Fighting Terrorism: The Democracy Advantage

Summary: Global rates of terrorism have skyrocketed since 9/11. But the aggregate increase tells us very little about the distribution of attacks across different regime types. Contrary to the traditional scholarly view and popular perceptions in the media, reasonably high-quality democracies enjoy a robust and growing "triple democracy advantage" in facing the scourge of Islamist terrorism. Not only are liberal democracies and polyarchies less prone to terrorist attacks than all other regime types, but the rate of increase in the number of attacks among them is substantially lower in comparison to the rest, and they are significantly better at minimizing casualties.

Barcelona, Berlin, Boston, Brussels, London, Madrid, Manchester, New York, Nice, Paris, Stockholm, Sydney – over the past several years these and other icons of the democratic West have become places widely identified with terrorist attacks involving suicide-belts, vehicular-ramming, improvised bombs, mass shootings or stabbings. Meanwhile in the east, groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or Daesh), Boko Haram, and various al-Qaeda affiliates – in the Caucuses, Arabian Peninsula, East Africa, Sinai, the Sahel, and Maghreb – have seized large tracts of land in fragile states and have striven to establish emirates and caliphates whose political ambitions are as vast as they are inimical to the liberal international order.

Offering their acolytes religious purpose, financial gain, sexual slaves, and the unfettered exercise of sadistic violence, the jihadists have recruited over 40,000 foreign fighters from 110 countries, with approximately 6,000 American, Australian, Canadian, and European Union (EU) nationals travelling to the conflict zones in Iraq and Syria alone, both before and after the declaration of the caliphate in June 2014[i] And as the tide has turned and the Global Coalition Against Daesh erodes the caliphate – taking the ISIS strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa in late 2017 – security officials across the free world are now deeply worried that the steady trickle of battle-hardened returnees will grow into a deluge.

Not surprisingly, these recent trends in political violence have exacerbated public anxiety and sown popular fear that open societies have become the favored targets for both home-grown and foreign terrorists. Terrorism is the deliberate use or threat of violence against civilians by a non-state entity (individual or group) in pursuit of a political or religious goal.[ii] Terrorism – or, more accurately, Salafi-Takfiri terrorism of the type perpetrated by ISIS – is now perceived by people around the globe to constitute the leading threat to their national security. Indeed, according to a Pew study published in August 2017, 74% of Americans and Indonesians, 70% of Britons, 88% of the French, 62% of Ghanaians, 77% of Germans, 66% of Indians, 85% of Italians, and 79% of Tunisians, view ISIS as the top national security threat to their country.[iii] Competing sources of major threats – ranging from Cyberattacks by other countries and refugee flows to Chinese and Russian power and influence – score much lower in the hierarchy of identified risks.

The implications of these concerns go far beyond securityalone. Even among the most advanced democracies in the world, contemporary fear of terrorism – an issue deeply intertwined with immigration, particularly from Muslim-majority countries – is a prime driver of populist nationalism, support for illiberal alternatives, and heightened danger of erosion of civil liberties and rule of law protections.[iv] If liberal democracies in Europe, North America and parts of Asia are particularly prone to terrorism, moreover, shouldn't low-quality democracies and authoritarian societies contemplating liberalization take heed and stay clear of improved rule of law guarantees, political rights and other freedoms that may undermine their safety and stability? Are closed autocracies not better equipped to fend off the scourge of terrorism by virtue of their facing fewer constraints on repression and denying would-be terrorists with opportunities to organize? At the very least, the relationship between regime types and contemporary trends in terrorism ought to be clearly understood so as to facilitate better risk analysis and counterterrorism policy planning at home and abroad.

