In examining theoretical models of war, one consistently finds oneself adding the caveat “assuming, of course, that the two entities are acting completely rationally”. It is theory, after all, and all high-level theories must utilize moderate heuristics. Anyway, this caveat seems sensible in classical models of war: the players in question are very large communities in which most radical and irrational elements are removed from the mainstream public discourse, allowing cooler heads to prevail. What, then, is to be done when those radical elements band together (or potentially remain individual) and wish to see their views realized? Can any of the same theories be applied, or must a new archetype be constructed from scratch?
We begin with one of the now standard international relations models, the bargaining equation. In the bargaining equation, each country looks at an equation where the probability of winning multiplied by the winning payoff is added to the probability of loss multiplied by the losing payoff, from all of which the cost of fighting is subtracted. Any bargain which pays off greater than this value is worthwhile to the countries, and there is significant overlap in acceptable values due the cost of fighting lowering the payoff floor. However, this model only works when the two countries are fighting over a divisible prize, are accurately confident in their military power, have no significant threat to reputation at stake, there are no significant benefits of preemptive strikes, and leaders are not tempted to break promises. And, of course, the ever-present presumption of rational behavior by a country’s leader is again a necessary caveat.
If we can envision a terrorist organization that fits these 6 qualifications, there would seem to be no evident reason that they could not follow the bargaining equation to make international and intranational relations decisions. Indeed, some of these qualifications could be weakened (indivisible prizes being especially relevant to Islamic extremist terrorists) and the use of terror could remain a viable strategy within the bargain equation framework. How would this work, then? As David A. Lake proposes in his article “Rational Extremism: Understanding Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century”, a simple explanation for the functional possibilities of terrorism can be modeled as a “baiting tactic”, in which a small organization can provoke, through inexpensive terror actions, a massive and disorganized retaliatory effort by the victim country against the populus in which the terrorist organization resides, radicalizing the citizenry to the terrorist’s cause. In this way, the terrorist can improve their bargaining power by commanding more personnel, and eventually may have the ability to see their goals realized.
Key to this provocation of full-scale retaliation is creating the perception that the organization is irrational, and prone to surprise attack of civilians, thus causing the label “terrorist”. By seeming unhinged to the target nation, they cause the public to demand complete obliteration of the organization at any cost. As is explaned in Robert Pape’s article “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism” and in Scott Atran’s “Genesis of Suicide Terrorism”, the recent rise of suicide terrorism has a number of contributing factors, which play into this concept of seeming irrational and excessively extremist. Suicide bombings also provoke the invading nation to view the region as more unstable, and desire to pull their troops out as soon as possible to wash their hands of the instability, allowing the organization increased control of the region when the power vacuum is created.
Overall, it is not too far of a leap to fit terrorist organizations into our prior models of international relations when abstracted to a significant degree. However, it is important to remove prior assumptions about deterrence and other international bargaining techniques when dealing with such organizations, as many have to be completely altered to even begin to apply.