Inside Terrorist Organizations

By David C. Rapoport | Go to book overview

Theories of Terrorism: Instrumental and Organizational Approaches

Martha Crenshaw

It is possible to think in terms of two basic explanations for how the conspiratorial organizations that practice terrorism behave. 1 In turn, each analysis yields different policy recommendations. These two approaches, which are derived from established bodies of theory, will be presented sequentially in order to set out the logical premises and the policy implications of each. However, both views may be necessary to understanding terrorism and its consequences.

The first explanation is based on the assumption that the act of terrorism is a deliberate choice by a political actor. The organization, as a unit, acts to achieve collective values, which involve radical changes in political and social conditions. Terrorism is interpreted as a response to external stimuli, particularly government actions. An increase in the cost or a decrease in the reward for violence will make it less likely. However, the second explanation focuses on internal organizational processes within the group using terrorism or among organizations sharing similar objectives. Terrorism is explained as the result of an organization's struggle for survival, usually in a competitive environment. Leaders ensure organizational maintenance by offering varied incentives to followers, not all of which involve the pursuit of the group's stated political purposes. Leaders seek to prevent both defection and dissent by developing intense loyalites among group members. The organization responds to pressure from outside by changing the incentives offered members or through innovation. Terrorist actions do not necessarily or directly reflect ideological values.


The Instrumental Approach

In this perspective violence is seen as intentional. Terrorism is a means to a political end. Government and adversary are analyzed as if engaged in a typical conflict, in which each party's actions are aimed at influencing the behavior of the other. The classic works on the stragegy of conflict, such as those by Thomas C. Schelling, suggest that terrorism is one form of violent coercion, a bargaining process based on the power to hurt and intimidate as a substitute for the use of overt military force. 2 As such, it is similar to other strategies based on 'the power to hurt' rather than conventional military strength. Terrorism is meant to produce a change in the government's political position, not the destruction of military potential.

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