Regime Type and Terrorism: The Scholarship

Scholarly interest in the relationship between regime type and terrorist incidents traces back to the early 1980's and has since oscillated between periods of neglect and spurts of intense interest. The literature in this area is consequently fragmented and has tended to suffer from several methodological and conceptual weaknesses. The lion-share of existing studies, for instance, address the 1968-2004 period – relying on various sample periods that coincide with the predominance of secular, leftist and nationalist terrorism; phenomena which have since essentially dissipated.[v] The latest major studies rectify this temporal shortcoming somewhat, but still rely on data sets that extend to 2010-12 at most, before the combined impact of the "Arab Spring" and civil wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen could begin to be adequately measured and analyzed.[vi]

Similarly, as the research communities interested respectively in terrorism and political regimes have traditionally operated in separate disciplinary realms, terrorism analysts have often examined either domestic or transnational terrorism (but not both), used inconsistent definitions and measures of regime types, and tended to treat "democracy" and "dictatorship" as dichotomous variables.[vii] For their part, democracy scholars have so far only scratched the surface of the complex relationship between post-9/11 terrorism, voting patterns, and broader socio-political attitudes.[viii] The conditions and causal pathways by which terrorist attacks and public fear of jihadist terrorism may contribute to democratic decline, or provide impetus for democratic resilience and renewal, remain broadly neglected.[ix]

Still, over the past three decades two distinct, and broadly contradictory, views have emerged about the relationship between democracy and terrorist attacks. Inquiry into the relationship between dictatorship and terrorism emerged much later.[x] Most recently, terrorism scholars have caught up with developments in comparative politics, recognized that neither democracies nor dictatorships should be treated as monolithic categories, and so began to consider a broader spectrum of political regimes in this context – on the both the democratic and authoritarian sides of the regime continuum. This development has generated a nascent, more sophisticated "third way" view about the association between regime types and terrorist attacks.[xi]

The traditional and, until recently, dominant view held that democracies were more prone to terrorist attacks than non-democracies and that "the more democratic a country is, the more terrorism it should experience."[xii] Three main explanations were offered in support of this stance. A civil liberties and rule of law explanation posited that freedoms of association and movement, coupled with due process protections and legal restraints on security forces, facilitated terrorism in liberal democracies by increasing organizational opportunities and decreasing the marginal costs of planning and perpetrating terrorist attacks. Writing in 1981, the leading terrorism scholar, Martha Crenshaw, captured this rationale: "Terrorists view the context as permissive, making terrorism a viable option. In a material sense, the means are placed at their disposal by the environment".[xiii]

The intuitive perception that democracies fight terrorism with one hand tied behind their backs and so are at a grave disadvantage when confronting terrorists, has also been a source of frustration for policy makers. In December 2001 for example, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, testifying before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, asserted that because "terrorists exploit our openness" defending civil liberties in the face of terror involve tactics "that aid terrorists…erode our national unity and diminish our resolve…[giving] ammunition to America's enemies".[xiv]

A second explanation places emphasis on mobilization, publicity and the susceptibility of elected officials to public sentiments. Terrorist, according to this rationale, can best achieve "strategic influence" in the most liberal democracies because of the combined effects of press freedoms – where grievance-motivated violence will reach the widest audience – and government responsiveness to public pressure to avoid additional violence.[xv]

And thirdly, several scholars have contended that rates of electoral competition and institutional design play key roles in explaining heightened vulnerability to terrorism among certain democracies. Bloom, Sanchez-Cuenca and Aguilar, and Chenoweth, all found that political systems with higher levels of political competition suffer more terrorist incidents.[xvi] Examining differing electoral rules, both Li and Askoy argued that electorally-permissive regimes that maintain proportional representation and low electoral thresholds experience fewer terrorist incidents than more winner-takes-all presidential, majoritarian or mixed systems.[xvii]

The view that democracies experience more terrorism than dictatorships did no go unchallenged. Since the mid 1990's an opposing view emerged, which contended that, rather than facilitating terrorist mobilization and reducing the costs of attacks, the political openness of democratic regimes was actually superior at assuaging grievances, providing avenues for peaceful political expression, and reducing the legitimacy of violent fringe groups.[xviii] Nurturing greater political openness in dictatorships and fragile democracies, according to this view, may also ameliorate grievances and neutralize terror-supporting mobilization domestically before they spill over to attacks abroad.[xix] In an interesting twist, which did more to sow confusion than clarify empirical realities, a small number of studies argued that the observed proclivity of terrorists to target democracies was an optical illusion produced largely by the tendency of authoritarian regimes to systematically underreport terrorist attacks.[xx]

