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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.