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Researcher analyzes how community ties impact terrorist groups’ targeting of civilians

A new study by START researcher Risa Brooks finds terrorist groups that are embedded into the society around them may choose tactics that compromise the group’s strategic or ideological priorities in order to avoid alienating local communities.

Her findings are summarized in the START Research Brief, “How Community Ties Influence Terrorist Targeting of Civilians,” which highlights how community condemnation generates restraint in terrorists’ targeting of civilians, while endorsements may facilitate such attacks.

“A terrorist group’s choice whether and how to target civilians is not a purely strategic or ideological decision – it occurs within a social context,” Brooks said.

Among the insights gleaned from the study’s analysis: 

  • Groups without social footing are unlikely to be constrained by community reactions in targeting decisions;
  • Targeting that is decisively sectarian in orientation—as distinguished from targeting that kills civilians across society indiscriminately—does not protect terrorist organizations from significant criticism from their respective constituencies; and,
  • Fear of retribution or counter-violence influences whether a community will support a terrorist group’s decision to target civilians.

“This suggests government messaging aimed at delegitimizing terrorist groups should emphasize how their attacks are responsible for bringing death and destruction to their own communities,” Brooks said.

Brooks analyzed significant episodes among the Provisional IRA (or PIRA) and the Palestinian Hamas – groups that retain strong social network ties with their local communities. Both groups were “constrained” in their targeting decisions by their communities, although increased support for armed attacks created a more permissive environment for carrying them out.

She also examined al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), a foreign-led organization that lacked enduring social ties in the communities from which it operated, thereby representing a contrast to the other socially embedded groups. The lack of strong community integration in the Sunni areas where AQI operated correlated with a lack of responsiveness to community pressures.

The Research Brief is part of a larger project, “Terrorist Behavior and Societal Tolerance for Violence,” supported by the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate’s Office of University Programs.

View the full report "How Community Ties Influence Terrorist Targeting of Civilians," by Brooks.