The Effect of Competition on Terrorist Group Operations

Download 167.32 Kb.
Size167.32 Kb.
  1   2   3

The Effect of Competition on Terrorist Group Operations

Stephen Nemeth

Department of Political Science

244 Waters Hall

Kansas State University

Manhattan, KS 66506

Abstract: Scholars have long accepted the contention that competition amongst terrorist organizations raises the level of violence used by the competitors (Crenshaw, 1981, 1985, Oots, 1989; Bloom, 2004, 2005; Chenoweth, 2010). This paper discusses this claim and advances another – that competition amongst terrorist organizations creates incentives to use less violence. Using insights from the organizational ecology literature - namely that competition occurs within “species” – I create a variable that assesses intra-species competition. I test both claims using a dataset of domestic terrorism created from the Global Terrorism Dataset for the years 1970-1997. I find support for the hypothesis that competition leads to more terrorism, validating the claims of outbidding theorists. Furthermore, ideologies have differential effects on whether outbidding occurs, with nationalist and religious terrorist groups responding to competition with more terrorism and left-wing organizations responding with less.
The idea that competition amongst terrorist organizations results in a number of negative outcomes, such as suicide terrorism, civilian targeting, and extreme violence has become a powerful and persuasive idea in the terrorism literature (Crenshaw, 1981, 1985; Oots, 1989; Bloom, 2005; Chenoweth, 2010). Organizations, vying for the attention of recruits or for the support of wavering adherents, use escalating levels of violence, or “outbidding” as a means to demonstrate their commitment and capability (Bloom, 2005). This violence can also be turned against competing organizations, rendering the states most likely to be fertile grounds for terrorism the most dangerous for terrorist organizations (Oots, 1989). The outcome of this process is likely to have an indelible mark on affected states; competition acts to legitimize more violence, encourage violence against civilians and, in some cases, to encourage the use of suicide terror (Bloom, 2005).

Intuitively, this perspective has great appeal. Organizations that can demonstrate their ability through continued and notable violence are advantaged in both recruitment and group maintenance (Crenshaw, 1985; Post et al., 2003). Recruits are drawn to the organizations which have the most selective incentives to offer, with the opportunity to participate in violent activity forming a primary motivation (Crenshaw, 1985). Group cohesion and retention is increased because violence and the number of operations performed help “build morale within the membership through the experience of cooperative operations” (Waugh, 1983: 9). Violence is currency in this perspective – groups that are the most adept in its use ensure their survival, develop into capable adversaries of the state, and become increasingly able to achieve their political goals.

At the same time, the argument is one of nuance. For Bloom (2005), the type of violence characterized by outbidding only flourishes and resonates in particular situations. Organizations that engage in suicide terrorism, or excessive levels of violence, in the incorrect environment fail to win public support and potentially endanger the organization. The terrorism literature is replete with accounts of groups miscalculating the amount of violence a populace was willing to accept (see Ross and Gurr, 1989; Cronin, 2006). In such cases, violence has played a negative role in the development of the organization, leading to less recruiting success, reduced public support, and the decline, if not the dissolution, of the group.

This paper seeks to address why competition leads to more terrorism in some cases and less in others. Like Bloom (2005), I forward that two factors - government policy and social acceptability – determine whether outbidding actually occurs. In areas where those factors are present competition leads to outbidding. Areas with competition that are absent those factors will not demonstrate outbidding behavior. In fact, competition in such states may actually lead to less terrorism. This insight distinguishes Bloom’s (2005) discussion of outbidding from earlier ones (Crenshaw, 1981, 1985; Oots, 1989). I test this contention using cross-national domestic terrorism data from the Global Terrorism Dataset (GTD) for the years 1970-1997.

