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Political Science Question

Please read carefully before you start
Requirement and guideline
Causes of Terrorism / Political Violence: Armed Violence
Analysis paper on “Armed Violence”
You need first to select a current news article from a newspaper, magazine, or news site,
published in September-Oct 2022(It must be reliable and accessible such as Al Jazeera, The
New York Times, The Washington Post, etc ). For example, you take a news story about a
terrorist attack and explain the particulars of the attack, the perpetrators, law enforcement and
government responses, etc. In your analysis, you must reference at least 5 sources (4 from the
readings and 1 case study) listed below to support and defend your position.
You are required to:
1) 1,500 words, single-spaced, 12-point font, with one-inch margins all around.
2) Cite all appropriate readings of at least 5 or more to support and defend your position. In-text
citations you must include the page number (author and page number).
3) Include a link to the article you’re using or attach a PDF copy.
4) The paper you write must have a creative title to connect with the reader.
5) The essay paper you write must have a definite Introduction and Conclusion. You must have
your main argument (thesis) in your very first sentence for clarity, and your Intro paragraph
should explain why this is important. It’s important to write good Intros because it helps you to
know what your main point is and keep everything after it relevant. And restate it at the end.
6) Limit paragraphs to 3-5 sentences on a single topic for clarity and readability.
Required Rubric:

Focus consistently on clearly expressed central idea (thesis)
Show strong familiarity with key concepts covered in the readings
Make persuasive arguments using evidence and present definite conclusions
Consider the full range of evidence (evaluate opposing arguments rather than ignoring
Support arguments with appropriately cited source material
Communicate effectively through fluent vocabulary and sentence mechanics
Uses paragraph structures and transitions to guide the reader effectively
Offer sophisticated or original conclusions beyond what is contained in the material.
The readings list: You must select at least 4 readings or more to support and defend your
position. (author and page number)
1. Paul Gill et al (2018) What are the Roles of the Internet in Terrorism? (33 pp)
2. Haroro J. Ingram (2013) Learning from ISIS’s Virtual Propaganda War for Western
Muslims: A Comparison of Inspire and Dabiq
3. Maura Conway (2017) “Determining the Role of the Internet in Violent Extremism and
Terrorism: Six Suggestions for Progressing Research” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism
4. Jacob N. Shapiro (2013) The Terrorist’s Dilemma, Chapter 2
5. Max Abrahms and Philip Potter (2015) “Explaining Terrorism: Leadership Deficits and
Militant Group Tactics” International Security
6. Jenna Jordan (2009) “When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership
Decapitation,” Security Studies
7. CJ Bearman (2005) “An Examination of Suffragette Violence” The English Historical
8. Mia Bloom (2004) “Palestinian Suicide Bombing: Public Support, Market Share, and
Outbidding” Political Science Quarterly
9. Erica Chenoweth (2010) Democratic Competition and Terrorist Activity, The Journal of
10. Che Guevarra (1961) Guerilla Warfare
11. Stathis Kalyvas (2003) “The Ontology of ‘Political Violence’: Action and Identity in Civil
Wars,” Perspectives on Politics
12. Barry Posen (1993) “The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict,” Survival
The Case Study list: You must select at least 1 Case Study or more to support and defend your
1. Case study: Mosque shooting, New Zealand, 2019
2. Case study: Boogaloo Boys, USA, 2020
3. Beta Male Uprising, Toronto attack – Canada, 2018
Note: I have uploaded to you all the required readings for those ones that not have accessible
Good luck
International Organization
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Explaining Terrorism: Leadership Decits and
Militant Group Tactics
Max Abrahms and Philip B.K. Potter
International Organization / Volume 69 / Issue 02 / March 2015, pp 311 – 342
DOI: 10.1017/S0020818314000411, Published online: 16 March 2015
Link to this article:
How to cite this article:
Max Abrahms and Philip B.K. Potter (2015). Explaining Terrorism: Leadership
Decits and Militant Group Tactics. International Organization, 69, pp 311-342
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Explaining Terrorism: Leadership Deficits
and Militant Group Tactics
Max Abrahms and Philip B.K. Potter
Certain types of militant groups—those suffering from leadership deficits
—are more likely to attack civilians. Their leadership deficits exacerbate the principalagent problem between leaders and foot soldiers, who have stronger incentives to harm
civilians. We establish the validity of this proposition with a tripartite research strategy
that balances generalizability and identification. First, we demonstrate in a sample of
militant organizations operating in the Middle East and North Africa that those
lacking centralized leadership are prone to targeting civilians. Second, we show that
when the leaderships of militant groups are degraded from drone strikes in the
Afghanistan-Pakistan tribal regions, the selectivity of organizational violence plummets.
