Differentiation and Severity Differentiation and the Severity of Terrorist Attacks

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Differentiation and Severity

Differentiation and the Severity of Terrorist Attacks

Justin Conrad & Kevin Greene

University of North Carolina at Charlotte


A wide range of literature on ethnic conflict and terrorism has argued that domestic competition increases the likelihood that a political organization will use violence in an effort to distinguish itself.  Known as “outbidding,” empirical evidence for such a phenomenon has thus far been limited.  The bulk of the empirical analysis, however, has focused on the effect of domestic competition on the quantity of violence.  This study instead argues that competition should have an observable effect on the quality of violence, as organizations seek to differentiate their brand from others.  Using information about the tactics and targets of all terrorist attacks from 1981-2004, the results suggest that an increase in the competitiveness of a political market leads to more severe or “shocking” types of attacks.
When explaining the behavior of terrorist organizations, scholars frequently cite a strategy of “outbidding” as a motivating factor in the decision to launch attacks. When a terrorist organization experiences an increase in domestic political competition, they may respond by increasing their level of violence in order to “outbid” their competition in garnering public support (e.g., Crenshaw 1985; 1987; Oots 1989; Bloom 2005; Kydd and Walter 2006). Hamas, which used unprecedented levels of violence during the First Intifada in an effort to outbid other Palestinian groups, is often cited as the classic example of a terrorist organization engaging in such behavior. Despite the intuitiveness of this strategy, however, empirical tests of outbidding (e.g., Chenoweth 2010, Findley and Young 2012, Nemeth 2013) have found limited support for the theory. This paper argues that previous literature has not fully examined the hypothetical implications of outbidding theory. Most of these studies only analyze the effect of competition on the quantity of violence used by terrorist organizations, while often overlooking that domestic competition should have a more discernable effect on the quality of violence. In particularly competitive environments, violent groups are incentivized to engage in more shocking or innovative tactics because it distinguishes their “brand” from competitors, ultimately making the organization less sensitive to competition.

While previous treatments of outbidding have implicitly acknowledged the role of competition in the tactical choices of organizations, almost all have focused on a single tactic: suicide terrorism (e.g., Bloom 2005). Although limited evidence of a relationship between domestic competition and the use of suicide terrorism exists, we argue that suicide attacks are simply one of many tactical choices that an organization can make to distinguish itself. We therefore analyze how domestic political competition affects the likelihood of a wide range of attacks, based on target types and the methods used during the attack. All terrorist attacks are not created equal and some have a larger impact than others, either because of who is being targeted or the kind of attack that is carried out. Attacks on civilians, for instance, are far more shocking than attacks on rival political groups, and bombings are more shocking than unarmed assaults. The nightmarish “human lawnmower” proposed by the former Al-Qaeda in Iraq, involved attaching moving blades to the front of a pickup truck and driving it through a crowded public venue, providing anecdotal support that terrorist organizations in competitive marketplaces (such as Iraq during the height of the war there) have actively tried to launch more “shocking” attacks to distinguish themselves.1

The wide variation in the severity of attacks and their anticipated psychological effects must be accounted for in order to properly test the logic of outbidding. To do this, we have categorized domestic terrorist attacks by their relative level of severity or “shock value.”2 We measure severity in two ways: the severity level based on the target type and the severity level of the methods used in the attack. The severity level therefore captures the likely impact of an act based on the identity of the victim, and how the attack was carried out.

In the following sections, we lay out how past studies have analyzed the relationship between domestic competition and terrorism, and then incorporate the economic concept of differentiation to explain how terrorist organizations may derive greater utility by using more extreme or shocking attacks. By applying the logic of traditional firms in competitive markets, we are able to better understand why terrorist organizations might use different types of violence when faced with domestic competition. This insight also helps disentangle the strategic and organizational processes of terrorist organizations; we argue that the use of extreme violence primarily benefits the organization in short-term recruitment and “shoring up” of support, despite the fact that it may harm their long-term strategic goals. Analyzing patterns of violence at both the state and organization levels, the results of the study suggest that, on average, greater domestic political competition leads to an increase in the severity of attacks.

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