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The study of terrorism has always been a complex, challenging and multifarious task. Though Terrorism Studies were largely part of a niche epistemic community –at least for the first part of the 20th century-, after 9/11 the multidisciplinary field of terrorism experienced tremendous growth.

The unprecedented attacks of September 11th provoked a vivid interest from counter-terrorism-related research communities and previous attacks were reevaluated in order (for experts) to gain further insight into the ever-changing international security milieu. The increased frequency and wide persistence of acts of terrorism in all its forms has transformed the erstwhile fledgling field of terrorism into the “haut” field, more popular than ever.

The common narrative propelled by the media is that terrorism actually represents a psychopathology and conventional wisdom often portrays terrorists as insane and/or psychopaths, who commit indiscriminate acts of violence, without any larger goal beyond revenge or a desire to produce fear in an enemy population.

Although research conducted to evaluate the credibility of this claim is somewhat imperfect, the evidence suggests that terrorists rarely meet the psychiatric criteria for insanity. So, despite the fact that terrorism is popularly seen as irrational, many theorists argue otherwise; debate surrounding the levels of rationality with regard to terrorism has made Rational Choice Theory the prevalent epistemological framework within Terrorism Studies.

 Rational Choice Theory

At the outset, rational choice theory has been the theoretical cornerstone of economics for more than a century but it has since been used in numerous academic fields. The rational choice theory of terrorism -in particular- emerged from microeconomics and applied mathematics (especially game theory).

Generally speaking, microeconomics is the study of behavior -based on economic units-, which analyzes the determinants that affect individual economic choices (methodological individualism), the effect of changes in these determinants on the individual decision makers, how their choices are influenced by markets and how prices and demand are regulated in individual markets.

Relatedly, assuming the unit of analysis is a rational actor, behavior in the pursuit of individual interests could actually be mathematically calculable in an exploratory research framework; similarly, it could be explainable and -by extension- predictable. Subsequently, if such behavior could be explainable and predictable, it could be “molded” as well.

Rational Choice Theory identifies specific elements of analysis (in this instance susceptible individuals and/or seasoned terrorists considering the possibility to engage in terrorist activity) and attempts to rationalize their decision as to why they choose to join terrorist organizations. RCT’s strict methodological approach allows analysts to edge closer to uncovering the peculiar rationality behind terrorism.

Terrorism: The Relevance and Applicability of Rational Choice Theory

RCT’s basic theoretical framework and unit of analysis is an individual contemplating to engage in terrorist activity; this could happen for a plethora of reasons varying from geopolitical factors to individual predispositions. Two microeconomics principles can provide critical guidance to understanding the RTC and its relevance to terrorism studies: cost-benefit analysis and constrained utility maximization.

Potential terrorists often consider an elementary form of cost-benefit analysis before carrying out an attack. Subject–matter expert Martha Crenshaw argues that individuals make indeed a rational calculation of the costs and benefits and terrorism is deliberately chosen among other operational alternatives as it is perceived to be the most effective method to promote various interests and attain concrete sociopolitical goals; the benefits clearly exceed the costs.

According to subject-matter expert Shprinzak -more often than not- terrorism is not the result of deranged human psyche or exceeding thoughtlessness of character. It is rather a conscious, rational, calculated decision to choose one course of action over another.

In this context, Gordon Mc Cormick similarly stresses that terrorists make a conscious attempt to minimize the expected costs necessary to attain a specific set of sociopolitical goals and terrorist groups aim to maximize their expected political recompenses for any given level of effort. It has been proven on multiple occasions that terrorists are indeed capable of achieving extraordinary political and/or strategic exploits with relatively minimal effort – the Hezbollah’s 1983 bombing of the U.S. military barracks in Beirut being a representative example, since it practically forced U.S. President Ronald Reagan to withdraw all American troops from Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s leaders (a Lebanese Islamist militant group and political party) were consequently persuaded that acts of terror are particularly effective when it comes to the pursuit of political change; the ANC terrorist attacks, which hastened the end of apartheid in South Africa, are also a striking example of this rationale. Along the same line, the 2004 Madrid train bombing is another typical paradigm of how the aforementioned cost-benefit analysis works within terrorism. On the morning of 11 March 2004 (three days before Spain’s general elections) ten –nearly-simultaneous explosions occurred aboard four commuter trains, killing 191 and injuring over 1,800 people.

The terrorists stated that they were motivated by the Aznar government’s alignment with the U.S. and its invasion of Iraq and tried to oust the (then) Prime Minister of Spain, José María Aznar from power. With an estimated total cost of 41,000 to 55,000 Euros, the 11-M attack proved to be extremely effective at all levels, resulting in the subsequent defeat of Aznar and many of his fellow PP party members in the national elections.

When rational choice theory is applied to the study of terrorism, it is of paramount importance to also examine the derived principles of constrained utility maximization; it is no secret that terrorists operate under the principles of constrained utility maximization and -more specifically- they do so by trying to obtain the highest possible level of utility, under given restrictions, when the highest overall level of utility cannot be reached. Terrorists desire by default to achieve a specific goal or a specific set of goals (when they engage in any sort of terrorist activity).