Most recently, as scholars interested in terrorism started to get away from their erstwhile typically dichotomous approach to democracy and dictatorship, a third view gradually crystalized. A pioneer in this regard was Alberto Abadie, who in 2006 suggested that political freedom has a non-linear effect on terrorism and drew an inverted U-shaped relationship between regime types and terrorism, wherein "countries with intermediate levels of political freedom [are] more prone to terrorism than countries with high levels of political freedom or countries with highly authoritarian regimes."[xxi] Abadie's insight was followed-up by Chenoweth who in 2013 found that "partial democracies" sustained the highest number of attacks.[xxii] Similarly, in an extensive recent study, Gaibulloev, Piazza, and Sandler found that regime type had "an extremely robust" inverted U-shaped relationship to terrorism, with the fewest terrorist attacks occurring in both strict autocracies and full-fledged democracies and "some middle range of anocracy" being most vulnerable to terrorism.[xxiii]

Trends Since 9/11

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, reliable studies covering both domestic and transnational terrorism were made possible for the first time in large part due to the development, since late 2001, of the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) – a systematic, open-source database that now records terrorist incidents and casualties globally through 2016. Building upon Møller and Skaaning's typology, published in the Journal of Democracy in late 2013, we can disaggregate regime type well beyond the typical democracy-dictatorship dichotomy into six theoretically-grounded categories, and apply the GTD data to each category for the 2002-2016 period.

Møller and Skaaning unpack democratic political regimes into four sub-categories based on a taxonomic hierarchy where the more demanding definitions subsume the less demanding ones. These are: minimalist democracy which includes regimes that fulfill the thinnest Schumpeterian definition of competitive elections; electoral democracy which further requires the maximization of the elections criterion (i.e. inclusive, high integrity elections) but nothing else; polyarchy, in the classic Dahlian sense, which extends beyond elections to cover civil liberties, particularly freedom of speech and association; and liberal democracy, the most demanding category denoting substantive democracy exercising inclusive elections, civil liberties, and the rule of law – understood as equality before and under the law. In addition, autocratic regimes are divided into closed autocracies and multiparty autocracies, the latter distinguished from the former by the existence of multiparty elections, but ones that are not competitive enough for the regime to qualify as democratic.[xxiv]

Regime type and terrorist attacks, 2002-2016, the Global Terrorism Database (GTD)

Even if we put aside for the moment the exceptionally high rates of contemporary terrorism in the most fragile states (see figure 4), the data reveals an enormous increase in the number of terrorist attacks globally over this time period. In fact, between 2002 and 2016 terrorist incidents in broadly functioning states grew worldwide by 1029% - from 1174 attacks in 2002 to 13,257 attacks in 2016 – with terrorist events rising in every regime type.

The aggregate increase in terrorism is at odds with the decades-long decline in inter-state wars, but consistent with the dramatic resurgence of other forms of political violence over the past decade. Whereas major civil wars – those involving at least one state-actor and causing over 1,000 battle deaths per year – declined by 72% between 1990 and 2003, the trend has revered, with the number of major civil wars rising from four in 2005 to eleven in 2015. The number of minor civil wars (involving at least 25 battle deaths per year) also rose over the same period, with the sharp uptick since 2014 largely driven by the expansion of ISIS and its affiliates, which were involved in conflicts in three countries in 2014, but no less than twelve in 2015.[xxv]

Looked at globally, the scourge of terrorism is very real and getting worse. Yet the summary data tells us very little about the distribution of attacks or the rates of increase in terrorist incidents across various regime types. In reality, the disparity in the internal distribution of terrorism incidents across regime types is already immense and seems to be getting wider.

