Undercover Economist

Tried and tested ways to woo a half-hearted terrorist

In 1973, Yassir Arafat, Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, had an unusual problem. His elite unit, Black September, had seized international headlines by kidnapping and then murdering Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, along with other high-profile attacks. That had forced the world to take the PLO seriously, but now that Arafat was seeking international recognition, he needed to muzzle his own attack dogs, a hundred ruthless warriors with nothing to live for but the cause.

The solution was simple. The PLO married off most of Black September, offering them Beirut apartments, shapely young brides and a “child bonus” of $5,000 if they had a baby within a year. No longer did these men have nothing to lose.

The story is related in Eli Berman’s new book, Radical, Religious and Violent, an attempt to construct a theory of rational terrorism. Reverse the tale and you get a sense of Berman’s argument: effective terrorist groups are effective only because their members are cut off from the outside world and have little to gain from quitting the group.

For Berman – a Canadian-born economist and professor at the University of California San Diego, who also served in Israel’s Golani Brigade in the early 1980s – thinking about quitters is essential to understanding what might sound like an odd question: why are there so few effective terrorist networks?

Of course, the world is not short of terrorists, but there are many grievances, many disaffected young men and hundreds of thousands of murders or deaths on the battlefield. Given what an impact terrorist violence can have, and how low-tech it can be, Berman is probably right to suggest that the rarity of effective terrorists, however welcome, is a puzzle.

Defectors provide the solution to that puzzle. A single defector can jeopardise a terrorist network, and defections do happen. Sudanese militant Jamal al-Fadl quit al-Qaeda in the mid 1990s and jumped ship to the US, reportedly for huge sums of money. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, died when his safe house was bombed in June 2006 – it has been reported that an associate betrayed him for the $25m bounty on his head.

The higher the stakes, the more tempting it will be for a half-hearted terrorist to defect. Berman argues that radical religious groups are well-equipped to ensure that there is no such thing as a half-hearted terrorist. It is not the theology of such groups – martyrdom, for instance – that makes the difference, but their ability to cut off outside options and create very strong ties between group members.

Seen in this way, the Taliban have something in common with the Amish or ultra-orthodox Jews: a set of rules that makes it unattractive for adherents to leave, and attractive for them to stay. If they stay, they enjoy the membership of a group that provides substantial social services to members. If they leave – having been cut off from a non-religious education and isolated from secular members of society – their options will be limited, even if they do run off with a truck full of smuggled goods or a pay-off from the Americans.

Berman’s book is puzzling in some ways. He devotes very little attention to the fact that the violent religious groups he studies – the Taliban, Hamas, Hizbollah and the Mahdi Army – are all Islamic. But the focus on the way some radical religious groups are able to control defection does seem very fruitful. It points to clear solutions, too: give potential terrorists attractive outside options, offer effective social services and try to cut off their sources of funding. Not at all easy, and not altogether new. But in economics just as in counter-terrorism, what is?

Also published at ft.com.