More on Terrorism and Incentives

20 June 2007 at 11:10 pm 3 comments

| 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.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Management Theory, Myths and Realities.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Graeme Pietersz  |  21 June 2007 at 12:15 am

    One correction: the Tigers are not Marxist, whatever Amazon or Random House says. Their ideology is purely ethnically based nationalism – in fact, their bitterest enemies include a communist party.

    The idea of making use of limited resources does fit with the Tigers’ other tactics, such as their recent use of ultralight aircraft, and their general reputation (in Sri Lanka) for efficiency.

  • 2. Kevin Carson  |  21 June 2007 at 1:03 am

    Excellent post. I’ve never been convinced by those who say terrorism reflects some great cultural divide between us and Middle Easterners (“them people just don’t think the way we do”). I’m sure culture makes some contribution, in the way that the millenarian culture of Calvinism in the 17th century affected events in Britain and New England. But in the main, I suspect the people over there are acting about like their American counterparts would in a parallel situation. If the Ozarks were occupied by a foreign army, I expect a lot of good ol’ boys would be driving pickup bombs into enemy headquarters, or blowing themselves up in colonies of enemy settlers. Especially if they’d grown up in refugee camps.

  • 3. Peter Klein  |  23 June 2007 at 8:10 am

    Graeme, I think you are right, thanks for the correction. I’ve modified the text.

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