A number of insights can be gleamed from the aggregate trends. Contrary to the traditional view, we observe a robust and growing "double democracy advantage" among liberal democracies and polyarchies over the 2002-2016 period, especially since 2007. Not only are higher-quality democracies less prone to terrorist attacks than all other regime types, but the rate of increase in the number of attacks among them is substantially lower in comparison to the rest. The pattern is maintained even where we exclude any country that is farther than two standard deviations from the sub-category mean, namely the United Kingdom among liberal democracies, and Israel among the polyarchies. This is all the more striking given the already relatively very low levels of terrorist incidents experienced by liberal democracies and polyarchies at the start of the measurement period, and lends support to the minority view in the literature that sees political openness and the protection of civil liberties and the rule of law as assets that facilitate the minimization of terrorism through assuaging of grievances, incentivizing peaceful political expression, and undermining the legitimacy of violent fringe groups.

Broadly speaking, the empirical picture also lends support to the curvilinear view articulated by Abadie and his followers, but with several important new caveats. Countries possessing intermediate levels of political freedoms, on both the democratic and authoritarian sides of the regime spectrum, do suffer the largest number of terrorist attacks and are substantially more susceptible than regimes on either edges of the inverted U-shape scheme. Such hybrid-regimes appear to be caught in a pernicious gray-zone where they lack the grievance-assuaging and co-optation capabilities of liberal democracies and polyarchies, but at the same time permit would-be terrorists greater strategic opportunities for organization and mobilization compared with strict, closed autocracies.

In this sense "democracy" per se does not guarantee the democracy advantage. Only reasonably high-quality democracies that broadly guarantee civil liberties can expect to enjoy the lowest relative levels of terrorism incidents. Indeed, electoral democracies and, since 2011-12, minimalist democracies, have experienced sharp increases in the number of terrorist attacks. Decline in democratic-quality below the polyarchy level, therefore, is expected to generate increased rates of terrorism.

While intermediate levels of political freedoms predict considerably higher rates of terrorism than either high-quality democracies or closed autocracies, significant internal differences between minimalist/electoral democracies and multiparty autocracies have emerged in recent years. Indeed, with the singular exception of the most fragile states, multiparty autocracies have, since 2012, experienced the greatest absolute rise in the number of terrorist attacks and have become by far the most dangerous regime type. Again, the pattern is essentially maintained even where we exclude the three outliers in the sub-category that are farther than two standard deviations from the sub-category mean – Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan.

One possible explanation for the large and seemingly growing vulnerability of multiparty autocracies to terrorism involves the toxic nature of political contestation within this sub-category of regimes. Unlike closed-autocracies, competitive authoritarian regimes provide greater political space within which terrorists and their ideological and financial supporters can organize and mobilize, yet lack genuine avenues for meaningful political access and expression found even in electoral and minimalist in democracies. Whatever opportunities for political contestation do exist in multiparty-autocracies amount to a sham, and are therefore ineffective in assuaging grievances and diffusing societal legitimacy claimed by extremists.

Another potentially important recent development pertains to closed-autocracies. Recall that the inverted U-shaped view of the relationship between regime types and terrorism predicts that the fewest terrorist attacks will occur in both reasonably high-quality democracies and strict autocracies. The relative safety of politically closed authoritarian regimes, according to this view, stems from their perceived superiority in denying terrorists organizational and mobilization opportunities, despite grievances generated from the absence of legally permissible political access. "Strict autocracies", as Gaibulloev, Piazza, and Sandler put it, "keep terrorism in check by rigorously limiting freedoms and strategic opportunities. Any sign of dissent is dealt with in a draconian manner."[xxvi]

The inverted U-shaped relationship holds reasonably well until 2013, whereupon rates of terrorism in closed-autocracies skyrocket. By 2016 the number of terrorist attacks in closed-autocracies was 7109% higher than in 2002, the greatest relative increase among all regime types, with the exception of fragile states. Indeed, in 2014 closed-autocracies suffered essentially the same number of terrorist attacks as electoral-democracies and were markedly more prone to terrorism than either liberal democracies or polyarchies.