Third, we elucidate the mechanism with a detailed case study of the al-Aqsa Martyrs
Brigade, a Palestinian group that turned to terrorism during the Second Intifada
because pressure on leadership allowed low-level members to act on their preexisting
incentives to attack civilians. These findings indicate that a lack of principal control
is an important, underappreciated cause of militant group violence against civilians.
Terrorism is typically employed by the politically aggrieved, but recent scholarship
finds that the tactic tends to impede groups from achieving their demands. Unlike
selective attacks on military targets, indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets risk
lowering public support for concessions and hence the odds of attaining them.1
Why then do militant groups target civilians so frequently given the potential political
To answer this question, much of the extant scholarship posits that militant groups
are irrational actors or motivated by an apolitical incentive structure.2 Other studies
advance structural arguments about regime type and the relative power of militants.3
We thank Bob Axelrod, Christian Davenport, Jim Morrow, Steven Pinker, Al Stam, Janice Gross Stein,
and participants in seminars at the Institut Français des Relations Internationales, Munk School of Global
Affairs, Northeastern University, University of Michigan, University of Southern California, University of
Virginia, and University of Texas at Austin for helpful comments. Paul Baumgartner provided excellent
research assistance. We also acknowledge financial support from the Minerva Research Initiative. All
errors are our own.
1. On public support, see Berrebi and Klor 2006 and 2008; Chowanietz 2011; Mueller 2006; and Berrebi
2009. On government concessions, see Abrahms 2006 and 2012; Abrahms and Gottfried 2014; Cronin
2009; Fortna 2012; Gaibulloev and Sandler 2009; Getmansky and Sinmazdemir 2012; Jones and
Libicki 2008; and Neumann and Smith 2008.
2. On irrationality, see Caplan 2006; and Lankford 2013. On incentives, see Abrahms 2008; and
Weinstein 2007.
3. On regime type, see Stanton 2013. On relative capability, see Wood 2010.
International Organization 69, Spring 2015, pp. 311–342
© The IO Foundation, 2015
International Organization
These explanations are incomplete. First, they struggle to account for tactical variation within and across militant groups over time.4 Second, the groups are generally
treated as unitary actors despite the invalidity of that assumption.5 A growing consensus maintains that militant groups are composed of internally heterogeneous members
with varying preferences and commitment.6 We build on this insight to propose and
then test a theory of when militant groups are liable to engage in terrorism by targeting civilians.
Our core argument is that the extent of leadership control over the rank and file
strongly influences whether militant groups will attack civilians. Leadership deficits
promote civilian targeting because the incentives of members to perpetrate indiscriminate violence are inversely related to their position within the organizational hierarchy.
Organizations with weak leadership control gravitate to terrorism because tactical decisions are delegated to lower-level members with stronger incentives to harm civilians.
To explain the targeting choices of militant groups, we therefore draw on a principalagent framework where leaders are understood as principals and foot soldiers as agents.
Recent scholarship has applied aspects of this framework to other important questions about militant groups.7 We demonstrate its relevance to whether they engage in
terrorism by targeting civilians. Potential parallels are found within national militaries, where progovernment militias are significantly more likely than elite units to
attack civilians.8 Ill-disciplined government forces from the police to the army are
also disposed to sexual violence and other atrocities against the population.9 More
broadly, wayward agents of the state are associated with violating the laws of war.10
Anecdotal evidence abounds of militant groups attacking civilians because of a loss
of principal control. Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar routinely reproached his foot soldiers for indiscriminately attacking the population. He commanded his fighters to strike high-value targets such as “foreign invaders, their advisors,
their contractors and members of all associated military, intelligence and auxiliary departments,” but to “protect the lives and wealth of ordinary people.”11 Doku Umarov,
leader of the al-Qaida-linked Caucasus Emirate, likewise cautioned the Mujahedeen
“to focus their efforts on attacking law enforcement agencies, the military, the security
services, state officials,” but “to protect the civilian population.”12 The leader of the
Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Murat Karayilan, also directed his forces to engage “military
4. Weinstein 2007, for example, maintains that the behavior of rebel groups toward the population is
basically constant because it depends on their initial endowments. Groups are liable to harm civilians when
economic resources are accessible from the outset because these attract opportunistic, predatory members.
