‘Share’ and survival

Not the terrorist group’s absolute amount of accumulated successes (attacks, fatalities inflicted, and media attention garnered etc.) but its share of aggregate successes is the key to its survival. To keep things simple, let us assume that the terrorist group’s primary operational expectation revolves around the number of fatalities that its actions will inflict and the amount of attention the action will receive. The neoclassical model implies that more is always better for the terrorist group and we have previously seen that satiation is viewed suspiciously by some economists. However, it is not completely accurate to equate fitness or survival with a terrorist group strategy that is always focused on striving to increase the absolute impact of its actions or its absolute level of accumulated payoffs. Rather, a fitness rule or ESS is more likely to be characterised by a strategy to maximise the growth of a terrorist group’s share of inflicted fatalities and attention. We can reasonably expect terrorist groups to be focused on their ‘share’. Shares of payoffs rather than absolute payoffs have been found to capture the attention of decision-makers in other settings.8

That an ESS might emerge from relative rather than absolute payoffs is not surprising for reasons that are even more fundamental. Analogous situations can be found in ecology. Falster & Westoby (2003, p.337) highlight the importance of relative vis-a-vis absolute advantages in the struggle for survival. Height for plants is extremely important because it will usually determine the plant’s access to light. The competition for light is critical in densely forested and canopied environments. A maximum canopy height for different species may range from just a few centimetres to more than 50 metres but this maximum is not driven ever higher by competition and natural selection. Height leads to benefits but also involves costs and there is no need for plants to achieve the tallest possible height. A plant that can extend its height just marginally above the others will hold an advantage. When the plants that are already present are short, a new species gains an advantage by being short too, but marginally taller than the others. When the plants that are already present are tall, once more it is not the absolute maximum height to which a new species may be able to grow that will determine its competitive advantage. It can stop once it has exceeded the others by some degree even if its structure would permit greater height. When the average height of existing plants falls,4 new plants can establish themselves at lower heights and vice versa.10

Competition focused on the share of payoffs rather than absolute payoffs will shape and be shaped by the overall structure of activity that characterises the terrorism context during a given period. It will also be shaped by the ways in which terrorist activities are covered and presented by the media. A pattern prediction emerges from a consideration of each individual terrorist group’s attempts to secure its share of inflicted fatalities and recognition for its actions. This pattern is the cyclical ebb and flow of violence or, more accurately, spirals upwards and downwards in aggregate brutality. In economics, the analysis of the cyclicality of terrorism—the number of attacks, not necessarily the number of fatalities inflicted or the amount of publicity received—has been a longstanding research program (Cauley & Im 1988; Enders, Parise & Sandler 1992; Enders & Sandler 1999, 2002).The fatalities inflicted by terrorism is a series characterised by even more pronounced spirals. Figure 7.3 charts the annual global percentage change (year to year) in fatalities inflicted by acts of terrorism (from GTD).

In some times and places, it will be perfectly rational and evolutionarily stable for a terrorist group to decrease the intensity of its brutality. The key point is that

Annual percentage change, total global terrorism fatalities, 1970—2019

FIGURE 7.3 Annual percentage change, total global terrorism fatalities, 1970—2019.

if brutality is spiralling in one direction or the other, there will be a rational and evolutionarily stable way to respond. When brutality and the media attention that it receives increases overall, and no one can deny that this happens from time to time, each individual terrorist group must choose how to respond. Reducing or maintaining its current level of activity during a period in which brutality is increasing will see a diminution in the terrorist group’s share of inflicted brutality and recognition. If the terrorist group tries to maintain or enhance its relative share of brutality and recognition, it can do so only by attempting to increase the brutality of its actions or its number of actions or both and we should observe such attempts. When the brutality cycle turns downwards, the terrorist group can maintain or even grow its share of inflicted brutality with less brutal actions or less activity.

The initial upward movement in aggregate inflicted brutality to which individual terrorist groups respond may have any number of different causes. It could be as straightforward as an attack with an accidentally high number of fatalities. It does not necessarily result from a deliberate attempt by one group to escalate its brutality though, of course, it may." The initial decline could also have many causes. Most straightforwardly, a government’s targeting of the resources of a particularly violent terrorist group that reduces the capability of that group simultaneously reduces the intensity of the contest for share and recognition. Sharp increases and decreases in brutality and violence are an observable feature of global terrorism and it is this very sharpness that is consistent with attempts to maximise brutality share rather than absolute brutality, though at times it will be difficult to distinguish between the two.

The growth of each group’s share of the payoffs accumulating in aggregate to all groups in the context is critical to its individual fitness. It is within this tumult that terrorist groups emerge and fade away. Some experience very long life cycles and some experience very short life cycles. When brutality is spiralling upwards, maintenance and growth of a terrorist group’s share of brutality will prompt some groups to engage in a larger number of actions or engage in actions that are more brutal. Other groups may be unwilling or unable to compete and may quickly become irrelevant as their share of activity and brutality shrinks and their share of publicity goes along with it. Members of these groups, which are in danger of losing their identities, may form new, more brutal groups, breaking away from their existing groups and leaving behind the decision-makers whose preferences are inconsistent with survival in more brutal terrorism contexts. Cycles in activity and brutality and cycles in the lifespans of terrorist groups are inextricably linked together.

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