Second, I test these claims using an improved operational definition of competition. Building upon the organizational ecology literature, I develop a measure of competition that is “species” specific (Lowery and Gray, 1995). This means that competition is restricted to groups of a similar type; in this case, competition is restricted to groups that share a similar ideology. This lets us avoid treating two very different concepts the same way: the absolute number of terrorist organizations and the density of the organizational environment. By constructing an indicator using the latter, we achieve a closer association between measure and reality (Post et al., 2003)

The paper is composed as follows: In the next section, I discuss the various ways that competition may affect terrorist organizations. I highlight Bloom’s (2005) theory of outbidding and the factors that make it possible. I follow with a discussion of the relationship between competition and terrorism when those factors are not present and how, in those circumstances, competition may reduce terrorism. The section ends with the discussion of the hypotheses that stem from the theory. In the third section, I discuss the data and coding rules. I emphasize the organizational ecology literature to create a measure of terrorist organizational competition independent of the total number of terrorist organizations that reside within a state. The fourth section presents empirical tests of the hypothesis. The fifth section concludes.


While outbidding has become the dominant perspective relating competition to terrorism, the possibility exists that competition can also have a negative, rather than a positive effect. One of the most prominent of these alternatives is that of backlash – groups select a target or engage in violence that reduces the support of previously sympathetic population, thus reducing the flow of resources and the ability of the organization to carry out attacks (Ross and Gurr, 1989; Cronin, 2006). At the same time, competition may also lead to a reduction in violence if it leads to cooperation between two terrorist organizations or if it acts to reduce the capacity of the competitors. These alternatives stand in contrast to the outbidding perspective, yet neither these alternatives nor the outbidding perspective have been subject to quantitative analyses (although see Chenoweth, 2010). Before these perspectives are tested, I discuss them in detail below.


The outbidding perspective arises from the realization that dual pressures exist within all terrorist organizations. Terrorist leaders, “must cope with a constant tension between their desires to preserve the organization and the membership’s desire for action” (Crenshaw, 1985: 476). Early theories of outbidding posited that competition solely affected these two factors (Crenshaw, 1985; Oots, 1989). Later theories, notably that of Bloom (2004, 2005), sees competition leading to outbidding when external conditions – the acceptability of violence and government policy - are favorable.

The first theory of outbidding sees competition contributing to the collective radicalization of the terrorist organization (Crenshaw, 1985). Groups facing competition from a more extreme competitor typically radicalize and engage in more violence to prevent the defection of members to the competitor organization.i The adoption of terrorism by the Official IRA in response to the same decision by the Provisional IRA is indicative of this type of outbidding logic (Crenshaw, 1985; Moloney, 2010). In the Palestinian areas, the adoption of suicide terror by secular groups after its use by fundamentalist organizations may be another example.ii

Secondly, Crenshaw (1985) suggests that outbidding may occur when competition, and the threat of member exit, leads members to fight harder to validate their investment in joining the organization. The decision to join a terrorist group entails a sacrifice and a distinct change in lifestyle; Wolf (1978: 176) depicts the life of a terrorist as one “characterized by the lack of comfort, the absence of expendable income, and the denial of leisure activity and personal privacy”. As a result, the high personal cost endured by members makes activity their only sustenance and identity. Increased action therefore, is a logical result of individuals seeking to ensure their choices to engage in terrorism are justified (Kellen, 1979; Crenshaw, 1985).

The failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the late 1990s and the subsequent rise in suicide terrorism provided the main impetus for the most recent incarnation of the outbidding theory (Bloom, 2005). The increase of the use of suicide terror, and the support groups received for their actions soon created an environment where all groups had to engage in spectacular acts of violence.iii The logic of this theory is simple and persuasive - “if multiple insurgent groups are competing for public support, bombings will intensify in scope and number as they become both the litmus test of militancy and the way to mobilize greater numbers of people within their community” (Bloom, 2005: 78).iv This is known to be effective; Jerrold Post and his research team found that nearly 60 percent of members in secular groups and 43 percent of religious group members admitted to joining the most active terrorist organization in their community (2003: 173).

This theory does differ from its predecessors. For Bloom (2005), outbidding requires that the environment be able to support a group’s decision to engage in extreme violence. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, outbidding was successful because the ongoing conflict, the collapse of the peace process, and the ineffectiveness of the Palestinian Authority created an atmosphere of hopelessness that both spurred the creation of terrorist organizations and legitimated terrorism, particularly suicide terrorism. The newfound acceptability of this tactic became the mark by which all organizations were judged, setting off the cycle of outbidding. Support for suicide terrorism increased quickly after these occurrences, reaching upwards of 85 percent in October 2001 from lows of 24 and 33 percent during the period from 1997 to 1999 (Bloom, 2005: 193).