5. See Pearlman 2009; and Chenoweth et al. 2009.
6. See Gill and Young 2011; and Shapiro and Siegel 2012.
7. See Azam and Delacroix 2006; Byman and Kreps 2010; and Salehyan 2010.
8. See Felter 2008; Kalyvas 2006; Mitchell, Carey, and Butler 2012; and Thomson 1994.
9. See Butler, Gluch, and Mitchell 2007; and Wood 2006.
10. Morrow 2007.
11. Quoted in Bill Roggio, “Taliban Announce Start of Al Farooq Spring Offensive,” Long War Journal
(Internet ed.), 2 May 2012.
12. Quoted in Dzutsev 2012.
Explaining Terrorism: Leadership Deficits and Militant Group Tactics
targets” and “not harm civilians.”13 Similarly, the leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hafiz
Muhammad Saeed, blamed the 2008 Mumbai attacks and other instances of violence
against the population on uncontrolled “rogue elements within the group.”14 Even ostensible exceptions may prove the rule. Osama Bin Laden, the founder of modern-day
al-Qaida, was notorious for orchestrating the deadliest terrorist incident in history. Less
well known, however, is that he and his lieutenants subsequently admonished lowerlevel members for slaughtering civilians in Iraq, Yemen, and other Muslim-majority
countries as the strategic costs became apparent.15 The implication is that a particular
class of militant groups may be more likely to target civilians—those lacking strong
leadership control. All else equal, militant group violence should become less discriminate as members with stronger incentives to attack civilians gain tactical autonomy.
Beginning with the most general of tests, we find in a sample of militant groups operating in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) that those lacking centralized leaderships are more than twice as likely to target civilians. MENA groups are also more
likely to engage in civilian targeting when the leaders are hindered from communicating
tactical instructions to the rank and file. We then examine the impact of the unmanned
aerial vehicle (UAV) campaign on the targeting choices of militant groups operating in
the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. When their leaderships are degraded through decapitation strikes, militant groups become significantly less discriminate in their targeting
choices. Finally, the mechanism behind these findings is scrutinized with a detailed
case study of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a Palestinian group that adopted terrorism
when its leadership was decimated during the Second Intifada (2000–2005) and
ceded tactical decision making to the rank and file. Our multipronged research strategy
balances competing concerns over generalizability and causal identification. The most
general tests are weakest on identification (the cross-sectional MENA analyses),
whereas the strongest on identification is least generalizable (the al-Aqsa Martyrs
Brigade case study). Together, however, the evidence consistently indicates that militant
groups are inclined toward civilian targeting when principals lose organizational control
and their agents are thus granted additional tactical autonomy.
Why Do Groups Resort to Terrorism?
The definition of terrorism remains contested, but it generally denotes nonstate
attacks against civilian targets for political ends.16 Upon reflection, however, this
combination of target selection and objective appears in tension. Across a wide
13. Quoted in Ertugrul Mavioglu, “Civilians in Turkey Off Target List, PKK Boss Says,” Hürriyet Daily
News (Internet ed.), 28 October 2010.
14. Quoted in Subrahmanian et al. 2013, 34.
15. Firouz Sedarat, “Bin Laden Against Attacks on Civilians, Deputy Says,” Reuters (Internet ed.), 24
February 2011. See also al-Zawahiri 2005.
16. See Cronin 2003; Ganor 2002; Hoffman 2006; Richardson 2006; Sambanis 2008; Schmid and
Jongman 2005; and Walzer 2002.
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variety of methodologies and disciplines, a growing body of empirical research finds
that attacking civilians is ineffective, even counterproductive for groups to achieve
their strategic demands. Terrorism may aid organizations in redressing their grievances under very specific conditions,17 but targeting civilians generally carries substantial downside political risks. Why then do so many militant groups employ this tactic
given the potential costs?
For decades, specialists have noted that terrorism rarely results in political success.
