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The Logic of Terrorism: Identifying a Coherent Strategy

Posted By May 4, 2017 No Comments

This essay was originally written for an International Security course at the Political Science department of the University of Toronto.

Historical sociologists trace the roots of terrorism as a form of political persuasion from the French Revolutionary state, highlighting that the employment of the tool by non-state groups places it firmly within the progression of modernism.[1] Although it has existed for centuries, public interest and complex post-modern analysis on the issue grew exponentially following September 11, 2001.[2] The topic continues to inform national debates in times of socio-political restructuring and occupies the bulk of major headlines on primetime news. Despite the plethora of information available, the phenomenon of so-called post-9/11, ‘new terrorism’ has yet to be framed as a coherent strategy within these respective settings. The act is often deemed an aberrant form of violent activity that is irrational, unmethodical and unnatural. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, American historian, Bruce Cummings, stated, “…in its utter recklessness and indifference to consequences, its craven anonymity, and its lack of any discernible ‘program’ save for inchoate revenge, this was an apolitical act. [It] had no rational military purpose [because it] lacked the essential relationship between violent means and political ends”.[3] Within this framework, the aspect of a suicide attack, which is key to most terrorism campaigns, seems especially counter-intuitive, raising the puzzle of: how can you win if you kill yourself? What success can be gained from depleting one’s own human capital and potential sympathizers?

These questions, which deconstruct the process and objectives driving these organizations, are critical in order to form effective counter-terrorism and de-radicalization policies at the local, national and international levels, and move beyond the blanket statements pushed in popular western discourse. The international community cannot expect to make terrorism unprofitable and scarce without knowing the incentive structure of its practitioners.[4] Therefore, this paper will aim to show that there is a calculated and systematic approach to the way in which terrorist organizations employ violence to accomplish their goals. It will be argued that “winning” is closely tied to an agenda based on a) shifting the terrorists’ bargaining position and overall dynamics of the conflict in the group’s favour, as well as b) increasing levels of support and social control. After briefly outlining the level of analysis and definitions being used, this essay will review the relevant scholarly literature in two sections. First, the psychological impact made through efforts of attrition and spoiling will be discussed to understand how terrorists seek to shift the dynamics of political conflicts in their favour. Then, outcomes such as provocation, outbidding and intimidation will be outlined to highlight the aims pursued by these groups to shape public support and compliance.

Level of Analysis and Definitions:


Despite being one of the most significant words in today’s political vocabulary with billion dollar budgets dedicated to countering it, terrorism is rarely clearly defined as a concept.[5] This paper will grapple with terrorism more broadly, while also touching on the strategic uses of suicidal tactics that fall under that umbrella. Intergovernmental definitions tend to identify three elements of the subject: terror, opprobrium (illegal, criminal) and coercion.[6] This analysis will expand the definition to include that there is a specific set of political goals that are being sought. They could include, but are not limited to: regime change, territorial change, policy change, social control, and status quo maintenance.[7] The nature of the violence is also symbolic in character and goes beyond the norms of violent political agitation accepted by a particular society.[8] Suicide attack as a weapon of terror, is usually chosen by weaker parties against materially stronger foes when fighting methods of lesser cost seem unlikely to succeed. Choice is often voluntary, but typically under conditions of group pressure and charismatic leadership.[9]

The evidence that will be provided in the following sections will centre on the perspective of the organization, rather than the individual attacker. The latter may be more varied in its motivations to participate in missions, whereas the goals driving terrorist organizations as a whole are usually political, and determine how the campaigns will be launched.[10] Scholars have also pointed that little tangible benefit can be determined for suicide bombers who expect to be rewarded only in the afterlife. Maximized “expected utility” can be more clearly evaluated for the leaders of groups, who almost never consider killing themselves.[11]

I – Creating Favourable Conflict Dynamics and Negotiating Arenas

Terrorism is a particular form of psychological warfare that is best understood as coercive diplomacy or bargaining, where the terrorist group seeks to threaten the material and elusive aspects of life that the enemy holds dear to achieve desired political ends.[12] This coercive bargaining often takes the form of attrition and spoiling to elicit voluntary compliance from the mere “capacity to hurt”. However, to be successful, it must be backed with credible information to the audiences whose behaviour they hope to influence.[13] The targeted governments are central to this, as they can grant concessions over policy or territory that the terrorists are seeking. Since ‘talk is cheap’ and it is harder for weaker actors to make credible threats, terrorists who wish to influence the behavior of an adversary must resort to costly signaling to prove the degree of commitment to their cause.[14] Within contemporary terrorism studies, the theory of coercive bargaining articulated by Thomas Schelling ultimately forms the basis for one of the primary analytical frameworks for terrorist strategy.[15]

Although the lengths terrorist organizations go to seem nihilist on the surface, their actions are aimed at increasing the costs inflicted on the enemy, and eroding their resolve to continue a particular policy.[16] The organization wants to put the target’s vital interest into question by triggering doubts around whether it is worth paying the price to maintain the status quo.[17] When examining suicide terrorism, Robert Pape highlights that the 1983 Hezbollah attack against the U.S. in Beirut was a clear example of the strategy to inflict costs on the enemy until it withdraws its occupying forces. In his memoirs, former U.S. President Ronald Reagan directly explained that the ”the price [they] had to pay in Beirut was so great, the tragedy at the barracks was so enormous…. [They] had to pull out…. [They] couldn’t stay there and run the risk of another suicide attack on the Marines”.[18] The Greeks, Jews and Arabs used similar strategies in the final years of the British Empire. In his 1996 declaration of jihad, Osama Bin Laden also argued that the U.S. lacked resolve to fight a long attritional war against Al Qaida.[19] The success of an attrition strategy generally depends on the state’s level of interest in the issue, constraints on its ability to retaliate, and cost tolerance.[20]

