Friday, June 12, 2009

Lethal vs. Non-lethal Terrorists

I’m attending the Harvard Political Networks Conference right now and listening to an interesting presentation by Karl Rethemeyer called “Lethal Connections.” (It’s co-authored with Asal, Lee, and Park.) The paper uses social network analysis to study the links between terrorist attacks and the lethality of terror groups. The authors find, among other things, that connectedness is related to lethality. That is, the more connected a terror group is to other terror groups, the more likely they are to kill people and to target U.S. interests. They also find that Islamist groups tend to be better connected.

Non-lethal terror groups, conversely, tend to be relative loners, linked to very few organizations. Leftist organizations (defined here as environmental and anarchist terror groups) also tend to be non-lethal.

Some of these claims beg a few questions. If anarchists and environmental terrorists are leftists, does that make religious terror groups right wing? Not all of these things map well onto American ideological space. Also, why would more religious organizations tend to be lethal? They are more likely to employ suicide bombers, which is consistent with the idea of an afterlife and divine reward, but I’m not sure why such a belief would justify killing others.

Also, more generally, didn’t leftist organizations tend to be more lethal in the past? As I recall, anarchists set off a bomb in the L.A. Times building early in the 20th century, and one of them killed President McKinley. And leftist groups blew up ROTC buildings and other government offices in the 60s, accepting a certain level of collateral damage. We don’t see much of this stuff today from the left. What changed?

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