In the 1970s, Laqueur published “The Futility of Terrorism” in which he claimed that
practitioners seldom achieve their strategic demands.18 In the 1980s, Cordes,
Hoffman, and Jenkins observed that “terrorists have been unable to translate the consequences of terrorism into concrete political gains … In that sense terrorism has
failed. It is a fundamental failure.”19 Crenshaw also pointed out how “few [terrorist]
organizations actually attain the long-term ideological objectives they claim to seek,
and therefore one must conclude that terrorism is objectively a failure.”20 Schelling
proclaimed in the 1990s, “Terrorism almost never appears to accomplish anything
politically significant.”21 More recently, empirical studies confirmed that only a
handful of terrorist groups in modern history have managed to accomplish their
political platforms.22
Theoretical explanations may help to account for the low political success rate, but the
tactic does not appear to be epiphenomenal to government intransigence or the result of
selection bias.23 On the contrary, the latest wave of scholarship finds that escalating
violence against civilians actually hinders nonstate challengers from attaining their
demands. To evaluate the political efficacy of terrorism, Abrahms exploits variation
in the target selection of 125 violent nonstate campaigns.24 Groups are significantly
more likely to coerce government compliance when their violence is directed against
military targets instead of civilian ones even after controlling for the capability of the perpetrators, the nature of their demands, and other tactical confounds. After factoring out
the relative capabilities of rebel groups, Fortna finds that in civil war they too lower the
odds of bargaining success by attacking the population with terrorism.25 Getmansky and
Sinmazdemir find that the Israeli government in particular is significantly less likely to
cede land to the Palestinians when they have perpetrated terrorism.26 To mitigate selection bias, they exploit variation in the operational outcome of terrorist attacks; evidently,
17. Discrepant empirical studies are surprisingly few. Even those that report some strategic utility in terrorism tend to conclude that it backfires politically beyond a certain threshold of lethality. See Gould and
Klor 2010; and Wood and Kathman 2014.
18. Laqueur 1976.
19. Cordes et al. 1984, 49.
20. Crenshaw 1987, 15.
21. Schelling 1991, 20.
22. See Abrahms 2006; Cronin 2009; and Jones and Libicki 2008.
23. See DeNardo 1985; and Lake 2002.
24. Abrahms 2012.
25. Fortna 2012.
26. Getmansky and Sinmazdemir 2012.
Explaining Terrorism: Leadership Deficits and Militant Group Tactics
only those that physically harm civilians inhibit Israeli concessions. In hostage settings,
Abrahms and Gottfried find that killing civilians lowers the chances of militant groups
attaining government concessions.27 Relatedly, Chenoweth and Stephan find that
protest groups suffer at the bargaining table when they engage in violence against the
Terrorism rarely frightens citizens of target countries into supporting more dovish
politicians. Studies on public opinion find that the attacks on civilians tend to raise
popular support for right-wing leaders opposed to appeasement. Berrebi and Klor,
for example, show that Palestinian terrorism boosts Israeli support for the Likud and
other right-bloc parties.29 Gould and Klor reveal that the most lethal Palestinian terrorist
attacks are the most likely to induce this rightward electoral shift.30 These trends appear
to be the international norm. Chowanietz analyzes variation in public opinion within
France, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States from 1990 to
2006.31 In each target country, terrorist attacks have shifted the electorate to the political right in proportion to their lethality. Related observations have been registered after
al-Qaida and its affiliates killed civilians in Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, the Philippines,
Russia, Turkey, and the United States.32 Controlled experiments reach similar results,
further ruling out the possibility of a selection effect.33 RAND observes in a précis of
the literature: “Terrorist fatalities, with few exceptions, increase support for the bloc of
parties associated with a more intransigent position. Scholars may interpret this as
further evidence that terrorist attacks against civilians do not help terrorist organizations
achieve their stated goals.”34 By bolstering hardliners, terrorist attacks are also among
the most common ways for militant groups to end.35
Terrorism as a Principal-Agent Problem
Why, then, do groups indiscriminately attack civilians? More specifically, how do we
account for the tactical variation both within and across militant groups over time?
The answer may reside in the fact that militant groups exhibit substantial heterogeneity in terms of membership incentives and clout within the organization.
We maintain that the position of members within the organizational hierarchy
shapes their incentive structure over targeting civilians.36 Members’ incentives to
27. Abrahms and Gottfried 2014.
28. Chenoweth and Stephan 2011.
29. Berrebi and Klor 2006 and 2008.
30. Gould and Klor 2010.
31. Chowanietz 2011.
32. See Mueller 2006, 184, 587; Shapiro 2012, 5; and Wilkinson 1986, 52.
33. See Abrahms 2013.
34. Berrebi 2009, 189.
35. Cronin 2009.
36. A related argument comes from Cunningham, Bakke, and Seymour 2012, who make the case that
factionalization partly explains the resort to civilian targeting in self-determination movements.
