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December 03, 2015

Whose Blood, Whose Hands?

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/staff/mharrison/comment/lives.pdf

Yesterday the House of Commons voted to extend the zone of British combat operations from Iraq to Syria. The debate--I watched some of it--was prolonged, intense, and mostly respectful. This morning I woke to find the tag #bloodonyourhands trending on facebook and twitter, as opponents of the decision rallied against the Labour MPs who swung the decision.

This made me think of a short piece I wrote after 9/11, at the beginning of the war against al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Called "Lives Lost and Lives Saved in the War Against Terrorism," it tried to address the issues that will quickly arise once more as RAF missions make their mark on the territory now occupied by the "Islamic State." Its message seems as apposite now as it was then. Dated 2 January 2002, it belongs to the era before I had a blog, so I'll reproduce it below. If you prefer to see the original, you'll find it here.

A first unofficial summary of innocent civilian deaths resulting from American bombing in Afghanistan, just published, estimates their number at approximately 3,800. Coincidentally the official estimate of deaths in the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center has just fallen below 3,000. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that these figures will stand the test of time. Taking into account the 800 or so deaths at the Pentagon, the total of September 11 victims now stands at the same level as the number of victims of the American response. How should they affect our view of the war against terrorism?

Some will argue from such figures that the war should now stop, or should never have been begun. The action against the World Trade Center was a terrible crime. But if the counter–action has now taken as many lives as the action that prompted it, how can more be justified? Surely the counter–action should now come to an end, whether or not it should have been begun in the first place.

Such thoughts are rightly troubling, but need to be put into perspective by considering the purpose of warfare that they imply. The argument that the war should now stop, since it has cost as many lives as the cause of the war, implies that a purpose of the war was to take a life for a life, in other words to exact Old–Testament retribution. It implies that, as long as the victims of American bombing were outnumbered by the dead of Manhattan, a continuation of the war was justified; now that the piles of corpses on each side are evenly balanced, the war should stop. If revenge is a bad reason for making war, then the war should never have been begun.

A specific historical parallel is to be found in World War II. Germany began the bombing of British cities in 1940, and German bombing eventually took 60,000 British civilian lives. The subsequent Allied bombing of German cities took 300,000 German lives — five times as many. Following the same lines of thinking as for the war in Afghanistan, it may be asked whether the taking of life by Allied bombing in World War II was either disproportionate or morally wrong in itself.

Another purpose of warfare may be not to take lives but to save lives; killing may not be an end in itself but a means to this end. What was missed from the calculations above was the lives saved as a result of military action. For example the Allied bombing of German cities, although both bloody and in some respects misjudged, forced Hitler to devote extraordinary resources to air defence. By 1944 one third of German war production took the form of anti–aircraft guns and interceptor aircraft that were necessitated purely by the Allied bombing campaign. Thus, even though Allied bombing reduced the total of German war production by much less than anticipated, it profoundly affected its composition. It greatly reduced the supply of weapons to the German forces on the front line of battle, with the result that the Red Army in the East and the Allied invasion forces in the west had a much easier time of it. Tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of Allied lives were saved.

In a wider context it may be seen that many lives were lost in World War II so that other lives could be saved. How many lives were lost in total? The war gave rise to approximately 55 million premature deaths, of whom 20 millions were soldiers leaving 35 million civilian victims. Of the latter 32 millions were on the Allied side, mainly in Russia, China, Poland, and Yugoslavia, and 3 millions were on the Axis side, mainly in Germany. How many lives were saved? These are not exactly known but probably also numbered millions. Hitler’s plans for a colonial empire in the East envisaged an immediate reduction of the population just in the part of Russia to be occupied by 40 millions through starvation and resettlement. If the Thousand–Year Reich had been established throughout Europe, an endless flow of additional deaths would have resulted from Nazi occupation plans that combined economic exploitation with selective murder based on ethnicity, disability, and sexual orientation.

In the same way the war against terrorism has taken many lives, many of them civilian. However, if western inaction permitted terrorist organisations such as al–Qaeda to continue to flourish, other innocent lives would certainly be lost in the future as a result. In this context the idea of going to war to save lives sometimes goes under the heading of defending the “right to life”. If we did not go to war in defence of the right to life some people would presumably die as a result and many more would live in fear, so the lives saved by going to war measure the value of defending this right.

