Suicide Terrorism and Game Theory

I stumbled upon this article on the recent work on Terrorism in Game Theory, and the section on Suicide Terrorism piqued my interest in particular. 

It’s easy to assume that suicide terrorism is not rational, and thus should not be analyzed in a regular game. This however, means that an individual does not understand the payoffs of most suicide terrorists. I recalled reading another article several years ago by Dr. Robert Pape called Dying to Win. Pape illustrates that suicide terror is in fact rational to many of the perpetrators, and that ideology and religion is far less of a motivator than commonly thought. As it turns out, suicide terror has a far higher success rate, and kills 12 times the people that a conventional attack does. Expected payoffs can include heightened prestige and camaraderie within the group before the attack, payments to the families of the perpetrator, rewards in the afterlife, or a sense of altruism gained by providing a sense of good to future generations. Even though it is difficult to image, “the terrorist views his or her anticipated marginal benefit as exceeding the associated marginal cost for all levels of resource expenditure, even that involving one’s life.” (Sandler, Siqueira)

It is because the terrorist values their resource expenditure, their life, so low compared to the payoffs, that effective counter-terrorism policies should not just be combating terrorists, but include the concept of improving the conditions in which likely terrorists thrive. It should be noted however, that while data is very hard to gather on suicide terrorists, we do know that they are usually not in poverty, many have a college degree, none are from a particular area, and most are not Muslim. (Pape) This means that targeted aid to regions deemed susceptible to suicide terror cannot be a single solution. So perhaps a better option is to strongly strike against the surviving families of suicide terror, to endanger the potential payoff. 

The article concludes 6 key points after their Game Theory Analysis of Suicide Terrorism. “First, suicide missions imply corner solutions where standard (marginal) policy interventions may be ineffective. Second, suicide terrorists tend to be well educated. Third, hardened targets are more apt to attract suicide bombers. Fourth, income assistance may not reduce suicide attacks, owing to opposing influences. Fifth, government must at times seek to give potential terrorist operatives those things provided by terrorist organizations—that is, a sense of social cohesion and social services. Sixth, terrorist organizations must circumvent a free-rider problem.” (Sandler, Siqueira)

What I take away from all this is that understanding the payoffs and motivators of seemingly irrational actors like terrorists can allow one to use extra tools to analyze their behavior, and an effective preventative or reactionary response. 

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