don’t see that yet?

[i]"The challenge for the government is maintaining support for a conflict when people don’t perceive a threat - of a failed state falling into the hands of extremists, for instance - particularly as Canadian deaths are rising, says Delaney.

It may well be that the key to bolstering Western resolve is another terrorist attack like 9/11 or the London transit bombings of two years ago, he says.

“If nothing happens, it will be harder still to say this is necessary.”[/i]

“At the end of the day, I believe fully the president is doing the right thing, and I think all we need is some attacks on American soil like we had on [Sept. 11, 2001],” Milligan said to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, “and the naysayers will come around very quickly to appreciate not only the commitment for President Bush, but the sacrifice that has been made by men and women to protect this country.”
http://rawstory.com/news/2007/Arkansas_GOP_head_We_need_more_0603.html

“Between now and November, a lot of things are going to happen, and I believe that by this time next year, the American public’s going to have a very different view of this war, and it will be because, I think, of some unfortunate events, that like we’re seeing unfold in the UK. But I think the American public’s going to have a very different view,” said the former senator from Pennsylvania.
http://www.prisonplanet.com/articles/july2007/070707changeview.htm

What would possibly be their incentive to STOP a terrorist attack?

Europeans see US as threat to peace
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/70046760-27f0-11dc-80da-000b5df10621.html

What the…??? Obviously they meant Muslims.

They hate us for our freedoms…

[quote]LIFTICVSMAXIMVS wrote:

Oh Thunder, you must put everything in perspective of partisanship, mustn’t you? If you were an effective analyst you’d probably be able to understand that truth is not left leaning or right leaning but rather somewhere in the middle.[/quote]

Of course, your pontificating about being obective aside, the article makes the express statement that Bush’s approach is the wrong one.

Not partisan?

Correct - but the article wants to go further. It wants to claim our current approach is wrong because we - meaning Bush - doesn’t understand the “agenda”.

But he most certainly understands, even by the article’s own measure, and he has since 9-11. The article merely wants to try and project failure on Bush by another mechanism, but fails.

[quote]According to this analysis the reason terrorism doesn’t work is because of the high correspondence of terrorist actions–ie., people link terrorism to the effects of the actions and not the actual goals:

“…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.”

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

You can aptly conclude, no duh, after reading this. [/quote]

Well…wait for it…no duh.

This is meaningless - bias may or may not help.

I blame the Left because the Left can’t even pretend to be objective - that was the thrust of my criticism of the article. What the article tried to do was explain a condition that simply does not exist at the policymaker level - he wants to make the case that Bush and Co. “don’t get the agenda”. Well, sure they do, and they always have - and the Left has always complained about that.

Now we get an article wanting to “blame Bush” via a different tact - and it looks petty and inconsistent. All the things he is complaining about - not recognizing the real reasons al-Qaeda does what it does - are the exact reasons conservatives have been trying to convince the space cadet Left of for years, all with the Left sticking its fingers in its ears, bleating “lalalalalala, OBL attacked us not because he has an ideological agenda, but lots of sociological factors…”

How often have we heard from the Left: “that’s not really why they attack us…”

Translation: don’t try and make a partisan criticism and then act like it was non-partisan objectivity.

[quote]thunderbolt23 wrote:
I blame the Left because the Left can’t even pretend to be objective - that was the thrust of my criticism of the article. What the article tried to do was explain a condition that simply does not exist at the policymaker level - he wants to make the case that Bush and Co. “don’t get the agenda”. Well, sure they do, and they always have - and the Left has always complained about that.
[/quote]

Now explain how “terrorists” benefit from terrorism more than our own government.

I do agree with you that I’m sure Bush really does “get the agenda…”

Two Israelis arrested with bombs in the Mexican Congress
http://www.whatreallyhappened.com/mex.html

Terrorism doesn’t work…because it isn’t nice. Back to the ass worship thread for me

Poor JTF - still like a child thrashing about for attention, when everyone laughs at him.

Tell me again how the Protocols of Zion are real. I could use a good chuckle.

