State Response and Terrorist Activity

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Project Details


This project, led by Clark McCauley, explores the extent to which terrorists recognize and employ the logic of jujitsu politics, i.e., using the enemy's greater strength against the enemy. State response, to the extent that it injures or outrages those less committed than the terrorists, does for the terrorists what they cannot do for themselves. Investigators examined histories, biographies and public statements of state leaders to show the extent to which state policy-makers recognize and try to counter this logic. Supplemental polling data show the impact of terrorist and state actions on the sympathies of state citizens, terrorist supporters, and bystander nations. Social science research, including especially social movement theory and group dynamics theory, provides insights into the dynamics of the competition between terrorists and the state, and this review leads to identification of new directions of research required to raise state success in this competition.

Primary Findings:

Key findings of this project include:

  1. Terrorism is violence for political effect; thus understood, non-state terrorism (hereafter simply terrorism) is a tiny fraction of state terrorism in the 20th century.
  2. The audience for terrorism includes terrorists' own supporters, sympathizers, and potential bystander sympathy groups. Terrorist goals are much broader than terrorizing or coercing the targets of violence.
  3. Terrorism cannot be understood by studying only terrorists: Why do only a tiny minority of non-state challengers to state authority turn to terrorism?\
  4. Social movement theory offers concepts useful in answering this question: grievance, frame, resource mobilization, political opportunity.
  5. A common and all-too-reliable terrorist strategy is "jujitsu politics": attacks calculated to elicit from state forces an over-reaction that will mobilize new sympathy and support for the terrorists. 9/11 was calculated to elicit a crusade that would mobilize jihad. This calculation failed initially in Afghanistan, but succeeded in Iraq.
  6. "War" and "justice" responses to terrorism are often contradictory. The criminal justice system has important advantages for response to a chronic threat, including lower cost, institutionalized values competition, and especially less collateral damage that plays into jujitsu politics.

To summarize, terrorism is politics by other means. Fighting terrorism effectively means effective politics: segmenting audiences, market-testing policies and communications for these audiences.


Analyses were conducted based upon data collected from surveys and polls, texts written by terrorists and terrorist theorists, newspapers, and journals and books on psychology, terrorism, and social movement theory.


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Selected Publications