Max Abrahms is an Assistant Professor of Political Science who researches the strategic effectiveness of terrorism. Abrahms joined Northeastern University’s Political Science Department in 2013 after having received a Ph.D. in international relations and comparative politics from the University of California-Los Angeles, an M.Phil. in international relations from Oxford University, and a B.A. in political science and history from the University of Pennsylvania. Abrahm’s empirical studies of terrorism have produced controversial results. In the following interview, Abrahms explains his theory that terrorism is an ineffective tactic for inducing government concessions, and that militant groups use it when lower level members are calling the shots. Abrahms also discusses his views on drone strikes, the Islamic State and Israel’s responses to terrorism. Northeastern journalism professor and associate director of Jewish Studies Laurel Leff conducted the interview, which has been edited for style, length and clarity. The interview took place prior to ISIS’s capture of the city of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria.
How did you decide to take up terrorism as a topic for research?
I graduated from college in 2000. On a whim I only applied to one masters program, at Oxford University in international relations. It really wasn’t clear what I was going to latch onto in terms of international relations when I started Oxford in the fall of 2000. I thought that I would do my thesis on some aspect of terrorism. I was told that I would have a very tough time finding an advisor because terrorism isn’t usually studied in the field of international relations. Then 9/11 happened over our long summer break. Upon my return to Oxford, I was greeted by faculty who said ‘of course we do terrorism, there’s no better place to study terrorism than Oxford University.’
Do you think that they were right that before 9/11 terrorism wasn’t really studied in an academic sense?
That is true. There has been a flurry of terrorism research but the vast majority of it is post 9/11.
Why did you even think of doing terrorism?
I found Oxford a little bit intimidating. The other students had a lead in terms of the studying of international relations. For some of them, this was their second masters course, or they were in their 30s and were midlevel diplomats. So I needed to find a topic quick. I knew something about Palestinian terrorism so I thought I’d latch onto an area that I knew a bit about to stay afloat. I found the Oxford professors to be quite ideologically minded and reflexively harsh critics of the United States. I had less of a stomach for that after 9/11. I responded by graduating and working at a pretty hawkish think tank, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
This was in the early years of our incursion in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the time there were bifurcated predictions between the policy community and the academic community as to how the Iraq war would actually play out. Among academics the idea of going into Iraq was quite unpopular. Within the policy community, many people strongly advocated regime change. It didn’t matter if it was Republicans, Democrats, DOD [Department of Defense], State, a majority of D.C. opinion seemed to be in favor of the war, at least initially. So basically the academics and policy people had different predictions on how it would shake down. At the time, I said to myself, ‘This is very interesting. I’m not really sure whether I want to be in the policy community or be an academic. Let’s have Iraq be a test case for which side was right.’ Clearly the academics carried the day. I saw that things in Iraq went south really quick.
Do you feel it was just in this instance or was there something about academia that makes it a better predictor of what’s going to occur?
I think that academics and policy makers have different dispositions. In general academics are less confident that military force can make us safer. People in D.C. are more likely to overrate the extent to which military force promotes safety. So on the whole, on a host of policy issues, you would find this trend. In the Iraq case, the more cautious approach was superior. I went to UCLA, which was very much on the map about terrorism even before 9/11. When I got there I determined that studying Israel was a losing battle. I liked to view myself as an empiricist who lets evidence determine my stance on things. But whenever I made any claim whatsoever about Israel, people doubted how I arrived at that conclusion by dint of the fact that I was Jewish. So I realized that if I wanted to be treated as a serious empiricist maybe I should move away from Israel.
Is this a more general problem, and not just true of you?
Oh, for sure. It’s very tough to make it in academe on the subject of Israel, especially if you’re regarded as pro-Israel. I decided to get around this problem by essentially broadening my research agenda beyond the Palestinian context. Furthermore, it affected my decision about my methodological approach that now leans heavily toward statistics. You’re less likely to be accused of being an ideologue if you can use some well-established data: these are the results that I get and these are the results you get as well.
How did you develop your more specific focus on terrorism’s effectiveness?