Oh, and the point still stands - if you were right about even half of your nonsense, you wouldn’t be around to post it.

I think it was quite the interesting read myself. It made some good points about the actual effect of terrorist acts. For instance, bin laden’s actual agenda:
“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”

Have been hopelessly marred by his own actions. The more crap they pull on us, the more of us there are in the Middle East, period. Guess what will happen if they hit us again? There will be even more U.S. presence in the middle east, that is a virtual certainty.

And that is precisely why us western thinkers have fallen in to the author’s perceived mental trap of “correspondent inference theory”. The question is debatable though whether or not bin laden’s stated intentions and his perceived intentions are in fact correct. It is clear to the slowest minds that the more terror he sponsors, the further his stated intentions- are from becoming reality.

So has he moved from, these stated intentions to throwing up his hands and just trying to cause as much harm on this planet as possible before his own death? Is he now into terror for the sake of hubris? Or does he really want to achieve his stated goals. I tend to think he is in it for himself, because he is doing everything he can to make sure his stated goals never happen; perhaps it’s just a tool to boost membership? I mean what muslim would disagree with ending support for Israel?

[quote]thunderbolt23 wrote:
Poor JTF - still like a child thrashing about for attention, when everyone laughs at him.

Tell me again how the Protocols of Zion are real. I could use a good chuckle.

Oh, and the point still stands - if you were right about even half of your nonsense, you wouldn’t be around to post it.[/quote]

If I posted half that crap, I may be seen as antisemetic and a hater of Jews, Jewish men, Jewish women and Jewish children. I might even avoid kosher salt…

[quote]thunderbolt23 wrote:
Poor JTF - still like a child thrashing about for attention, when everyone laughs at him.

Tell me again how the Protocols of Zion are real. I could use a good chuckle.[/quote]

Kissinger can explain it better than I can…
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNj70dLVVhI&NR=1

Right. For one thing its not MY information. I suppose they should put a hit out on everyone that read “El Diario de Mexico” that day?

Its funny to hear some of the reactions when reality goes against the script. We’ll pretend like that didn’t really happen… its not real… its not real… its not real… its not…

Anyway, they’re are plenty of people more dangerous to their cause than me…

http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/L02245899.htm

[quote]thunderbolt23 wrote:
I blame the Left because the Left can’t even pretend to be objective - that was the thrust of my criticism of the article. [/quote]

Yes, this is the biggest problem in our country at the moment–the inability to pretend being objective.

This article isn’t blaming Bush. It is blaming cognitive reasoning–which everyone is a victim of. Bush was mentioned in this article only because he erroneously makes distinctions between al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations and their grand objectives.

Essentially, all terrorist have the same fundamental goals (as stated in the analysis) yet their specific agendas maybe different. For example, he and his administration have erroneously stated that because these people are Muslim and committed suicide while carrying out these acts the reasons are somehow different.

Where is this quote pulled from. I think this is logically incorrect. How does one distinguish between an “ideological agenda” and “sociological factors”–can’t they be both tied together.

[quote]pat36 wrote:
If I posted half that crap, I may be seen as antisemetic and a hater of Jews, Jewish men, Jewish women and Jewish children. I might even avoid kosher salt…[/quote]

They reap what they sow…

Growing trend to delegitimize Israel worries Jewish leaders
The trend toward delegitimizing Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is growing not only in Europe, but also in the United States, according to Jewish-American academics and community leaders…

In the past, people who said that Jewish supporters of Israel control the media and politics belonged to the margins," he said. “But after former president Carter said it, it gained legitimacy in the mainstream. Today, the debate is already on questions such as to what extent the Jews dominate.”
http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/ShArt.jhtml?itemNo=880081

Its not that the things I post didn’t actually happen, its that I actually bring them up, that gets me labeled anti-Semitic.

You can PRETEND like Israeli Mossad didn’t get busted in the Mexican congress with explosives – but they did. Somehow thats MY FAULT?

Terrorism does work and has controlled populations for thousands of years.

