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Scientific American

Five Myths of Terrorism

published August 2013 | comments (19)
Why terror doesn’t work
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Because terrorism educes such strong emotions, it has led to at least five myths. The first began in September 2001, when President George W. Bush announced that “we will rid the world of the evildoers” and that they hate us for “our freedoms.” This sentiment embodies what Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister calls “the myth of pure evil,” which holds that perpetrators commit pointless violence for no rational reason.

This idea is busted through the scientific study of aggression, of which psychologists have identified four types that are employed toward a purposeful end (from the perpetrators’ perspective): instrumental violence, such as plunder, conquest and the elimination of rivals; revenge, such as vendettas against adversaries or self-help justice; dominance and recognition, such as competition for status and women, particularly among young males; and ideology, such as religious beliefs or utopian creeds. Terrorists are motivated by a mixture of all four.

In a study of 52 cases of Islamist extremists who have targeted the U.S. for terrorism, for example, Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller concluded that their motives are often instrumental and revenge-oriented, a “boiling outrage at U.S. foreign policy—the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular, and the country’s support for Israel in the Palestinian conflict.” Ideology in the form of religion “was a part of the consideration for most,” Mueller suggests, “but not because they wished to spread Sharia law or to establish caliphates (few of the culprits would be able to spell either word). Rather they wanted to protect their co-religionists against what was commonly seen to be a concentrated war on them in the Middle East by the U.S. government.”

As for dominance and recognition, University of Michigan anthropologist Scott Atran has demonstrated that suicide bombers (and their families) are showered with status and honor in this life and the promise of women in the next and that most “belong to loose, homegrown networks of family and friends who die not just for a cause but for each other.” Most terrorists are in their late teens or early 20s and “are especially prone to movements that promise a meaningful cause, camaraderie, adventure and glory,” he adds.

Busting a second fallacy—that terrorists are part of a vast global network of top-down centrally controlled conspiracies against the West—Atran shows that it is “a decentralized, self-organizing and constantly evolving complex of social networks.” A third flawed notion is that terrorists are diabolical geniuses, as when the 9/11 Commission report de – scribed them as “sophisticated, patient, disciplined, and lethal.” But according to Johns Hopkins University political scientist Max Abrahms, after the decapitation of the leadership of the top extremist organizations, “terrorists targeting the American homeland have been neither sophisticated nor masterminds, but incompetent fools.”

Examples abound: the 2001 airplane shoe bomber Richard Reid was unable to ignite the fuse because it was wet from rain; the 2009 underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab succeeded only in torching his junk; the 2010 Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad managed merely to burn the inside of his Nissan Pathfinder; and the 2012 model airplane bomber Rezwan Ferdaus purchased faux C-4 explosives from FBI agents. Most recently, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombers were equipped with only one gun and had no exit strategy beyond hijacking a car low on gas that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev used to run over his brother, Tamerlan, followed by a failed suicide attempt inside a land-based boat.

A fourth fiction is that terrorism is deadly. Compared with the annual average of 13,700 homicides, however, deaths from terrorism are statistically invisible, with a total of 33 in the U.S. since 9/11. Finally, a fifth figment about terrorism is that it works. In an analysis of 457 terrorist campaigns since 1968, George Mason University political scientist Audrey Cronin found that not one extremist group conquered a state and that a full 94 percent failed to gain even one of their strategic goals. Her 2009 book is entitled How Terrorism Ends (Princeton University Press). It ends swiftly (groups survive eight years on average) and badly (the death of its leaders).

We must be vigilant always, of course, but these myths point to the inexorable conclusion that terrorism is nothing like what its perpetrators wish it were.

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19 Comments to “Five Myths of Terrorism”

  1. King Dave @ Newsvine Says:

    But today, there are rarely any other groups of people blowing themselves up in crowds with the hope of killing as many people as possible as Muslims. This is extraordinary, not academic.

    Of course violence and child sex crimes like arranged marriages, are not exclusive, and permeates every society and culture, but religion justifies the most atrocious acts.

    That is what is being omitted in Michael Shermer’s article, but love his stuff.

  2. Phil C Says:

    @King Dave

    Mr. Shermer made no omission. The article is about the nature of terrorism, not Islam’s current role in it. That would be a different article.

  3. Douglas Einer Says:

    “George Mason University political scientist Audrey Cronin found that not one extremist group conquered a state”

    I’m curious as to why countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, some African countries etc. aren’t ‘counted’ as countries that have been ‘taken-over’ by an extremist group/s-?