At the same time, there are certain contexts of ‘new wars’ in the 21st century that are characterized by a shared self-perpetuating interest to maintain conflict, in order to reproduce political identity and further economic interests.[21] The reasons for prolonging conflict may also be linked to unaddressed grievances or maintaining certain power structures that have been produced. In order to preserve such an environment, terrorist organizations resort to acting as spoilers when a peace settlement is near. Peace agreements alarm terrorists because they give leverage to moderates, who are more willing to concede and compromise to end violence. The terrorist group therefore plays on the mistrust between the moderates and the enemy to undermine all efforts to bring the war to an end. This was the case when Iranian-U.S. tensions seemed to be easing when moderate Prime Minister, Mehdi Bazargan, met with the U.S. national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Iranian radicals responded with the 1979 kidnapping. Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, as well as talks between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland were hampered in similar ways.[22] Scholars find that spoiling is most likely when the objective is territorial change and when the enemy perceives the moderates as having the capacity to end violence.[23]

II – Garnering Public Backing and Control

Success in the eyes of strategic terrorists is also linked broadly to appealing to its second target audience, the domestic audience, through provoking destructive foreign action, undermining domestic competition and employing intimidation when necessary. This is crucial to recruitment, obtaining resources and appearing as a robust and influential political actor. In order to radicalize and mobilize a population whose interests the terrorists claim to represent, terrorists often attempt to incite governments to take harsh and indiscriminate counter measures.[24] The aim is to inflict enough socio-economic damage on a population, which may already be inclined to the terrorists’ agenda, and leave them feeling that the government is unconcerned with their welfare. With an increased sense of victimization and decrease in economic opportunity, the aim is that there will be greater readiness to behave according to organizational doctrines and policies.[25] Even if it does not get drawn into excessive force, the government may have to rely on special police and judicial measures which will impinge on everyday life and inconvenience the ordinary citizen (ex. curfews, house searches, internment without trial, state-sponsored death squads, etc.). The enemy ultimately ends up responding in a way that undermines its own authority, and potentially radicalizes moderates.[26]

Examples of successful enemy overreactions include the Irish Catholic 1916 “Rising” that led to harsh British countermeasures that significantly strengthened the republican cause.[27] Extremist militant groups in Palestine also gained support after Israeli crackdowns in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.[28] Provocation is often used in pursuit of regime or territorial change, and general resistance against a foreign power.[29] Successful use of this tactic depends on the government’s inclination to respond with middling levels of brutality, that neither destroys the domestic population nor is incapable of indiscriminate punishment.[30]

Another means of mobilizing the domestic audience is to engage in outbidding through violence, to convince the public of the organization’s greater resolve to fight the enemy than the rival group.[31] The objective is to show that the group is willing to suffer costs rather than sell out, as well as take a hard line on bargaining. The case of Hamas vs. Fatah shows how two groups vied for the support of the Palestinian citizens, who are unsure of whom to back.[32] Commitment to the cause can also be shown through extensive suicide bombing, as bombers are “expendable assets whose losses generate more assets by expanding public support”.[33] Outbidding provides a potential explanation for terrorist attacks that continue even when they seem unable to produce any real results.[34] Extremist groups also attempt to outbid their own government through damaging the psychological bond that exists between the population and regime. Scholars describe this as disorientation, where terrorists escalate violence to the point where it seems authorities cannot prevent the spread of chaos, while increasing the appeal of their alternative political program.[35]

Finally, intimidation can be an extremely effective tool for raising the cost for supporting enemy forces, or to generate passive support where “collaborators” are punished for dissent against terrorist ideology.[36] This strategy is most often used when the group is competing for social control with the government. It works by demonstrating that the terrorists have the power to punish whoever disobeys them, and that the government is powerless to stop them. Organizations have targeted state agents such as mayors, police, and prosecutors to show that they can harm their opponents and their supporters.[37] Columbia and Peru have experienced judicial intimidation where judges were frequently offered the “choice between silver and lead”, and according to Colonel Roger Trinquier, the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) also controlled the population through similar terror.[38]


There are many reasons for the reluctance to engage with the phenomenon of so-called “new terrorism” as a strategy. The common assumption is that it is deeply irrational and apocalyptic, with no broader mission of success in material terms.[39] The goal of this piece was to argue that the lengths terrorist organizations go to achieve chaos, is inherently entwined with sustaining their broader political program through shifting their bargaining position in the conflict and increasing general support for their cause. The paper proceeded by exploring various psychological tools that are used to achieve these ends, including, campaigns of attrition, spoiling, overreaction/provocation, outbidding and intimidation. Several motivations usually drive terrorist organizations; however, they tend to be linked to a military strategy devoted to advancing a deeply political agenda of social control and change.