Terror Politics Isn’t About Policy

Bruce Schneier

The "strategic" model of terrorism … posits that people resort to terrorism …  when they believe the political gains of terrorism minus the political costs are greater than if they engaged in some other, more peaceful form of protest. … Max Abrahms … argues that … seven tendencies are seen in terrorist organizations all over the world … [that] directly contradict the theory that terrorists are political maximizers … Abrahms has an alternative model to explain all this:  People turn to terrorism for social solidarity. He theorizes that people join terrorist organizations worldwide in order to be part of a community, much like the reason inner-city youths join gangs in the United States.

The evidence supports this.  Individual terrorists often have no prior involvement with a group’s political agenda, and often join multiple terrorist groups with incompatible platforms. Individuals who join terrorist groups are frequently not oppressed in any way, and often can’t describe the political goals of their organizations. People who join terrorist groups most often have friends or relatives who are members of the group, and the great majority of terrorist are socially isolated: unmarried young men or widowed women who weren’t working prior to joining.

HT to Larry D’anna.

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  • Grant

    …unmarried young men or widowed women…

    I don’t mean to sound like Roissy, but I’ve often wondered if cultures that produce more terminally-single men also produce more desperation and violence.

  • Benja Fallenstein

    (Check that first link, Robin.)

  • Mercher

    An account of why individuals join terrorist organizations isn’t the same thing as an account of the politics of terrorism. People join conventional armies for exactly the sort of reasons listed above – solidarity, excitement etc. – but I don’t think that explains much of what those sort of organizations get up to.

  • Matt

    As a digression,

    I believe terrorists, as a whole, have the goal of creating fear or to create attention to their cause (even if they don’t know what that cause is). Because of this, is it really a big threat if terrorists groups get a hold of nuclear weapons? Would using the WMDs even be consistent with their collective utility function?

    Of course it make sense that they WANT the weapons, but whether they have the incentives to use them is in question.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    This discussion seems incomplete, since there are many entities which compete for lonely people that want to join something larger. The question would be why terrorist organizations as opposed to other entities? Or to take it back one step, why did their social circle choose terrorist organizations as opposed to other entities? Also I’m curious how it was determined that “Individuals who join terrorist groups are frequently not oppressed in any way”? Who fits into the category of “not oppressed in any way”? Who doesn’t?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/simon112/ simon

    Matt, thats more of an expression of what’s being argued against than a digression.

    I think using a nuclear weapon would be a big boost to the social solidarity of a terrorist group, and hoarding one could erode the solidarity.

  • http://michaelgr.com/ Michael G.R.

    “ecause of this, is it really a big threat if terrorists groups get a hold of nuclear weapons? Would using the WMDs even be consistent with their collective utility function?

    Of course it make sense that they WANT the weapons, but whether they have the incentives to use them is in question.”

    Sometimes I wonder if all this mediatized fear that terrorists will blow up a city with a nuke isn’t sending a signal to actual terrorists that this is what they should do.

    Kind of like the way in which humans will tend to look for what their enemies fear most and use it against them, even if a more measured action could have resulted in bigger gains.

    There’s undoubtedly some darwinian reason why this heuristic helps survival in a savanna… but it might not be so useful in our modern society.

    Anton has Bob in the sights of his semi-automatic rifle.

    Bob: “Don’t shoot me in the groin! Please, anything but that!”

    An evil smile appears on Anton’s face…

    *POW*

  • Roland

    That’s from the perspective of the low-level members. Those are just pawns in the game. The question is: who are the puppet masters pulling the strings behind the curtain?

    If you have a political agenda and want to create a conflict between nations A and B there is your recipe:

    Find a willing pawn from A and make him blow up a bomb in B.

  • mjc

    The terrorists that are attacking us seem to have a world view (the way the world SHOULD be) that finds us (USA) offensive in many ways. Therefore, by making the USA less powerful and effective makes the world more like they want it to be.

    There is no way to reason with such a view – the existence of the USA offends them.

  • PK

    Robin, do you think there is anything that is about what it is or is everything not about what it is?

  • Constant

    do you think there is anything that is about what it is

    Paris Hilton is about Paris Hilton, which is what Paris Hilton is about.

