As terrorist attacks continue to surge around the globe, from attacks by the Islamic State on multiple continents to the kidnapping of hundreds of innocent school girls by Boko Haram in Africa, intelligence and counterterrorism officials charged with preventing attacks by these malicious actors are left to wonder, “What are they thinking?” and “Where will they strike next?”
A new study, In the Opponent’s Shoes: Increasing the Behavioral Validity of Attackers’ Judgments in Counter-Terrorism Models, by Sumitra Sri Bhashyam and Gilberto Montibeller, challenges the current assumptions employed by counterterrorism analysts in the models they use to gain insight into terrorists’ judgments, and suggest ways to achieve more accurate assessments.
Bhashyam and Montibeller conducted the study when they both were affiliated with the Decision Sciences Team at the London School of Economics and Political Science. They believe terrorists’ decisions about which targets to attack and how to launch attacks are driven by a variety of emotional factors, challenging the belief terrorists are fully rational actors.
The study, which recently was published in the the Society for Risk Analysis’ journal, Risk Analysis, urges analysts to consider how “emotions and visceral factors” influence terrorists’ decisions in formulating short- and long-term goals.
Today’s counterterrorism behavioral models assume terrorists are rational; that they examine the consequences of their actions and are objective. Bhashyam and Montibeller — drawing from such fields as behavioral decision research, politics, philosophy of choice and conflict management in terrorism — proposed modifying these assumptions to make models conform more closely to what actually is known about terrorists’ motivations and judgments.
“Current models are incomplete in their key assumptions that terrorists only seek to maximize economic or damaging impacts, that they have well-established and stable preferences, and that they view the probabilities of achieving success of their actions objectively,” the report’s executive summary said.
Terrorists are rational
One of the major assumptions in counterterrorism modeling the study examined is the notion terrorists are rational actors. Many counterterrorism analysts assume individuals who commit such malicious acts are "fully rational" in striving to achieve goals as efficiently and effectively as possible.
However, the study stated behavioral evidence suggests terrorists are neither fully rational (“homo economicus”) nor irrational, but rather they have “bounded rationality," which means they are limited by the information they have, the cognitive limitations of their minds and the time available to make the decision.
An important aspect in considering the question of whether terrorists are rational decision makers is what type of terrorist group they fall into: sympathizer, active or suicide. The type of terrorist can determine what level of rationality to expect from them, Bhashyam and Montibeller stated.
“As different types of terrorists behave slightly differently, knowing which one we are dealing with can give us an indication of the type of rational behavior we can expect from them,” they stated.
The rationality of a terrorist actor can be determined by examining the following three standards: responsiveness to incentives, narrow self-interest and rational expectations. Sympathizers appear to behave according to these three standards, while active and suicide terrorists do not. All three groups of terrorists are responsive to incentives, but active and suicide terrorists do not adhere to the other two standards, the study concluded.
In addition, Bhashyam and Montibeller indicated that a rational decision maker will not engage in actions in which he/she is entirely disinterested. The report stated that, “Although it is safe to assume that sympathizers act according to narrow self-interest principles, the case of active and suicidal terrorists requires some adjustments to be made.”
Active terrorists, on the other hand, evaluate the consequences of their act according to the cause they serve rather than the consequences to themselves. The researchers noted that even though the malicious individual might choose to have irrational expectations, he/she may be close to adhering to the standard of rational expectation and would not have these expectations if they did not derive some sort of benefit from them.
In addition, active terrorist groups are mostly composed of social outcasts. They behave as social solidarity maximizers, rather than political maximizers, and seek to prolong the viability of the units for the social benefits they provide.
“Therefore, when describing the utility of active terrorists, modelers could incorporate the benefit gained from externalizing their anger,” the report stated.
Suicidal terrorists do not appear to have rational expectations. Many will carry on and die for their beliefs no matter what the cost, thus risk analysts should consider the psychological reasons behind a terrorist’s willingness to participate in such a self-destructive act in order to understand what benefits they seek, Bhashyam and Montibeller stated.
However, their behavior can be considered rational if the advantage they seek by becoming a martyr is the attentional they would get from it.
Terrorists are consequentialists
Terrorists have chosen attacks that offer the best compromise between operational aspects, such as costs and feasibility, and the benefits gained from the strike. However, current counterterrorism models do not consider all the objectives terrorists might take into account, the study found.
The study suggested there is evidence terrorists care about objectives other than economic or political ones. The empirical research indicated active terrorists are 10 times more likely to join for social motives than for the group’s ideology. Political goals of the group are rarely known by its members, making the group a social organization rather than politically motivated one.
“Research shows that terrorist organizations appeal to certain kinds of individuals for reasons that are rarely political, and if they are, are of minor importance,” the report stated.
Current counterterrorism behavioral models also do not account for changes in motivations, and assume the terrorists’ values, preferences and utilities remain static. The authors believe there is a potential for changes in objectives, or fluctuations in beliefs, over time. These changes can occur for various reasons, such as changes in the environment or leadership. Terrorists weigh the consequences of previous acts and adjust accordingly.
“Terrorist’ motivations include a reaction to an event,” the report stated. “Therefore, an understanding of which objectives terrorists might want to maximize at a given moment requires an appreciation of the state of the environment, and the recent actions from the defender.”
Terrorists are objective
The study also examined whether visceral factors influence terrorist decision making, and how psychological forces may drive an individual to commit an act of violence, which he/she will then rationalize.
According to the researchers, active terrorists — including leaders — can be "impulsive, emotionally unstable and are prone to externalize their emotions," especially anger. These emotions cause terrorists to behave single mindedly and to seek rewards without regard to detrimental effects. These visceral factors cloud judgment, resulting in the prioritization of certain objectives, even self-destructive ones.
“Visceral factors also affect risk assessments, anger leads the sympathizers and active terrorists to be more optimistic as they have a higher perception of being in control and anger renders them to be risk-seeking,” the report stated.
Suicide bombers, for instance, are especially prone to the influence of emotions. The force of these emotions may result in temporary changes in behavior. Temporary distortion of cognition can alter the decision maker’s evaluation of an outcome’s probability or the outcome itself. The terrorist may also be blind to certain consequences.
“Decision makers’ will is altered and weakened such that options with worse outcomes than others are chosen,” the report stated.
When building adversarial models, the researchers suggested risk analysts devote more effort to understanding the objectives that drive terrorism to improve the descriptive validity of their models.
The researchers intend the study to support counterterrorism efforts by analyzing terrorists’ judgments from a descriptive perspective and pointing out ways counterterrorism models can more accurately represent terrorists’ actions.
However, Bhashyam and Montibeller noted, “It is an open question whether models that are descriptively valid could provide better predictive power to terrorists’ actions than those ones that assume full rationality.”