More on Terrorism and Incentives
| Peter Klein |
In a recent post on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation I referred to Robert Pape’s analysis of suicide bombings and his conclusion, supported by substantial empirical evidence, that the specific pattern of contemporary suicide attacks cannot be explained by the attackers’ general belief systems (such as religious ideology) but by particular tactical objectives. Suicide bombers, in other words, economize on scarce means to achieve specific ends and adjust their behavior in response to the incentives they face.
For instance: What group is responsible for the most suicide bombings? Al-Qaeda? Hamas? Hezbollah? No, it’s the Tamil Tigers, a secular nationalist group fighting for an independent state in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. Tamil attackers are motivated not by visions of 40 virgins, but by the belief that such attacks are their only effective weapon against a better-armed foe.
For more on these questions check out this NBER working paper by Efraim Benmelech and Claude Berrebi, “Attack Assignments in Terror Organizations and the Productivity of Suicide Bombers.” Benmelech and Berrebi analyze a detailed dataset on the personal characteristics of Palestinian suicide bombers and find that older and more educated suicide bombers are systematically assigned to more important targets. Older and more educated bombers are less likely to fail in their missions and more likely to cause significant damage when they succeed. The authors take this as evidence that terrorist organizations behave “rationally,” in the economist’s usual sense of that term.