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attack civilians are inversely related to their station within the group. By definition,
senior leaders carry more sway within militant groups than their foot soldiers,
whereas in between these stylized categories are midlevel leaders. The target selection of militant groups consequently depends on leadership control, particularly
from the top. Leadership deficits in militant groups foster indiscriminate attacks by
ceding tactical decisions to lower-level members with weaker incentives against
harming civilians. Militant groups gravitate to terrorism not when low-level
members completely take over, but when empowered to pursue their divergent
For numerous reasons, the position of members within the organizational hierarchy
is inversely related to their incentives for attacking civilians. First, senior leaders are
generally the oldest members of the group and have spent the longest time working in
it. In fact, the top leaders of militant groups are often their founders.38 Foot soldiers
and other low-level operatives, by contrast, are typically the newest recruits or volunteers with the least experience at any level of combat.39 Based on their relative exposure to conflict, senior leaders are thus the most likely to have personally observed the
strategic fallout of indiscriminate bloodshed and to consequently oppose such counterproductive targeting practices. Second, the lowest members of militant groups
have the fewest resources at their disposal, incentivizing them to attack softer
targets.40 Because more senior members are in a superior position within the organizational hierarchy, they have greater discretion in marshaling resources for
comparatively sophisticated attacks against hardened targets. Third, the lowestlevel members stand to gain the most from civilian targeting. Their dearth of organizational resources incentivizes predation of civilian assets, which can be furthered
through the intimidation that inevitably accompanies indiscriminate violence.
Attacks on civilians also help lower-level members to ascend within the group by
“outbidding” rival members, whereas the senior leadership is already at the organizational apex.41 Further, foot soldiers are the most likely to have lost close friends
on the front line, creating even stronger incentives to perpetrate attacks on civilians
to avenge such personal losses.42 Finally, the senior leadership presumably has
longer time horizons than lower-level members for achieving the organization’s political cause. Not only have leaders spent the most time operating within the
37. Decentralized leaderships abound for a variety of reasons. Leaders of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades,
for example, were captured and killed during the Second Intifada, creating a temporary leadership deficit.
The persistent targeting of al-Qaida’s leaders after the US invasion of Afghanistan drove them underground, impairing operational control. And, because of historical legacy, some organizations such as anarchist groups may never develop strong leaders in the first place.
38. See Cronin 2006.
39. See Sageman 2004 and 2008, on the age and experience of militant leaders relative to lower-level
40. See Shapiro and Siegel 2007.
41. See Bloom 2004, though her claim focuses on competition between organizations rather than within
42. See Moghadam 2006.
Explaining Terrorism: Leadership Deficits and Militant Group Tactics
organization, but they are more constrained from leaving it. Whereas lower-level
members may have the option of fading back into the population, leaders are more
likely to be organizational lifers because they are easier for authorities to identify.
Because lower-level members have shorter time horizons, they are more likely to prioritize short-term gains from civilian targeting over longer-term strategy. The result is
an essential difference in commitment. Hinting at both this problem and the principalagent problems and tradeoffs that it in engenders, Shapiro and Siegel note, “terrorist
groups repeatedly include operatives of varying commitment and often rely on a
common set of security-reducing bureaucratic tools to manage these individuals.”43
In sum, the differences in targeting preferences hail less from any inherent cognitive
qualities among members than from their relative stations within the organization,
which shape incentives for or against civilian targeting.44
This organizational explanation for terrorism has a strong theoretical basis.
Principal-agent theory emphasizes a disconnect between the preferences of leaders
and the actual behavior of subordinates, which often runs counter to the formal
mission of the organization.45 As previous research details, agency problems arise
because prospective members have an incentive to manipulate private information
by overstating their qualifications (that is, adverse selection) and to then pursue
private agendas upon joining (that is, agency slack or moral hazard).46 Agency problems are inherent in all organizations, but leadership deficits understandably exacerbate them because principals must delegate authority to less reliable agents.47
It is impossible to test directly whether agency problems are responsible for suboptimal organizational behavior.48 But a basic premise of organizational theory is
that group structure affects the locus of decision making. As such, group structure
is a standard proxy for leadership control in numerous organizational contexts,49 including militant groups.50 The more centralized an organization, the less autonomy is
delegated to subordinates.51 Few studies on terrorism consider the potential downside
of decentralization from the perspective of the challenger.52 Decentralization is characteristically described as an unconditional best practice against the defender. As with
other organizations, decentralization is thought to unleash the human potential of
43. Shapiro and Siegel 2012, 41. See also Shapiro 2013 for a longer treatment of terrorist groups’ structures and management techniques.
44. The implication is that these incentives will change as members rise or fall within the organization.
Weinstein 2007 also proposes an organizational explanation for civilian targeting, but it is an unintended
organizational by-product rather than the consequence of any rational pursuit of objectives. On this point,
see Kalyvas 2007.
45. See Kiewiet and McCubbins 1991.
46. See Hawkins et al. 2006; and Milner 2006.
47. See Alter 2006; Cortell and Peterson 2006; Gould 2006; Hawkins et al. 2006; Hawkins and Jacoby
2006 and 2008; Lake 2007; and Pollack 1997.
