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Terrorism is not about Terror (gwern.net)
52 points by gwern 1559 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 52 comments



Fascinating reference to the Black September dissolution (covered here: All You Need Is Love ):

" My host, who was one of Abu Iyad’s most trusted deputies, was charged with devising a solution. For months both men thought of various ways to solve the Black September problem, discussing and debating what they could possibly do, short of killing all these young men, to stop them from committing further acts of terror.

    Finally they hit upon an idea. Why not simply marry them off? In other words, why not find a way to give these men – the most dedicated, competent, and implacable fighters in the entire PLO - a reason to live rather than to die? Having failed to come up with any viable alternatives, the two men put their plan in motion.
"

This makes sense--when you have no family, no ties, no vested interested in the perpetuation of society, mad-dog terrorism doesn't seem unreasonable. It's easier to blow up a school, presumably, when you don't have kids in one yourself.

I think that improving economic conditions and availability of care to would be a major step in eliminating terrorism, as well as I imagine crime.

Conversely, current domestic policies in the US seem to be willfully ignorant of this fact.


I do agree with most of what is said there, but it misses out terror groups like the KKK, that WERE about terror, and achieved (successfully) their aims through terror. They aided and caused the oppression of black people by carrying out a number of lynchings which left the wider black (and whites who might aid the black cause) community afraid of breaking the status quo.

This was a special case as the terror group was widely in bed with local policing, but it's a point to consider when discussing terrorism of the the 19th, 20th and 21st century.


Political violence, especially political violence withe support or tolerance of the government works all the time. But that's very different from the sort of terrorism practiced by the organizations we'd normally call "terrorist", even if you could reasonably define terrorism to include the KKK.


> terror groups like the KKK, that WERE about terror

With all those silly titles, meetings, garments, and weird rituals that most often didn't involve black people... doesn't it sound like they were also about socializing?

They were a violent masonic lodge. Let's call ourself grand dragons, and burn a cross in the evening.


What nonsense. The KKK are directly linked to countless acts of physical intimidation, violence and murder perpetrated against the targets of their prejudice.

Military units socialize over dinner, doesn't make them less lethal. I'm sure Al Qaeda members break the bread together from time to time, doesn't stop them being terrorists.


> KKK are directly linked to countless acts of physical intimidation

Yes, so are other terrorists group. And politicians really do make policies but politics may not be about policy. Read up on the whole "X is not about Y" concept[1]. I found it quite enlightening.

[1] http://www.overcomingbias.com/2008/09/politics-isnt-a.html


al-Qaeda, Taliban, etc are comparably in bed with various regimes in the middle east.


True true, sorry was thinking manly about Western terrorism, but I totally agree.


I come to realise that modern Muslim terrorism is also a tool of discouraging force actions by other classes and layers of citizens.

What they implicitly say, "we are muslim fundamentalists, everybody despises us and think we are stupid and what we do is hurt people", which makes everybody else think "hurting any kind of people in any case is bad since it makes you look like a muslim fundamentalist, and nobody likes muslim fundamentalists".

I can see this working.


There's a significant amount of willful of political amnesia in those 7 puzzles.

When one considers that Al Queda cut it's teeth, learning the effectiveness of political violence, by participating in resistance to Russia's Afghan invasion of the 1980's (with the eager assistance of the CIA), the nonsense purported in those 7 puzzles goes right out the window.


Did you miss the part where he discusses guerrilla warfare and contrasts it with terrorism? And admits that it works sometimes, but not as often as you'd think?

EDIT: Spelling fix.


Given he's speaking in general terms about terrorist groups and not specifically Al Qaeda I dont think I see your point.

Al Qaeda's activities in Afgahanistan dont tell us a lot about the motivations of the various incarnations of the IRA, or ETA, or FARC, or the RAF, or November 17, or the Red Brigades, or the Tamil Tigers etc etc etc. Unless your suggesting that Al Qaeda s the only terrorist group ever, in which case your just wrong.

And even if we limit ourselves to talking about one terrorist group, Al Qaeda have not been successful in achieving their stated political goals beyond the Russian retreat from Afghanistan, so the 7 puzzles about why they actually bother are still legitimate questions.


First, let me point out that it is meaningless to offer a single counter-example as a response to a statistical generalization over thousands of terrorist incidents and hundreds of terrorist groups over the past century or so. You haven't even begun to argue on the same level. "Smoking is bad and cuts X years off life expectancy." "What willful amnesia! Don't you remember your uncle was a smoker and died at the ripe age of 85?"