Accounting for lives lost and lives saved in this way gives rise to three moral problems. First, the lives saved by military action are uncertain and anonymous. Lives saved are just statistics. In contrast every life lost is a precious individual who is personally identifiable, for whom friends and communities grieve, and whose families can hire lawyers. The lives saved are just as real but no one person whose life has been saved is individually identified. As a result there is no elected representative, victims’ lobby, or publicity agent to speak for them. For the same reason it can rarely be established that more lives were saved than were actually lost. For example, it is possible that a failure to resist Hitler would have cost more than the 55 million lives lost in World War II, but it cannot be proved. The same must be true of a failure to resist Osama bin Laden.

A second problem is that military action destroys many lives without apparent justification. In war it is usually difficult or impossible to show that it was necessary to take any one individual’s life in order to save another. Wars are intrinsically fraught with mistakes and opportunistic actions. The people making the combat decisions are always trying at the same time to serve the interests of the war effort and their own self–interest, which means their careers, their pockets, or their own survival. They make stressful decisions based on incomplete information while tired, hungry, or frightened. These decisions have lethal consequences for others as well as sometimes for themselves. This means that many lives are lost for reasons that not immediately connected with ultimately attainment of the war’s objectives. In a statistical sense all the deaths are a necessary accompaniment to the conduct of a war, yet many individuals die for no better reason than that a soldier blinked, jumped, or looked for excitement or a medal.

A third problem is that balancing lives saved against lives lost creates injustice. The lives lost and saved belong to different people. Two groups of innocent people are involved. The first group is of those whose lives are saved by military action. The second group is of those whose lives are taken by it. At first sight this is a problem familiar to economics. There are many situations in which a particular change, for example, in technology or social organisation leaves some people with a gain and others with a loss. If the gains outweigh the losses it is possible, at least in principle, to organise government taxes and benefits so that the winners compensate the losers out of their gains and still have something left over: everyone is better off as a result. In the case of war the group that lives gains at the expense of the group that dies. However, no compensation is possible.

It is sometimes suggested, incidentally, that the unfairness is still more grotesque when conditions of life are taken into account. For example the war in Afghanistan has taken the lives of some of the poorest people on earth in order to defend the lives of some of the richest. In my opinion, however, this is a red herring: the unfairness would not be less if rich people were being killed to save poor people.

The unfairness involved in who lives and who dies may also be seen in terms of another familiar economic problem: a conflict between equity and efficiency. It was deeply unfair that innocent people in Afghanistan with very little to start with should have been faced with the destruction of what little they had, including even their lives, just because a foreign terrorist organisation had made an evil pact with their unpopular rulers and settled among them. However, it was efficient to offer the Afghans powerful incentives to get rid of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, and the incentives had to be negative ones. The ability of the United States to offer positive inducements was limited while the Taliban remained in power, and besides the wisdom of rewarding those whose rulers behave badly may be doubted in terms of the precedent it may create. Probably negative sanctions enforced by external military intervention were the only way of ensuring that the Afghans themselves would destroy the Taliban regime.

In short, the logic of military action requires us to trade some people’s lives against others’. For those who are willing to do so, the war against terrorism may be justified if it will have saved more lives than it takes away. This seems possible given what we know now about the ambitions of Osama bin Laden, although it cannot be known for sure. Sceptics may retort that much of what we know now about the plans of al–Qaeda was not known on September 12 and cannot be used to justify decisions taken then. The same was also true in World War II: that war was not waged to prevent or punish Hitler’s plans for ethnic cleansing in eastern Europe, since he set about them only during the war and took considerable care to keep them secret. But that’s what history’s like: most of the time, most of us live it blindly, and we find out what it was all about only after the event.



May 26, 2015

Violence or Morality: How Should We Think About Radicalization?

Writing about web page https://www.google.com/search?q=signs+of+radicalization

Our society is worried about radicalization. What is radicalization? Apparently it is all about violence. According to the UK government's Prevent strategy (2011), "radicalisation is driven by an ideology which sanctions the use of violence." According to the more recent Tackling extremism in the UK (2013) "we must confront the poisonous extremist ideology that can lead people to violence."