In between my think tank experience and going to UCLA, I decided to do a little field research in the West Bank. Israel was in the process of building up this enormous security fence. I thought I would go there and try to understand the dynamics of this conflict, speak to the Israelis, speak to the Palestinians. It might create the germ of a future dissertation. I had this practice of printing out academic articles on terrorism. I would read them during these excursions in the back of a cab as I was cruising around the West Bank. I read an article from a very prominent professor from the University of Chicago named Robert Pape. The article is called “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.” What he says is that terrorism is ideal for pressuring governments into making major political concessions. As evidence, he says that the Palestinians are the paradigmatic example that terrorism pays. In reading that in a cab driving around the West Bank, I was immediately struck by the disconnect between what I was reading by this leading scholar in international relations about the effectiveness of terrorism and the reality on the ground. The Palestinians I was talking to in the West Bank understood that this wall was created to block suicide terrorism and that the wall would negatively affect them in all sorts of ways, including politically. So from the get go, even before I started the PhD program, I thought about focusing on how governments respond to terrorism, on whether it is indeed true that it helps the perpetrators achieve their demands. If not, then we need to find some alternative explanation for why groups do it.
Are Pape’s claims mostly theoretical or does he use some examples?
He does have a data set; in that sense it is an empirical study. But this crucial point — whether terrorism pays or not — is largely asserted. I set out during my PhD studies to essentially fill this research lacuna. I did case studies on the Palestinians, on Al Qaeda, showing that terrorism didn’t really help them in achieving their stated goals. As I advanced in graduate school I gained some methodological knowledge and I could tech up the studies more and more. I published some regression analyses where I was able to show that, all else equal, groups are much better off not using terrorism in achieving their goals. I want to clarify what I mean exactly. The definition of terrorism I use is when non-state actors use violence against civilian targets in particular to achieve some presumed political goal.
So that’s part of what makes it terrorism, that it’s used against civilians?
Yes. So terrorism is the dependent variable and the independent variable is the likelihood the government would make concessions. That’s an important point to emphasize. A lot of people might say: `Well, terrorism is effective. It’s violent. It’s scary. It gets a lot of media attention.’ But I would argue that’s not illuminating because those criteria are part of the very definition of terrorism. If you measure the success of terrorism in terms of the fact that it terrorizes, then all terrorism of course will have a 100 percent success rate. But it’s generally understood that terrorism is instrumental violence, that it’s in essence a political tool. That’s why I code my independent variable in terms of whether governments are complying. Basically what I found is that not all violence perpetrated by militant groups is equal, that when groups direct their violence against military targets in particular, they’re much more likely to achieve their goals than when they targets civilians.
What’s been the reaction to your conclusions that terrorism isn’t an effective politically strategy?
There are two components to my argument. The easier component, for which I got less push back, is showing that in a large sample of groups those that rely on terrorism have a very poor political success rate. In other words, terrorism is highly correlated with political failure. This is a point most people were willing to concede.
How many cases were you looking at?
The first sample I looked at was 42 campaigns by groups that are called foreign terrorist organizations as designated by our State Department. Other researchers, using larger samples, have found similar rates of success. Everybody who has looked at this has found well under 10 percent success.
And you didn’t get much push back on that?
It pretty much became established that terrorists don’t tend to win politically. But my argument is actually even stronger. It’s not just that there’s this correlation between terrorism and political failure, but rather that the terrorism itself is politically counterproductive. . On that second independent point — that terrorism isn’t just a political failure but tends to cause the political failure — there seems to be more objections. Some people have countered and said, ‘Look I believe you that terrorists seldom achieve their political goals but maybe it has nothing to do with their tactical choice. Perhaps, for example, terrorism is a weapon of the weak so maybe only weaker groups use terrorism. The reason they fall short politically isn’t because they attack civilians but because of low organizational capability to start with.’ Other people said, ‘Well of course it’s not surprising that these fanatics don’t achieve their goals because their goals are so expansive. What government is going to comply with the idea of establishing a caliphate, for example? [A caliphate is a government under the control of a single spiritual leader of all Islam.] It doesn’t really matter if the perpetrators attack civilians or military targets.’
The terrorist’s goal is not a goal that can be accomplished.
