Chapter 11 Discussion Question Pointers

End of Chapter Question Pointers

Chapter 11 – Can Terrorism be Rational?

Max Abrahms

  1. What is the puzzle of terrorism?
  2. As this chapter discusses (pages 198-9), most scholars – in contrast, perhaps, to the general public – do not assume that most terrorists are simply irrational. Indeed, the whole assumption of Orthodox Terrorism Studies is that terrorism is human action that can be investigated: however repulsive its effects in practice. For more on this, see Chapter 9, that investigates ‘root causes’ approaches to explaining terrorism, and Chapter 19, that focuses on the effectiveness of terrorism.

    In approaching this question, you can also think about time-scales. Case Study 11.1 (page 199-202) zooms in on Al Qaeda and argues powerfully that terrorism has not delivered their agenda in the 20 years since 9/11. But what about the next 20 years? After all, Al Qaeda do not look like giving up any time soon.

    Finally, you can reflect about the fact that, broadly speaking, terrorism (however much we might argue over its meaning) is generally understood to be political action. And politics in general is often frustrating for committed (non-violent) activists. They believe in achieving a world very different from the present reality – and that is never going to be easy. Is the suggestion of ‘a puzzle of terrorism’ therefore overstated?

  3. How does terrorism pose a collective action problem?
  4. The term ‘collective action problem’ is used widely across the social sciences: particularly in fields such as Political Science and Rational Choice Theory (see pages 206-7 for a helpful explanation). It is a term that focuses on the uneven ‘division of labour’ within social movements: a few individuals work much harder than many others who might be expected to share the same goals: why?

    Many areas of activism are puzzling in this way. Action against climate change is a classic example – those who work hard for this risk seeing others benefit (even if they have done nothing to help). So it is worth asking – is terrorism just another ‘collective action problem’ or is it a particularly extreme example? After all, the costs of participating in terrorism are likely to be far higher than many other types of activism (in democracies, at least).

    In answering this question, also consider the notion of ‘free riders’ (page 206). It might be worth thinking of this concept when reading Chapter 18 on Social Media. Why do so many people flirt with extremism online but (mercifully) few actually go on to commit violence?

  5. What are three selective incentives from the chapter that may motivate terrorists?
  6. For this question, it is worth familiarizing yourself with the terminology if you are not familiar with Political Science language. ‘Selective Incentives’ (page 207) can be seen as – roughly – the opposite of the ‘Free Riding’ phenomenon. In other words, you’ve got to be actively involved here to benefit.

    You might also think about culture and the ways in which violence can be celebrated and glamourized – that can often translate into status and prestige. It is worth looking here at Case Study 18.1 that examines the Christchurch Terror attack of 2019 as a social media performance (pages 349-351).

    Similarly, you can reflect on the fact (page 210) that some terrorist campaigns may facilitate opportunities for personal satisfaction in very concrete ways – sexual opportunity, peer group status, money, and so on.

  7. How can terrorism be substantively irrational but procedurally rational?
  8. The obvious starting point here is the Key Concepts box on page 209 that makes a crucial analytical distinction between means and ends. To be meaningful, human action needs to be goal-oriented. But goals differ in their quality.

    A classic distinction was offered over a hundred years ago by the sociologist Max Weber. Weber argued that we should distinguish between actions that are ‘instrumentally rational’ (i.e. they make practical sense – like wearing gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints when handling a weapon) and those that are ‘value-rational’ (i.e. they are done because the actor believes they are the morally ‘right’ thing to do – like ISIS enforcing strict dress codes).

    Another way of thinking about this question is to think of different time horizons. Short-term priorities (making sure the group survives) may demand different actions to long-term priorities (building the ‘better’ society terrorists dream of).

  9. What are some counterterrorism implications of this chapter?
  10. At a very basic level, understanding what motivates terrorists is clearly vital for building any viable counter-terrorist strategy that has any reasonable chance of success: ‘Knowing the priorities of terrorists is essential to combating them’ (page 210). But this is only a first step. To go further, it is worth consulting Part 3 of this textbook on Countering Terrorism. If, for instance, revenge seems to be a major motivation for terrorist groups then it would be worth reading the arguments in Chapter 21 on non-violent responses to terrorism.

    In some ways, this chapter could be seen as offering both good and bad news (for counter-terrorist practitioners). On the positive side, most terrorist campaigns do not achieve their goals (see Chapter 19 on the effectiveness of terrorism). On the negative side, this lack of practical success may not deter terrorists. In summary: the ‘puzzle of terrorism’ does not necessarily offer too much comfort for counter-terrorists, especially if their goal is to end terrorism completely.

    Finally, it might be worth considering different scales of analysis. We might usefully make distinctions between groups and individuals, or devise messaging strategies that ‘peel away’ some terrorists – whether or not that succeeds in ending the whole campaign or not (see Chapter 29).

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