What Makes a Terrorist?

This new book by Alan Krueger, full of first-rate empirical work, punctures many myths about terrorism.  For instance poverty does not breed terrorism, once you look at the data.  Here is the book’s home page.

My only complaint is that the book does not deliver on its title; it tells me what doesn’t make a terrorist, but I still don’t know what does make a terrorist.  (Don’t even mention Islam in the comments unless you have something new — and analytical — to say; citing the Koran on jihad isn’t going to solve the puzzle.)

My crude view sees terrorism as meshed with three factors:

1. The belief that it is justified to kill innocent people for sufficiently important political ends.  Of course people who support the fighting of WWII hold this view too.

2. False positive beliefs about how the world works.  Osama bin Laden probably doesn’t know the Alchian and Allen theorem, the make-work fallacy, the Heckscher-Ohlin results, nor does he realize that his Islamic Caliphate would not work very well.

3. Some third factor(s), rooted in human psychology.

Most non-terrorists have more of #1 and #2 than is good for the world.  And I expect that terrorists have a special excess of #1 and #2.  I nonetheless think that the third factor is the key to understanding "what makes a terrorist."  You could start your reading here, and here, good luck.  Is it "narcissistic rage"?  Authoritarian or submissive personality types?  Freudian mumbo-jumbo at work?

By the way, the difficulty of pinning down the third factor(s) has policy implications.  We should adopt policies which are robust toward not understanding the strategies or game-theoretic solution concepts of the terrorists.  Complicated signals are unlikely to communicate the appropriate information in practice.  However bad is our model of the terrorists, I suspect that their model of us is even worse.


Without reading the book...
Perhaps it's not so much that poverty causes terrorism, but overidentification with poverty. This is similar to saying when studying class, it is no longer important the actual income involved, but the cultural values that they adopt.
You could see terrorists as violent NGOs (after all, extremists and charities seem to share a hatred of free trade policies) campaigning on social issues in the worst possible way.

I don't know what makes a terrorist, but it seems to me there's quite a strong correlation between suicide bombing and the perception that one's country is being occupied by foreigners.

Under #2, there should probably be a note about outsized expectations. Terrorism is probably the least effective political weapon available but terrorists seem to believe, or at least delude themselves into believing, that it will get the results they are looking for.

The difference between the people who fought World War II and Osama bin Laden is that OBL has very little chance of success. He likely misperceives his chances and therefore his ability to contribute to his goal.

Partly it's the classic fallacy of "only we have courage and loyalty, our enemies are weak, lack martial virtue, and will surrender if we bloody them slightly". Think the Civil War south, Germany for 100+ years prior to the end of WWII, Sparta, El Cid (the only victorious example I can think of), and to some degree the US in Iraq (but mixed with "they are just like us" rhetoric). Japan in Pearl Harbor was the ultimate example of this (and note their escalation to suicide bombing as well as fondness for blatantly suicidal infantry tactics and last stands).

Partly it's a fundamentally zero sum world-view. We have much. It follows axiomatically that we have stolen it.
Related to this, partly what Howard Bloom calls "the Lucifer Principle". When a group's or an individual's status rises they see themselves as having gained at the expense of rival groups and are inclined to try to keep rising, press their advantage, and gain more. In game theoretical sim tournaments "pavlov", e.g. keep doing something if it worked last time, else switch, is often (depending on conditions) a powerful strategy for exploiting the overly meek while maintaining cooperation with itself and some other strategies. One way of understanding the conflicts from my first paragraph is as aggressive pavlovs initiating conflict with highly vindictive versions of Tit-for-Tat which call for multiple defections in retaliation for a single defection.

Finally, I think that what I call the "principle of sacrifice" is involved. We all know there ain't no such thing as a free lunch, and that people are prone to logical errors where they use the inverse instead of the contrapositive. If you take the inverse of TANSTAAFL you get "there ain't no such thing as paying for lunch and not getting it" or worse, "the way to get lunch is to make someone pay for it".

Slaughtering innocents in order to achieve political aims is not a 20th Century phenomena as Tyler implies in point #1.

Suicidal attacks are not a recent invention.

So the answer to 'What Makes A Terrorist' is not much different than what has motivated any soldier, guerrilla, or fanatical jihadist. As a man who served under my father once said before launching a flank attack on panzers in Belgium; "I don't mind dying, my kids will have a better life because of all this'.

Tyler: Your #1 might be modified to say that terrorists dehumanize "everyone else," and consider everyone else the enemy, giving themselves psychological license to kill them. They have a very murderous sense of "us versus them," or, "if you're not with us, you're against us." To them they're just killing the enemy. Palestinian terrorists excuse themselves by saying all Israelis serve in the army. Al Qaeda-ists excuse themselves by saying all Americans are evil devil-like capitalists.

