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Terrorism is not about terror (gwern.net)
70 points by kiba 1961 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 45 comments



Kill One, terrorize a thousand - Sun Tzu.

Wistful meanderings in to pop-sociology aside, terrorism is a component of general guerrilla warfare. Guerrilla warfare itself is a valid and often very successful strategy to winning a conflict where there are vast resource and power projection differences between combatants. Two episodes in US history are pretty accurate portrayals of this - the American Revolution and the Vietnam War.

Terrorism's number one use is still simply a tactic of a regional conflict where one side is employing guerrilla strategies, exactly inline with Sun Tzu's teachings.

The more modern "common" use of the word is simply an extension of the conflict to the global scale; Jihadists and others are involved in an epic guerrilla war against the entire planet - they are looking to remake the world in their vision. It's rather simple and straightforward to see where terrorism fits in this respect.

The article is academic to the point of meaninglessness.


> Two episodes in US history are pretty accurate portrayals of this - the American Revolution and the Vietnam War.

I couldn't have asked for a better example of selection bias. Do you have any idea how many revolts or revolutions the English empire had to deal with over the centuries? And you pick one and claim this vindicates the method? And as for Vietnam, the Vietcong were largely destroyed after the Tet offensive - it wasn't the Vietcong who conquered South Vietnam, it was the regular troops.


I picked those examples because I figured most people are familiar enough with them. I'm in no way asserting that guerrilla warfare is a perfect method of fighting or that it somehow guarentees success. At best it's 60/40.

That being said, I'm not quite sure what you are arguing. If you are suggesting that the US was victorious in Vietnam you're missing the point. Winning the battle but not the war, as it were.

If you think Vietnam is too unique, feel free to substitute the boer war, the war in Angola, the soviets vs. the afghans, etc etc etc. It's not like there are a lack of examples.


> I'm in no way asserting that guerrilla warfare is a perfect method of fighting or that it somehow guarentees success. At best it's 60/40.

And to reiterate my point about selection bias, I think you are wildly optimistic about its success and that a proper sample of hundreds of conflicts - include the less known ones - will show a lower success rate.

> It's not like there are a lack of examples.

You've named like, 10. That's better than most people could and I applaud it, but it's still nowhere near an answer.


Listen, if you want to force me to conduct an exhaustive review of every conflict in human history, you better at least provide something other than your opinion as a counterpoint.


Kill One, terrorize a thousand - Sun Tzu.

And the other side of the consequence: "Kill one, make the rest of his family your enemies"

Which effect will predominate is often not immediately clear.


One could analyze peaceful political movements based on their stated original goals, ignore all results that only partially meet those goals, and conclude that the vast majority are hardly more effective than terrorism.

Not to mention the fact that "terrorism" itself is a propaganda term. No organisation calls itself "terrorist", and it is used to label a broad range of tactics. There are plenty of terrorist organisations that have never killed anyone or never targeted innocent civilians.

This focuses completely on the most extreme forms of terrorism, the islamic extremists with their suicide attacks. A form of terrorism that has been quite rare in the West, despite all of the publicity. And one could argue that those have been quite successful so far: with only a few successful attempts, they've gotten our full, almost daily, attention for over a decade now.


> One could analyze peaceful political movements based on their stated original goals, ignore all results that only partially meet those goals, and conclude that the vast majority are hardly more effective than terrorism.

Could you point to where in the studies they ignore the results? Go ahead, I'll wait.

> There are plenty of terrorist organisations that have never killed anyone or never targeted innocent civilians.

Name three.

> This focuses completely on the most extreme forms of terrorism, the islamic extremists with their suicide attacks. A form of terrorism that has been quite rare in the West, despite all of the publicity.

If you look, you'll find plenty of non-suicide attacks; and the suicide attacks are not all Islamic - the Tamil Tigers (1979-2009) are an excellent example of terrorist failure.