Second, what the predecessors to AQ did in Afghanistan is irrelevant. They were fighting a conventional/guerrilla war against a government run by a foreign superpower, and were heavily funded by the rival foreign superpower and its regional nation-state allies like Saudi Arabia who viewed it as a matter of geopolitical survival w/r/t subversion to neighboring countries & global energy supplies. This looks nothing like their later terrorist campaigns and the lessons or success of one do not generalize to the global summaries of terrorist groups - not that you bothered to explain how the 7 puzzles 'go right out the window' in the first place.


I pretty much reject the entire premise of any sort of quantitative "statistical generalization", when it comes to "terror", because terror is an arbitrary qualitative generalization to begin with.

So, here comes this analysis that attempts to state facts as:

  1. Terrorists only target civilians

  2. Guerrillas only target uniforms holding weapons
...and never the twain shall meet!

These kinds of generalizations in social science are flawed from the outset, but now we try to plot the numbers anyway?

I don't buy into the idea that a heterogeneous mixture of non-state, civilian-killing groups can be boiled down to bald numbers. I think it's a mistake to even try.

I don't think targeting civilians is a rational goal, so how are you going to apply ratios to it?


> I pretty much reject the entire premise of any sort of quantitative "statistical generalization", when it comes to "terror", because terror is an arbitrary qualitative generalization to begin with.

I don't think it is. While there are differences about edge cases, you'll find an awful lot of agreement among people about 9/11 or a random suicide bomber blowing himself up in a cafe. Terrorism can be reasonably defined, classified, and statistically treated.

> I don't buy into the idea that a heterogeneous mixture of non-state, civilian-killing groups can be boiled down to bald numbers. I think it's a mistake to even try.

If they really are heterogenous then they can be analyzed in more meaningful subgroups!


TL;DR

Sorry but I could not get through this badly written incoherent article. This makes me question it's contents.

Or I am just dumb?


+1

There is a reason schools teach students to write using a specific template:

Thesis Argument Conclusion

This here is just a collection of random points. I imagine the author has a point he is looking to make but unless the article is edited it will elude most readers.


What is that reason, exactly? [1] It is easier to create a rubric for grading... It's not necessarily easier to understand what the author is saying or even as a better way of organizing and finding truth or arguments or data, or changing your mind halfway through, or any of the other things that happen in the process between when you decide to write about something outside of a classroom and when (and after nowadays) you fixate it somewhere to be read.

[1] PG argues it's because that structure mimics a courtroom argument, and such structure has no place in real essays, which are attempts rather than legal documents and need not always be "take a position, defend it" in content: http://www.paulgraham.com/essay.html

Edit: Also, the author does have a point. It's in the highlighted section at the very top -- typically called an abstract.


I understand his points. I am not sure why you guys are having difficult to understanding what he's saying?


Because he doesn't bother to make a coherent argument and I have plenty of better use of my time than try and parse what he is trying to say.

If you understand his argument - can you make an outline for us?


That terrorist groups are most about providing a sense of belonging for it's members than achieving political aims as evidenced by the fact that they routine achieve the former and almost never the latter.


Thank you - so that's his thesis. I guess it sounds a lot like gangs.


I value Gwern's style because it corresponds to the process of discovery.

I think his essays are a narrative of how he comes to his conclusion.

So the conclusion is less important than the journey


This stood out, "the preponderance of evidence is that people participate in terrorist organizations for the social solidarity, not for their political return."

There was a foreign policy brief which basically said "People want to feel like they can make a difference." The more involved people are with running their community, the less likely they are to be involved in terrorizing it.

I don't know if there a good way to test that correlation though.


They certainly doesn't care about 'winning'. It's a pure revengeful act. Vengeance only exist where law doesn't exist.


I would disagree. The conservative concept of justice practiced in much of the world (including in the US and in many Muslim gov'ts) is almost inseparable from vengeance.


How would you seek justice if your family is killed by an USA drone strike?


Is this rhetorical or are you begging for this question to be torn apart?


Its a valid question and Im curious how you would tear it apart.


Off topic, but gwern, I've noticed you've gone on a reposting binge of your old articles (14 in the last 3 weeks). Any reason in particular that you decided to do this? And isn't this kind of thing generally frowned upon (maybe not that's why I'm asking)? Not that I mind, by the way; they're really high quality articles.


He is doing an experiment where he regularly posts one of his good articles together with two foreign articles he liked.

See his submission history and comment here:

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6466422


> with two foreign articles he liked.

And if I may say so, I'm a little disappointed in the performance of those submission - I thought many of them were better than my own article, but I think maybe 2 or 3 at this point have reached the main page.