  • http://pdf23ds.net pdf23ds

    Yeah, I agree that the quote seems to be missing the distinction between the aims of a terrorist and the aims of a terrorist organization. The latter is much more closely approximated by the aims and motivations of the leaders of the organization. So a better question to ask would be “what motivates people to found and run a terrorist organization”?

  • Errorist

    Aren’t you people blinded by the overcomplication bias?
    Terrorists are usually
    -average or below average IQ people
    -from average or below average IQ populations aka races
    -taken over by memeplexes gone wrong
    -turned to memeoids

    In summary: stupid people whose brains have been turned to toxic mush by memes.

    Stick to the facts. Please. It doesn’t mean it’s not true if it’s not complicated.

  • Errorist

    What I don’t get is this loop:

    Repeat forever
    Step 1 (KABOOM)
    -What was that? That was one of you people!
    -Oh, not, not us… we would never do such a heinous thing. We’re for peace, unity, harmony and all that.
    -Ok, alright then.
    Return to Step 1

  • jls

    Let’s not be blinded by the “I know, or I’ve made up, the name of a bias, therefore you’re wrong” bias. Errorist, your explanation is not necessarily wrong just because it’s simple, but it’s not necessarily right either. What evidence supports it?

    If we’re to accept that one of the reasons people turn to terrorism because they’re stupid, there must be evidence that a majority of terrorists are stupid. If we’re to accept that their stupidity is the only reason, and therefore stop looking for more reasons, there must be evidence that a majority of stupid people are terrorists, which seems less likely.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    PK, I meant to post this to Robin’s series.

    Discussing sexual signalling IS sexual signalling.

  • Errorist

    Stupidity correlates with crime and all sorts of bad life-outcomes, pointless arguing, abuse of chemicals/spouse/kids/food, drug use, bad language, you name it – if it’s bad in way, stupidity is likely to be involved. That’s all I’m saying. It’s not a precondition or a cause but it really, how can I put it, helps. Stupidity supports evil.

    If you’re intelligent enough (120, 130, 140+, who knows what the lower threshold is) you’re more likely to be immune to the memes that mostly flourish in stupid people (they were created by clearly stupid people).

  • Errorist

    typo: bad in way -> bad in any way

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    How far do the goals of churches differ from the goals of their church folk, the goals of businesses differ from the goals of their business folk, or the goals of agencies differ from the goals of their agency folk? Why would terror orgs be an outlier here?

  • Errorist

    The difference with these toxic memes is that they’re explicit – in no uncertain terms they spell out successful behavior for the host – the stricter the rules, the more sticky the memeplex.

    The memes, having gone through countless iterations and improvements, were already very advanced mind technology, very refined, very effective, very well adapted, all those years back in the middle east and where ever toxic memeplexes spawn (generally in the minds of stupid people). They were capable of eating your mind for breakfast back then. They succeed in doing the same today. One reason for the near 100% success rate is that we offer our helpless children to them, like parents zombiefied by a mind-eating organism from outerspace. The only reason we’ve got rid of them as far as we have (not looking too good in the U.S. compared to Europe), is because we’ve learned to reason. Those who can’t or won’t are beyond hope.

  • jls

    I have no trouble believing stupidity correlates with crime, terrorism, and many other evils. I think the correlation may be quite strong, actually. However, I doubt that the correlation between stupidity and low IQ is as strong. I’ve found many people to be very very smart and also very very stupid. I don’t think stupidity is the opposite of intelligence: it’s just another thing, and it may even be compatible. I think I have read something on this blog, perhaps by Eliezer, saying something similar, although probably in other terms. If my memory is mistaken, my apologies to Eliezer. Any way, I think nobody is above stupidity, though we might try our best.

    But let’s say low IQs correlate with terrorism. If that is not the only cause, talking about other causes might not be overcomplication bias. It may even be useful. If I don’t want people to go around killing people, I am interested in why they do that. Say we find three necessary conditions for someone to become a terrorist, and we can do nothing about two of them. What luck to have found the third reason.

    In particular, low IQ’s may be a condition for someone becoming a terrorist which is rather hard to avoid. And, of course, there remains a big question: is it really low IQ’s or rather below average IQ’s that cause the problem? If it’s low IQ’s, we might think of raising the IQ level of people around the world, though it seems a rather difficult task. If it’s the below average IQ’s that cause the problem, then the task is impossible: there will always be an average and people above and below it.