Terrorism begins with a quest to acquire power, and progresses by dehumanization and a great sense of desperation. Observers see the power-hungry desperation of terrorists and associate it backward with the simply-hungry desperation of poverty. "Socrates is desperate, Socrates is poor, therefore all desperate people are poor."

Does anyone else just consider terrorism the last step on the "war is politics by another means" pathway? Terrorism isn't an ideology, it's a tactic employed by individuals who lack the means of conducting conventional warfare. And by "lack the means", I don't mean that they are poor, but that they are poor relative to those that typically conduct wars (i.e., nation states).

In that sense, we should expect individuals and groups of individuals to use terrorism if they have political grievances that would, under other circumstances, to lead to wars between nations. I would not expect the terrorist to have generalizable motives outside of that.

[Or, to simplify: I think I agree with Michael.]

Does poligamy have any effect?

The best argument I've heard about why people become *suicide* terrorists is Robert A. Pape, _Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism_: "to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland." Indeed, Osama bin Laden's original complaint was the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps Tyler can read the book and give his thoughts.

I suspect it's not entirely different from the motivation of playing on the local sports team. A break from drudgery, feeling part of a team and the chance to become a local hero.

A break from the drudgery of real life sounds like it might be very important. In the U.S., aren't school shooters typically sort of angsty melodramatic types? You know, the ones who like vampires. And in Rwanda, after the genocide, didn't many of the murderers confess that they did it partly because it was easier and more fun than farming? And similarly, when you get terrorist groups like the Bader-Meinhof Gang or the Weather Underground or whatever, isn't there a strong rejection of bourgeois norms of diligence and toil? Among the middle and upper-middle class terrorists of the Middle East, there may be something similar going on.

I guess there's different kinds of terrorists, though. There's those retarded Palestinian children persuaded to put on bomb belts and go kill Jews, and their reasons are probably very different from their Hamas handlers, whom I imagine as vastly more worldly and cynical. There are probably lots of operators in terrorist movements who treat the whole thing as a pragmatic enterprise -- raise the marginal costs of this or that activity by blowing things/people up now and again, and leverage enemy behaviour.

"The belief that it is justified to kill innocent people . . ."

The belief is often that they are not innocent. Terrorists have a theory that civilians are oppressing them. We may not agree with their theory or view it as a mere rationalization, but they don't necessarily view them as innocent. (The previous comment that they dehumanize people is a slightly different point, but I don't disagree with it.)

What makes a terrorist? Surely the most general factor is that those with a deeply felt cause believe that no less-ugly tactic will accomplish their ends. Minorities oppressed by their government may see attacking civilians as effective if those civilians can influence government policy. So terrorists have operated in Israel and other democracies, but largely not in China, Cuba, or the Soviet Union. If they do not have the resources to attack the military, they may view this attacking civilians as their only choice.

Poverty obviously is not a reason, but, as Krueger hypothesized in a WSJ article, lack of civil rights may be: "When nonviolent means of protest are curtailed, malcontents appear to be more likely to turn to terrorist tactics."


Suicide attacks are very effective, cruel, spreading fear, -terror- So when this is the ultimate weapon, like maybe nukes for Western countries, of course extremists consider this... By the way, Israel has a lot of experience before 9/11 happenend in the U.S. There is also something to learn from them, including interviews with detained terrorists. When you look at Islamic extremists you must also consider how many young Muslim men are brought up, in an autoritarian way, like the family father is the tyrant and women are inferior, have to obey - it's not in all families, but in many. The supression continues in society where at least political opposition, mostly any individuality can't be expressed in public, only private and opposition to the current government is only happening in mosques and other religious environments, because religion can't be forbidden. This climate is alltogether very anti-modern, anti-liberal, certainly starting to implant a view of the world into young people that can be abused and exaggerated by others later...

Good point about "When nonviolent means of protest are curtailed, malcontents appear to be more likely to turn to terrorist tactics."

I am reminded of a petulant child who throws a fit when a parent won't fulfill his desires. The child feels his desire is entirely reasonable. The child is unable to communicate this reasonable desire to his parent. The child is less prone to act out when the child perceives that the parent empathizes with the child's desire and is working on the side of the child, even if fulfillment of the desire is still denied.

A lot of people have limited opportunities and a lot of frustration. We represent a great focal point, which benefits all of the powerful figures in the society (because they would otherwise be targets of discontent).

