Vol. 1: Terrorism

Terrorism and Security Studies

“The question, whether ‘the war on terror’ can be won, must be answered with a definite no.”

Prof. Dr Julian Wucherpfennig, Hertie School of Governance

42: Prof. Dr Wucherpfennig, when talking about terrorism nowadays, on the basis of terrorist attacks of the past months, we think about Islamist terrorism. From a scientific perspective, is that proportional to the actual extent of the threat?

Julian Wucherpfennig: No, this perception bears no relation to the actual threat. In two respects: First, the objective threat emanated from the terror in Western Europe is minimal. It is far more likely to drown in one’s own bathtub, to be struck by lightning or to be killed from furniture falling over, than to be killed in a terrorist attack. Secondly, the threat is in no way greater than in the past. Terrorism in a greater extent has existed in Western Europe since the 1960s and 70s, for example through the RAF in German, the ETA in Spain, or the IRA in Ireland. The assumption that there has been more or a new type of terrorism is fundamentally wrong.Looking at statistics from Western Europe, the number of victims of terrorism was higher in the 80s than in recent years. However, Islamic terrorism, at least in the recent past of Western Europe, is relatively new. Islamic terrorism has not come from non-EU citizens to a significant extent – 94% of all terrorists had a European passport. Therefore, there is no stringent evidence that refugees lead to a greater risk of terrorism. If anything, the movement is towards the opposite direction: EU-citizens travel to countries from which streams of refugees flee, train there and come back with planned attacks. Simultaneously another form of terrorism, against Muslims, has arisen as well. This right extremist form of terrorism, however, is often overlooked.

42: Your research focuses mainly on game theoretical und statistical models of explanation. In these models, courses of action are selected by the “actors” based on a cost-benefit-analysis. In what way is it possible to apply this game theoretical approach to international terrorism?

JW: There are some very good approaches with which we can draw conclusions. In general, terrorism as a form of political violence is one of the asymmetrical means; meaning that in principle it is brought on by weak “actors” and is brought against stronger “actors”, for example, states. The two different terrorist strategies have to be distinguished. Two strategies are predominately important for international terrorism: the strategy of provocation and the strategy of attrition. The logic of the provocation is that small or weak groups carry out attacks against bigger targets, states, for example, hoping that a disproportionate reaction, which stands in no way in proportion to the attacks, will follow. Through this disproportionality of retaliation, civilians will be harmed, and the perception of the retaliating country will be beneficial to the terrorist group. The classic example is Al-Qaida and the attacks of 9/11, and the subsequent “War on Terror”, which caused the general public of multiple countries to be infuriated with the USA and the West. This indirectly led to terrorists gaining sympathies. In consequence, Al-Qaida gained in strength and influence. With the second strategy – demoralisation – they succeeded in involving the USA and its allies in lengthy conflicts, which essentially cannot be won. The question, whether “the war on terror” can be won, must be answered with a definite no.

42: We are often reluctant to picture terrorists as rational agents, but why is that the case? And how can the role of ideology be understood in a rational context, where cost-benefit considerations are crucial?

JW: This may be illustrated by the extreme example of suicide bombings. To many, this measure seems utterly absurd and irrational. However, when you consider that an organisation like Hamas, a Sunni Islamist Palestinian group, guarantees a lifelong pension to the suicide bombers’ families or surviving dependents, it then becomes a plausible choice for an altruist looking to take care of their family. From an altruist’s perspective, such an extreme measure becomes rationally comprehensible. Another explanation is the expectation of life after death. When bombers believe that life after death as a martyr has a certain allure because of 72 virgins, for example, this can indeed be attractive. But the increase in suicide bombings can best be understood as a rational life experience which shows that it is an effective means to an end. Groups carrying out suicide attacks were more likely to reach their goals. As a result, other groups then resort to this. Suicidal terrorism is, however, in no way directly linked to Islam as it is an interfaith and ideology-overlapping tactic. During World War Two, many Japanese Kamikaze carried out suicide attacks. For years, the leading group of suicidal terrorists were the “Tamil Tigers” in Sri Lanka, who were Marxist-oriented at times of most severe crises. Thus, there is no link to Islam.

42: The blurring of boundaries we face through globalisation is also reflected in the ways and means of contemporary terrorism. People no longer have to be in the same place to talk to each other and spread knowledge. In this regard, home-grown terrorism is one of the greatest fears in Europe and USA today. Does this change the view of the game-theoretic approach? Does it perhaps create or change options for action by cutting costs?

JW: I would say that the basic influence of new technologies on terrorism is not necessarily obvious. On the one hand, it is certainly the case that costs are lower, and organisation and communication easier. On the other hand, it is also a fact that both of these channels can be used in counter-terrorism strategies so that the net effect is not clear-cut.

42: So it is not a one-sided advantage?

JW: No, because the fundamental logic of terrorism is not at question. The basic mechanisms and calculations do not really change.

42: This leads us on to counter-terrorism. Game theory is always concerned with both sides: In the case of international terrorism, this would be counter-terrorism. How would you describe the challenges and difficulties in the context of game theory?

JW: In principle, counter-terrorism is complex and has to be thought of multidimensionally. But again, one has to keep in mind how big the actual risk one tries to fight is in comparison to the applied means. Studies show, for example, that if USA’s counter-terrorism expenses were actually a benefit, a terrorist attack to the extent of 9/11 would have to happen every few months in order to bring a return. Why is this important? Because money spent on counter-terrorism cannot be invested in the major risks to society, in the healthcare sector, for example. From the perspective of game theory and the strategy of provocation, we learn that it is extremely important to fight terrorists selectively and avoid civil casualties. In this aspect, drones are not necessarily an appropriate instrument in the fight against terrorists. Drones can only eliminate individuals with a limited accuracy within a specific area, which means that innocent civilians can also come to harm. As a result, resentment would grow.

42: … which would be in the terrorists’ interests?

J.W: Exactly.

42: What would be your advice to European governments that currently find themselves confronted with this increased need for the safety of their citizens, and can also feel the rise of right-wing politics?

JW: My advice would certainly be not to play into the terrorists’ hands by exaggerating the objective risk subjectively. Because this is exactly what the terrorists want. Instead of panicking, selective, effective mechanisms should be used to deal with the problem, but always in relation to the objective risks that are actually minimal. The problem of counter-terrorism in politics is complicated by the fact that it always looks bad on politicians when, in the rare instance of a terrorist attack, they are accused of not having implemented sufficient security measures. Instead, it is better if they have rolled out many visible measures they can pride themselves on, even though the risk was relatively small to begin with. The incentive structure for politicians is established in such a way that they are encouraged to overestimate the risks of terrorism and overstate their response.

42: Thank you for the interview.


Interview: Tabea Breternitz

Translation: Franziska Flade / Amir Yousif

Photo: Felix_Broennimann/Pixabay


Prof. Dr Julian Wucherpfennig
Hertie School of Governance