    So that’s why I think it might be useful to find other causes for terrorism, apart from IQs.

  • Errorist

    “e might think of raising the IQ level of people around the world, though it seems a rather difficult task. ”

    Nature does this all the time. Not many cavemen running around, is there? The less well adapted die off when competing for scarce resources with the more adapted. Homo Sapiens has exempted itself from this natural optimization process and the least capable of surviving in a natural setting are increasing in numbers like they never could before the safety nets and ease of survival civilization now provides. As far as the universe is concerned, everything goes according to plan. Whether we as a species find it beneficial for our long term survival and advancement is another matter.

    What do you need to cook up a terrorist? You need a recipe; the idea of being a terrorist, and instructions for how to be a terrorist. Not many people come up with the idea of all by themselves. You have be a psycho/sociopath to come up with reasons to kill people. The authors of the memeplexes were not short of talent in this department. The cause is of course nothing but the toxic memes that instruct the host to “destroy or infect (convert) carriers of other memes or those without these memes”. Out of all instructions these have survived because nothing gets the job done quicker or more effectively.

  • http://whenindc.wordpress.com Alicia

    Actually, it’s been shown (http://discardedlies.com/entry/?2594) that members of terrorist organizations, especially Al Qaeda, are middle class, educated people who have families (spouse and/or children). This disproves the theory, “Individual terrorists often have no prior involvement with a group’s political agenda, and often join multiple terrorist groups with incompatible platforms. Individuals who join terrorist groups are frequently not oppressed in any way, and often can’t describe the political goals of their organizations. People who join terrorist groups most often have friends or relatives who are members of the group, and the great majority of terrorist are socially isolated: unmarried young men or widowed women who weren’t working prior to joining.”

  • Addam Madden

    How far do the goals of churches differ from the goals of their church folk, the goals of businesses differ from the goals of their business folk, or the goals of agencies differ from the goals of their agency folk? Why would terror orgs be an outlier here?

    goals of business vs. goals of business folk:
    Mr. Walton of Walmart: Expand the business and make money
    Walmart cashier: Make money to buy food & shelter (or else diamonds, candy, & pills, alleviate boredom.)
    The business ( CEO acting as an agent for the owner(s) ) gets its goal by offering incentives to the employee.

    goals of terror orgs vs. goals of terror folk:
    Usāmah bin Muḥammad bin `Awaḍ bin Lādin: His stated goal to punish the US for its presence in Arabia and force it to withdraw.
    Kamikaze pilot: Importance, respect for family, & ascension to paradice.

    Whether not those are their ultimate goals, that is what they have in mind when they act.

  • Floccina

    The lack of schooling as a reason for terrorism argument seems not to work. It seems to me that if they cannot read and write and arithmetic they will not be very useful terrorists. I think that what people are saying with schooling argument is that we should offer schools that encourage them to behave as we like. The risk of course is that we just make them much more effective terrorists when they do find a group to join. I think I prefer the suggestions in the article vibrant non-violent clubs and weakening of solidarity with terrorist groups.

    It seems to me even domestically too many people want to use schooling to bring about their desires.

  • Floccina

    Sorry, I responded to the comments at the linked article here. Commenters there were saying that lack of schools in the middle-east was the root cause of terrorism.

  • http://pdf23ds.net pdf23ds

    How far do the goals of [churches/businesses/agencies] differ from the goals of their [church/business/agency] folk?

    Quite a bit, actually. I would say that many (esp. fundamentalist) churches are headed by people whose main goal is a cash cow, or a group of followers. For business, the goal would be a cash cow, and for agencies (not sure what you mean here) political influence.

    But churches and terrorist organizations are fundamentally opposed to agencies and businesses in that the former are volunteer organizations, and the latter not. So I’d say the best comparison would be with churches.

    And in churches, I think you see the same pattern. Most attendees of church are not very serious at all, and go to make themselves feel better about their spirituality (or their kids’) and to use the social aspect of churchgoing to their advantage. These people don’t have a huge influence on the directions a church goes, though their donations mean that the church can’t ignore their desires.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    pdf, I’d say the overall activities of churches can mostly be explained by the motives you describe for “most attendees”; some leaders may want something else, but they don’t get much of it.