The Strategies of Terrorism Research Paper

Terrorism often works.
Extremist organizations such as al-Qaida, Hamas, and the Tamil Tigers engage
in terrorism because it frequently delivers the desired response. The October
1983 suicide attack against the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, for example,
convinced the United States to withdraw its soldiers from Lebanon.1 The
United States pulled its soldiers out of Saudi Arabia two years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, even though the U.S. military had been building up its forces in that country for more than a decade.2 The Philippines
recalled its troops from Iraq nearly a month early after a Filipino truck driver
was kidnapped by Iraqi extremists.3 In fact, terrorism has been so successful
that between 1980 and 2003, half of all suicide terrorist campaigns were closely
followed by substantial concessions by the target governments.4 Hijacking
planes, blowing up buses, and kidnapping individuals may seem irrational
and incoherent to outside observers, but these tactics can be surprisingly effective in achieving a terrorist group’s political aims.
Despite the salience of terrorism today, scholars and policymakers are only
beginning to understand how and why it works. Much has been written on the
origins of terror, the motivations of terrorists, and counterterror responses, but
little has appeared on the strategies terrorist organizations employ and the
conditions under which these strategies succeed or fail. Alan Krueger, David
Laitin, Jitka Maleckova, and Alberto Abadie, for example, have traced the effects of poverty, education, and political freedom on terrorist recruitment.5
The Strategies of Terrorism
The Strategies of
Andrew H. Kydd and
Barbara F. Walter
Andrew H. Kydd is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Barbara F.
Walter is Associate Professor at the Graduate School of International Relations and Paciªc Studies at the
University of California, San Diego. This article is the second installment in a collaborative project, and the
order of the authors’ names was determined by alphabetical order.
The authors would like to thank the participants at the Project on International Affairs seminar at
the University of California, San Diego, for helpful comments on an earlier draft.
1. Thomas L. Friedman, “Marines Complete Beirut Pullback: Moslems Move In,” New York Times,
February 27, 2004.
2. Don Van Natta Jr., “The Struggle for Iraq: Last American Combat Troops Quit Saudi Arabia,”
New York Times, September 22, 2003.
3. James Glanz, “Hostage Is Freed after Philippine Troops Are Withdrawn from Iraq,” New York
Times, July 21, 2004.
4. Robert A. Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Random House,
2005), p. 65.
5. Alan B. Krueger and David D. Laitin, “Kto Kogo? A Cross-Country Study of the Origins and
International Security, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Summer 2006), pp. 49–80
© 2006 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Jessica Stern has examined the grievances that give rise to terrorism and the
networks, money, and operations that allow terrorist organizations to thrive.6
What is lacking, however, is a clear understanding of the larger strategic
games terrorists are playing and the ways in which state responses help or hinder them.
Effective counterstrategies cannot be designed without ªrst understanding
the strategic logic that drives terrorist violence. Terrorism works not simply
because it instills fear in target populations, but because it causes governments
and individuals to respond in ways that aid the terrorists’ cause. The Irish
Republican Army (IRA) bombed pubs, parks, and shopping districts in London because its leadership believed that such acts would convince Britain to
relinquish Northern Ireland. In targeting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, al-Qaida hoped to raise the costs for the United States
of supporting Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab regimes, and to provoke the
United States into a military response designed to mobilize Muslims around
the world. That so many targeted governments respond in the way that terrorist organizations intend underscores the need for understanding the reasoning
behind this type of violence.
In this article we seek answers to four questions. First, what types of goals
do terrorists seek to achieve? Second, what strategies do they pursue to
achieve these goals? Third, why do these strategies work in some cases but not
in others? And fourth, given these strategies, what are the targeted governments’ best responses to prevent terrorism and protect their countries from
future attacks?
The core of our argument is that terrorist violence is a form of costly signaling. Terrorists are too weak to impose their will directly by force of arms. They
are sometimes strong enough, however, to persuade audiences to do as they
wish by altering the audience’s beliefs about such matters as the terrorist’s
ability to impose costs and their degree of commitment to their cause. Given
the conºict of interest between terrorists and their targets, ordinary communication or “cheap talk” is insufªcient to change minds or inºuence behavior. If
al-Qaida had informed the United States on September 10, 2001, that it would
International Security 31:1 50
Targets of Terrorism,” Princeton University and Stanford University, 2003; Alan B. Krueger and
Jitka Maleckova, “Education, Poverty, and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection?” Journal of
Economic Perspectives, Vol. 17, No. 4 (November 2003), pp. 119–144; and Alberto Abadie, “Poverty,
Political Freedom, and the Roots of Terrorism,” Faculty Research Working Papers Series, RWP04-
043 (Cambridge, Mass.: John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 2004).
6. Jessica Stern, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill (New York: EccoHarperCollins, 2003).
kill 3,000 Americans unless the United States withdrew from Saudi Arabia, the
threat might have sparked concern, but it would not have had the same impact
as the attacks that followed. Because it is hard for weak actors to make credible
threats, terrorists are forced to display publicly just how far they are willing to
go to obtain their desired results.