In Sri Lanka, another of Bloom’s (2005) case studies, outbidding arose for largely the same reasons. The Tamil history with the Sri Lankan government had been marked by political futility and communal violence at the hands of the majority Sinhalese. As a result, Tamil quality of life had changed little since Sri Lankan independence. This status quo led to the acceptance of terrorism as a political tactic and, moreover, to the creation of a number of Tamil separatist groups, one of which was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). As a result, the violence that resulted was similar in origin to the Palestinian territories – groups competed with one another for support within an atmosphere that accepted this kind of violence.

Unlike the Palestinian case, the acceptability of terrorism began to wane in Sri Lanka. The LTTE had used violence to great effect; it struck at the Sinhalese, moderate Tamils, and its competitors to become the predominant organization pressing for Tamil separatism. By 2001, the long-running conflict between it and the Sri Lankan government has sapped the will of the organization’s supporters, driving it to negotiations with the government. By the time of Bloom’s analysis, Tamil hopefulness for peace and the end of competition between the various Tamil organizations had largely ruled out the use of suicide terrorism as a tactic.

This perspective has led to some quantitative work – most notably that of Chenoweth (2010). In this work, she argues that intergroup competition explains why democracies experience more terrorist activity than non-democracies. She finds support that transnational terrorist incidents and domestic terrorist organizations are more likely to originate in competitive polities. While her analysis does provide some validation of Bloom (2005), it is not a test of terrorist competition per se. Instead, competition between terrorist organizations is subsumed into a larger measure of political competition. States may, in fact, have high levels of terrorist competition while having little political competition. Competition is also assumed to occur across the terrorist group system. The assumption here is that resources and recruits are indifferent about which organization they are directed to as long as they are directed to the most active one. I discuss the potential drawbacks to this approach, particularly in the context of the organizational ecology literature, in the methods section.

Competition and Moderation

While Bloom’s (2005) theory provides an excellent explanation of terrorist competition and its outcomes in those areas which include both components, it is important to consider what the effect of competition may be when either of those two conditions is absent. First, competition may raise the cost of action; civilians see outbidding as escalating savagery rather than meaningful attempts for political change, driving civilians away and increasing the risk of backlash (Ross and Gurr, 1989). Second and relatedly, this cycle of violence may serve as an implicit government counterterror policy. Internecine struggles amongst terrorist organizations may drain groups of resources and recruits, decreasing the efforts needed by incumbent governments for counterterrorism. These considerations may lead to the observation that competition may lead to less, rather than more, violence.

The possibility of backlash is a major risk of outbidding in an incorrect environment. Groups have frequently miscalculated the effects of their violence and triggered this response. Cronin (2006) points out the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC) and ETA as two groups amongst many that have engendered condemnation for their actions. In the context of outbidding, the Omagh bombing in August 1998 can be seen as a major contemporary instance of backlash occurring from competition –between the Real Irish Republican Army, the perpetrators, and the Provisional Irish Republican Army (Dingley, 2001). The deaths of 29 civilians from the attack, precisely during the Northern Ireland peace process, led to a denunciation of the perpetrators from every political party in Northern Ireland, Ireland, and Great Britain. Moreover, group support from individuals within the United States waned and support for the then-recently signed Good Friday agreement increased (Dingley, 2001).

Lastly, competition and outbidding may be damaging because it works to inadvertently advance the state’s agenda rather than the terrorists’ goals. In Sri Lanka and Turkey, the government either funded a favored terrorist organization or turned a blind eye to intergroup violence in the hopes that the organizations would eliminate, or greatly weaken, each other (Bloom, 2005). The extent to which groups may be concerned with this problem is unknown. However, the decision of the PKK and Turkish Hezbollah to abandon intergroup conflict in favor of jointly fighting the government may indicate that groups have some realization of the dangers of conflict with one another (Bloom, 2005).