The Old Regime in France denied all modes of expression of discontent besides the philosophers and intelligentsia, and that shaped how and where the discontent was expressed.

I would suggest that if we want to channel the expression of discontent to be less offensive, than we might want to proactively lend our ear to associations of the *SAME PEOPLE* within a civil arena. That means engaging all of our enemies or would-be enemies politically, engaging everyone with a grievance. Even if we cannot comply with their demands, we must listen, or rather, make them feel that we are listening, which will demand that we signal this empathy and interest in their well-being, the shape of which I am not certain.

Good flying spaghetti monster! A second thread on terrorism in as many days. Gaah! Back to school people - and back to evolutionary theory. Mankind evolved so that high-status males breed with lots of females, and low-status males didn't get to breed at all. Is everyone following? High-status males in modern, non-polygyny practicing societies either 1) have lots of affairs (Clinton and JFK) or serial marry. Low status males try to gain status by using violence (one of the few things young low-status males are good at) to become high-status males, and therefore ensure breeding opportunities. Every society that has a lot of young males goes off the rails - this has been shown by a professor at Bremen University. What the professor fails to note in his explanation, however, is why. He understands that the 'demographic bulge' is important, but without understanding why. The youths that were rioting in France in autumn '05? Low status males. Did you know which first-world country is considered the most violent at the moment? Scotland. Google 'chavs' and you'll see some more low-status males in action. In the US, are the crips and the bloods considered high or low status in US society?
The young are always idealogical because they are driven by evolution to seek status. The anarchist/nihilists at the turn of the 20th century are but one example; at the moment much of the middle east is going through its demographic bulge - lots of young males, therefore lots of terrorism. However, polygyny is also a factor in the middle east, as it is in southern and central Africa. Anywhere one finds polygyny, one finds high levels of violence, consistent with evolutionary theory.

Since over 90% of victims of terrorist attacks since 1990 (and about half even 1970-1990) in fact were killed by Muslims it is absurd that Cowen wants to solve the “puzzle† without mentioning Islam.

What’s the propose of this constraint? Find the best answer I can put in the NYT?

You have something like a 1000% difference in likelyhood to use terrorism between Islam and everyone-else. Can your general arguments explain this?

Take the explanations offered:

*Muslim countries are middle income, not poor. Why are there no Indian or African terrorists that identify with the poor?

*Muslim countries are only a minorety of autoritarian countries. Lack of civil rights has been rife throughout most of the world. And muslims grown up in countries that give them acces to non-violent ways of expression (Europe, US, Canada) are still more likely to support or attemp terrorism than other groups, by several hundred percent or more.

* Killing others is not new. But you do need an explanation why most of the world has stopped killing each other, and parts have not.

Islam makes terrorism much more likely through several mechanisms:

†¢ Extreme self-serving bias towards outsiders. Muslims are much more likely given objective criteria to feel “oppressed†. The widespread sense of constant grievance cannot be underestimated here.

(and before you start projecting your own grieviences about US policy, note that this is true against Europeans, Canadians, Hindus, the Thai, in the Philippines, in China, against the Chinese in Indonesia, against blacks in Africa etc.)

The “we are occupying them† Pape myth misses this. A large percentage of them *always* think they are being occupied if non-believers are close by, even if they invited them there (US presence in Saudi-Arabia) or even if the land belongs to the non-believers (Iberia, any country with Muslim immigrants).

†¢ Reward for martyrs. Directly encourages both suicide bombings and non-suicide bombings (why fear death?). Indirectly gives more tangible social rewards.

†¢ Sharpens separation with those they fight, and of course makes it more likely conflicts will arise. The main western organized terrorist groups, such as the IRA and ETA are despite their nastiness much more constrained in killing people, because they are fighting for plausible political goals with two crowd people they don’t want to alienate too much.

ETA could start slaughtering Castilian children, but that would destroy support for their political cause, both from the Spanish but more importantly internal. Al-Qaeda can get away with killing hundreds of kills in the most brutal attacks, because their support them anyway.

Tribalism and general low altruism are important: The Cowen style taboos on what facts you can mention has made this one obscure, for Pew has very interesting data indicating that support for terrorism in Muslim countries only drops when they attack their group (Jordanians in Jordan), whereas most other regions are more broadly altruistic.

Across border terrorism is hard, especially against countries with a lot of security. It’s much more likely to succeed when you have a sufficient pool of people that already live there.