  4. cormac Says:

    @ Douglas Einer.

    In what way can they be said to have been taken over?

    1. It implies that there were more benevolent regimes prior to the current regimes
    2. A factor each of those countries has in common is the fact that all of them are former colonial subjects, and the governments of all of them today are heavily influenced by the exit strategies of those colonial powers. And this in turn is one root of anti-Western sentiment in those areas. As far as the people there are concerned, the West is still interfering with them, and is still imposing oppressive governments upon them. Except Saudi, where the people are too cowed and ignorant to know better.

  5. Claude Says:

    Audrey Cronin may like to extend that analysis of successful terror campaigns back a bit further.
    The Zionist campaign against the UK succeeded beyond their wildest dreams…

    I also take some exception to the tone of the article when it implies that terrorism is not deadly. By all means let’s shine the light of reason through these myths, but let’s not imply that the results of terrorism are in any way dismissible. Even one death is one too many, when caused by terrorists.

  6. Bill Morgan Says:

    Michael fails to mention the real reason the US is engaged in the ‘War on Terror” is to feed $ Trillions to the Military-Industrial-Banking complex. Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the tax payers over $3 Trillion and counting which has kept the Defense Industries and Bankers awash in war profits. Once you have a Global Military Force, you must continue to feed the monster with wars which generate large war profits. Countries will even create false flag operations to justify going to war to keep the monster fed. Always follow the money trail. It will lead you to who has the real power in a society.

    And don’t worry about dying in a terrorist attack. The odds of dying in a terrorist attack are 1 in 20 million. The odds of dying in a lightning strike are 1 in 2,500,000. We spend $40 Billion a year on Homeland Security to protect us from a 1 chance in 20 million terrorist attack that could kill us.

  7. Ron Williams Says:

    “And don’t worry about dying in a terrorist attack.” – odds follow…

    Globally or in the West, this is possibly so, however the odds of dying in a terrorist attack in, oh, say, Nigeria, Mali, Southern Sudan, Kenya, Pakistan, or any one of a double dozen I**** infested places is not insignificant. Especially if you’re a Christian, try to get an education, try to take a drink of water at certain times of the year, happen to be woman, etc, etc, etc (a hundred different ‘reasons’, at least).

  8. Danny Says:

    Interesting post. I like the first points. However the last one (“It ends swiftly (groups survive eight years on average) and badly (the death of its leaders).”) is rather simplistic. It is as accurate as saying that the average
    Consider the organizations and societies where terror is rooted in their ideology as well as their education systems. Islamic movements like Hamas and Hizbollah are such an example. Or even Al Quaida that these days caused the evacuation of diplomats all over the world, long after its head is gone.

  9. Paul Googuen Says:

    @BillMorgan,

    What’s your source on these ideas?

  10. David Says:

    I hope all the comments bear in mind the Oklahoma city bombing, a terrorist act and the second largest on US soil. Committed by a roman catholic, remember also the large number of terrorist acts committed in the United Kingdom by the IRA and Sinn Fein, neither of which are Muslim. Religion is not the reason Muslims or Catholics have committed terrorist acts. Nice article, interested to hear more

  11. Bill Morgan Says:

    Paul Googuen, A simple Google search would have given you the answers.

    http://www.divinecaroline.com/entertainment/what-probably-won%E2%80%99t-happen-putting-odds-perspective

    http://swampland.time.com/2013/05/06/chances-of-dying-in-a-terrorist-attack-number/

    http://articles.latimes.com/2013/mar/29/nation/la-na-0329-war-costs-20130329

  12. Bill Morgan Says:

    Ron Williams, It’s not the purpose of the US Military to prevent terrorist attacks all over the world in other countries. Who appointed the US Police Man of the World? That’s not our job. The US Government is tasked with preventing terrorist attacks in the US against civilians. On that issue it has failed terribly! Oklahoma City Failed. World Trade Centers 1993 Failed. World Trade Centers 2001 Failed.

  13. Stephen Borkowski Says:

    If all schools ,worldwide,taught religions in a manner such
    that there would be no certainty in students minds about
    whether or not a God exists , it is most probable that
    religion could not be used as a tactic for going to war
    by the milit-banker cabal mentioned above.

  14. Swami Says:

    There is a lot of post-hoc defining going on in that study of terror groups.

    If they succeed… they obviously weren’t terrorists, therefore terrorists don’t succeed? Circular.

