Terrorist Behavior and Societal Tolerance of Violence


Project Details


Risa Brooks (Marquette University) explores how reactions from local communities about specific acts of violence may affect terrorist groups' targeting practices and specifically whether they aim attacks selectively, such as against soldiers or government authorities, or indiscriminately at civilians. The tactics of terrorist groups that are embedded in local communities are influenced by community reactions to the groups’ targeting of civilians. Assessing when socially embedded groups, such as the Provisional IRA (PIRA) and the Palestinian Hamas, are more and less likely to target civilians necessitates attention to the pattern of community condemnations and endorsements of their attacks. This project analyzed significant episodes among the PIRA and the Palestinian Hamas, as well as al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI).

Case studies of key episodes in the campaigns of the PIRA and Hamas demonstrate the effects of pressures from within the militant groups’ communities on their choice of tactics that target civilians. Both groups compromised strategic and ideological goals when faced with negative reactions to their tactics; only when the community was sufficiently radicalized to endorse attacks against civilians was a group free to pursue those tactics without fear of condemnation.

Analysis of AQI’s campaign shows how a lack of strong social footing in the Sunni areas in which the group operated correlated with a lack of responsiveness to community pressures. The group failed to modify its tactics targeting civilians in response to societal criticism about deaths of Muslims and the sectarian nature of its attacks. Strategic and ideological pressures prevailed and overrode societal reactions in dictating tactical choices and the targeting of civilians. 

Community pressures are anticipated to have two effects on terrorist groups’ targeting choices. First, a group’s targeting of civilians should reflect fluctuations in how communities react to a group’s attacks—with condemnations generating restraint and endorsements facilitating attacks that generate greater harm to civilians. Second, these social pressures should result in groups making tradeoffs in their strategic goals and ideological principles in order to adapt to community constraints. Decisions about who to target, and with what means, may be influenced by strategic incentives, calculations about relative capabilities, and ideological principles, but must also be reconciled with community tolerances.




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Selected Publications