48. Pollack 2002.
49. See Ferrell and Skinner 1988; and Krahmann 2003.
50. See Arquilla and Karasik 1999; and Stepanova 2008.
51. See Galbraith 2007; Mulder 1960; Pugh 1973; and Zey-Ferrell 1979.
52. Eilstrup-Sangiovanni and Jones 2008.
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militant groups by making them more adaptive, flexible, inclusive, innovative, resilient, and specialized. More concretely, decentralization is said to confer a bounty of
strategic advantages by rendering organizations harder to anticipate, detect, infiltrate,
isolate, prosecute, and ultimately defeat.53
Despite such advantages of decentralization, the application of principal-agent
theory predicts inherent tradeoffs to delegation.54 Empowering foot soldiers with
greater tactical autonomy is not cost-free precisely because it means ceding control
to members with incentive structures that coincide imperfectly with leadership imperatives. The nature of organizational violence may therefore hinge on the structure of
militant groups, leading to our first hypothesis:
H1: Organizations with decentralized leadership are more likely to target civilians
than are organizations with centralized leadership.
To gain insight into whether civilian targeting springs from a loss of principal control,
it is essential to incorporate whether leaders approve of their members engaging in
terrorism. Based on our organizational explanation, groups should be less likely to
attack civilians when leaders publicly oppose this practice, though the ability to
impose this preference should be conditional on their strength. Specifically, militant
organizations should be least likely to target civilians when their leaders are strong
and oppose civilian targeting because they are best equipped to tamp down these displays of radicalism to serve their strategic ends. Conversely, militant group violence
should be least restrained when leaders are weak and advocate civilian targeting. As
their position strengthens within the organization, its violence should become more
selective because even leaders who initially advocate civilian targeting may realize
that indiscriminate violence is ultimately counterproductive. Further, militant
leaders sometimes issue threats without actually directing their members to carry
them out.55 Together, these expectations yield the following conditional hypotheses:
H2A: Organizations are least likely to target civilians when leaders are strong and
do not publicly authorize civilian targeting.
H2B: Organizations are most likely to target civilians when leaders are weak and
publicly authorize civilian targeting.
Beyond their organizational structure, other aspects of militant groups also affect
leadership control. Communications are essential in all organizations for members
at the top to convey information to those at the bottom. When such communications
are impeded, agency loss is inevitable as lower-level members are compelled to act
53. See Arquilla and Ronfeldt 1999; Gunaranta 2002; Hoffman 2003; Joosse 2007; Greenberg,
Wechsler, and Wolosky 2002; and Kaplan 1997.
54. See Lake and McCubbins 2006; and Gould 2003.
55. See al-Zawahiri 2005.
Explaining Terrorism: Leadership Deficits and Militant Group Tactics
more independently.56 The ability of militant leaders to communicate with subordinates may vary for a number of reasons. The leadership often prioritizes security
over communications by encouraging the organization to operate in more secretive
ways.57 Communications are also hampered when operatives expand their theater
of operations, particularly abroad. This logic generates the following additional
H3: Clandestine organizations are more likely than open organizations to target
H4: International organizations are more likely than domestic organizations to
target civilians.
H5: Organizations that frequently conduct cross-border attacks are more likely to
target civilians.
Admittedly, these predicted empirical relationships may arise from reverse causation.
Skeptics may wonder, for example, whether leaders structure the organization based
on their targeting preferences, whether organizations are clandestine to minimize
audience costs from targeting civilians, and whether foot soldiers expand their
theater of operations to punish foreign populations.58
To address these concerns, we turn to another empirical strategy. Decapitation
campaigns are exogenous to the preferences of militant group members but deeply
affect organizational structure, communications, and thus leadership control. The explicit goal of the ongoing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) campaigns against alQaida, the Taliban, and affiliates is to degrade their leaderships.59 Our organizational
theory therefore predicts specific changes in the targeting practices of these groups in
response to the UAV campaign. Operationally successful decapitation strikes obviously weaken the leadership, endowing lower-level members with additional tactical
autonomy. Regardless of whether the strike actually connects with the target, though,
the attempt itself may degrade command by forcing leaders to curtail communication,
question the loyalty of subordinates, go into hiding, and thereby lower their profile
within the organization. These insights inform two other hypotheses.