> And one could argue that those have been quite successful so far: with only a few successful attempts, they've gotten our full, almost daily, attention for over a decade now.

Well, I'm glad their ambitions were just to beat Snooki in ratings - like Osama bin Laden before his late demise, they can take consolation in watching Fox News.


> Name Three

PETA, GreenPeace and IHH have all been called "terrorist".

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eco-terrorism#Groups_accused_of...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IHH_(Turkish_NGO)

Yeah, GreenPeace kill innocent civilians every day.</sarcasm>


I didn't say called terrorist, I said are terrorist; what laws apply to them? Are they on anyone's watch lists? Are they treated by anyone as terrorists? Greenpeace has disavowed its more violent early days; BTW, the citation in Wikipedia doesn't actually say what you think it says: http://web.archive.org/web/20080311231725/http://www.fbi.gov... C-f for 'Greenpeace':

> Since 1977, when disaffected members of the ecological preservation group Greenpeace formed the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and attacked commercial fishing operations by cutting drift nets, acts of "eco-terrorism" have occurred around the globe. The FBI defines eco-terrorism as the use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against innocent victims or property by an environmentally-oriented, subnational group for environmental-political reasons, or aimed at an audience beyond the target, often of a symbolic nature.

So it was 'disaffected members' 40 years ago and the acts themselves only are 'eco-terrorism'. This is not a ringing endorsement of your claim that Greenpeace has been called a terrorist organization.

There is no citation for PETA.

And people have died in their Greenpeace activities and IHH's activities have led to even more deaths, so if you want to be a stickler about innocent civilians...


I want to be a stickler about logic:

"Innocent civilian IHH members have been killed" != "IHH members have killed innocent civilians"

"Innocent civilian IHH members have been killed" != "IHH members are terrorists"

Stop being ridiculous.


The blog post starts from the premise that Max Abrahm's 2008 paper is correct. The paper states:

The strategic model—the dominant paradigm in terrorism studies—posits that terrorists are political utility maximizers. According to this view, individuals resort to terrorism when the expected political gains minus the expected costs outweigh the net expected benefits of alternative forms of protest.

So sure, terrorism is pretty ineffective you really believe that it's about affecting meaningful political reform. And, maybe he can find examples of that in the past. But that doesn't seem to jibe with today's reality vis a vis islamic jihadists. Does this kid really believe Al-queda is full of totally rational political activists, not just brainwashed losers who have an excuse to inflict pain on people?

Frankly, Alfred's quote from The Dark Knight is a much better theory of what motivates these guys than Abrahms' "rational political actor" theory.


> Does this kid really believe Al-queda is full of totally rational political activists, not just brainwashed losers who have an excuse to inflict pain on people?

I don't believe they are either. Terrorists are not all psychopaths or sadists; not even more than a few of them, no more than US soldiers shooting Japanese prisoners or prying gold teeth out of skulls were psychopaths or sadists.

Sorry, but life is not as simple as movie quotes might have you believe. They're stories, fiction, and people invoking them for real-world discussions when there is plenty of actual data to discuss is one of the most disturbing aspects of fiction for me. Some people seem to think they are real.


And you really believe that Al Qaeda are some sort of comic book savages?

Presumably if we were in the 1960s you'd have believed the same about the Viet Cong.

Here's a more credible opinion: http://zenhuber.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/preview-bin-laden-dea...


Without a discussion of the extensive use of false flag terrorism, I think it is best to say that this article is "facile".

E.g. Lavon Affair (Israeli attempts to plant bombs and blame them on Muslim Brotherhood), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_flag#As_pretexts_for_war and so forth.


Suppose false flag attacks represented as much as 20% of the scores of thousands of recorded attacks - even though prextexts for war like the Manchurian incident only require one or two attacks and not ongoing campaigns, for example.

What then? What of the other 80% in this hypothetical? Why are they still so incompetent?