Is violence the key? I’m sceptical. Our society is not non-violent. We have armed forces. Most of us are proud of what our soldiers do. Most city centres see minor violence in most weeks of the year—something we are not proud of. Our police forces suppress civil disorder, using violence if necessary (although we expect them to use this violence within the law). We have armed forces that go about the world equipped for violence on a vast scale (although their most important mission is to prevent violence). We’re proud of what our soldiers do. On relevant anniversaries we celebrate, perhaps quietly, our victories in past wars. In church on Sundays some of us sing: “Onward Christian soldiers.”

If we condemn radicalization on the grounds that it sanctions the use of violence for political or religious ends, surely we are hypocrites. We trip ourselves up over simple things like tolerance and openness. Apparently, British society is open and tolerant. But there are limits, so we wish to close our ears to radical messages and we will be intolerant of intolerance.

Detecting radicalization is also a worry. Apparently there are lots of possible signs of radicalization, and at the same time none of them is effective. When I searched yesterday (25 May 2015) for "signs of radicalization" Google came up with “About 240,000 results (0.58 seconds).” Items 1 to 7 and 9 told me that lots of experts are very sure what we should look for:

Know the telltale signs of radicalization - The Province
www.theprovince.com/...signs+radicalization/.../story.html
The Province
Nov 25, 2014 - A couple of dozen school kids from Richmond joined together in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside last week to hand out sandwiches to the ...

Colin Kenny: 10 signs that someone is being radicalized
www.timescolonist.com/.../colin-kenny-10-signs-that-som...
Times Colonist
Dec 14, 2014 - Colin Kenny If there were doubts remaining that Canada has a serious problem with domestic radicalization to violence, the events of this past ...

Opinion: Recognizing the warning signs of radicalization ...
montrealgazette.com › ... › Quebec › World
Montreal Gazette
Jan 5, 2015 - If there were any doubts among Canadians that this country has a problem with domestic radicalization, the events of last year most surely ...

10 Signs Someone Is Becoming Radicalized to Violence ...
www.huffingtonpost.ca/.../radicalized-violence-canada_b_6366114.html
Dec 22, 2014 - If there were any doubts remaining in the minds of Canadians that this country has a serious problem with domestic radicalization to violence, ...

The DOJ to train community leaders to spot 'radicals'
theweek.com/.../doj-train-community-leaders-spot-radicals
The Week
... National Counterterrorism Center that will train "community leaders" like teachers and social workers to monitor their communities for signs of radicalization.

Canada AM: Radicalization warning signs | CTV News
www.ctvnews.ca/video?clipId=472619
CTV News
Chris Boudreau, Damion Clairmont's mother, reacts to a suspected terror attack in Quebec and reflects on how her son became radicalized.

[PDF]Radicalization of Youth as a Growing Concern for Counter ...
www.globalsecuritystudies.com/Bizina%20Youth-AG.pdf
by M Bizina - ‎Cited by 2 - ‎Related articles
comprehensive approach to the problem of radicalization, including community ..... training to be able to gauge early signs of radicalization in the community.

External Signs of Radicalization and Jihadist Militancy - ISN
www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Publications/Detail/?ots591...
Mar 3, 2007 - This paper examines the external signs of jihadist radicalization.

Worryingly, items 8 and 10 suggest that we don’t know what to look for after all.

Family Of Gunman In Tunisia Museum Attack Saw No Signs ...
www.huffingtonpost.com/.../tunisia-museum-attacke...
The Huffington Post
Family Of Gunman In Tunisia Museum Attack Saw No Signs Of Radicalization. Reuters. Posted: 03/20/2015 11:14 am EDT Updated: 05/20/2015 5:59 am EDT ...

Jihadi John's former Jewish teacher saw no signs of ...
www.ynetnews.com › Ynetnews › News
Ynetnews
Mar 3, 2015 - Former head teacher Jo Shuter says no sign of radicalization for ... had spotted signs of radicalization they would have done something about it.

It seems that that our concept of “radicalization to violence” has become ever more complicated. It has become ever more complicated because it does not work. It does not work because it is misconceived.

Many people think of radicalization partly as a choice over lifestyle, partly as a choice over means. Lifestyle involves dress, community, and observance. Violence is the means. Yes, these may well be somewhere in the process. But at the root of radicalization is a moral choice, which we mistakenly ignore.