These concerns all contribute to a number of mechanisms which may lead to competition causing less violence. Groups may first simply try to avoid backlash by changing the nature and number of their attacks. This is especially evident if we consider the level of public support as relatively fixed; each increase of an additional organization reduces each group’s potential allocation of support. Given the assumption that using outbidding violence results in a net gain of organizational support for the organization, the use of this strategy in competitive situations ultimately results in each group gaining a pool of supporters that does not compensate for the loss of members. Instead, this should lead to the formation of coalitions - a rare occurrence (Crenshaw, 1985; Oots, 1989) - or the moderation of violence.

An additional explanation for why competition may lead to less violence may lie in the work of Lewis Coser (1956). He argued that external conflict can result in cohesion within groups or the creation of coalitions, or at least elements of cooperation, amongst different groups. In terms of this analysis, the increased attention brought to groups by competition can lead to elements of coordination, or even cooperation, between the competitors. Bloom (2005) noted that both the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and Turkish Hezbollah, when confronted with government attention, abandoned outbidding to adopt a campaign of violence directed against the Turkish government. Brym and Araj (2008: 493-495) note that Israeli action had even pushed both Hamas and Fatah into situations of tactical cooperation. In both cases, the number of terrorist events perpetrated by these groups was lower after coordination than they were prior.v

The two perspectives regarding terrorist group competition provide contrasting hypotheses about their effect on group operations. They are presented as follows:

Hypothesis 1: Groups in competitive and favorable environments will commit more terrorist acts than groups in non-competitive and non-favorable environments.
Hypothesis 2: Groups in competitive and favorable environments will commit less terrorist acts than groups in non-competitive and non-favorable environments.

In order to analyze the relationships discussed here, I use the Global Terrorism Dataset (GTD) from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland. The dataset includes 81,800 acts of domestic and international terrorism occurring in 180 states spanning the years

The GTD provides a remarkably flexible platform for two reasons. The first is that its definition of terrorism is quite broad, referring to terrorism as “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation” (LaFree and Dugan, 2007: ii). The definition, absent references to targets and referring to a variety of goals and mechanisms, allows researchers to create their own definitions and circumvents the contentious issue of having to use an established definition of terrorism (Schmid and Jongman, 1988; Hoffman, 1998; Silke 2004). Second, the GTD contains a wide variety of perpetrators of terrorist violence. Well-defined organizations such as Hamas, Al-Qaeda, and the Tupamaros are included along with actors such as political parties, student protesters, and rebels. This also provides flexibility by allowing researchers to focus on interests ranging from crime to social movements.

Since the analyses regard the effects of competition on group behavior, I use the group-state/year as the unit of analysis. This distinction, rather than group-year, accounts for the behavior of the same group in different states, such as Karen National Union in Myanmar versus its branch in Thailand. The repressive environment in Myanmar is likely to exert a different effect on group behavior than the somewhat more permissive environment in Thailand.

Second, this also accounts for differing levels of competition within the same state. A state may have a competitive atmosphere regarding left-wing groups, but a relatively monopolistic environment regarding groups on the right. Accounting for competition as a state-wide phenomenon is likely to eclipse the effect of the substantial range of terrorist ideologies that are contained within a state. This distinction and ideological competition are discussed in more detail below.

I also restrict my analyses to cases of domestic terrorism. This is important not only because domestic terror is more prevalent than international terrorism (Rosendorff and Sandler, 2005), but because analyses that focus solely on international terrorism or combine the two may lead to incorrect conclusions because they will be biased towards large states and certain highly capable groups (Abadie, 2006).

In terms of competition, international and domestic groups are likely to face different pressures. Groups operating domestically have to rely on resources within the country – meaning that their practices are likely to be heavily driven by their public support. This means that factors such as competition, as well as the acceptability of violence and government policy, are likely to show a direct impact on the amount of terrorism a group perpetrates. An international group, on the other hand, does not face the same pressure. Instead, the international group can circumvent factors at the target state and go back to its home base to get the needed resources. Competition, then, should have very little to do with international group behavior; in fact, Siqueira and Sandler (2006) state that groups with outside sponsors, particularly international groups, are likely to face little restraints on the type of violence they use.