There are ªve principal strategic logics of costly signaling at work in terrorist campaigns: (1) attrition, (2) intimidation, (3) provocation, (4) spoiling, and
(5) outbidding. In an attrition strategy, terrorists seek to persuade the enemy
that the terrorists are strong enough to impose considerable costs if the enemy
continues a particular policy. Terrorists using intimidation try to convince the
population that the terrorists are strong enough to punish disobedience and
that the government is too weak to stop them, so that people behave as the
terrorists wish. A provocation strategy is an attempt to induce the enemy to respond to terrorism with indiscriminate violence, which radicalizes the population and moves them to support the terrorists. Spoilers attack in an effort to
persuade the enemy that moderates on the terrorists’ side are weak and untrustworthy, thus undermining attempts to reach a peace settlement. Groups
engaged in outbidding use violence to convince the public that the terrorists
have greater resolve to ªght the enemy than rival groups, and therefore are
worthy of support. Understanding these ªve distinct strategic logics is crucial
not only for understanding terrorism but also for designing effective antiterror
The article is divided into two main sections. The ªrst discusses the goals
terrorists pursue and examines the forty-two groups currently on the U.S.
State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs).8 The second
section develops the costly signaling approach to terrorism, analyzes the ªve
strategies that terrorists use to achieve their goals, discusses the conditions in
which each of these strategies is likely to be successful, and draws out the
implications for the best counterterror responses.
The Goals of Terrorism
For years the press has portrayed terrorists as crazy extremists who commit indiscriminate acts of violence, without any larger goal beyond revenge or a deThe Strategies of Terrorism 51
7. Of course, terrorists will also be seeking best responses to government responses. A pair of
strategies that are best responses to each other constitutes a Nash equilibrium, the fundamental
prediction tool of game theory.
8. Ofªce of Counterterrorism, U.S. Department of State, “Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” fact
sheet, October 11, 2005,
sire to produce fear in an enemy population. This characterization derives
some support from statements made by terrorists themselves. For example, a
young Hamas suicide bomber whose bomb failed to detonate said, “I know
that there are other ways to do jihad. But this one is sweet—the sweetest. All
martyrdom operations, if done for Allah’s sake, hurt less than a gnat’s bite!”9
Volunteers for a suicide mission may have a variety of motives—obtaining rewards in the afterlife, avenging a family member killed by the enemy, or simply collecting ªnancial rewards for their descendants. By contrast, the goals
driving terrorist organizations are usually political objectives, and it is these
goals that determine whether and how terrorist campaigns will be launched.
We deªne “terrorism” as the use of violence against civilians by nonstate actors to attain political goals.10 These goals can be conceptualized in a variety of
ways. Individuals and groups often have hierarchies of objectives, where
broader goals lead to more proximate objectives, which then become speciªc
goals in more tactical analyses.11 For the sake of simplicity, we adopt the common distinction between goals (or ultimate desires) and strategies (or plans of
action to attain the goals).
Although the ultimate goals of terrorists have varied over time, ªve have
had enduring importance: regime change, territorial change, policy change, social control, and status quo maintenance. Regime change is the overthrow of a
government and its replacement with one led by the terrorists or at least one
more to their liking.12 Most Marxist groups, including the Shining Path
(Sendero Luminoso) in Peru have sought this goal. Territorial change is taking
territory away from a state either to establish a new state (as the Tamil Tigers
seek to do in Tamil areas of Sri Lanka) or to join another state (as Lashkar-e
Tayyiba would like to do by incorporating Indian Kashmir into Pakistan).
International Security 31:1 52
9. Quoted in Nasra Hassan, “An Arsenal of Believers: Talking to the ‘Human Bombs,’” New Yorker,
November 19, 2001, p. 37.
10. For discussion of differing deªnitions of terrorism, see Alex P. Schmid and Albert J. Jongman,
Political Terrorism: A New Guide to Actors, Authors, Concepts, Data Bases, Theories, and Literature (New
Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1988), pp. 1–38. We do not focus on state terrorism because states
face very different opportunities and constraints in their use of violence, and we do not believe the
two cases are similar enough to be proªtably analyzed together.
11. For the distinction between goals and strategies, see David A. Lake and Robert Powell, eds.,
Strategic Choice and International Relations (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999), especially chap. 1.
12. On revolutionary terrorism, see Martha Crenshaw Hutchinson, “The Concept of Revolutionary Terrorism,” Journal of Conºict Resolution, Vol. 16, No. 3 (September 1972), pp. 383–396; Martha
Crenshaw Hutchinson, Revolutionary Terrorism: The FLN in Algeria, 1954–1962 (Stanford, Calif.:
Hoover Institution Press, 1978); and H. Edward Price Jr., “The Strategy and Tactics of Revolutionary Terrorism,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 19, No. 1 (January 1977), pp. 52–66.

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