So in the regression analysis I control for the capability of the perpetrators, the target country, the nature of the demands being issued. What I find is, after holding constant dozens of variables, the use of terrorism seems to have a negative independent effect on government concessions.
It would seem that any movement away from the strategic model of terrorism is an accomplishment.
In a number of terrorism courses, they now have a little unit on whether or not terrorism pays, whether it works. They assign some of my research and they juxtapose members of the strategic model like Robert Pape. I presented last week at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. The professor teaching that terrorism class said they had a debate in their class before I got there. According to the professor, Dara Kay Cohen, about a third of the students seemed to agree with me. I told her that when I was done with the presentation hopefully I’d get a few more.
So it’s a debate and clearly you’ve entered the debate.
Certainly not everyone is persuaded but it’s persuasive enough for me to move on with my research. Now I do related work on why groups attack civilian targets when it has suboptimal political returns. I have a theory to explain which groups use terrorism, when and why. It’s predicated on the idea that militant groups are internally heterogeneous. Members at the top are different essentially than the rank and file. In particular the senior leadership tend to be most opposed to civilian targeting. Essentially, there’s an inverse relationship between one’s position within the institutional hierarchy and one’s incentive for harming civilians. The lower down you go within the organization, the stronger the incentives to harm civilians. I predicted that leadership deficits — situations in which the senior leadership had to delegate tactical decision making to lower level members — would promote civilian targeting, i.e. terrorism.
Why do you think that is? What is the dynamic at work?
There are many reasons why lower level members would have the fewest inhibitions against striking civilian targets. For one, militant groups are a bit like inner city gangs in the sense that lower level members might feel that they have to commit some sort of atrocity, some sort of normative violation, to demonstrate their radicalism or commitment to the group. The same dynamic isn’t at play for the senior leadership, They don’t have to play these games because they are already at the organizational apex. Furthermore, because of their position within the organization, senior leadership can draw upon the resources of the organization to launch attacks against any target.
So presumably it’s harder and more expensive to strike military targets.
Yes. Senior leadership is capable of planning attacks against more hardened targets while the lower level members are comparatively starved of organizational resources. They’re more likely to launch attacks against soft targets, civilian ones. Furthermore, the senior leadership tends to be the oldest and have the most experience with asymmetrical conflict, while the lowest level members tend to be the newest. The senior leadership seem to have come to the same conclusion that I have, which is that civilian targeting can be politically costly. The senior leadership is more likely to oppose civilian targeting because they’re more likely to understand the potential costs.
You just published “Explaining Terrorism: Leadership Deficits and Militant Groups Tactics” in International Organization. Have you gotten any reaction?
It’s too early. We test this theory in all sorts of ways. One of the more interesting ways is by making use of data on drones. It should follow that when a drone strike takes out a leader of a militant group, its violence will become more indiscriminate, its violence is likely to be directed against civilian targets. So we looked at a 14-day window after drone strikes. We find that they do make groups more likely to attack civilian targets. We find that when the leader of a militant group is taken out in that window the group is more likely to take out its violence against civilians. Furthermore, even if the drones are not successful in the sense that they don’t take out the leader, they have the effect of scaring the leader and making him assume a lower profile within the group which in a sense delegates tactical decision making to lower level members in the same way as if he were deceased during that time period.
You said a 14-day period. Is that long enough?
That’s where we pick up the greatest tactical change. Over time the violence seems to return to pre-drone strike levels. It’s an interesting question why militant groups use violence immediately after a drone strike but in time become more selective. One possibility is during this time period lower level members are attacking civilian targets and after a couple weeks the leadership that’s remaining disciplines them.
So there’s jockeying for power at that point.
It may even be that they’re able to clamp down on these wayward members and say, ‘hey look, this isn’t really serving our cause.’ I’m not entirely sure.
What do you see as the policy implications of this?
In response to the growing centrality of drones, there have been numerous empirical studies on their effectiveness. There’s no consensus, unfortunately, partly because scholars have looked at different variables in terms of understanding drone success. So some people have looked at whether drones expedite the demise of militant groups, whether drones reduce militant group violence, whether drones turn the local population against the perpetrators of the drones, etc. There’s no consensus over how to measure effectiveness and that’s why there’s so much intellectual discord on this topic.
