Terrorism vs. Terror Organizations: Violence Is Not The Only Tool

The following is a guest post by Seden Akcinaroglu and Efe Tokdemir. Seden is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Binghamton University. Efe is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at Binghamton University. This post is based on research from their recent article, “Reputation of Terror Groups Dataset: Measuring popularity of terror groups”, in the Journal of Peace Research

The word ‘terrorism’ often includes a negative connotation, and the events in the last few years such as the multiple explosions in Paris resulting in 130 civilian killings, or children abducted and raped by Boko Haram in Nigeria are a testimony to the extent of terror groups’ brutality against civilians. This is only one side of the coin, though. While many terrorists indeed employ violence against civilians consistently and/or extensively, such strategies may generate ample costs for terror groups. For example 1997 Luxor killings by Al Gama’a al-Islamiya targeting a brutal attack on tourists in Egypt, or Beslan school siege by Chechen terrorist group, Riyadus-Saliheen resulting in the death of 385 children in 2004 led to a precipitous drop in the two groups’ popularity and eventually brought to their demise.

Violence against civilians is not the only tool among the arsenal of terrorists; it is only one of many. Terrorism is often used along with other violent forms of warfare that necessitate and heavily rely on public support (Findley & Young, 2012). For example while Hezbollah has killed civilians, it has also invested heavily in schools, health facilities, and orphanages to generate support among its Shia constituency. Groups categorized as terrorists employ different strategies to obtain and sustain recruitment, material resources and the publicity they desire. The point is terrorism is a more complex strategy, than we generally think of, in terms of the type of the message terrorists aim to transmit, and also the audience they want to influence. In the end, we do not much about which groups employ what kind of strategies and towards whom.

Quantitative literature on terrorism mostly aggregates attacks at the country level and assumes terror groups behave in similar ways. It is the country level characteristics, then, that motivates terror groups to engage in specific actions. However, as the contradictory empirical findings in the literature would attest, we do not have clear guidance there. That said, by moving away from the macro-level explanations, group level analysis can account for differences among terror organizations. Recent data on groups characteristics have allowed scholars and policy makers to differentiate groups in terms of tactics, ideology, goals, and recruitment and answer questions such as which terror groups are more durable, successful, or lethal.

However, there is still a lot we do not know at the group level. For example, data on group actions is scarce which prevents us from testing theoretical claims on group strategies. While data on con-combatant casualties exists, violence is only one of the many negative actions terrorists can employ. We also do not have any comparable data on positive actions undertaken by terrorist groups. A few studies have looked at public goods provision by Hamas and Hezbollah in the areas where their constituency reside (Alexander, 2002; Juergensmeyer, 2003) and some have argued the use of media and political affiliation can increase legitimacy (Neumann & Smith, 2005), yet these findings relate to a few groups, and are not generalizable. In sum, despite the remarkable progress in collecting group level data in recent years, no quantitative data exists on the different strategies adopted by terror groups that measure the group’s popularity or its public support across countries or time. We hope that Reputation of Terror Groups (RTG) dataset addresses this void.

Reputation of Terror Groups (RTG) Dataset

The dataset includes 443 domestic terror groups engaging in at least five attacks and operating between 1980 and 2011. Large sample size of RTG dataset allows comparisons of popularity among groups. While public opinion polls generate micro-level data for some groups in selected years, there is no comparable measure of support that encompasses all terror groups across time. Our dataset, on the other hand, adopts a multi-variable approach by examining multiple aspects of positive/negative reputation building.

Another novelty of the data is its measure of reputation with regard to each target, mainly its constituency and target audience. We define constituency of each terror group as the aggrieved population the group is fighting for or, in other words, the group of people the terrorists claim to represent. Target audience, on the other hand, represents the group of people outside the constituency of the terrorist organization in each country. For example, while Tamils compose the constituency of LTTE, the Sinhalese make up its target audience. Thus we acknowledge that not only do the consequences of the group’s actions towards its target audience matter, but also those towards its own constituency. While the former gauges the extent of intimidation or sympathy the group actions generate among a broader audience, the latter helps us understand how the constituency of the group views the legitimacy of the group claiming to fight for them.

Actions Leading to Reputation Building

In order to measure reputation, we first identified the constituency and target audience of each group. Then we coded eight variables to create three dimensions of each terror group’s popularity: positive (1-2-3) and negative (4-5-6) constituency reputation, and lastly target audience reputation (7-8).

1 – Public goods provision: Groups providing free education, food, security, or health services to their constituency are perceived in a more favorable light as such services generate feelings of gratitude and loyalty towards the group.

2 – Media outlet: Terror groups owning a television or radio channel can display their heroic struggle, elevate their victories, and spread their propaganda, all of which shape the way their constituency views them, especially in places where internet service is unaffordable or distribution of publications remains location bound.

3 – Political doctrine: Groups with a political branch or those affiliated with a legal political party can gain the popularity and support at the grassroots level by spreading their political ideology and message.

4 – Forced recruitment: Coercive recruitment is unpopular; it alienates people, and reduces the legitimacy of the group.

5 – Child recruitment: Often times, coercive recruitment includes the recruitment of children, and harms the group’s image dramatically.

6 – Forced funding: Coercive methods in funding also tarnish the group’s reputation and help sever the bonds between the group and its constituency.