I create this distinguishing coding rule by noting the attack location and perpetrating group in the GTD. This is then compared to the available group record in the START Center’s Terrorist Organizational Profiles (TOPS) database.vii If the location of the attack in the GTD coincides with a known operating area for the terrorist organization in the TOPs data, the event is marked as domestic terror.viii The process of distinguishing international from domestic terror is illustrated in Figure 1.

[Figure 1 Here]

The final dataset contains 31,364 acts of domestic terror perpetrated by 459 terrorist organizations.ix This number is comprised of 429 individual groups plus 30 “franchises”. These attacks are then aggregated by group-state/year to create a dataset of 2,131 group-state/years with terrorist attacks. Using the start and end-dates of terrorist activity from the TOPS database, I fill in all non-terror years (years the group was active but not engaged in terrorist attacks) with zeros. The final dataset that results includes 8,217 group-state/years.

Dependent Variable

The dependent variable used in this analysis is a yearly count of the number of domestic terror attacks committed by each individual terrorist organization. Attacks are included in the dataset if they are intentional, involve a use of violence or a threatened use of violence, and the actors are sub-national (START, 2009: 4-5). Attacks must also fulfill two of three additional criteria for inclusion: the act must be directed towards a political, economic, religious, or social goal, there must be evidence of an intent to coerce, and the action must be outside of the realm of legitimate military activities (START, 2009: 4-5). Lastly, to reduce bias that may result from overemphasizing capable organizations, I follow Maoz (2007) and include failed acts of terrorism.

Independent Variable

To assess the effects of group competition, I use the inverse of the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI) as my main independent variable (Herfindahl, 1950; Hirschman, 1945). The HHI was originally conceived as a way to assess the concentration of firms in a marketplace. Used in this capacity, it has since its inception become a central component in economic analyses; both the Justice Department and the Federal Reserve use it to evaluate the market impact of potential mergers (Hannan, 1997; Rhodes, 1993).

One of the advantages of this measure, as opposed to other means of determining competition, is that it provides a measure that is invariant to the number of competitors. For example, there may be several firms in a market that create a particular good, yet the market share of one may create an environment where little competition actually exists. Similarly, the presence of several terrorist groups may not indicate a truly competitive environment, especially if one is clearly more capable and more noteworthy than the rest. The ability of the HHI to account for this potential asymmetry is widely touted as one of the strengths of the measure (Calkins, 1983).

The HHI is calculated as:

Where is the market share of firm i and N is the number of firms in the market.

To determine the number of firms in the market, I adopt the concept of “competitive exclusion” from the organizational ecology literature (Lowery and Gray, 1995). This states that competition is a function of the resources that one draws from: groups will only compete with other groups that draw on the same resource (Lowery and Gray, 1995). For Lowery and Gray’s (1995), this meant competition amongst interest groups occur within similar advocacy markets. Farm advocacy groups are distinct from business groups and, as such, are only likely to face competition from other farm groups. As a result, their analysis focuses on “species-guilds” – “sets of organizations representing related interests” (1995: 9).

I conceptualize the same for terrorist organizations: each state has a certain number of ideological “markets” in which recruits and resources are sought and competition is bounded. Communist terrorist organization should face competition from groups with similar ideological goals, not dissimilar ones. Secessionists have their needs best served from a nationalist, rather than a religious, organization. Post et al. (2003: 173) notes terrorist recruitment occurring within these lines: “individuals from strictly religious Islamic backgrounds were more likely to join Islamist groups, while those who did not have a religious background might join either a secular or religious group.”

Using this insight, I use the RAND Corporation’s End of Terror dataset (Jones and Libicki, 2008) to classify each state as having four potential ideological “markets” - nationalist, religious, left-wing, and right-wing. To determine the number of “firms” in each of these “markets”, I sum for each state/year the number of other groups that exist within each of the four ideological categories. Market share is then determined by the percent of attacks committed per state/year by each group within each market. This best corresponds to the insight that members stay in and recruits join the most active organizations (Crenshaw, 1985; Oots, 1989; Post et al., 2003).

