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Explaining Terrorism: Leadership Deficits and Militant Group Tactics

  • Max Abrahms and Philip B.K. Potter
Abstract

Certain types of militant groups—those suffering from leadership deficits—are more likely to attack civilians. Their leadership deficits exacerbate the principal-agent problem between leaders and foot soldiers, who have stronger incentives to harm civilians. We establish the validity of this proposition with a tripartite research strategy that balances generalizability and identification. First, we demonstrate in a sample of militant organizations operating in the Middle East and North Africa that those lacking centralized leadership are prone to targeting civilians. Second, we show that when the leaderships of militant groups are degraded from drone strikes in the Afghanistan-Pakistan tribal regions, the selectivity of organizational violence plummets. Third, we elucidate the mechanism with a detailed case study of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a Palestinian group that turned to terrorism during the Second Intifada because pressure on leadership allowed low-level members to act on their preexisting incentives to attack civilians. These findings indicate that a lack of principal control is an important, underappreciated cause of militant group violence against civilians.

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