The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Interpreting Terrorists’ Strategies

July 29, 2009

I have mentioned the outstanding blog Cheap Talk several times in my Twitter feed, but have yet to promote it in a blog post. If you are not familiar with the blog, the authors present excellent daily commentary on current events from a formal and strategic perspective—I highly reccommend it.

Today, author Sandeep Baliga, Associate Professor of Managerial Economics at the Kellogg School of Management, offers examples of strategies to incite government repression from three terrorist organization: ETA (Spanish Basque separatist), ALN (leftist Brazilian rebels) and al-Qaeda. For example, here is Baliga’s entry for al-Qaeda:

Al Qaeda strategy:

Force America to abandon its war against Islam by proxy and force it to attack directly so that the noble ones among the masses….will see that their fear of deposing the regimes because America is their protector is misplaced and that when they depose the regimes, they are capable of opposing America if it interferes. Abu Bakr Naji, The Management of Savagery (p. 24)

There are two problems with presenting terrorist strategy in this way. First, in each of the three examples the stated strategy is an interpretation of the group’s strategy by a third party observer rather than a statement of purpose from the group itself. As such, these interpretation are prone to inherent the strategic assumption of that observer. In the case of al-Qaeda, their formation and strategic roots reach back to the jihad against the Soviet Union, while their focus on the U.S. did not start in earnest until the first Gulf War. The assertion that al-Qaeda’s strategy is to “Force America to abandon its war against Islam,” is clearly an interpretation of more recent signals from the group, and does account for the compounding of historic strategy into contemporary motives.

Next, grouping terrorist organizations like ETA and ALN with al-Qaeda is problematic given the formers’ micro-strategic focus and al-Qaeda’s macro-motives. Both ETA and ALN have local motives, and thus their tactics for political coercion reflect these goals. Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, is an amorphous international umbrella that acts more as an inspiration to local groups than as strategic hub. Recognizing the scope of a group’s area of interest and influence is a critical first step when attempting to examine a terrorist organization’s broader strategic focus.

The assumption that terrorists’ strategy is to incite government repression, however, is an interesting starting point for a model of coordination between a terrorist group selecting targets and government counter-terror efforts. Assume that the terrorists’ strategy is to successfully attack a target that will provide the maximum repressive response, while the state’s strategy is to minimize the number of civilian casualties. Given some matrix of targets and simultaneous allocation of resources, what are the equilibrium coordination strategies for each player?

Thinking abstractly, it seems that both players would allocate all, or most, of their resources to those targets likely to result in a mass causality event. The empirical evidence supports the framework given that mass causality events have prompted extreme restrictions on civil liberties all over the world. This, however, would result in an stalemate equilibrium, where no successful attacks take place because presumably terrorist targeting resources are met with equal counter-terrorism efforts. Could this be why we see so few successful terrorist attacks relative to failed ones? Would such a model show that that when attacks are successful it is because one side has obtained an informational advantage that causes the other to maintain an off-equilibrium allocation? I am interested in other’s thoughts on the value of such a model, and its potential consequences.

Photo: dailylife

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Drew Conway, CEO and founder of Alluvium, is a leading expert in the application of computational methods to social and behavioral problems at large-scale. Drew has been writing and speaking about the role of data — and the discipline of data science — in industry, government, and academia for several years.