International Security

Carrots AND Sticks Necessary for Counterterrorism?

Erica Chenoweth Aug 29 '12

This is a guest post by Scott Weiner, a PhD student at George Washington University.


Last week, Political Violence @ A Glance ran a summary of a fascinating new academic paper in the American Sociological Review by Erica Chenoweth and Laura Dugan.  The paper argues that conciliatory actions – those which reward non-participation in terrorism – may be more effective than repression in reducing terrorism.  It uses Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians between 1987 and 2004 as a case.  Using a dataset of 6,070 Israeli actions, the paper demonstrates a lagged but statistically significant effect of conciliatory actions on the number of Palestinian terrorist attacks.  That is, when Israel increased the number of conciliatory actions, Palestinian terrorism ultimately decreased.  The full academic paper is only about 22 pages and definitely worth a read.

For political scientists, better understanding conciliation is an important step forward.  The international relations literature, as the authors explain, tends to overplay the importance of demonstrating resolve in an international crisis.  Concessions are often understood in the literature as mere “appeasement.”  In addition, work on the effectiveness of violence tends not to examine seriously conciliatory behavior (with this notable exception).  Comparative politics literature can also benefit from the paper’s findings.  In particular, work on state-minority relations in nationalism and ethnic politics (Jenne, 2004; Mylonas, forthcoming) is just beginning to speak to the issue of government repression versus concession of nationalist groups.

For policymakers, the article offers important lessons about how to respond to terrorism.  Its findings are easily applied to Egypt’s relations with its Sinai Bedouin population, and other contemporary conflicts between governments and terrorist groups.  By touting conciliatory actions rather than repression, the article also speaks to the importance of population centric measures in successful counterinsurgency.  It reaffirms the idea that punishment alone is not sufficient strategy to defeat terrorism.

Given the importance of the issues to which the paper speaks, I offer three reactions – followed by concrete suggestions – of how the paper’s argument could be honed for maximum impact.

Firstly, whether or not an action is conciliatory may be a matter of subjective judgement.  Examples of conciliatory action in the paper include everything from leniency towards former Red Brigade terrorists in exchange for information, to freedom for ETA supporters to practice cultural traditions, to building better wells for Palestinians.  Whether an action is conciliatory seems to be dependent on its context.  The general principle of a conciliatory action is that it builds trust and between the group in question and the government, bolstering the government’s legitimacy.  The idea seems correct.  At the same time, such a wide range of potential forms of conciliation which vary in every context necessitates a subjective determination of whether an action is conciliatory.    This determination is further complicated by the notorious challenge of defining trust and legitimacy in the first place.  Looking at a specific set of actions which are understood as conciliatory might allow for a more precise operationalization of the formal theory the paper presents.

Secondly, terrorists and constituents may have different valuations of the status quo.  The paper argues that terrorists and those who support them act out of a desire to improve their status quo.  Conciliation dissuades terrorism because it raises the value of the status quo such that not attacking becomes a better strategy for a would-be terrorist than attacking.  However, the paper also emphasizes the importance of a terrorist group’s constituents (e.g. the ETA and those who support them).  If terrorist groups lose this support, they will lose operational capability.

In the paper, the discussion of the model accounts for this fact, but the model itself does not.  The status quo variable is singular, rather than accounting for potential differences between what aspects of the status quo matter to terrorists versus constituents.  This is important because terrorists and constituents may not react to the same changes in the status quo.  For constituents, it makes sense that an improvement in quality of life could reduce support for terrorism.  However, terrorists who commit attacks are often reacting to past humiliation, personal trauma caused by involvement in the conflict, a sense of existential emergency, or any number of other factors.  It is unclear in this case what “rewards” for non-participation by Israel would be sufficient to shift the calculus of would-be Palestinian terrorists for whom these factors are the motivator.  The authors allude to some of these points in their discussion, but disaggregating the status quo variable into one for terrorists and one for constituents may improve the explanatory power of the model.

Finally, the level of attacks may be less a factor of conciliation versus repression than the interaction between them.  The paper is a bit confusing in communicating the extent to which repression and conciliation are considered separate in the first place.  The article codes events along a 7-point scale from “accommodation” to “extremely deadly repression,” indicating that repression and conciliation are two ends of the same scale.  However, the results table reports each as separate values for each given time period.

But as the authors hint at in the conclusion, repression may not operate in opposition to repression, but rather in tandem with it.  In developing this idea, the authors could draw on American counterinsurgency doctrine, as outlined in FM-324.  That document understands success against insurgents to be based on a combination of conciliation and repression (4-7).  Success during the Iraq troop surge of 2007, for example, was not only the result of creating infrastructure and services in Baghdad, but also raiding houses of suspected insurgents and engaging them on their own turf.  For the purposes of this paper, perhaps an index accounting for the ratio of repressive actions to conciliatory ones could lend greater insight into the questions at hand.

As all these points illustrate, this article is incredibly thought-provoking and engages important questions about terrorism and political violence.  Discussion of the issues it raises speak to important contemporary debates in political science and policymaking alike.  Both camps will enjoy taking the time to read it.