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Terrorist Targeting in Theory and Practice  

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.