What is the moral choice underlying radicalization? It is a specific preference for limited morality over universal morality.

All moralities tend to have common features: they prohibit killing, stealing, and dishonouring other members of the community. They demand that, in our own choices, we give weight to the interests of others within the same community. They differ in the breadth of the community that benefits from these injunctions. A limited morality protects a limited community. The limit might be fixed by family relationship, or social class, or nation, or religion. Those beyond the limit are strangers, and strangers have no protection. In contrast, a universal morality extends protection to all others, including strangers.

Thus a universal morality requires us to give the same respect to everyone; they are morally equal to us, even when we have never met them and have no prior knowledge of them, when they do not look or sound like us and do not worship as we do. A universal morality might not require us to give other kinds of equality to strangers, such as civic equality, political equality, or financial equality. But it demands that in making our own choices we should always consider the interests of strangers and give them some weight.

A universal morality is not necessarily non-violent and does not preclude the use of violence against strangers. It does impose strict conditions on the use of violence, specifying the actions by strangers—and not only strangers—that can incur a violent response, such as aggression against us. It imposes strict limits on violence against strangers—and not only strangers—such as those written into the international laws of war.

The moral rights of a stranger can have painful implications. If someone close to us unjustly violates the rights of a stranger, a universal morality requires us to vindicate the stranger, even if our relative or neighbour is thereby exposed to a social penalty. A British court will imprison one British citizen for assaulting a refugee, and extradite another to stand trial for a crime committed against foreigners in a foreign country. In contrast a limited morality is more comfortable. It allows us to ignore the interests of strangers and requires us defend the relative or neighbour who has wronged the stranger.

Terrorists who attack civilians and those who sympathise with them or support them invariably see themselves as moral people. They feel they have just grievances and that their grievances justify attacking innocent people. Their morality allows them to define their victims as strangers who are outside the community within which moral rules apply. In their morality, strangers have no entitlement to moral protection. Thus terrorists live within a moral comfort zone. Outside the zone they will freely hurt and kill people who are not of their nation, or not of their religion, or not of their sect, and they will feel no guilt because in their view such people have no rights.

When children and young people are attracted to Hamas or Islamic State the important thing is not the violence these organizations use. Our own society is not non-violent. Many childhood games involve battles between soldiers, between kingdoms, and between interstellar civilizations. This does not turn children towards terrorism. What turns children towards terrorism is being reared in a limited morality that gives strangers no moral weight and tolerates unlimited violence against them.

A universal morality is one of the sources, perhaps the most important source, of the openness, tolerance, and freedoms that British society can celebrate and aspire to, even if we do not always live up to it. A universal morality allows us to live with strangers, learn from strangers, trade with them and travel peacefully among them. It is the great gift to us of the culture that grew up around the north and east Mediterranean two thousand years ago.

A universal morality that gives moral equality to strangers can be hard to live up to. To live up to it, we must defend it. And to defend it we must first recognize it and affirm it for what it is.


May 14, 2015

Terrorism: A Career Choice?

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-27963675

Recently the Warwick PPE programme (that's Philosophy, Politics, and Economics) put on an event for school students. The idea was to show what each of the three disciplines--Philosophy, Politics, and Economics--can contribute on a topic of current importance. It turned out that philosophy is good at trying to understand the concept of terrorism, and the study of politics helps us to understand how western politics have influenced our concepts of terrorism. I decided to talk about why young people choose to become terrorists in terms of the economics of career choice. Here, roughly, is what I said.

Right now you are probably getting a lot of advice about career choices, so I am going to talk about terrorism as a career choice--the sort of choice that has been made recently by a number of young British people who have gone to Syria to join ISIS. First of all, what is a terrorist? Someone who kills or injures civilians with a particular purpose: to create a violent spectacle, and so to spread terror beyond the immediate victims. The motivation is political: to support political demands--maybe. I say "maybe" because for reasons that will become clear I am less certain on this point.

Where is the economic aspect of terrorism? Terrorists seem to belong to the world of politics. What do they have to do with economics? For today, the point is that the decision to become a terrorist is an occupational choice. To become a terrorist is costly. There are also benefits – but what are they? The choice can be understood using concepts from economics such as cost, benefits, and rational decision making.

Is terrorism a choice (1)?

