The Life Cycle of Terrorist Organizations

Article excerpt

Abstract It is a fact that terrorist organizations come and go. This empirical fact tends to draw attention to the demise of the terrorist organization and distracts from the dynamics of the terrorist organization's life cycle. In this respect, the extant literature suffers from a serious weakness that is symptomatic of the absence from the literature of a rigorous theoretical explanation for the life cycle of terrorist organizations. This paper aims to address this by developing a theoretical explanation for the life cycle of terrorist organizations that is centered on competition for grassroots or popular support between the terrorist organization and the government. The decline and demise of a particular terrorist organization is not certain ex ante and a terrorist organization may be expected to be most dangerous not in its death throes, but during its early years as it competes with the government for grassroots support. These appear to be different conclusions to those that characterise some parts of the literature on this subject. The theoretical explanation developed herein also predicts a cyclical oscillation of conflict.

Keywords Terrorist organization * Life cycle * Grassroots support * Conflict * Demise * Cyclical * Defence

JEL H56-D74-D81


It is not certain ex ante that a particular terrorist organization must decline and ultimately expire. While terrorist organizations do come and go, the decline and demise of any particular terrorist organization is not inevitable. To base policy recommendations on such a presumption may be far from sound. And, of course, even if decline and demise could be certainly assured, there is also the matter of how long this might take. It is critical to understand the dynamics of the life cycle of terrorist organizations. The problem that we face in developing this understanding is that literature does not contain a rigorous theoretical framework that may be used to analyze the life cycle of terrorist organizations. However, there are some starting points within the defense economics literature where rigorous models of grassroots support and terrorist recruitment have been constructed. There is a general acceptance elsewhere, too, of the importance of popular grassroots support to the terrorist organization's survivability. The purpose of this paper is to develop a rigorous theoretical explanation of the life cycle of terrorist organizations that has, at its core, the grassroots or popular support that appears to be so critical for the terrorist organization.

A theoretical explanation of the life cycle of terrorist organizations must encompass several critically important things: (1) the importance of grassroots support for the survival of the terrorist organization; (2) the intensity of the terrorist organization's competition with the government for grassroots support; (3) the relative intensity of this competition for grassroots support in the early stages of conflict; and (4) the natural life cycle of terrorist organizations--the historical fact that terrorist organizations in general have come and gone over time. Within such a theoretical framework, the terrorist organization emerges only to eventually decline and fade away. This sequence of events may be compressed into a very short time or may occur gradually over a very long period. Theoretically, there is no limit on how long a particular terrorist organization may exist. The theoretical framework encompasses the historical fact of the terrorist organization's eventual demise without imposing a definite life-span upon a particular terrorist organization. At the center of the life cycle sits the grassroots support for the terrorist organization. Competition for grassroots support shapes the timing and intensity of the terrorists' competition with the government. The grassroots support that is captured during the early stages of conflict will eventually shape the life cycle of the terrorist organization. …