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3Qs: The Islamic State threat and its political impact

abrahms150The influence of the Islamic State group is now reaching beyond its centralized area, as reported in some publication’s such as The Guardian and The Fiscal Times, with the recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, being carried out in support of the state’s ideologies.

Terrorism theorist Max Abrahams, a professor of political science, explains how this extended reach should not come as a surprise, and neither should its impact on politics here in the U.S.

Recently, terrorists claiming allegiance to the Islamic State group have launched attacks in countries outside its stronghold of Syria and Iraq. Is the Islamic State getting stronger?

Many analysts have gotten the Islamic State wrong. It was said that the Islamic State threat is largely restricted to Syria and Iraq because the group was fixated on creating a caliphate. I have consistently disagreed with this viewpoint for one main reason—from the beginning, the group’s membership has been highly international.

Indeed, one of the most distinguishing features of the Islamic State is how many different countries the membership draws upon. I knew many of these fighters were going to return to their home countries and use violence there. Not only have analysts struggled to assess Islamic State’s intent, but also the group’s capability.

Political scientists always wrestle with measuring the capability of terrorist groups. For this reason, we employ many different proxies, from group membership size to weaponry to external support to propaganda output to land control. Based on some of these measures—such as propaganda output and land control—the group actually appears to be getting weaker, even though its theater of operations has expanded.

What have been the political consequences of the San Bernardino and Paris attacks?

One of my main empirical findings over the years has been that terrorism is a very poor strategy for inducing government concessions. Rather than forcing them into becoming more politically compliant, terrorism tends to induce target countries into digging in their political heels and going on the offensive against the perpetrators and their supporters.

In practice, this means that terrorism generally shifts electorates to the political right, empowering hardline candidates such as Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front. Following a terrorist attack, countries often overreact by favoring policies that end up punishing law-abiding people in the name of counterterrorism. This is a very short-sighted approach because punishing the innocent is actually the surest way to generate terrorists from the population.

This shift to the political right—is that what the terrorists want?

It is easier to know the consequences of terrorism than its motives. Oftentimes, observers conflate the two. For instance, the San Bernardino and Paris attacks have increased support for Trump and Le Pen, so many people have concluded that this outcome is exactly what the terrorists want.

Of course, when terrorism ends up empowering a left-wing leader, such as in Spain after the 2004 Madrid train attacks, observers conclude that that outcome, too, was exactly what the terrorists wanted. This misperception is driven by a cognitive heuristic in psychology called the correspondent inference bias.

Due to this bias, observers tend to infer the motives of actors directly from the observable consequences of their behavior. So no matter the effect of terrorism, people will say that’s exactly what the terrorists hoped to achieve. For this reason, people are constantly overrating the intelligence of terrorists.

The media often describes terrorist leaders as “masterminds” who commit “sophisticated” attacks. In truth, it is very easy to terrorize societies—especially in liberal democracies—and terrorist attacks generally produce nothing politically meaningful for the perpetrators other than international resistance.

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