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How politically effective is terrorism?

September 13, 2013 by

Why do some mil­i­tant groups con­tinue to use ter­rorism when it’s polit­i­cally inef­fec­tive, even coun­ter­pro­duc­tive? The answer lies in their lead­er­ship deficits, according to Max Abrahms, a ter­rorism the­o­rist and newly appointed assis­tant pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence whose research over the last decade has thor­oughly exam­ined the question.

“Foot sol­diers are gen­er­ally not as smart as their leaders and have fewer incen­tives against harming civil­ians,” he explained. “When they gain tac­tical autonomy within the orga­ni­za­tion, they become more likely to commit the strategic folly of tar­geting civilians.”

Abrahms’ find­ings are rooted in pre­ex­isting eco­nomic, soci­o­log­ical, and psy­cho­log­ical the­o­ries, all of which he applies to his study of mil­i­tant groups that operate in the Middle East and North Africa.

He started studying ter­rorism as a grad­uate stu­dent of inter­na­tional rela­tions at Oxford Uni­ver­sity in 2000, a year before the 9/​11 attacks. “It seemed odd that I would study ter­rorism at that time because it was the height of the dotcom era, with a lot of great jobs to be had in America cites, on Wall Street, and in Northern Cal­i­fornia,” Abrahms explained. “But I thought it was an inter­esting topic even if it wasn’t cur­rently a pivot around which the U.S. would come to under­stand its secu­rity interests.”

After leaving Oxford, he did a fel­low­ship at a Wash­ington, D.C.-based think tank, but grew dis­en­chanted with the policy world when the Iraq war went south. So, he returned to acad­emia, earning a doc­torate in polit­ical sci­ence from UCLA, and worked as a post­doc­toral fellow in the depart­ment of polit­ical sci­ence at Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity prior to joining the North­eastern faculty.

His research has been fea­tured in dozens of media out­lets around the world, ranging from the The Boston Globe and The Los Angeles Times to the Jerusalem Post and Al-​​Jazeera. In April, For­eign Policy ran a couple of his essays on the Boston Marathon bombing suspects.

This case will be dis­cussed in his fall courses on ter­rorism. Next fall, the Depart­ment of Polit­ical Sci­ence will offer a master of sci­ence in secu­rity and resiliency studies, a pro­gram for which Abrahms will serve as a core fac­ulty member.

Abrahms, who also serves as a term member at the Council on For­eign Rela­tions, a non­profit mem­ber­ship orga­ni­za­tion, pub­lisher, and think tank spe­cial­izing in U.S. for­eign policy, noted that he was attracted to North­eastern not only for its growing research rep­u­ta­tion, but its engage­ment with the world. “Fac­ulty are encour­aged to make prac­tical con­tri­bu­tions to the world, whether by advising gov­ern­ments or doing inter­views with the media on policy rel­e­vant issues,” he said. “Although I am a the­o­rist, I wouldn’t be testing my the­o­ries if I didn’t think they had any real-​​world applications.”

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