    The current Cuban regime is in power due to terrorists. Okay, that’s pre-1968. But since, we’ve had:

    Libya.
    South Africa. (Yes, the ANC blew people up)
    Zimbabwe.
    Hamas and Hezbollah- each are “sovereign” over some land, that in itself is a victory.
    Farc, though now declining, by the same token.
    Polisario.
    The Viet Minh/Viet Cong forced a US withdrawal, paving the way for a “conventional war” victory by North Vietnam- though that started pre-1968, it finished after.
    The Mujahadeen beat the Soviets.

    (Which makes me wonder, why 1968? When an author picks a strangely arbitrary cut-off point for data, I always wonder why. It usually turns out, moving the cut-off weakens the argument.)

    But I could keep going. Victory need not be “complete” victory. And if we lower the victory bar from “controlled some territory” to “secured some political advantage to associated ethnic or religious or ideological group” we can add a lot more to the win column. Nepal’s Maoists gained a number of concessions,

    And the “They hate us for our freedoms” meme is simplistic, but by a roundabout way, accurate.

    They hate us, really, because we are grossly more successful than they are. From the Fundamentalist Muslim perspective, it is humiliating, to be told day after day how holy and righteous and wise and perfect you are, and then to see a crass, boorish, infidel society full of cowardly men and whoring women outclass you in every measurable way. To be economically dependent on them… powerful stuff.

    But the reason we outclass them in every measurable way…

    Western social, intellectual, and economic strength is rooted in social, intellectual, and economic freedom.

    Since their culture assigns them the role of “good”, the only way our success can fit into their frame of reference is if we are “evil”- that is, our gains are all ill gotten. Since, obviously, god intended the wealth of the world to go to them, it must be our wicked, insidious schemes that subvert that justice. And so they hate us.

    So we are hated directly for humiliating them. We humiliate them because we are free. Causal chain, there.

  15. George Says:

    I think the fifth myth should be that terrorism is an external threat. It is truly a domestic threat in at least two ways that I can see. 1) since 9/11/01 there have been something like 240 domestic terror incidents with just under 2% being Muslims. The remainder are shootings, bombings and fire bombings of women’s health facilities, synagogues and black churches by Christians, mainly neo nazi Christians. The fact that Islam is even mentioned, and is the only religeon specifically mentioned is pretty biased, and this opinion piece really is not about Islam, but ther it is. 2) the real dangerous myth of terrorism is that we are being emotionally manipulated. You mention the countless billions spent domestically on homeland security, for example Fargo ND has an APV. It is used regularly at picnics and community events. Our local law enforcement has been so militarized it is stunning. All this distraction has led to the loss (or further erosion) of civil liberties. The recent heightened terror alerts have distracted us from Snowden and the revelation of massive automated indiscriminate domestic spying. Think about this. DHS gave grants so that retiring M1A tanks could be converted to tracked armored breaching assault vehicles for our domestic police departments. Los Angeles actually has a functioning M1A. Yes the LA PD has a tank, like you might see on the streets in Bagdhad. It is not converted, it shoots actual AP explosive projectiles and has working machine guns. All this we did to ourselves.

  16. L.Taylor Says:

    All this explanation and progressive theory is wonderful, but so what? No one has turned their explanations into a sensible way to end it. If there is a way, let’s have some ideas on that. We cannot seem to prevent these actions, so how do we live with them in the most painless way? Is there such a course? Total destruction of an offending society doesn’t work, you are then the terrorist. Total isolation doesn’t work, for then you are stirring up internal frustration and internal Terrorists are born. Generosity does not work, They increase action to think they can force you to be more generous. If any of you can turn your theoies into a practical solution, Bless yuu for your wisdom, Let’s do it.

  17. M.Lansford Says:

    That “terrorists targeting the American homeland have been neither sophisticated nor masterminds, but incompetent fools” lends credence to those who believe that the September 11th hijacking of planes and the destruction of the Twin Towers could not have been planned by the perpetrators and was instead a deliberate planning by the US government.