56. See Hawkins et al. 2006; Hawkins and Jacoby 2006 and 2008; and Pollack 1997.
57. On the tradeoff between security and communication, see Arquilla and Ronfeldt 2001.
58. In fact, existing research suggests that weak leaderships tend to arise from external pressures on organizations to prioritize robustness over operational control. On this tradeoff, see Arquilla and Ronfeldt
2001. Leaders normally wish to exert maximum influence, but are sometimes constrained in the face of
government repression. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, “All About the Benjamins: Why
Bashar al-Assad Won’t Go,” Foreign Policy (Internet ed.), 12 December 2012.
59. Brennan 2012. For a small sample of the growing literature on decapitation strikes, see Johnston
2012; Jordan 2009; and Price 2012.
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H6: Operationally successful UAV strikes are positively associated with attacks on
H7: UAV strike density is positively associated with attacks on civilians.
Research Design and Findings
To test our initial proposition that decentralized organizations are more likely to perpetrate terrorism, we investigate the determinants of civilian targeting among the
militant groups in the Minorities at Risk Organizational Behavior (MAROB) data
set.60 MAROB has several advantages over comparable data sets for our research purposes.61 First, MAROB codes for group structure, which facilitates assessment of
whether militant organizations are disproportionately inclined to civilian targeting
when their decision making is diffuse. Second, MAROB furnishes data on whether
the groups attacked civilian targets, military ones, or none at all, capturing such tactical variation from 1980 to 2004.62 Third, all of the groups in the sample are nonstate
actors that express political aims. Fourth, the sample focuses on groups operating in
Middle Eastern and North African countries, intrinsically important regions for the
study of conflict in general and civilian targeting in particular. Fifth, the sample includes scores of organizations that are sometimes described as terrorist groups, but
which are often omitted from civil war data sets for operating outside this particular
The dependent variable is a dichotomous measure of whether the organizations
target civilians (1) or not (0) in a given year.64 Civilian targets include any nonsecurity state personnel, thereby excluding military or police forces.65 To assess H1, we
rely on a binary measure of whether the group is centralized (1) or not (0). We collapse the MAROB variable LEAD such that groups with either factionalized or weak
leaderships are characterized as decentralized, whereas those with a strong ruling
council or strong single leader are treated as centralized. Thus, the MAROB data
60. Asal, Pate, and Wilkenfeld 2008. The unit of analysis is the organization year. We limit the models to
militant organizations, but the findings extend even when nonviolent organizations are included in the
61. We believe the advantages of MAROB outweigh its disadvantages, but these are also addressed later.
62. Where possible, we have confirmed this information with the incident data found in the Global
Terrorism Database, available at . See National Consortium for the
Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) 2012.
63. Our results are not driven by militant organizations engaged in full-scale civil wars. There are only
five cases in the data and the findings hold when these observations are omitted. Some previous research
focuses exclusively on indiscriminate violence within civil wars. See, for example, Humphreys and
Weinstein 2006; and Weinstein 2007.
64. We also assess ordered models that disaggregate levels of attacks on civilians and reach similar conclusions. We do not treat these as the primary models because of concerns over data reliability and because
our primary theoretical interest is in the targeting of civilians in an absolute sense. The breach of the threshold into civilian targeting and the level of carnage once breached may be driven by somewhat different
65. We derive this indicator from the MAROB ORGST7 variable.
Explaining Terrorism: Leadership Deficits and Militant Group Tactics
codes the extent to which the leadership exerts unified command over lower-level
We also include a variety of control variables to account for potential confounds
with our key independent variable of organizational structure and the dependent
measure of civilian targeting. These controls hold constant relevant organizationand country-level attributes based on the broader conflict literature.
Capability is arguably relevant to militant group target selection. At least two studies
have found that state challengers are disposed to civilian victimization when weak (or
“desperate”).66 More commonly, scholars assert that terrorism is a “weapon of the
weak” though this adage is empirically contested.67 We employ several proxies for organizational capability to help disentangle this potential influence on target selection. In
line with a RAND study, we control for the age of groups with a count variable based
on the number of years since their founding.68 The relationship between organizational
age and capability is not straightforward. Horowitz finds an inverse relationship
between the lifespan of terrorist groups and their innovative capacity, whereas
Kalleberg, Knoke, and Marsden observe that organizations procure resources over
time with weaker organizations selected out of the population.69 Miller and Scott
believe age promotes effectiveness because older organizations are liable to be standardized and routinized, making their performance less unstable and susceptible to a
liability of newness.70 We also account for organizational membership size because
nonstate challengers gain power in numbers,71 as well as for whether the organization
holds territory, which helps to secure resources from the local population.72 At the domestic level, we address the extent of both popular support for the organization and its
outreach efforts by controlling for propaganda and educational output.73
The ideology of militant groups is another potential confound. Juergensmeyer and
Hoffman believe that the universalist nature of religious motivations promotes larger
attacks by enabling adherents to discount the negative consequences of mass casualties.74 The “cosmic wars” perceived by religiously motivated groups might dispose
them toward deadlier indiscriminate attacks. Even Pape, who maintains that occupation is the “taproot” of suicide terrorism, identifies religious differences as an