If you want to seriously claim that the majority of all terrorist attacks are false flag operations, I don't give a skosh about what you consider 'facile'.


I suppose that statement is true iff you believe false flag terrorism is not uncommon.


Historically it seems reasonably common as it comes from a well used tactic during the days of privateers. It seems unlikely that the governments of the world would suddenly give up such an obviously useful tactic through some sort of singular moral awakening, yet still go wage war with ever increasing levels of mechanised death.


And yet the number of specific incidents for which we have evidence of a false-flag attack being carried out is relatively small.


Seems similar to the appeal of gangs: giving a sense of purpose, "family" ties, and the promise of action. Both gangs and terrorism organizations flourish in poor areas.


And yet the 9/11 attackers were not exactly poor.


The article stated that from unsuccessful suicide bombers, it appeared that they were within the norm with regard to income, education, social interaction, family structure, etc. What they found in their method was that inculcation and "brotherhood" comraderie was seen as a big motivator. That's to say that having a friend in the org made it 10x more likely that someone joined. In addition, it was the recruiters and their methodology which made people execute their design.

Basically, an organization which is good at doing what they do could make ordinary people do things which they normally would not think (have an aptitude for) of doing.


The funders of the 9/11 attacks were not poor. Don't lump the suicide volunteers in with the masterminds, whose victims they are as much as anyone.


No. The 9/11 hijackers were educated and not poor.


These groups already know that blood and guts terrorism is politically self-defeating. Well-funded material attacks are only made on valuable targets, like oil pipelines after you've stockpiled call options. Political objectives are pursued in other ways. Here's an article on Inspire magazine: http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2010/11...

It's funny that the author says they were inspired by Robin Hanson, because he certainly is one of the best examples for a kind of person who confuses their intelligence for a kind of universal expertise, one that requires no schooling, no study, no direct experience or theoretical grounding. "It's better to come to the field from the outside," they say, "so I can better disrupt it!"

The only thing that stops the post from being truly Hansonian is it stops short of openly arguing for solving the problem by "giving" women to dispossessed young men.


> The only thing that stops the post from being truly Hansonian is it stops short of openly arguing for solving the problem by "giving" women to dispossessed young men.

One of Hanson's flaws is ignoring any consideration of numbers or proportions; I like to think I'm better in that respect, and for those reasons I would not advocate it: the base rate for becoming a dispossessed young man becoming a terrorist is so low that it's not a good use of young women (not that Middle Eastern countries make good use of young women to begin with), while if you can target it to known terrorists, you'd be better off just imprisoning or executing them.

Black September is interesting for what the effect of marriage says about their motivations, not as a useful suppression strategy - most countries do not have the same relation to terrorist groups that Fatah had to Black September and do not need to peacefully civilianize them while looking like friends, as it were.


If you want to know how effective terrorism really is, just try to take a U.S. domestic flight to anywhere. Terrorism is so effective even law enforcement now call drug dealers "narco-terrorists" in an attempt to incense the people against them. Right, wrong, or indifferent, these are the facts. Since Sept. 11, the U.S. has changed dramatically willfully giving over basic rights in the name of security. And terrorism doesn't work?


Terrorism is about causing destruction against Goliaths of the world in order to increase recruiting and thus the power of the leaders of the terrorist movement.


“There is comparatively strong theoretical and empirical evidence that people become terrorists not to achieve their organization’s declare political agenda, but to develop strong affective ties with other terrorist members. In other words, the preponderance of evidence is that people participate in terrorist organizations for the social solidarity, not for their political return.”

Great, it's social networking with bombs instead of tweets.


A terrorist is a freedom fighter who isn't on your side.


I have to agree. Part of my family was exiled from Spain for being heavily involved in the ETA, the spanish consider us terrorists for blowing up cars and refusing to speak spanish. In Mexico another part of my family lost many, many young men during the Mexican Revolution. We still have pictures of ancestors standing side by side with Pancho Villa and call them heroes like the rest of the nation does.