  18. Larry Says:

    MS quotes (obviously with approval) Audrey Cronin’s asserted finding “that not one extremist group conquered a state.” Really? That could arguably be supported only if we exclude all internal takeovers, civil wars and revolutions. We have heard this said about terrorism, and it is untrue even in that more limited formulation; to say it about “extremist groups” regardless of their tactics opens to the commentator to a charge of naivete. If terrorism never succeeds, that must be for the same reason that treason never prospers. I suppose if a terrorist campaign prevails, then it was a popular democratic process to begin with. Consider: What do Adolph Hitler and David ben Gurion have in common? Josef Stalin did not share the depth of religious faith held by Eamon de Valera, but their tactics were similar. Jomo Kenyatta, the leader of the Mau Maus, became the first president of independent Kenya. What sophistry could justify calling him anything other than a terrorist of the first water. The same can be said on Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, and several other leaders of African states, including the revered Nelson Mandela. Mandela spent many more years in prison than he had to because he refused to renounce terrorism as a tactic in his war against the Boer/British government. He was repeatedly offered his freedom if he only said that the changes he wanted should be achieved by a propaganda program and passive resistance instead of violence. He was no Gandhi; he refused.

    We should bear in mind that in one crucial respect terrorism has something in common with democracy: They are processes, not policies. For example, a decision to require or forbid a country’s populace to engage in religious observances (in general or in a particular fashion) is a policy. The means whereby the government that adopts the policy came to power is a process, and it can be democratic as well as violent. Western democracies need to support or oppose other governments based on their own interests and, perhaps, the reasonableness of the policies adopted by the foreign states. A knee-jerk reaction in support of a democratically elected government in opposition to an autocratically selected one would have led the U.S. and U.K. to fight with Germany against the USSR because Hitler was elected in a general election held in accordance with the democratic Weimar Constitution, and Stalin came to power by intimidating his opponents and then retained power by murdering them. I surely am not saying that Stalin was a better choice for the West than Hitler, just that there are more pertinent criteria to keep in mind than the means by which a foreign leader acquired his position. Mohammed Morsi was unquestionably elected by democratic means (as was the Hamas administration in Gaza), but the undemocratic military coup that overthrew and imprisoned him is to be welcomed. I would like to think that our government had something to do with encouraging that coup, however much Pres. Obama deplores it in public. He might be serious in urging the Egyptian Army to reinstate Morsi, but I surely hope not.

  19. Larry Says:

    MS quotes (obviously with approval) Audrey Cronin’s asserted finding “that not one extremist group conquered a state.” Really? That could arguably be supported only if we exclude all internal takeovers, civil wars and revolutions. We have heard this said about terrorism, and it is untrue even in that more limited formulation; to say it about “extremist groups” regardless of their tactics opens to the commentator to a charge of naivete. If terrorism never succeeds, that must be for the same reason that treason never prospers. I suppose if a terrorist campaign prevails, then it was a popular democratic process to begin with. Consider: What do Adolph Hitler and David ben Gurion have in common? Josef Stalin did not share the depth of religious faith held by Eamon de Valera, but their tactics were similar. Jomo Kenyatta, the leader of the Mau Maus, became the first president of independent Kenya. What sophistry could justify calling him anything other than a terrorist of the first water. The same can be said on Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, and several other leaders of African states, including the revered Nelson Mandela. Mandela spent many more years in prison than he had to because he refused to renounce terrorism as a tactic in his war against the Boer/British government. He was repeatedly offered his freedom if he only said that the changes he wanted should be achieved by a propaganda program and passive resistance instead of violence. He was no Gandhi; he refused.

    We should bear in mind that in one crucial respect terrorism has something in common with democracy: They are processes, not policies. For example, a decision to require or forbid a country’s populace to engage in religious observances (in general or in a particular fashion) is a policy. The means whereby the government that adopts the policy came to power is a process, and it can be democratic as well as violent. Western democracies need to support or oppose other governments based on their own interests and, perhaps, the reasonableness of the policies adopted by the foreign states. A knee-jerk reaction in support of a democratically elected government in opposition to an autocratically selected one would have led the U.S. and U.K. to fight with Germany against the USSR because Hitler was elected in a general election held in accordance with the democratic Weimar Constitution, and Stalin came to power by intimidating his opponents and then retained power by murdering them. I surely am not saying that Stalin was a better choice for the West than Hitler, just that there are more pertinent criteria to keep in mind than the means by which a foreign leader acquired his position. Mohammed Morsi was unquestionably elected by democratic means (as was the Hamas administration in Gaza), but the undemocratic military coup that overthrew and imprisoned him is to be welcomed. I would like to think that our government had something to do with encouraging that coup, however much Pres. Obama deplores it in public. He might be serious in urging the Egyptian Army to reinstate Morsi, but I surely hope not.