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Article

Max Abrahms and Joseph Mroszczyk

Terrorist groups exhibit wide variation in their targeting strategies, particularly the extent to which they engage in indiscriminate violence against civilian targets as opposed to more selective violence against military and other government targets. Differences in target selection are evident not only between militant groups but also within them over time. The academic literature on conflict primarily uses three lenses—the Strategic, Ideological, and Organizational Models—to explain terrorist targeting behavior. The Strategic Model views terrorist groups as rational actors that select targeting strategies based on their perceived ability to achieve desired political outcomes. The Ideological Model explains terrorist targeting strategies by examining a group’s political or religious foundation as the source of target selection decision-making. The Organizational Model attributes variation in targeting strategies to intra-organizational dynamics, namely the principal–agent problem, where terrorist operatives often engage targets in defiance of leadership preferences. Each approach has various benefits and drawbacks both theoretically and empirically. These three lenses of explaining terrorist targeting behavior suggest different counterterrorism approaches. The study of terrorist targeting strategies is complicated by multiple methodological limitations such as the availability of data, selection bias, and definitional challenges, all of which are common in the study of militant group dynamics more broadly.

Article

Max Abrahms and Joseph Mroszczyk

Within political science, the strategic model is the dominant paradigm for understanding terrorism. The strategic model of terrorism posits that people turn to terrorism because of its effectiveness in pressuring government concessions. The strategic model Is a specific type of rational actor model with intellectual roots in bargaining theory, which emphasizes in the field of international relations how violence enhances the credibility of threats under anarchy, elevating the odds of government compliance. The strategic model is stronger theoretically than empirically. Terrorism indeed enhances the credibility of threats by demonstrating that nonstate actors possess the will and means to inflict physical pain for political noncompliance. Under anarchy, targets cannot otherwise be certain that aggrieved nonstate actors have the ability and intent to impose physical costs for maintaining the political status quo; the use of terrorist violence against civilians enhances the credibility of the threat by leaving no doubt that withholding concessions to the perpetrators will be costly. Although terrorism enhances the credibility of the threat under anarchy, the empirical record demonstrates that terrorist violence is generally ineffective—even counterproductive—at coercing government concessions. Not only is terrorism highly correlated with political failure, but this form of violence appears to lower the likelihood of government compliance, often by empowering hardliners most opposed to political accommodation. This finding holds across a variety of methodological approaches, raising questions about why terrorism underperforms as a coercive tactic despite enhancing the credibility of nonstate threats.