The vast majority, however, is equally satisfied with less, as long as their message for all intents and purposes is delivered- 9/11 being a case in point. Osama Bin Laden’s intention (as stated) was to “bleed America to the point of bankruptcy”. Bankruptcy in a canonically-structured western developed state is usually incongruous (especially when it comes to a country such as the U.S.). Nonetheless, it has been widely reported that the 9/11 attacks cost New York City alone over $95 billion.

The subsequent “War on Terror” is estimated to have cost over 4, 4 trillion. Using the constrained utility maximization theory, it is safe to conclude that Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda network, surely wanted a lot more casualties and a bigger economic impact but, in every practical sense, their message was received –loud and clear; and the attack was skillfully used to attract recruits.

Other examples of the rational choice theory of terrorism (as a preferred method to achieve sociopolitical goals) include terrorist attacks, committed by the IRA, that ultimately expedited the formation of the Irish Free State as well as the attacks perpetrated by Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary organization, which led to the independence of Eretz Israel from the British.

Is Rational Choice Theory the Answer?

It should be noted that RTC is based on a strict methodological continuum, as to why individuals choose to engage in terrorist activity. As with every theory, there are multiple weak points with regard to its use in social science and by extension to terrorism.

Opponents of the theory claim that RTC’s restrictive approach is based on too many assumptions and trivial changes to these assumptions are intentionally excluded. In essence, RTC fails to acknowledge practicalities such as cost, time, availability and other exogenous variables (untrustworthiness issues, deception, etc.).

Often operating under the notion of ceteris paribus, imponderable factors and other externalities cannot be estimated with precision, making the accurate prediction of future events virtually impossible, thus providing little help to the global counterterrorism policymaking. Relatedly, RTC tends to neglect certain historic, cultural and economic externalities that could be helpful to the integrated conceptualization of human behavior.

Moreover, RTC does not seem to take into consideration the “consequential” impacts emanating from impulsiveness, personal experiences or flawed cognitions that could potentially alter the psychological frame of an individual. Certain feelings of rage, revenge, ambition or injustice can skew behaviors from the rational choice framework. Therefore, by operating under the ceteris paribus axiom, the resulting analysis or conclusions could be unrealistic or invalid.

The use of RTC in terrorism studies is predominantly retrospective in nature- as in theorists tend to examine past events in order to comprehend and rationalize more recent events with the ultimate goal of predicting similar events in the future. According to Zafirovski, this “post-hoc” theoretical principle is of little use when it comes to predicting future terrorist incidents, since it is based on a false causality fallacy, which is methodologically flawed and often invalid.

Hence, the use of RTC in a predictive manner is openly disputed on the one hand because perpetrators of terrorist acts usually operate around worst-case fantasies- they are particularly resourceful and adaptable and they constantly “upgrade” their tactics- and on the other hand because RTC fails to encompass  a variety of divergent human motives and purposes.

From a practical standpoint, empirical study has shown that- more often than not- the goals of terrorists are actually implausible. This premise openly contradicts the assumption that terrorist acts epitomize rational attempts to reach specific sociopolitical goals. Their acts could in fact correspond to recruitment or support to family members, instead of a meticulously conceived agenda to accomplish sociopolitical purposes.

Additionally, there has been substantial evidence to suggest that individuals, who actually believe that terrorism could greatly benefit their cause, seldom engage in terrorist activity. The average individual rarely resorts to killing another person despite the rational benefits that this act could yield.

Another challenge regarding the RTC is that some cases of terrorism are indeed linked to mental disorders. Victoroff points to Theodore Kaczinski a.k.a. the Unabomber, who engaged in a nationwide bombing campaign resulting in 3 fatalities and 23 injuries, was officially diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

Finally, if terrorism was indeed rational (or a strategic choice for that matter), most terrorist groups would disband after the achievement of their objectives. Empirical evidence indicates, however, that most terrorist organizations remain in existence after the accomplishment of their goals and they occasionally sabotage their own success. So, taking into account all the exogenous variables (feelings of victimization, despair, cultural imperatives, social status etc.), the choice to get involved with terrorist groups might ultimately represent a profound desire to belong to a group, a dignified “raison d’être” or even a pronounced need to engage in risky endeavors.

So…is terrorism rational?

RTC can indeed be quite useful in conceptualizing and understanding terrorism, albeit when the respective context and prerequisites permit it. As with every other normative framework, there are incongruities that need to be taken into account before RTC can become practically helpful to the global counter-terrorism policy making. Terrorists do tend to have grandiose aims but successes such as the Madrid Bombings or even 9/11 make them truly believe that their actions are necessary, effective and rational. RTC should, generally, constitute a short-term response, when actions can be quickly and accurately assessed and the resulting policies properly adjusted; that is when its applicable utility is increased.

In some cases, however, it is complicated -if not impossible- to change what Crenshaw calls the preconditions (background conditions that encourage or discourage political violence) or the precipitants (the immediate catalysts that precede any terrorist activity); in these cases, RTC should not be the preferred methodological framework, since a more insightful research (with a long-term approach and time span) is required. Due to the fact that RTC is predominantly based on assumptions whose validity is not verified, it is more appropriate for short-term scenarios.