Seven habits of highly ineffective terrorists

Bruce Schneier summarizes a paper by Max Abrahms in International Security.

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.

Such ineffective, self-defeating methods are because, he theorizes, terrorists turn to terrorism for social solidarity, with politics and winning seemingly relatively unimportant.

One comment

  1. Wow: what a short-sighted view of things. Let’s consider Sri Lanka’s LTTE as an example, because they have regularly engaged in all seven of these so-called sins, yet they are without doubt one of the most effective terrorist organizations in the world. Let be be clear: I abhor their tactics and I am not a supporter in any way, but they are a real force in Sri Lanka and I have studied them as part of my analysis of the war there.

    First, consider where the LTTE comes from. It represents primarily low-caste Tamils, a minority within the Tamil community which is itself a minority in the country. Sri Lanka is a unitary state, meaning all power rests with the central government (provincial governors are appointed, not elected) and a raw majority makes the rules and distributes the money. Thus the LTTE represents a group that has zero power in the electoral process. They are politically irrelevant, even within their own ethnic group. There is no possibility under the current system that their concerns can be heard democratically.

    1. They attack civilians. This polarizes the country politically along ethnic lines, working to the LTTE’s favor (and also extremists on the Sinhalese side). Tamils have little choice but to support the LTTE. They have political goals because that gives them a banner under which the Tamil people can (with misgivings) unite. But they don;t want to actually achieve those goals, because eventually they;d be faced with a democratic election, which they would lose.

    2. They fail to embrace the democratic process (see analysis above) because there is zero possibility that it will work for them.

    3. They don’t compromise with GOSL because they have more power under the current scenario than they would in almost any political settlement. Oh, and besides their political power, they have thriving businesses in shipping, drug trafficking, and weapons. Why jeopardize those with a political settlement?

    4. Their political platform is intentionally unacceptable to GOSL and the Sinhalese majority (they demand a separate nation) in order to preclude settlement and maintain the status quo– though at those rare times when a favorable settlement seemed possible they have been willing to accept autonomy as opposed to outright independence.

    5. They engage in anonymous attacks– but everyone knows who did it. This allows them to commit heinous assassinations to eliminate opponents with what they see as plausible deniability. Besides, in general they don’t WANT concessions.

    6. There were at one time six or more significant Tamil terrorist groups all seeking independence. LTTE agressively targeted all the others and absorbed or destroyed them (all but two, which made peace with GOSL and are now government allies). By eliminating all competition, they moved from being one of several fringe organizations to being “the sole representatives” of the Tamil people.

    7. They resist disbanding because this is all about power, and they’ve got it. They’re not giving it up. I will acknowledge, however, that during the 4-year cease fire, LTTE did make overtures to certain non-terrorist organizations regarding how to become a more political and less military force. That ended in 2006 with GOSL’s new series of military offensives.

    In short: GOSL has regularly spent 40% of its budget on the war. How else could a politically irrelevant group control more than a third of the national budget?

    For years, LTTE operated its own de facto nation, complete with customs, courts, police, etc. It now appears that GOSL may take the “capitol” Kilinochchi in a matter of weeks or days in a major (and costly) military assault, effectively driving LTTE back into the jungles. GOSL calls this victiory– yet even they acknowledge that LTTE will continue its guerrilla war for decades. So much for victory.

    One strategist on my team put the situation this way: GOSL views victory in terms of controlling territory. LTTE views victory in terms of influence. Ironically, BOTH SIDES BELIEVE THEY ARE WINNING.

    Anyone who thinks these tactics aren’t working for the LTTE really ought to look harder. They’re not working for the CIVILIAN POPULATION, but they’re working just fine for the LTTE.

    This model has been adopted by many others, with mixed success. Some are just no damned good at it. But sadly, the model works– LTTE proves that. If we want it to not work, we’ll have to change the rules of the game, because wishing and criticizing won’t make it go away.

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