These two values are used to calculate the HHI for each ideological category for every state-year. The use of the inverse of the HHI follows Taagepara and Shugart (1989) and allows for a more readily interpretable variable – scores near 1 indicate a condition of monopoly while higher scores indicate competitive environments.x If the outbidding argument is correct, high values of this variable will be associated with more total attacks. If the moderation perspective is correct, low values will be associated with more attacks.

[Figure 2 Here]

Figure 2 plots the average level of organizational competition for the ten states with the highest number of domestic terrorist attacks.xi Bars of one unit length indicate a condition of monopoly while longer bars indicate progressively more competitive environments. The colors indicate terrorist ideology as determined by the RAND End of Terror Dataset (Jones and Libicki, 2008). The results from the chart appear to accord with our understanding of terrorism. Colombia appears to offer an extremely competitive environment for left-wing groups while France and the UK offer competitive arenas for nationalist terror organizations. It is also interesting to note that high number of uncontested categories; most of the top victimized states are characterized by relatively monopolistic ideological categories. This finding, with the three caveats mentioned above, contrasts with Bloom’s (2005) outbidding theory.

The three exceptions accord well with our understanding of terrorism in those states. The high score for left-wing groups in Colombia indicate an environment where the success of organizations such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) gave rise to smaller organizations such as the Guevarista Revolutionary Army and the Popular Liberation Army. In France and the UK, the high level of competition occurs due to groups engaged in struggles for Basque, Corsican, and Northern Ireland separatism.

Figure 3 plots the average level of competition by regime type over the time period of the GTD dataset. These are calculated from the Polity IV dataset using the Polity2 measure (Marshall et al., 2009).xii States with Polity2 scores at 6 and above are coded as democratic and those below 6 are coded as autocratic. Figure 4 plots competition by regime type using a trichotomous classification between autocracy, anocracy, and democracy. The coding rule for democracy and autocracy remain the same. The middle categorization, anocracy, is coded by Polity2 scores ranging from -5 and 5.

[Figures 3 and 4 Here]

Results indicate that democratic states are more competitive than their autocratic counterparts (t=3.92, p<.01) and, using the trichotomous classification of regime type, more competitive than either autocracies or anocracies (F=9.00, p<.01). While the underrepresentation of terrorist groups in autocracies is a problem for analysis (Drakos and Gofas, 2006), the difference in the number of groups between the regime types provides support for Eubank and Weinberg’s (1994, 1998) findings that democracies are more likely to harbor terrorist groups than autocracies. Further, this echoes Chenoweth’s (2010) research linking the emergence of terrorist organizations in democracies to high levels of intergroup competition.

Because outbidding theory is a contextual one – depending on the “domestic politics of the minority group and the state counter-terror strategies and responses to insurgent violence” (Bloom 2005: 79) – I include a variable assessing the “environment” that each state provides a terrorist organization. This variable is drawn from Mullins and Young (forthcoming), who argue that states and societies that legitimize and rationalize the use of violence may be more likely to be a victim of terrorism. This occurs as a result of a spillover process – groups model and adopt the state’s use of violence to its own interactions with others.

This measure is drawn from four distinct indicators – two which capture state violence against its people, a third that measures citizen violence, and a final measure of state involvement in war. The first measures whether or not a state used capital punishment in a given year while the second captures the state’s use of extrajudicial killings through the Political Terror Scale (Gibney and Dalton, 1996). The third component assesses citizen violence by using the number of homicides per 100,000 people as drawn from the World Health Organization. The final element simply measures state participation in an interstate or intrastate war as measured by the Correlates of War project. Because the four components were found to load on a single factor - this analysis, like the later analyses in Mullins and Young (forthcoming), will use a single variable – culture of violence – to conduct the analyses. The temporal range of this variable reduces the subsequent analyses to the 1970-1997 period.

To best assess this relationship, I create an interaction term between the concentration score and the culture of violence variable. While some information can be gained from the coefficients on interaction terms, I follow Brambor et al.’s (2006) suggestion to visually analyze interaction terms. To do this, I use Boehmke’s (2006) Grinter data utility.xiii

Download 167.32 Kb.

Share with your friends:
  1   2   3

The database is protected by copyright © 2023
send message

    Main page