A new study by Max Abrahms and Matthew Gottfried titled “Does Terrorism Pay? An
Empirical Analysis” argues that it does not because government compliance is
usually not forthcoming.
An interesting finding is that governments are
more likely to deal with terrorists in hostage situations when the demands are
the release of prisoners or money, as opposed to political demands.
terrorists kill civilians or captives, it “significantly lowers the likelihood
of bargaining success,” they state.
Abrahms, an expert on insurgency and
terrorism at Northeastern University in Boston, told The Jerusalem Post that the
study builds on his previous work that shows statistically that militant groups
are less likely to achieve their demands when they physically harm
“In the aforementioned study, we show that terrorism doesn’t
pay in the context of hostage situations. Specifically, hostage-takers are less
likely to successfully pressure government compliance when civilians are harmed
in the course of the hostage crisis. Hostage- takers have better success at the
bargaining table when they refrain from harming the captives, especially when
they are not civilians,” he said.
Terrorist attacks against civilians
tend to backfire politically on the perpetrators, while “violence against
military forces – like Hezbollah’s 1983 guerrilla attacks against the American
and French peacekeepers in Lebanon – are more likely to coerce government
concessions,” he said.
Therefore, Abrahms says, “militant groups should
abstain from targeting civilians in order to maximize the chances of government
concessions. In this sense, terrorism does not pay.”
the authors found that contrary to popular wisdom, democracies are more
resilient against terrorism than previously thought.
Despite the belief
that “their commitment to civil liberties inhibits them from adopting
sufficiently harsh countermeasures and their low civilian cost tolerance limits
the capacity to withstand attacks,” democracies actually are less likely to give
in to terrorist demands, it said.
The study breaks terrorist demands into
two categories: political and material.
Political demands include the
removal of foreign troops or a change in the makeup of the government, while
material demands refer to the release of prisoners or economic
Islamic terrorists often make what seem to outsiders as
unrealistic demands because the terrorists see them as sacred, but are able to
claim victory if they are even partially met.
“Bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa,
for example, called on the United States to withdraw from the Middle East. This
demand remains unmet, of course, but al-Qaida may deem the smaller concession of
withdrawing from Saudi Arabia five years later as an important victory in
itself,” state Abrahms and Gottfried.
However, because terrorists often
refuse “to compromise on their maximalist strategic demands,” it lowers their
odds of success.
"It depends on what ones definition of success is. There have been very few tangible, long term gains for terrorists," Steven David, an international relations expert from Johns Hopkins University told the Post.
"On the other hand, they have gained publicity for their cause and a sense of belonging for alienated youth," he said adding that he thinks the Palestinians "would have gained much more through nonviolent resistance."
Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the
Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Post that this excellent study
contributes to an important debate, but offers a few caveats.
Schalit deal was an example where terrorism did pay. His kidnapping led to
Israel’s release of an unprecedented number of prisoners,” said
“In places like North Africa and Yemen, al-Qaida affiliate
groups have also successfully deployed the kidnap- and-ransom model to refill
their coffers. European nations have been willing time and again to acquiesce to
the demands of these groups,” he said.
Ely Karmon, senior researcher at
the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya’s
Institute for Policy and Strategy, told the Post, “The authors’ conclusion: ‘In
short, the analysis does not support the position that terrorism pays’ is not
true as a rule or thesis.”
For example, he said, “Fatah with the help of
other organizations, especially the PFLP, has succeeded through the use of
terrorism to achieve the building of a Palestinian national identity, ‘honor,’
and the recognition of legitimacy by the Arab states and most of the states in
The success of terrorism was enhanced because of the support of
Arab states, he said.
Furthermore, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and
Hezbollah with the support of Iran, have used terrorism to sabotage the peace
process with the Palestinians, said Karmon, pointing out that it was former
prime minister Yitzhak Rabin who said terrorism was a strategic threat to the
Karmon makes this argument in detail in an article titled
“The Iran-Palestine Linkage,” in which he says that world powers should deal not
only with the Iranian nuclear issue, but also with its support for terrorism in
negatively impacting the Palestinian- Israeli conflict.