By Manzar Zaidi
Dec 17, 2013


What do terrorists hope to gain by targeting civilian targets? As a layman one would presume that there must be some sort of logic, no matter how perverse, behind such attacks. However, this is one of the dilemmas behind the phenomenon of terrorism that it sometimes flies in the face of facts, which makes it even more dangerous. This can be understood by referring to some of the more authoritative studies on terrorism. If terrorism is understood to be politically motivated violence, then in a rationally operative strategic model, people should participate in terrorist organizations because of their commitment to some political goals.  The commonly accepted strategic model of terrorism accepted by experts worldwide explicitly requires that no matter what trajectories of terrorism an organization takes, it cannot be said to succeed unless it attains some of its stated political goals. Any sort of terrorism which just perpetuates itself without any consideration of logic of consequence would thus be irrational. Any activities undertaken in pursuance of such political goals like attacking civilian targets would also be irrational, unless the entity in questions could attain at least some of its political goals by attacking civilian targets. To add to this , it has been documented by research that even though attacks on civilians generate a high shock value, terrorists have almost never attained  their policy demands by targeting soft civilian targets. A study by The Rand Corporation  in the 1980s reported that “terrorists have been unable to translate the consequences of terrorism into concrete political gains. . . .In that sense terrorism has failed. It is a fundamental failure.” Martha Crenshaw, a renowned scholar on terrorism and political violence remarked at the time that terrorists tended not to obtain “the long-term ideological objectives they claim to seek, and therefore one must conclude that terrorism is objectively a failure.” Thomas Schelling, another prominent scholar of the phenomenon later validated this hypothesis by noting that terrorist attacks “never appear to accomplish anything politically significant”. In a recent research involving twenty-eight well-known terrorist campaigns, the researcher Max Abrahms discovered that terrorist organizations did not accomplish their stated goals even once through civilian attacks.  Even though many social and political scientists try to justify terrorism through hypothetical theoretical models on the premise that terrorizing civilians is an effective way to gain political goals, their findings reveal exactly the opposite; there has never ever been a modern terrorist organization which gained its political goals by attacking civilian targets. In fact, considering the results of such civilian directed campaigns, such strategies have hurt the terrorist organizations by turning public opinion against them. Such case studies are rife; Walter Laqueur , widely considered as one of the founders  of counter terrorism studies concludes that targeting civilian targets has always hurt the terrorist organizations more than it has helped them”.  Opinion Polls undertaken  after the Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) attack on  the British public revealed that the British as a nation became averse to withdrawal from  Northern Ireland, a trend exactly opposite to what the IRA terrorists had hoped for .The same ‘opposite to expected result’ was elicited after terrorist attacks on civilians in Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, the Philippines, and Russia, amongst many others.

It’s a similar picture in Pakistan. Many surveys have indicated that in the timelines when terrorist attacks, mainly suicide bombings increased, the opinion of the populace turned against the perpetrators.  Surveys conducted by the Pew Research Centre at the time revealed that a progressively increasing number of   Pakistani public had started turning against the suicide bombing tactic and Osama bin Laden, considered as separate variables.  In 2004, 41% of Pakistanis had endorsed suicide bombing and terrorism as a means to protect religion. This proved to be a knee jerk reaction to what may very well have been just another expression of anti Americanism due to Pakistan’s support for the GWOT. When terrorism came home so to speak, and suicide bombings started in earnest on public, terrorism was endorsed by only about   5% of the respondents in 2008. Simultaneously, support for Bin Laden also plummeted from 51% positive opinion in 2005 to 34% in 2008. This may also partly account for the facts that after Osama’s recent death, except for some religious elements, there have not been any mass scale public agitations to specifically lament his death.

 Pakistanis have become very averse to extremism, ostensibly because they have stared into its face for a long time. This aversion is very marked, with 72% of polled Pakistanis shunning extremism in a survey in 2008. Not coincidentally, this was the highest level of response measurable in a cluster of eight Muslim countries surveyed simultaneously. The other countries were Egypt, Jordan, Indonesia, Lebanon, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Turkey. These findings corroborate an earlier Pew survey, which revealed that 74% Pakistani respondents were anxious about extremism in 2006. This survey also measured concerns with other Muslim countries, and again the percentage of Pakistani concern was higher. Jordanians expressed 69% concern, Egyptians 68%, Turkish 46%, and 43% of surveyed Indonesians were concerned about extremism at the time. Thus, it seems that the Pakistani civilian has turned against the terrorist tactics which he has been witnessing in Pakistan for a long time. Thus, it seems illogical on part of the terrorists to continue targeting civilians even when they would obviously need a continuing supply of manpower for indoctrination, operations and sanctuary. This is a loss of opportunity for terrorists in the sense that it alienates population clusters, who deny recruitment, operations and sanctuary to terrorists. This translates into an ‘opportunity cost’ for terrorists who target civilians despite growing resentment against such attacks. This also clashes with the commonly accepted strategic models of terrorism, which assume that rational people are involved in decision making in terrorist organizations to achieve a certain set of political goals. However, in case of Pakistan and practically every other country affected by terrorism, terrorists do not consider the opportunity cost which is denied them by targeting civilians. Even if this cost of attacking civilians was offset by the attainment of political goals by some other means, it would be a fair bargain. For instance, if a state could be coerced by the terrorizing of its civilians into making compensations to terrorists, it would at least make sense for terrorists to kill innocent civilians. However, this is not the case; nowhere in the world has any terrorist organization achieved its goals solely by coercion of a state through killing its citizens. Thus, killing civilians does not accomplish political goals and also denies opportunity to terrorists, but terrorists in Pakistan and elsewhere still do it. That is why many observers of the phenomenon of terrorism and its political utility question its rationality and efficacy of motives.

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