In the wake of terrorist attacks, one question that invariably comes to the fore is what the perpetrators hoped to achieve. Many commentators will confidently claim to know exactly what rationale underlay the attacks. Others will offer advice on how not to respond to the attacks, claiming that so-and-so a course of action would be ‘precisely what the terrorists hoped to achieve’. Irrespective of the accuracy of such claims, one thing that stands out is the notion that terrorists are strategic actors; using violence to achieve particular (political) goals. Although terrorists do indeed use violence instrumentally, it is too often overlooked that organizational rationales that have little to do with the achievement of strategic goals can also underlie the decision to strike.
If the strategic use of terrorism is about (attempting to) achieve particular political goals that further the stated interests of the group executing the attacks, organizational rationales revolve around the desire to protect and (pre-) serve the group itself. Despite the ongoing tendency to see involvement in terrorism as strongly or predominantly tied to the motivating power of extremist beliefs (i.e. ‘radicalization’), research has long pointed out the importance of group-level processes in this regard. Participation in a terrorist group offers very distinct benefits to members, such as status, social solidarity, protection and a positive self-image. As the source of those important benefits, the group itself may over time become more important to its participants than the goals that the organization claims to fight for.
This is one reason why groups like the Italian Brigate Rosse continued to offer violent resistance long after the collapse of public support and the increased effectiveness of Italian counter-terrorism measures made the attainment of its goals completely impossible. It was protecting, preserving and avenging the group that became the most important goal, even in the face of outright defeat.
Distinguishing between strategic and organizational rationales for terrorist violence has two benefits when it comes to assessing what terrorists hope to achieve with their acts. First, it adds nuance to the debate about the motives for the use of terrorism. Just as there is no single pathway or set of factors that governs when, how and why people become involved in this form of political violence, there are no singular motives for the use of terrorist violence. Second, acknowledging this should infuse a degree of skepticism, or at least reticence, in attempts to ascribe motives to particular terrorist attacks. Especially in the initial hours and days after such an attack, we often simply do not know; the terrorists could very well have been acting instrumentally, or they may have been at least partly motivated by group dynamics that outside observers are hard put to identify.
The rationales for the use of terrorist violence are a complex and fascinating subject to study. For those interested to learn more about this topic, please follow this link to a study co-authored with Professor John Horgan which looks at rationales for terrorist violence in a European homegrown jihadist group.