One of the things the Obama administration claims is that when you knock out the top that has to be successful.
The basic theory behind the drones is very appealing. It’s very intuitive. It is predicated on this idea that not all members of militant groups are of equal quality. That if we can take out high value targets that are presumably at the top, that that leaves the group weaker. Based on my earlier research, that civilian targeting is politically costly for the perpetrators, it may well be that drones are strategically effective in the long term by making groups engage in suboptimal violence which tends to have the effect of turning the local population against the group and makes it harder to recruit.
Might the Palestinian-Israeli context be different because the civilians who would be targeted are Israeli Jews, not a local population similar to the attackers?
I think the theory holds for the Palestinians too. Fatah for many years has understood that attacking Israeli civilians, especially within the green line [Israel’s 1949 borders], is counterproductive in trying to get Israel to negotiate. Furthermore, the international community, to the extent it ever is likely to support Israel, is more likely to support Israel in the face of these attacks. Yet, during the Second Intifada, the Israel Defense Forces took out a number of leaders with the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade [Fatah’s militant wing] and made the group even more likely to target civilians.
Can you explain some of the bombings at the pizza parlors and all that horrible stuff that was going on in 2002 and 2003 partially by the removal of the leadership?
I do believe so. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade was only really viewed as a terrorist group after the marginalization of the leadership and the tendency to attack civilian targets. One of the big leaders of this group is Marwan Barghouti. He’s in prison and the obvious temptation is to keep him behind bars but he may be in the best position to really clamp down.
It’s very interesting and it’s all counterintuitive at the same time. What about the Islamic State? Were would you put them in this calculus?
ISIS is a very strange group. It is the successor to Al Qaeda in Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq used violence indiscriminately in Iraq to the point even moderate Sunnis lost interest in the group, sided against it, and, combined with the surge [the increase in American troops in Iraq in 2007], ultimately crushed the group. So you would think ISIS, which was born out of the group, would have learned this strategy lesson but it hasn’t. Not only does ISIS use violence against civilians, it broadcasts its violence in an unprecedented way using social media. I believe that ultimately this strategy will be counterproductive. I already see evidence that that’s the case. The anti-ISIS military coalition is growing every single month and the reason is because the group is attacking more and more target countries and then bragging about it. Look at how countries have responded. The United States only really decided to go into Syria and take on the Islamic State aggressively when they beheaded journalist James Foley. The Jordanians were very tepid members of the coalition against ISIS originally because the Jordanians thought the coalition was a western construct and Jordan was relatively safe from ISIS violence. But after they torched its citizen in a cage, the Hashemite kingdom was compelled by the Jordanian public to respond very aggressively, which it did by bombing the group from the air. When 21 Egyptian Coptics were killed in Libya, all of a sudden Egypt decided to play a leading role in constructing a pan-Arabic force in taking on the Islamic State. Even Japan, which is a very pacific country owing to its experience in World War II, became much more bellicose when ISIS killed its two citizens. The more countries that turn against the Islamic State the smaller the membership will be and the weaker it will become.
Isn’t there a possibility in the case of ISIS that on one hand you develop more enemies but you also develop more supporters?
There’s no question that this brutality by the Islamic State helps it outbid rival groups. There are certain people in the world who are already radicalized. They are looking for a militant group to call home. When they see ISIS is the baddest group on the block, the appeal to join ISIS is stronger than to join other groups. However, the international media leaves one with the impression that this violence is succeeding by growing the membership size, but the number of enemies is growing at a faster rate than the number of recruits. I think of it almost in terms of a bar fight where a really small guy punches a bartender in the face and then brags about it. If the onlooker then leaves, he might be left with the impression that this aggressive guy gains utility through his actions. What’s going to happen is that this bartender is going to crush this person. If we’re trying assess the overall utility of ISIS violence we should stick around beyond the initial provocation.
You said that there are a certain number of people who just want to find a terrorist home. Maybe if it weren’t for ISIS, these same people would be joining Al Qaeda or Boko Haram or whatever else is out there. One group is gaining but it’s not like there’s an overall across the board increase in terrorism’s popularity.