A first step is to establish that becoming a terrorist is indeed a choice. Do people choose terrorism or are they driven into it by despair (or by voices in their heads)? My answer is that they choose.

How to we know this? From two things. One is that far more people support terrorism than take part in it. Across societies and over time support for terrorism is rarely a majority point of view, but around the world supporters do come in significant numbers that amount to sizeable minorities:

Support for suicide terrorism across countries and time

This table (from PewResearchCenter 2013) shows that support among Muslims for suicide terrorism is highly variable--widespread in some places, quite infrequent in others. (In most countries it shows a tendency to dwindle over the period shown.) But it is worth bearing in mind that the first three countries shown in the table are among the most populous on earth: Pakistan, Indonesia, and Nigeria together account for more than 600 million people. If you apply the percentages for 2013 to the working-age populations (aged 15 to 64) of the 11 countries in the table, you come up with at least 50 million sympathizers. So, support for terrorism is shown by sizeable minorities.

In contrast, those who choose a career in terrorism are tiny minorities. In 2013 there were perhaps as many as 250,000 international terrorists worldwide. I base that on a rough count of members of groups aiming to attack the United States (from U.S. State Department 2014). This is a tiny number. Among 4.3 billion people of working age in the world it is one 1 in 18,000. In the Middle East and North Africa, active terrorists number perhaps 150,000. Relative to the MENA working-age population that is one in 1,500. In short, many people sympathize with terrorists, but hardly anyone becomes one.

Is terrorism a choice (2)?

If fewer people choose to become terrorists than express support for it, the next thing to ask is whether the participants have truly had the opportunity to choose. Do they have the competence to choose? Do they have alternatives from which to choose? To both questions the answer is: Yes. These people are not driven by crazy inner urges they cannot control; study after study has shown that most are psychologically normal (starting from Merari 1998). Moreover these people do not lack alternatives. In every society the people with fewest choices are women, the elderly, the poor, and the uneducated. But the typical terrorist is male, young, relatively affluent, and relatively educated (e.g. Krueger and Maleckova 2003). These are people with more choices, not fewer. They are not compelled by their circumstances.

Is terrorism a rational choice?

So, terrorism is a career choice. Is it a rational choice? Economic thinking revolves around the idea of people as rational actors. A rational actor isn’t a good or bad person, just a person whose behaviour follows a consistent logic. A rational actor should compare expected marginal private benefits with marginal private opportunity costs. The word "marginal" emphasizes that each person should ask: What difference will my choice make? The word "private" means: the difference to me. Then, the rational person will choose the option that yields the largest net gain to him or her. The gain does not have to be monetary; it will come in any form that the person concerned values.

Choosing terrorism: marginal costs?

What if the option to be considered is “terrorist”? The young person can make a list of marginal costs and benefits, just like a list of "for" and "against." The marginal costs associated with becoming a terrorist are many and large. You have to make the effort to research the groups that are willing to recruit you and work out the differences among them in order to seek to join one of them (in economics that is called a matching problem: there has to be the right match between the group and you). This effort is a cost. You have to learn occupational skills such as violence and concealment. Learning is costly too. You have to make efforts to adopt and live a new social identity, becoming a warrior or martyr.

Any career choice is likely to present analogous costs of matching, training, and developing a new professional identity. The costs of choosing terrorism that would not arise with other choices are that you have to abandon your home, your family, and a peaceful way of life in order to risk death. And, if you survive, and decide that you made a mistake, there may be no going back. These are all things that go under "against."

Choosing terrorism: marginal benefits?

So the costs are many and large. What goes under "for"? What are the benefits that terrorists seek from their career choice?

One benefit you might think of (assuming these are indeed benefits to you) would be to achieve the declared goals of the group: usually, to unify the homeland, or to drive out foreigners, or to establish religious order. But the economist rules this one out on several grounds, each of which should be decisive on its own. First, on average, attacking civilians does not achieve declared goals (Jones and Libicki 2008; Abrahms 2011). In other words, terrorism is counterproductive.

This is not all. Even if terrorism were productive, one person more or less would make no difference, so the marginal gain from your personal participation is inevitably less than the private marginal cost that you will bear. Finally, terrorists often turn out to be quite uninformed about their own group's declared goals (and not only that; they are usually also fairly clueless about world politics and religion). For all these reasons we cannot put much weight on claims, often made many years later, that "I joined the IRA to bring about a united Ireland" (for example).