Yup, many were better. But the thing is that they are long and you are not the author. Your essays are long too but since you are authoring them, they become popular. I think many just upvote you without reading your whole article.


That would explain the patterns, yes. (I'm also annoyed at how HN keeps editing the submission titles. Seriously, who keeps wasting their time doing that?!)


They are not necessarily "old" articles. They are constantly updated essays. The article is last modified "05 Sep 2013".


Self-promotion is welcome here, and the anti-dupe filter is limited in time. AFAIK no harm done, regardless of the quality of the articles.

Reddit frowns upon systematic self-promotion, though.


Right. Perhaps I'm thinking of reddit. There, you're told more than 10% of your submissions being self promotion is considered spam.


Well, the US is pretty much in terror since 9/11


A useful side-effect for many parties, indeed, but one that was not intended by AQ, not one of its goals, did not achieve any of its goals, and has badly hampered it.


Terrorism is war. A very small group declares war on a very large group and uses weapons that reflect the disparity in means.


Terrorism can be thought of as a kind of voluntary sector war. I think in general people working in the voluntary sector do so because they get something out of it. Not necessarily anything sinister or material, but something of personal benefit.


So who started that war?


> terrorist organizations do not achieve their stated political goals by attacking civilians;

Most terrorist groups have the concept of "legitimate target". This includes the armed forces, the police forces, government officials, etc. For people like the Mardi Gras bomber it would be people working at banks. They tend not to target "civilians".

> terrorist organizations never use terrorism as a last resort and seldom seize opportunities to become productive nonviolent political parties;

> terrorist organizations reflexively reject compromise proposals offering significant policy concessions by the target government1;

This is just game theory. You have the game "Chicken" - two cars drive towards each other, the last to swerve away wins. Imagine two drivers walk arrive. One gets out of his car. He's alert, awake, aware, keen. Good odds, you think. The other driver falls out of his car. He's steaming drunk, with a bottle of bourbon in one hand and a crack pipe in the other. He takes his prescription glasses off, and stamps on them, and puts on some dirty cracked sunglasses. You realise that this guy is not going to swerve away, this guy is going to win "Chicken".

The government offers anything? You have the vocal terror group yelling "NO SURRENDER!!" while the political wing is secretly discussing how to accept the deal and what they need to do in return. This keeps the supporters supporting you in very polarised situations.

> terrorist organizations generally carry out anonymous attacks, precluding target countries from making policy concessions;

I'm not sure what this means. Some terrorist organisations have press offices and use code words to declare actions. Others are umbrella groups allowing anyone to claim an action under that main name.

> terrorist organizations with identical political platforms routinely attack each other more than their mutually professed enemy;

But the People's Front of Judea are the real splitters.

> terrorist organizations resist disbanding when they consistently fail to achieve their political platforms or when their stated political grievances have been resolved…

People use all sorts of things to define themselves. Some people define themselves as freedom fighter, and it's hard to re-define yourself when circumstances change. (You like Ruby now, but what about in 10 years?)

I guess it's interesting that terrorists fall into the same trap as most other people.

It's interesting to play games about "how many people could I kill if I had 5 people and $10,000" or "how much havoc can I cause with very little money", but that's not the point of terror. You only need to do a few things occasionally to have huge impact. Killing more people doesn't have particularly more impact, but does make people less sympathetic to your cause.

It was reasonably common to hear people say things like "I dislike the means they use, but the IRA have a reasonable cause" (although the much more common line was "terrorist scum") but killing more people would have stopped that pretty quickly.


> Most terrorist groups have the concept of "legitimate target". This includes the armed forces, the police forces, government officials, etc. For people like the Mardi Gras bomber it would be people working at banks. They tend not to target "civilians".

There's a definitional problem here. Typically, terrorism is defined as targeting civilians specifically. When your targets are institutional / military, it's called asymmetrical warfare.

The way you phrased it implies that there aren't many groups out there that target civilians, and that's emphatically not so. You have:

- Al Qaeda's general strategy of targeting "the West"

- The Boston Marathon bombers

- The 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack

- The Unabomber

- The 2008 Mumbai attacks

- The 2005 London subway bombings

- The 2007 London car bombs

- PLO and other Islamist groups indiscriminate rocket strikes on Isreali settlements

All of these groups and organizations specifically target civilians.


>- PLO and other Islamist groups indiscriminate rocket strikes on Isreali settlements

You're getting things mixed up a little bit here. PLO is not a terrorist organization nowadays, it has recognized the right of Israel to exist in peace 20 years ago and it has ceased violent activity in the seventies. It is considered Palestine's political representation at the UN.