Well, there is an overall upward trend of international terrorism. ISIS hasn’t been successful in pressuring governments into making concessions but it has been successful in advertising itself and spurring defections from weaker groups. One of the big issues in the study of terrorism these days is how Muslim are these people really, especially since it calls itself the Islamic State. I tend to fall on the side of saying terrorist groups should be understood as power maximizers rather than ideological purists.
Including ISIS. You think that’s true?
Yes, I do. Look at where ISIS is moving. It’s no longer based exclusively in Iraq and Syria. It has spread out to the Sinai, to Yemen, to Libya, to Afghanistan, to Nigeria. What do all these places have in common? It’s not that they are inherently better from the vantage of Islamist ideological reasons but rather these places are power vacuums. They’re areas of poor governance where a group like Islamic state can pick up the radicals that are there and grow the membership of the group. This line of thinking strengthens the argument that even the Islamic state is more motivated by power than by Islam.
One of the things that make the Islamic State particularly scary is that they seem to get land.
This is very unusual. The Islamic State has ambitions about being a state specifically in creating a caliphate that requires all sorts of additional infrastructure beyond that of an insurgent group. Furthermore, it very much affects the recruiting. The Islamic State is trying very strongly to appeal to women to be Jihadi brides to create the next generation of ISIS members. In fact, they have a unit of about 400 members called the Cubs of Caliphate, little child ISIS soldiers. ISIS, unlike most terrorist groups, engages in taxation, creates schools, has hospitals and even orients its social media strategy for the long term.
What does that mean for your model?
I think that ultimately this is a group that will be unsuccessful, just as its predecessor has paid a heavy price. Over time it will become harder and harder to attract recruits. Furthermore, the international response will strengthen and, as it does, ISIS’ manpower shortage will become increasingly evident. There will be fewer and fewer strategic gains by the group that will further disincentivize members from joining.
What’s the time frame on that?
Already the tide is turning against the Islamic State. I would judge success against ISIS by the number of opponents the Islamic State has in the world. At a more fine grain level, we could look at how the battles are actually playing out, say, in in Tikrit [Iraq]. In Tikrit, the Islamic State really only had a few hundred fighters. It was up against a force of about 30,000. So it’s no surprise that ISIS was flushed out of Tikrit. I expect the group to continue to lose as the ratio of its fighters to its opponents gets worse.
I think of drone strikes as being used against Al Qaeda primarily. Have there been drone strikes against ISIS?
We do think of drones as used mostly against Al Qaeda. We’ve also used drones against the Islamic State. In fact there was an attack on March 18  that according to many credible reports in the media critically wounded the leader of the Islamic State, [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi. Interestingly, the Pentagon says it cannot confirm whether he has been injured. I believe this is because the Pentagon doesn’t really know. If anything ,this points to the ineffectiveness of drones if we don’t know if the leader of the most feared militant group in the world has been killed.
Do you have a position on drones?
Honestly, I don’t have a strong policy recommendation for drones. Initially I was more pro-drones. I think the theory behind drones makes a lot of sense. And again the theory is that these groups are heterogeneous, that the members at the top are more capable. So if we take them out we reduce the ability of the group to mount operations.
Even if we might pay a short-term price in civilian casualties?
Yes. Looking around the world, though, it doesn’t seem that drones have been that strategically effective. In the vast majority of places where we’ve used drones the militant groups persist: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is still around; the Taliban is still around; ISIS is still around; Al Shabazz is still around in Somalia. So I’ve ben disheartened. I’ve had to reevaluate the strategic effectiveness of drones in light of what’s happened in the world. My research on drones was not oriented to answer the question whether they’re strategically relevant, but rather to use drones as a mechanism to test my theory of why some militant groups attack civilians and others don’t.
Where are you going next? What’s the next thing you’re tackling?
One of the big mysteries in terrorism studies is why so many attacks by militant groups go unclaimed. In theory, militant group violence is a communications strategy that amplifies the grievances of the perpetrators and demonstrates radicalism and the military capability to inflict harm. What I’ve found is that since 1988 militant groups have claimed only 15 percent of all attacks; 85 percent are unclaimed. This is an empirical inconsistency within the theoretical literature that views terrorism as a communication strategy.