The winners write the history books as they say.


You were not a terrorist because you did not participate in the terrorist activities, and refusing to speak Spanish is not a terrorist action (and should not be a criminal offense anyway, just complicates life). Exiling the whole family of a terrorist may be too harsh, depending on the circumstances. But the people who were blowing up civilian cars, buses and trains were terrorists, by the definition, whether you agree with their actions or not.


According to Wikipedia, there were civilians in those cars the ETA blew up.

So yes... the ETA is definitely a terrorist organization.


No, not really. This is a cheap excuse for not looking at the facts.


Hmmm... maybe more of an "opinion" fighter? I guess the terrorist him/her-self might consider themselves freedom fighters fighting for the freedom to do things their way but the other side obviously doesn't share their "opinion". Just my two cents.


I'm sorry, but a terrorist is just someone that the hegemony does not like or is using to scare you.

I am 100% serious. https://vimeo.com/13726978


You are 100% wrong. The term is often misused by people who wants to discredit their opponents, but it refers to people who use violence to discourage other people from exercising their lawful rights.


Did you watch the video?


If terrorism is unsuccessful explain Mao and Lenin. Does anyone seriously think that Trotsky followed Lenin because he just "wanted the chicks man" and didn't really want revolution?

Oh I see what the author's done, he's defined away the problem: the successful aren't terrorists, they're guerrillas.

So he's right by definition. Cheap trick, pathetic.


'Chicks' are one way to get meaning in one's life. Student radicals certainly seemed to get the 'chicks'.

As for defining away: I did no such thing. The data speaks for itself; guerillas use different tactics and strategies than terrorists, and that's why they are not conflated by most people.

Also, Mao and Lenin don't come up in the datasets as far as I know, and if they did - well, it's not hugely clear that guerillas are much more successful! There's a lot of luck in their careers. Lenin could have been shot like many others instead of exiled by the Czarists; Mao could have died at any point in the Long March like many others; etc.

(How strange that suggesting terrorists have motives other than terror and are not omnipotently effective brings people out of the woodwork - the false flag criticisms are the most obviously bizarre, but the guerrilla/terrorist definition isn't much better.)


What difference in tactics?

The Khomeinists used exactly the same tactics as the Bolsheviks did, right down to being organized as soviets or committees.

And Al Qaeda use exactly the same tactics as the CIA taught them, in fact they train using US Marines tactics manuals translated into arabic.

Maybe instead of shooting off ad hominems about "coming out of the woodwork" you might try actually knowing what you're talking about.

You can start with "Tactics of the Crescent Moon" and "Imperial Hubris" as references.


Why do you only mention Communists? Why not also probe into the motivations of Mussolini, Hitler, Quisling, Pinochet, Franco? That is assuming that you haven't defined away the problem: the right-wing aren't terrorists, they're freedom fighters.


But what about the Nicaraguan Contras, the Tibet Autonomous region, or the Chechnyan rebels. How could he have missed these?

ucee054 was making an example of how the argument of the original post is having substantial flaws. Not everything remotely related to politics is intended as some ideological political statement.


> But what about the Nicaraguan Contras, the Tibet Autonomous region, or the Chechnyan rebels. How could he have missed these?

What about them? Tibet is still ruled by China, and Chechnya is, last I checked, still ruled by Russia. The only of the three even remotely successful is the Contras, and the president elected after their dissolution doesn't seem to have owed much to them or do much that they would have wanted.


The reason for mentioning Russia and China is that they were the most spectacular successes that I could think of, gaining for Lenin and Mao control of huge, superpower territories. I don't believe Franco's success was anywhere near this scale.

The reason for not mentioning Hitler is that Nazi Germany ended as a smoking crater, one reason it wouldn't be as brain dead easy to argue for Hitler's "success".

I wish I could give right wing examples, care to help me out with some? Does George Washington count?




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