Jesus himself used terrorism that is still relevant to millions today. Believe in me or go to hell. He uses fear to gain followers and in his day his religious disposition equated his political standings.

The Catholics held their inquisitions and sent Conquistadors abroad, Muslims rule their countries with terror and are now traveling abroad, Asian, Indian and any other cultures have also used military might to strike fear in subordinates, resulting in dominance of ideals.

Most religions are designed around a hierarchy where traditionally religious leaders were also political leaders and worshippers are led to believe in an awful eternal after life if they don’t do as their leaders say. (serve us)

Terrorism is as old as humanity itself and is still around due to it’s effectiveness.

Fortunately in our case, Islamic terrorists have bitten off more than they can chew and we are now terrorizing them and doing a better job at it.

It won’t be long before the Mujahadins conform to a democracy bent on serving america. which is a good thing of course, but stays true with the effectiveness of terrorism.

[quote]texasguy1 wrote:

Jesus himself used terrorism that is still relevant to millions today.[/quote]

You have a really whacked out definition of terrorism. How many non-combatants did Jesus target with violent action?

Brainwashing? Possibly. Fraud? Depends on your point of view. Terrorism? Hardly.

IMO, even calling Mohammed a terrorist is a highly dubious association.

[quote]lucasa wrote:
texasguy1 wrote:

Jesus himself used terrorism that is still relevant to millions today.

You have a really whacked out definition of terrorism. How many non-combatants did Jesus target with violent action?

Brainwashing? Possibly. Fraud? Depends on your point of view. Terrorism? Hardly.

IMO, even calling Mohammed a terrorist is a highly dubious association.[/quote]

“Terrorism is a term used to describe unlawful violence or other unlawful harmful acts committed (OR THREATENED) against civilians by groups or persons for political or other ideological goals.”

Jesus threatens literally every human being with an eternity in hell if they do not conform to his ideological goals.

Mohammad too.

Either way, terrorism does work and has been an effective tool of population control for at least as long as recorded history.

[quote]texasguy1 wrote:
Terrorism does work and has controlled populations for thousands of years.

Jesus himself used terrorism that is still relevant to millions today. Believe in me or go to hell. He uses fear to gain followers and in his day his religious disposition equated his political standings.

The Catholics held their inquisitions and sent Conquistadors abroad, Muslims rule their countries with terror and are now traveling abroad, Asian, Indian and any other cultures have also used military might to strike fear in subordinates, resulting in dominance of ideals.

Most religions are designed around a hierarchy where traditionally religious leaders were also political leaders and worshippers are led to believe in an awful eternal after life if they don’t do as their leaders say. (serve us)

Terrorism is as old as humanity itself and is still around due to it’s effectiveness.

Fortunately in our case, Islamic terrorists have bitten off more than they can chew and we are now terrorizing them and doing a better job at it.

It won’t be long before the Mujahadins conform to a democracy bent on serving america. which is a good thing of course, but stays true with the effectiveness of terrorism.

[/quote]

Excellent post.

[quote]texasguy1 wrote:
lucasa wrote:
texasguy1 wrote:

Jesus himself used terrorism that is still relevant to millions today.

You have a really whacked out definition of terrorism. How many non-combatants did Jesus target with violent action?

Brainwashing? Possibly. Fraud? Depends on your point of view. Terrorism? Hardly.

IMO, even calling Mohammed a terrorist is a highly dubious association.

“Terrorism is a term used to describe unlawful violence or other unlawful harmful acts committed (OR THREATENED) against civilians by groups or persons for political or other ideological goals.”

Jesus threatens literally every human being with an eternity in hell if they do not conform to his ideological goals.

Mohammad too.

Either way, terrorism does work and has been an effective tool of population control for at least as long as recorded history. [/quote]

If I remember my Catholic Education correctly Jesus offered salvation and redemption. He didn’t threaten to “send” anyone to hell, merely pointed out the consequences and wages of sin.

The road to hell is walked by the individual and he isn’t driven along the way. He goes there on his own.