And views terrorism as strategic, as wanting to accomplish something. If terrorists don’t claim an attack, how do they accomplish anything?
What utility do you get if you don’t get credit for it? Based on my theory, I predicted that certain kinds of attacks would be more likely to be claimed than others. In particular, if civilian targeting is less beneficial to the group, and if civilian targeting tends to be spearheaded by lower level operatives, than the senior leadership would be less likely to claim these kinds of attacks. What I find is that more than any other variable — more than the ideology of the group, more than its capability — target selection best predicts whether the leaders of militant groups would take credit for the attacks.
So these attacks are in some ways rogue operations.
Yes. An illustrative example would be the pro-Russian Ukrainian insurgents, who used a surface-to-air missile last summer to take out a plane. At first, the Ukrainian insurgents thought the plane was a military plane so all over social media they bragged about this attack. It eventually emerged that this was a civilian airline. As soon as that became clear, all of a sudden the insurgents said they weren’t responsible for the attack. I have statistical results confirming this finding but the paper is still under review. I’m also looking at what might be considered the opposite of an unclaimed attack, terrorist propaganda videos. I predict terrorist propaganda videos, which often have the stamp of senior leadership, would disproportionately focus on attacks against military targets. When you look at Taliban videos, the Taliban tend to highlight attacks against NATO forces, not against schools, for example. This is an all-Northeastern project where I’m collaborating with [Assistant Professor of Political Science] Nick Beauchamp, as well as with a graduate student. We’re doing basically a content analysis of terrorist propaganda videos focusing on the kinds of targets they highlight. We don’t have results back but this is what we’re hoping to find.
Yet it does seem like ISIS in an exception here too.
They’re weird. I don’t have real tests on this but my hunch is that militant groups exhibit signs of learning. Over time the more exposure that the leader has to asymmetric violence the more likely it is that he will oppose civilian targeting. I find evidence for this in a hard test of Al Qaeda. If you look closely at Osama Bin Laden’s musings, his views of civilian targeting change over time. Initially, he just wanted to kill as many people as possible, including civilians for sure. But then upon seeing the negative strategic fallout of Al Qaeda in Iraq, he began to advocate for members to restrict their violence to military targets, including against the west.
Is that post 9/11?
Yes, very much. It was really only toward the very end of his life, around 2009, where we’ve seen documents captured from his compound where he begins to express reservations over the strategic utility of attacking civilians. I cannot say definitely this idea is generalizable beyond Bin Laden but I’m looking into it.
How does what you do relate to Jewish Studies?
I think I am a better advocate for Israel ironically because I’ve moved away from Israel in my focus. For many people who are Israel haters, Israel is the only case with which they’re familiar. I can compare how Israel responds to its terrorism threat to how other countries respond to their terrorism threat. When you don’t just pick on Israel for not complying completely with just war theory, and you actually compare Israel’s behavior to other targeted countries, Israel is actually very restrained in its response. By looking at the dynamics of militant groups beyond Palestinian groups, and by looking at the response of targeted countries beyond just Israel, this gives me a much fuller sense of how Israel’s response to Palestinian terrorism is in some ways admirable.
Is there anything else you that you want to mention?
One of the things I didn’t like about my experience at Oxford was that there was a real sense that the faculty was ideologically motivated and evaluated students based on their political preferences. I very deliberately try not to introduce political advocacy within the classroom. To the extent that I am politically active, I save it for twitter. If anybody wants to see or hear about my views on Israel you’re not likely to find them in the classroom but you are likely to see them over twitter @Maxabrahms.
A final thought?
Upon coming here, I had people tell me that Northeastern had a bit of an Israel problem, that the university was in some respects hostile toward Israel. I have to say I’m very happy at Northeastern. Not a single person has told me to change anything about my research or my teaching. This goes all the way to the level of the president of the university. He pulled me aside and said he loved what I was doing, including my tweets. I feel very happy to be here. I feel politically liberated.