Terrorist Groups and Reputation Building

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, “To instill fear or love: Terrorist groups and strategy of building reputation”, in the Conflict Management and Peace Science. In an earlier post dated February 24th 2016, the authors explain the data and the measurement in detail.

Terror Groups and Their Actions: Multiple Messages Send to Multiple Audiences

Terrorism is once again spreading the fear not only to the victims of the recent attacks in Ankara, Istanbul, and Brussels, but also to others who consider themselves as a potential victim of the next attack. Due to the new emerging terrorism threat, many events from schools to football games were cancelled last week. Those that were not cancelled, not surprisingly, failed to attract enough audience as people preferred to stay at home as a safety precaution. This is what the terrorists intended to achieve, and the attack, at the very minimum, did that. Indeed, the very definition of terrorism includes the goal of spreading fear, and intimidation beyond the attack itself.

The conventional wisdom evaluates the success of terrorism by merely looking at to what extent civilians are intimidated, and in return, the type and extent of concessions governments grant to such groups. We argue however that the strategy of inflicting maximum casualties, also affect the way the terror group is perceived among the population, and may not always be an indicator of group success. Furthermore, the literature, except for a few case studies, largely neglects other strategies of terror groups beyond inflicting casualties, and attacks, which may affect group performance. Terror groups need to sustain crucial needs such as finding new recruits, safe haven, food, shelter and money. Every group relies on these items to continue its operations, and must reach out to its supporters to ensure the influx of these resources.

Terrorists not only intend to intimidate a wider audience to achieve goals, but also attract material and non-material support. Thus, each strategy the terror group adopts must disseminate two messages: one to the constituency – the group of people the terror group claims to represent and whose support it seeks, and the other to its non-constituency – the group of people the group does not represent, and whom it only targets to spread fear. Ideally, disseminating the right message to the right audience can empower the group, and contribute to its overall success. But the question still remains: how do they decide which strategy to follow among the many?

We assume that the actions of terror groups in both audiences are driven by a simple cost-benefit calculation. While all terror groups may want to benefit from the rewards of undertaking actions with the intent to build a positive reputation, e.g. popular support, committed and voluntary recruits and funds, those actions are rather costly. They may backfire, or not bring in the expected support. We find that groups only adopt positive actions if they can minimize the inherent risks. This logic constitutes the main pillars of our theoretical mechanism in understanding what group characteristics determine which strategy to follow.

Although engaging in positive actions such as maintaining a media outlet, providing public goods, or engaging in political activities in one’s constituency is costly, these strategies tend to offer high returns in the form of voluntary recruits likely to be dedicated to the cause. We claim that ethnic/religious terror groups can minimize the risks and guarantee returns from positive actions when they target beneficiaries based on common identity ties. Additionally, we claim that terrorist groups with territorial control are better equipped to capitalize on the returns of their strategy as the military dominance of the group minimizes disruption on the provision of services. Second, we argue that although the costs and risks of negative actions such as forced funding and forced recruitment are low, so are the returns. Terrorist groups with cross-border support are not reliant on their constituency to the extent that others are which minimizes the need to elicit their support via positive actions. Additionally, radical terrorist groups are less likely to attempt to gain a positive reputation when most of the members of their constituency fail to sympathize with their radical agenda. These groups tend to adopt coercive methods to find the necessary recruits and funding. Lastly, we argue that some terrorist groups find it optimal to build positive image within their non-constituency. They are less inclined to use indiscriminate violence, despite the ease with which the strategy can be adopted, if their main objective tends to be policy concessions. Policy oriented groups need open channels for bargaining, which is impossible with an alienated and aggrieved non-constituency.

We find support for all our expectations. In Figure 1, (a) the first two sets of bars show how identity ties and territorial control increase the likelihood of engaging in positive actions in the group’s constituency, (b) the second two sets of bars show how radical goals and cross-border activities increase the likelihood of engaging in negative actions in the constituency, and (c) the last set of bars show how policy related goals decrease the likelihood of engaging in negative actions in the non-constituency.

Figure 1. Main Findings
Figure 1. Main Findings

By focusing exclusively on when terror groups intend to build either a positive or negative reputation, we omit why and when groups could use mixed strategies, that is employ both positive and negative actions concurrently. The concurrent use of positive and negative actions may be a function of conflict dynamics; mainly battle losses or external shocks can force groups to initiate coercive tactics for recruitment. Our work does not contradict mixed strategizing. While we hypothesize that ethnic/religious terrorists may be inclined to engage in positive actions whereas radical groups and those with cross-border support may be inclined to take actions leading to a negative reputation, we are aware that these are not mutually exclusive categories. In Figure 2, we also report the predicted probabilities for group characteristics to engage in specific actions accounting for mixed strategies. Our expectations still hold in mixed-strategizing, each action type contributes to the positive or negative reputation building process as hypothesized. For instance, radical groups are less likely to engage in actions building positive reputation, nevertheless if the radical group controls a territory it becomes more likely to engage in actions building positive reputation. Or similarly, a group operating across borders is more likely to engage in positive reputation building activities if they control a territory, which minimizes the risks on reputation building investments.

Figure 2. Mixed Strategy Findings
Figure 2. Mixed Strategy Findings

To conclude, we argued that the actions of terrorist groups in regard to reputation building differ widely from each other, that these actions could only be identified as a strategy if they were specified in relation to each target population, the constituency and non-constituency. Terror groups try to minimize the costs and risks associated with each strategy before deciding on one. Although engaging in positive actions that build a positive reputation, such as maintaining a media outlet, providing public goods, or engaging in political activities is costly, these strategies tend to offer high returns in the form of voluntary recruits likely to be dedicated to the cause. We showed that various group level characteristics such as terrorists’ goals, ideology, territorial control etc. could help us understand the strategy each group adopted by affecting their risks, costs, and returns. Future studies should also invest more in group-level theorizing and testing to further our understanding of group level strategies.

In this study, we treated terrorist groups as distinct entities with different agendas and survival strategies. Future research could develop the concept of the reputation of terrorist groups not only by looking at domestic constituencies, as we did, but also by looking at international ones. For example, terrorist groups may find supporters among international constituencies that sympathize with their cause and donate to their activities. Lastly, the dependent variables we coded, constituency and non-constituency reputation, can also be used to explain interesting phenomena, such as terrorist groups’ survival and conflict outcomes. The bargaining power of terrorist groups, for example, is not solely reliant on their size but also on their popularity and image. Terrorist groups investing in winning the hearts and minds of their constituencies can pose distinct challenges to governments.



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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