Because of this even if it were bombing Israeli civilian houses this would be considered more of an act of war between states than terrorism. This is not to say that there are no terrorist organizations in Palestine, just that the PLO is not one of them.


The PLO is not a singular organization in the way we tend to think of organizations. They're more like a banner under which various groups place their actions. It has a leader, but he's more of a "first among equals" figurehead. He can make agreements, but his only way of executing them is to issue a decree and hope everyone complies.

This dynamic is one of the reasons why peace in that area has been very difficult to achieve. The other is that Israel consistently acts in a manner opposed to peace as it hinders their expansionist aims.

Palestine is being recognized as a state by both Israel and the UN, but that doesn't really make it a state the way we think of states. The institutions of governance simply aren't there. There's no way, for the PLO to, say, collect taxes legitimately. They are simply an organization looking to start up a state in Palestine, much like any revolutionary body. They don't have power, they aspire to it.

One can proclaim the PLO as a terrorist organization or not, that's none of my concern, but there's no question that they've engaged in terrorist attacks, and that's what I was referring to.


Well if one considers PLO more akin to a government, as the UN seems to do, then any act of violence they commit can't be considered terroristic, because of the monopoly of violence that nations hold. If you start counting that as terrorism so do Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden.

Again I'm not debating whether what the PLO does is right or wrong, I'm making a commentary on the free pass nations get when killing civilians.


I agree. I was wrong.


>> terrorist organizations reflexively reject compromise proposals offering significant policy concessions by the target government1;

> This is just game theory. You have the game "Chicken"

I think it's often more subtle then that, there seems to be a psychosis in small, radical, groups where people get more respect in the group by being (or at least sounding) more radical which then feeds back on itself until any hint of compromise becomes heresy and can literally get you killed.

I suspect the most politically successful terrorist groups are the ones where the leadership manage to break out of the cycle and compromise some demands to achieve the rest without their followers killing them.

But yeah, the People's Front of Judea are the real enemy. Splitters! :)


> They tend not to target "civilians".

What they think is irrelevant.

> The government offers anything? You have the vocal terror group yelling "NO SURRENDER!!" while the political wing is secretly discussing how to accept the deal and what they need to do in return. This keeps the supporters supporting you in very polarised situations.

For your game theory to remotely resemble the truth, you need to point to situations where the terrorist groups were able to extract concessions greater than offered; while I am merely saying that the terrorist groups extracted close to zero concessions. How is it game-theoretically optimal to always lose?

> I'm not sure what this means.

It means exactly what it means: a specific number of terrorist attacks come without attribution, even in situations like Iraq where there are scores of potential actors with contradictory goals, which makes extortion and extract concessions difficult to impossible.

> But the People's Front of Judea are the real splitters.

A joke is not an objection or contrary evidence.

> I guess it's interesting that terrorists fall into the same trap as most other people.

Exactly. That's the whole point - 'terrorism is not about terror'. Anymore than programming Lisp is purely about optimizing effort per lines of code or whatever, and no more than buying Apple is a coldblooded calculation of dollars vs time.

> Killing more people doesn't have particularly more impact, but does make people less sympathetic to your cause.

Which if true is itself a refutation of terrorism as a rational political strategy, and one I would agree with (see the material on the 'backfire effect').


> For your game theory to remotely resemble the truth, you need to point to situations where the terrorist groups were able to extract concessions greater than offered; while I am merely saying that the terrorist groups extracted close to zero concessions. How is it game-theoretically optimal to always lose?

But the people offering the concessions are politicians, and it's useful to them to say "We never negotiate with terrorists", even while they are negotiating with terrorists. All these deals are done in secret, and anyone who is party to the deal will apply severe spin to any announcement. Anyone not party to the deal but interested in the process will also apply severe spin to any analysis.

For an example of where terrorists may have got considerable concessions see Northern Ireland.


> All these deals are done in secret, and anyone who is party to the deal will apply severe spin to any announcement...For an example of where terrorists may have got considerable concessions see Northern Ireland.

So let me get this straight. You claim, that despite all the observable evidence, the proof of your game-theoretic claims - which postulates the rationality and basic utility maximizing behavior belied by all the other empirical results - your theoretical mechanisms really do happen, but you can't offer any evidence because all these deals are done in secret, and then you have the chutzpah to immediately claim Northern Ireland as an example?

I'd like respond to that, but you have made your claims unfalsifiable.




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