How to Think Like a Terrorist

By John Zmirak Published on July 29, 2019

Would you like to learn how to think like a terrorist? That doesn’t sound appealing, right off the bat, I’ll admit. But might there be a good reason to understand how terrorists operate? What motivates them? How their organizations function, and often malfunction? How about learning what techniques are used by guerrillas whose efforts turn out successful, as opposed to those who fail?

There would be some value in that. The same kind of value C.S. Lewis thought there was in writing The Screwtape Letters, in fact. It’s good to know your enemy. In a war, it’s actually crucial. During World War II, the U.S. employed many refugees from Germany, experts on the country, and even psychologists. The effort was to understand our opponents, and see how to best demoralize and defeat them.

It’s in that spirit that terrorism expert Max Abrahms wrote Rules for Rebels. It’s a fascinating new book, which sorts out the stale orthodoxies, media myths, and mindless reactions that govern most of how we think about terrorists. Abrahms of course deplores terrorism, as all decent people do. But he makes useful moral, historical, and technical distinctions. He doesn’t preach, or pound the table constantly about the horrors of terrorist violence. That’s because he’s trying to understand it scientifically, and help us to fight it more effectively.

What Terrorism Is and Isn’t

First: What terrorism isn’t. It’s not any form of unconventional warfare. Just because a guerrilla doesn’t wear a uniform or follow a flag, that doesn’t make him a terrorist. It might suit one government or another to call him that. But in this sense one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. We’re still in the realm of propaganda if we use language this way.Abrahms book

An act of terror is one that targets civilians instead of soldiers. So indiscriminate bombings of cities counts as terrorism. (That’s a point we don’t like to think about when considering World War II.) A terrorist is an unconventional fighter who habitually and regularly targets civilians. Whether his cause is just or unjust doesn’t matter to this definition. We’re trying to pin down how to talk about his tactics.

Most guerrilla fighters in history have engaged in some degree of terrorism (as many governments have). What Abrahms brings to this discussion here is crucially important. And that’s his theory: The more a guerrilla group relies on terrorism against civilians, instead of attacks on the military and government, the more likely it is to lose.

Military historian Caleb Carr made a similar point about government acts of terror in his 2002 book The Lessons of Terror. He argued that regimes that terrorize civilians usually lose, in the long run.

Terrorists Are Literally Losers

Abrahms shows that the same is true for guerrilla groups. It turns out that violent attacks on innocent civilians makes most people hate an organization, and reject even its most moderate and reasonable demands.

It turns out that violent attacks on innocent civilians makes most people hate an organization, and reject even its most moderate and reasonable demands.

Guerrilla groups whose struggles were successful (Israeli independence, South African anti-apartheid) largely avoided vicious attacks on civilians. Not necessarily for moral reasons, but practical ones. Abrahms examines the cases where such groups broke their own rules, and finds that they were the result of organizational failures, and quickly got corrected.

Abrahms’ conclusion flies in the face of media hype, and much bad academic analysis. He cites quote after quote from overwrought journalists and foreign policy experts. Such writers view the impressive publicity and visibility garnered by groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS. Then they call the groups and their terror campaigns “successful.” They put out the incessant message that “terrorism works,” which demoralizes us and helps such groups recruit.

ISIS Failed. So Did al Qaeda. Not an Accident.

Abrahms corrects this impression. He patiently goes through the actual, stated goals of dozens of anti-government groups that fought in the past 100 years. He shows that no outright terrorist groups have achieved anything like their goals. Al Qaeda did not drive the U.S. out of the Middle East. Quite the contrary. ISIS doesn’t have a caliphate, or much of anything anymore. Abrahms shows that the same is true of every group that leans on terrorism, instead of fighting military and government targets.

So why do groups do it? Why did al Qaeda bomb the World Trade Center, why did ISIS burn captives alive? Ugly human motives like bloodlust and revenge, for the most part. Gather angry young men hungry for status, to show off, or get the chance to kill, rape and steal. Then give them a “cause” that justifies it, and a terrorist group is in business. It might indeed kill a lot of people, and cause widespread chaos. What it won’t achieve is the stated goals its members allegedly are serving.

Abrahms notes that the more centrally controlled and organized a guerrilla group is, the more likely it is to limit its attacks on civilians. Again, for practical and strategic, not moral reasons. In other words, “smart” guerrillas learn from the failures of brutal terrorists to get what they want. But poorly organized groups, or those with thuggish leaders more attached to violent means than political ends, will keep on committing terrorist acts.

Are Our Drone Strikes a Dumb Idea?

From this, Abrahms draws one crucial policy conclusion. He finds that a central Western tactic of fighting guerrillas might be misplaced. That is, targeted strikes (with drones or bombs) that aim to kill their leaders. As it turns out, when the U.S. or Israel manages to kill off or capture such leaders, the result doesn’t please us. The loss of leadership often makes the organization more chaotic and violent, and more likely to murder civilians.

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That is, if the group was trying to exercise intelligent restraint, such as many Palestinian groups, for strategic reasons. Groups that are programatically and stupidly brutal like ISIS don’t get much worse. They’re already out of control.

In one sense, this book’s message ought to encourage us. It turns out that brutal neglect of the most basic moral distinctions doesn’t usually pay off, even in this world. The more callous an organization is, the less likely is to come to power, anywhere. And it’s not true that millions of people around the world thrill to and flock to organizations that butcher women and children. Maybe there is a law written in the human heart after all.


John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream, and co-author of several books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration.

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