(ISIS Sinai photo)

Terrorists Target Civilians to Provoke Government Overreaction

Professor Brandon Prins of the University of Tennessee and co-authors Sam Ghatak of San Jose State University and Anup Phayal of the University of North Carolina Wilmington have closely studied terrorist targeting choices for a new research paper. Here, they share their findings exclusively with Homeland Security Today ahead of the later publication of the full study:

In 2018, nearly 4,700 domestic terrorism incidents were recorded by the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), which is located at the University of Maryland (see figure 1). This is a 37% decrease from the 2015 high of worldwide terrorism when ISIL ravaged parts of Iraq and Syria and Boko Haram wreaked havoc in the Borno, Yobe and Adamawa provinces of Nigeria. 

Any decrease is worth celebrating, but the aggregate numbers mask important differences across extremist organizations in their targeting choices. Government and security personnel have increasingly become the object of terrorist organizations. Indeed, attacks against soldiers and police grew by nearly 800% from 2011 to 2015. While admittedly the number of similar attacks fell each of the next three years, the 2,230 incidents in 2018 remain over 500% higher than what was witnessed in 2011, accounting for nearly 50% of all domestic terror attacks. This is the highest percentage recorded since at least 1990. 

Figure 1: Total Domestic Terrorism Incidents (Gray) and Attacks Against Government Personnel (Black), 1990-2018.

Our research seeks to explain this variance in target choice and we find that one part of the answer may be the type of government confronted by a terrorist organization. The evidence we collected shows attacks against government and security personnel to be a much bigger problem for autocratic states than democratic ones. In fact, extremist organizations are significantly more likely to target soldiers and police in autocratic states compared to their democratic counterparts (see figure 2). Why target selection varies by government-type revolves around the political interests of government leaders and how terrorist groups perceive those interests.

Figure 2: Terrorist Targets by Regime types (1990-2014).

Consider two different terrorist groups: the Maoists in India and the Islamic State of Sinai Province (Wilayat Sinai) in Egypt. The Maoist (or Naxalite) struggle remains one of the world’s most durable insurgencies. The uprising, which began in 1967 in the village of Naxalbari, located in West Bengal, drew inspiration from Mao Zedong’s successful revolutionary movement in China and similarly seeks land redistribution, an end to institutionalized discrimination, and economic development that benefits the rural poor. According to the GTD, the Maoists were responsible for at least 78 attacks that resulted in over 70 deaths in 2018 alone. Wilayat Sinai began as an effort to eliminate Western and Israeli influence in Egypt, but turned its focus to the Egyptian regime after Mohammed Morsi was toppled from power in 2013. Wilayat Sinai was responsible for nearly 500 separate attacks between 2014 and 2018. 

Both groups clearly target non-combatants in their violent anti-state campaigns. And both groups similarly want to remove the current regimes from power in India and Egypt. Yet, the Maoists direct their violence predominantly toward civilian targets while Wilayat Sinai chiefly assails government and security personnel (see figure 3). One key distinction we see driving the different targeting strategies is the type of government in each country. Democratic leaders are more susceptible to public disapprobation and consequently remain electorally vulnerable to accusations of political cowardness. Displays of regime strength can be used to counter a narrative of government fragility and vacillation. 

By provoking democratic leaders into excessive uses of force, terrorist groups decrease regime legitimacy and improve the extremist organization’s image with supporters and potential allies. In contrast, authoritarian regimes remain comparatively insulated from mass public attitudes and are accordingly more difficult to provoke. But autocratic leaders do require support from military elites to retain power and terrorist groups recognize this vulnerability. Attacks against soldiers and police not only signal opposition to the regime, they also demonstrate resolve and capability that attracts critical popular support.

Figure 3: Percentage of Domestic Terrorism Incidents Directed against Specific Target Types, 1990-2018.

Current research recognizes that some extremist groups target civilians more than others and attributes this decision to the relationship a terrorist group has with local communities and foreign allies. Groups with strong local connections fear losing critical resources and protection if civilians are targeted in attacks. 

Our research also reveals significant group-level differences in targeting strategies. Yet, rather than these differences being driven by resource scarcity and popular local support, they are driven by the political needs of regime elites. Consequently, attacks directed against civilian soft targets are not simply a function of the organizational incentives of the extremist group. They are a function of the organizational incentives of the state as well. Targeting civilian non-combatants exposes inherent political pressures in democratic regimes that remain less compelling in more authoritarian polities. The targeting strategy of a militant group intends to provoke a regime response that will discredit government actions and increase popular support for the group and its cause.

The logic of terrorist violence implies that targeting choices reflect key goals of extremist organizations: delegitimizing the government and attracting new recruits for the group’s anti-state campaign. Our study reveals that different types of governments (democracies or autocracies) respond differently depending on the victims of terrorist attacks. Consequently, terrorist groups select targets that increase the chances a government will overreact with excessive force. This appears to be civilians in democratic states and government and military personnel in authoritarian regimes. 

Political leaders must recognize that aggressive responses to terrorist violence can be counter-productive, increasing support for extremist groups. Doing nothing or appeasing terrorists can be politically costly as well, so a counterterrorism strategy that discriminates dissidents from non-combatants remains essential in extinguishing the anti-state challenge.

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Dr. Prins is Professor of Political Science at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and a Global Security Fellow with the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy. Currently, he serves as co-lead editor of International Studies Quarterly. Dr. Prins’ research and teaching interests center on the conditions associated with political violence, including interstate and civil war, terrorism, and maritime piracy. He recently completed a book-length manuscript forthcoming at Oxford University Press on the political geography of modern maritime piracy.

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