Note. A listener reminded me: Maybe people join in terrorism out of anger at Western actions. I understand, and we'll come to the beliefs that are required for participation in terrorism. But all the evidence (Abrahms 2011 again) suggests that international terrorism against civilians moves public opinion to the right and increases the likelihood of Western cross-border intervention against terrorists. In other words, again, it's counterproductive. Even Osama bin Laden could see that. When you see people persisting in very costly courses of action and the actions are known to be counter-productive, you have to ask: Why?

But … But what other benefits might there be? A clue lies in the fact that, while psychologically normal, terrorists are often excluded or isolated (e.g. Pedahzur 2005): they are young unmarried men, or young women who were prematurely widowed, or poorly assimilated migrants. Correspondingly, Max Abrahms has argued, what terrorists value above all is the comradeship and supportive ties they find in the organization they joined.

Here are some examples (from Abrahms 2008). Among 516 Guantanamo Bay detainees, knowing an al-Qaida member was a significantly better predictor than belief in jihad. Among 1,100 detained members of the Kurdish PKK, respondents were ten times more likely to say they were attracted to join “because their friends were members” than by political ideology. There are related findings from Europe based on study of the IRA, ETA, RAF, and Red Brigades.

Moreover, terrorist groups are well placed to supply intense comradeship. They provide shared dangers and extreme experiences that cannot be shared with outsiders.

So terrorism is like ... ?

This suggests a more general model for terrorism. What benefits do young people seek from work? To some, salary and prospects matter most. For others, most important is the kind of work. Suppose you want excitement and risk; you don't want work that is routine or desk-bound. Suppose you want teamwork and comradeship, not isolation. Suppose you want the opportunity for acknowledgement of your personal role; you don't want to disappear into an anonymous mass.

If you are that sort of person, you might consider competitive team sports, or becoming an outdoor adventure leader, or joining the emergency services, for example the fire brigades. Or ... you might become a terrorist.

Radicalization and beliefs

So far I've said nothing about beliefs. Yet in choosing terrorism beliefs do play a role. For only a tiny minority chooses terrorism. Most young people do not want to kill others in order to share excitement and form bonds of affection with co-workers. What can overcome this natural reluctance? Here is where beliefs matter.

As an economist, I note that beliefs shape rational choice. You cannot make a rational career choice without beliefs. Here is a minimum set of beliefs that seem to matter for young people who choose terrorism. There is the choice of identity: the very concept of self-interest is predicated on the existence of a "self" that answers the question: Who am I? (as argued by Harrison 2006). For those that choose terrorism the answer is apparently: —I am a warrior (or: —I am a martyr). Sometimes the choice of identity is fuelled by anger. But this choice alone is not sufficient; you can be a soldier or a martyr without directing your rage against innocent people.

There is also a matter of values: Specifically, when I choose how to behave in society, how much weight should I give the interests of other people, compared to my own self-interest? Here the critical answer is: —People who don’t share my beliefs have no right to be considered and don’t deserve to live. This, and only this, makes it OK for the soldier to kill them.

When some young people look for others with whom they can form social bonds, these beliefs can tip the rational choice towards terrorist groups. So to adopt these two beliefs, the identity of the soldier and the exclusion of others from the right to exist based on different beliefs or culture, must be decisive in what some authorities now call "radicalization."

References

  • Abrahms, Max. 2008. What Terrorists Really Want: Terrorist Motives and Counterterrorism Strategy. International Security, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Spring 2008), pp. 78–105.
  • Abrahms, Max. 2011. Does Terrorism Really Work? Evolution in the Conventional Wisdom since 9/11. Defence and Peace Economics, 22:6, 583-594.
  • Harrison, Mark. 2006. An Economist Looks at Suicide Terrorism. World Economics 7:3, pp. 1-15.
  • Jones, Seth G., and Martin C. Libicki. 2008. How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering Al Qa’ida. RAND Corporation: Santa Monica.
  • Krueger, Alan B., and Jitka Malečková. 2003. "Education, Poverty and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection?" Journal of Economic Perspectives, 17(4): 119-144.
  • Merari, Ariel. 1998. “The Readiness to Kill and Die: Suicidal Terrorism in the Middle East.” In Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind, 192-207. Edited by Walter Reich. Second edition, Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center and Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Pedahzur, Ami. 2005. Suicide Terrorism. Cambridge: Polity.
  • PewResearchCenter. 2013. Muslim Publics Share Concerns About Extremist Groups. Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project. Washington, D.C.
  • U.S. State Department. 2014. Country Reports on Terrorism, 2013. Bureau of Counterterrorism.

