Terrorism and the Effectiveness Thereof

The last terrorist attack in the United States occurred on 11 September 2001. Thus, we are approaching six years without an attack. The dearth of attacks on civilians in the United States may be the result of alQaida embracing the results of a recent study by Max Abrahms, wherein he concludes that groups that primarily attack civilian targets fail.

“This suggests not only that terrorism is an ineffective instrument of coercion, but that its poor success rate is inherent to the tactic of terrorism itself.”

Mr. Abrahms suggests that the effects of correspondent-inference theory explain why nations are so loath to acquiesce to the demands of terrorist. Correspondent-inference theory seeks to explain the cognitive process used by an observer to infer the motives of an actor. For example, it we see a person act in a rude manner we conclude that she is an unpleasant person, not that she acted in a rude manner but is otherwise a good person.

When terrorist groups attack civilians, nations infer that the goal of the terrorist is annihilation of the nation, its citizens, and way of life. This is illustrated in the study by looking at Russia’s response to the 1999 apartment bombings, the reaction of the United States to 9/11, and Israel’s response to the first intifada. In sum, these nations ignored the stated goals of the terrorist and inferred that the groups intended to destroy them. With this inferred intent, nations are highly unlikely to accede to any demands made by terrorists. Thus the success rate of terrorist hovering at a paltry 7%.

It may be overly optimistic to assume that alQaida has forsaken terrorists attacks against civilian targets in order to further its goals. The attacks in the United Kingdom suggest that alQaida still views attacking civilian targets as a useful tool. Yet, the United States has not been attacked.




Filed under Psychology

2 responses to “Terrorism and the Effectiveness Thereof

  1. Scott de B.

    You are incorrect that there has been no terrorist attack in the U.S. since 9/11. In September and October 2001, weaponized anthrax was mailed to a series of news outlets and Congressional offices. Five people died and another 17 were made ill. The perpetrator or perpetrators are still unidentifed.

    It seems this is often forgotten.

  2. Terrorists might fail in achieving the demands they make simultaneous with their terrorist acts, but they certainly bring about massive angst and direct, in many cases, the world’s eyes upon the “aggrieved” groups. War is politics by another name–regardless of the justness of the war; so too, terrorism is an extension of politics (typically representing a very small minority of any given population).

    Terrorists may not achieve those stated goals, but I’d guess that they “keep coming” for other reasons that just don’t make sense to your average, rational human being: martyrdom, a guaranteed favored spot in the afterlife, sticking it to “the West.” Killing unbelievers, restoring the Caliphate, and winning converts seem to me to be the main reasons for attacks (and are heavily cited by the terrorists).

    And of course you’re right, they fail miserably. The terrorists will never truly be the ones who write the whys and wherefores of history–so they fail, in the end, completely.


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