66. See Downes 2006; and Valentino, Huth, and Balch-Lindsay 2004.
67. Crozier 1960 coined the adage and many other researchers have since repeated it as fact despite discrepant empirical findings (for example, Asal and Rethemeyer 2008; Fortna 2012; Goodwin 2006; and
Laqueur 1977).
68. Jones and Libicki 2008.
69. See Horowitz 2010; and Kalleberg, Knoke, and Marsden 1996.
70. See Miller 2008; and Scott 1987.
71. DeNardo 1985. We employ Asal and Rethemeyer 2008 data on organizational size for the minority
of cases that appear in both data sets. Our research assistants coded the remaining cases according to the
same criteria.
72. Lilja 2009. We rely on the MAROB ORGST9 variable to code whether the organization occupies or
administers territory. Controlling for this variable helps to account for Weinstein’s hypothesis that predatory groups prey on the population for short-term payoffs. Weinstein 2007.
73. Smith and Walsh 2013.
74. See Juergensmeyer 2000; and Hoffman 1998.
International Organization
important predictor.75 We control for religiously and ethnically motivated groups
because these characteristics promote sectarian violence and are a common precondition for civil strife generally.76 Both ideologies may also be confounded with leadership structure because of altered incentives and relationships with religious- or kinbased hierarchies.
At the state level, we are mainly interested in accounting for factors that may insulate targets from terrorism and covary with organizational structure. Population
density is relevant, for example, because higher values increase potential targets.
Following Walsh and Piazza, we also account for educational attainment and gross
domestic product (GDP) per capita even though opinion remains divided over
whether these characteristics provoke terrorism.77 Regime type is also addressed;
democracies reportedly attract terrorism because their commitment to civil liberties
impedes them from adopting harsh countermeasures and their low civilian cost
tolerance invites political blackmail.78 Because counterterrorism responses frequently
encounter collective action problems, we control for levels of executive authority affecting the capacity to act independently on behalf of citizens.79 With Banks’s data,
we control for the extent of ongoing conflict within the country, which may reflect
unobservable conditions ripe for terrorism or even perpetuate it.80
To establish whether civilian targeting arises from a loss of principal control, we
also explore the extent to which leaders approve of their members engaging in terrorism. Conveniently, MAROB supplies data on whether the leaders publicly authorize
civilian targeting. This information is invaluable for determining whether weak
leaders are associated with terrorism due to their tactical preferences, indifference,
or lack of agency control.
Table 1 presents the results of seven logistic regressions.81 Following Achen,
Model 1 is a bivariate test of the relationship between leadership strength and
target selection.82 This model also allows us to maintain the maximum available
data, while bolstering confidence that the observed effect of group structure is not
a function of bias generated by missing data in the covariates.83 Models 2 to 5 incorporate the dummy variable for whether the organization leader authorizes civilian
75. Pape 2005.
76. See Rabushka and Shepsle 1972; and Gurr 2000.
77. See Walsh and Piazza 2010; Li and Schaub 2004; and Abadie 2006.
78. See Eubank and Weinberg 1994; Li 2005; and Pape 2003. For an opposing view, see Abrahms 2007;
and Lyall 2010.
79. Sandler 2005.
80. Banks and Wilson 2013.
81. Logistic regression requires that both events and nonevents are independent. This assumption is
violated by civilian targeting if it elevates the risk of future terrorism, as has been suggested in the conflict
literature. See Collier and Hoeffler 2004. To sidestep this potential issue, we employ the corrections suggested by Carter and Signorino 2010.
82. Achen 2002 and 2005.
83. King et al. 2001. We also explored imputation as a solution to this problem and obtained substantially
identical results.
TABLE 1. Civilian targeting
Model 1 β/(SE)
Model 2 β/(SE)
Model 3 β/(SE)
Model 4 β/(SE)
Model 5 β/(SE)
Model 6 β/(SE)
Model 7 β/(SE)
Organizational covariates
State covariates
Notes: Estimates are maximum likelihood coefficients obtained from logit equations with the organization year as the unit of analysis. Robust standard errors are in parentheses. All models
include year fixed effects. +
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