†¢ Islam makes immigrants much less “digestible†. The religious beliefs are statistically much more likely to encourage separation and violence than any other major religion. No one could honestly argue that the UK, Canada, the US, Germany or France have treated Muslim immigrants worse than any other immigrant group. Yet Muslim immigrants are the *only* immigrant group that imposes a terrorist threat. All those countries have had serious terrorist plots by domestic terrorist. The share of young Muslims that support in terrorism against civilians in polls is the same in America as UK, Germany and France, around 15%.

Almost everyone believes that collateral damage killing innocent people is justified if they are not on the receiving end, and some terrorist understand how the world works. For example Hezbollah successfully forced Israel to abandon its occupation of Lebanon because they understood the politics in Israel. However the weathermen in the 60's and Tim McVeigh clearly did not. Which category Osama bin Laden is in depends on what his objectives are. We have lost much our influence in the Muslim world because of our reaction to 9/11 and involved ourselves in an endless war in Iraq. I wish I more confidence that he does not understand how the world, and particularly the US worked.

what's the make-work fallacy?

I would say the answer to "What makes a terrorist?" would be the following:

(1) The person has adopted a morality system whereby killing civilians is considered justified either because the civilians (a) are implicitly guilty of supporting a corrupt system or (b) the goals are valued higher than the loss of life (an ends justifies the means sort of thing).

(2) The enemy they are fighting has to be vulnerable to public opinion that will be generated by the terrorist act. This means generally Western democracies will be the targets of terrorism because the people you are targeting have actual imput into the decision making process. (Note - A counter example would be the Basque terrorism under Franco).

(3) You do not believe you can defeat the enemy in any direct confrontation. If you could, you would probably focus on trying to get the enemy to engage you in an area where you are the strongest and not use terrorism, which tends to turn moderates against you.

Like others have said above terrorism is a tactic, not a strategy or a goal. So the real question is not what motivates someone to become a terrorist but what are the situations in which terrorism is an effective tactic. Because if a given fighter is a rational actor he will chose the best tactic needed to achieve his goals.

JSK, I'm sure there are also many counter-examples of asian women committing violent crimes in the United States, but people are still going to take notice of the relative rarity of it among that population compared to others.

In many cases there's a lot of money raised in support of terrorist organizations. Does an initially religious or politically motivated organization somehow transition to become dependent upon becoming more extreme to raise more money and perpetuate a lifestyle leaders support? Do terrorist organizations grow to require the perpetuation of the conflicts that they initially set out to fight?

I challenge you to support your conventional wisdom with some stats.

Low status males try to gain status by using violence (one of the few things young low-status males are good at) to become high-status males, and therefore ensure breeding opportunities.

Then again, breeding might be more difficult when one´s reproductive organs scattered along the roadside (for example).

In other words, your explanation might speak to general violence, but definitely not suicide terrorism. In spite of the political objectives being similar as some have suggested, there can be quite a difference between terrorism and suicide-based terrorism. In the case of certain kamikaze pilots, I think there is no distinction. These being pilots who whose planes were disabled and rather than bail out, crashed into aircraft carriers. The other type of kamikaze pilot, the pilot who left Japan with enough gas for a one-way trip, looks very different to me.

If you just want to know about Islam though, I discussed Samuel Huntington and stats he presented in Clash of Civilizations here.

"JSK, are you serious? Just look at our prisons. There aren't a whole lot of asian women in there for violent crime."

How many American men of Arabian desent are in American prisons for 'terrorism'?

I think that terrorism of the fanatical islamistic sort is like the religiously inspired witch burnings of the 16th and 17th centuries: mass psychosis. Sure there are "reasons" (failed economies and failed harvests respectively), but I think that violence on such a grand scale as in(for example) Algeria during the nineties can't be rationalised.

No really, do you have any figures on that? I can't believe that any American (like born and bred there) muslim is serving time in an American prison(not Gitmo) for attempting an terrorist strike. I believe that the American muslims (mostly in Michigan, I believe)as a group don't negatively differ from the average American.

That makes me doubt the reasoning 'a lot of muslims are envolved in terrorism, therefore there is something in the islam that makes one a terrorist': if is was valid, why aren't there any suicide bombers in Michigan? There are too many exceptions for it to be any sort of general law.


I couldn't agree more. Current day Iraq or Palestine, with all their terrorists, aren't less frigthening and less violent than say 17th century Japan, Indo-China from 1950 to 1970 and Colombia after the second world war (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Violencia). Excessive violence against civilians to 'terrorize' of all ages and civilization.

Poverty provides a haven for many things.

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Later, inside a different tent, a young woman took me aside. And she said: "I must tell you something. If we didn't think we had American support we would never have done this. They would kill us. We need you. It is just a fact."

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