February 06, 2014

A Blast from the Past: The KGB and Counter–Terrorism

Writing about web page http://www.hoover.org/publications/hoover-digest/article/5279

The athletes gathering in Sochi for the Winter Olympics must regret the fact that the threat of terrorism is commanding as much media atttention as the prospects for sporting excellence.

The extent of the terrorist threat to Sochi is a measure of how Russia has changed. The Soviet Union offered little scope for terrorism. Under intense state and party surveillance it was very difficult for non-state actors to spread a message or recruit. It was not obvious what would make an effective target for a terrorist act and the state was fully capable of suppressing any publicity that would normally follow in an open society. Terrorist acts were rare. Nonetheless, a few did take place.

While studying the records of the KGB of Soviet Lithuania (held on microfilm at the Hoover Institution), I came across documentation of such a case. On a Saturday afternoon in January 1977, three bombs were detonated in Moscow, one in a subway train, another in the street, and a third in a food store. The attack came out of the blue: there was no warning and no one claimed responsibility. Seven people were killed and 44 injured. Two days later, on January 10, the Soviet news agency TASS issued an uninformative bulletin that mentioned only the subway blast and concealed the deaths.

The KGB was completely at a loss where to look for the perpetrator, so they looked everywhere -- including Lithuania. The investigation took many months; almost a year passed before arrests were made. I'm not going to tell the story of the investigation here; I've published the main story elsewhere and you can also read a more detailed version in a working paper with footnotes.

The thing that interested me most was what I learned about the career concerns of KGB operatives. It worked like this.

  • If you were Yurii Andropov, the USSR KGB chief in Moscow, you naturally had what Mancur Olson would have called an "encompassing interest" in identifying and catching the culprits as soon as possible.
  • At the next level down, if you were Juozas Petkevičius, the Soviet Lithuania KGB chief in Vilnius, your concerns were more complicated. Your first priority was to ensure that the culprit was not in Lithuania. The culprit had to be somewhere, of course, and the chance that he (or she, but let's be realistic: most terrorists are male) was in Lithuania was very small (1 percent of the Soviet population). Moreover, if the perpetrator was found in Lithuania, Petkevičius could expect a career setback, because this would be someone the local KGB had overlooked or underestimated. One could understand it if Petkevičius had chosen to let sleeping dogs lie. But he couldn't, because then he would face an even worse career risk: that some other branch of the KGB would come into Lithuania and find the terrorist that the locals had overlooked. So Petkevičius did the right thing and mobilized his forces to scour Lithuania for the culprit, if the culprit was to be found there.
  • There were still lower levels, headed by chiefs of KGB city and rural district administrations, and so on down to factory and ward officers, workplace and apartment block informers, and so forth. At each level the KGB staff and agents faced the same conflicting pull as Petkevičius, but the balance changed. By the time you came down to a village or street, the chance that the culprit had chosen to hide out exactly there, as opposed to any other street in the entire Soviet Union, was absolutely infinitesimal. Correspondingly, as you went down the hierarchy, the risk of slacking and the incentive to search weakened and dwindled to zero. The only remaining incentive to search was to please the boss. Therefore, as time went by, Petkevičius became more and more concerned that no one below him was trying hard. And he needed them to try hard, so he pleaded and threatened and bullied.

Why is this interesting? Because we might think of the KGB as a special, elite organization full of dedicated, self-motivated patriots and loyalists. Yet, when push came to shove, in the face of a national emergency, most employees behaved like the staff of any bureaucracy: they responded to career concerns, and not otherwise.

PS If you follow my links to the full story, you'll find that what happened in the end was exactly what Petkevičius must have feared most -- but it happened elsewhere, to another regional KGB boss who was found to have held the terrorist leader in his hands and let him go.


I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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