7 – Extreme violence: Extreme violence resulting in many civilian killings can alienate potential sympathizers while generating feelings of enmity towards the group.

8 – Targeting of children: Besides civilian casualties, what generates massive criticism from the target audience is the direct targeting of children. More importantly, intentionally targeting kids is perceived to be a morally incomprehensible deed.

Trends in the Data

Looking at the data, first we find that there is not much temporal change in the actions of groups we conventionally tend to associate with terrorism: employment of violence intended to create fear and intimidation. Accordingly, such actions leading to target audience reputation varies little across the years. In contrast, constituency reputation, which displays terror groups’ actions targeting their potential support group, displays notable fluctuations over time. Especially after the Cold War, the decline in state sponsorship has driven terror groups to seek internal resources. While some groups have adopted long-term strategies that built a positive reputation, others have resorted to cheaper short-term strategies of coercing their constituents. In fact, the tendency to adopt coercive tactics has surpassed groups’ winning the hearts and minds tactics after mid-1990’s. This trend is not surprising as engaging in actions that build a positive reputation would have been too costly and time consuming for many of the nascent groups, which constitute almost half of the terror groups in our dataset after the Cold War.

Figure 1

Another important finding is that terror groups often resort to mixed strategies in their relations to their constituencies. Indeed, groups employing tactics that build an exclusively positive or negative reputation constitute the fewest of the cases; they are the lightest segments of the map. The heat map shows us that while groups with the highest level of positive reputation have no need to resort to coercion, those with lower reputation scores can employ mixed tactics as conflict dynamics shift (e.g. battle losses). Moreover, many groups actually do not engage in any kind of reputation generating activities, they neither invest in costly actions such as public good provision to increase their popularity, nor do they aggrieve their constituency through coercion.

Figure 2

Why Is It Important To Understand Popularity of Terror Groups?

We believe that understanding the constituency and target audience relations is key for implementing effective counterterrorism strategies. We suggest that reputation of groups is an important group-level indicator approximating the potential of each group in recruiting, amassing financial and other types of public support. These factors in return can help explain group success and duration. For instance, previous studies find that terror groups’ longevity is a function of their size (Jones & Libicki, 2008; Blomberg et al., 2011). But what helps some groups to recruit more? We find that terror groups with positive constituency reputation are more likely to find recruits, as each positive action helps bind constituents to the group in a web of trust and loyalty. Moreover, compared to forced recruitment, highly popular groups are more durable, as they can benefit from a continuous stream of committed recruits, which affects the success for achieving the goals.

We think that building reputation could also be an important tool for groups in distinguishing themselves from others in highly competitive environments. We argue that outbidding need not necessarily always result in more violence. Positive reputation can also provide a filtering mechanism, helping constituents sift through multiple groups before deciding on the one worthy of their support. In our analyses we confirm that competition pushes groups towards distinct reputation building, regardless of the type of reputation. Either by building a constructive or brutal image, terrorists seek to distinguish themselves from others, which eventually lead them to find more recruits and financial support.

To show the utility of our data, we also revisited some of the arguments in the literature, which so far remained empirically unconfirmed due to the lack of worldwide data. One of these relates to religiously motivated groups and their proclivity to engage in public goods provision. Case studies on Hamas and Hezbollah reveal that heavy public goods provision by the two groups have been critical in winning the hearts and minds of their constituencies. The question, though, is whether we can generalize these findings to all other religious groups, or is this a finding that is uniquely applicable to Muslim groups, or perhaps to groups operating in the Middle East? Our results indicate that religious groups in general are overall more likely to provide public goods regardless of the region they operate in or religion they embrace. This also sheds light on why the longevity of religious terrorist groups happens to be a robust finding in the literature. Our findings indicate that this has to do with their tendency to employ actions that build a positive reputation.

Implications for Future Research

Beyond the current research we covered, scholars can also use RTG data to understand changes in-group strategies as a function of internal dynamics, or changes in external opportunities (e.g., loss or gain of state sponsorship). Another possibility is to examine how a terrorist group’s strategies shape the government’s response or strategies in return (type of violence or positive inducements/concessions) towards the group or the group’s constituency. Specifically, how does the government behave when a terrorist group employs strategies that are appealing versus abhorrent to its constituency? Lastly, it is important to understand which groups tend to adopt actions that build positive or negative reputation in their constituency and target audience, and how these strategies in return affect conflict outcomes.


Alexander, Yonah (2002) Palestinian Religious Terrorism: Hamas and Islamic Jihad. New York: Transnational.

Blomberg Brock S; Khusrav Gaibulloev & Todd Sandler (2011) Terrorist group survival: Ideology, tactics and base of operations. Public Choice 149(3-4): 441-463.

Findley, Michael G & Joseph K.Young. 2012. Terrorism and Civil War: A Spatial and Temporal Approach to a Conceptual Problem. Perspectives on Terrorism 10(2): 285-305.

Jones, Seth G., & Martin C. Libicki .2008. How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering Al-Qaida. Monograph MG-741-1. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

Juergensmeyer, Mark. 2003. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (13): University of California Press.

Neumann, Peter R. & Mike Smith. 2005. Strategic Terrorism: The Framework and its Fallacies. Journal of Strategic Studies 28(4): 571-595.




Michael Flynn

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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