Given the very recent nature of this shift, it is still difficult to infer whether the heightened levels of terrorism observed in closed-autocracies in 2013-16 represent a temporary anomaly or signal the beginnings of an important longer-term trend. The sheer rate of increase in the number of attacks in this sub-category suggests that it may be the latter, meaning that the inverted U-shaped scheme might need to be adjusted to resemble a "fish-hook" relationship, with closed-autocracies sustaining fewer attacks than more liberalized ones but risking far higher rates of terrorism in relation to both past patterns and reasonably high-quality democracies. This trends may point to a decreasing ability on the part of closed-autocratic regimes to effectively coerce or co-opt violent challengers.

One factor that may lend credence to the notion that closed-autocracies would likely experience higher rates of terrorism in the future, is technology. As communication, encryption, 3D weapon-printing, and virtual-currency technologies advance and proliferate to non-state actors and individuals, the costs of generating and exploiting strategic opportunities for terrorists will drop, while those for governments seeking to deny terrorists such opportunities rise. The sharp increase in the number of terrorist attacks observed in closed-autocracies in 2013-16 may reflect the beginnings of such a technology-driven shift.

In an era of ubiquitous smartphone use and instantaneous social-media broadcasting, moreover, the ability of authoritarian regimes to systematically underreport terrorist incidents is fast eroding in all but the most restrictive and technologically-adept autocracies, such as North Korea. The uptick in measured attacks in this sub-category of regimes may therefore be at least partially the result of improvements in individuals' capacity to record and broadcast terror incidents. At the same time, post-9/11, it may have become more advantageous for at least some authoritarian regimes to report terrorist incidents, as the Western nations and International Organizations generated growing incentives for countries to join the global struggle against violent extremism.

Liberal democracies and polyarchies benefit from a sizeable and apparently growing democracy advantage in terms of experiencing less contemporary terrorism compared with all other regime types. But there is also a third, generally ignored, "democracy advantage" enjoyed only by these reasonably high-quality democracies – one reflected not in terms of fewer terrorist attacks, but fewer casualties. In the post-9/11 era the annual number of fatalities in terror attacks averaged 6.67 among liberal democracies, and 17.8 casualties in polyarchies. In contrast, the average annual number of people killed in closed-autocracies – the regime type which the latest scholarship views as being virtually equal to high-quality democracies in terms of safety – stood at 57.24 casualties, nearly eight times higher than liberal democracies and more than double the number of casualties when compared with polyarchies. Consistent with the data on terrorism incidents, minimalist and electoral democracies sustained higher rates of fatalities than both higher-quality democracies and closed-autocracies (90.27 and 177.49 respectively) while multiparty-autocracies suffered the highest average annual losses in human lives, 470.4 fatalities per year.

Regime type and terrorist casualties, 2002-2016, the Global Terrorism Database (GTD)

One way to read these figures is simply as an added validation of the "fish-hook" relationship observed in the distribution of terrorist attacks across the six regime-types. Yet the "third democracy advantage" may also reflect a deeper reality in the differences between higher-quality democracies and the rest in managing terrorist threats.

Among fully fledged democracies, governmental legitimacy rests, first and foremost, on the ability to protect life, limb, and property, so that democracies that are more sensitive to audience costs and responsive to citizen security concerns are not only likely to be more casualty-averse but to generate higher rates of investment in life-saving intelligence, critical infrastructure protection, emergency response, social-resilience, and specialized medical services.[xxvii] Faced with a sufficiently menacing and enduring terrorist threat, in other words, advanced democracies are expected to gradually acquire superior abilities to not only minimize terrorist incidents but mitigate terrorist harm.

Looking to the Future

The dramatic increase in the number of attacks in closed-autocracies is a recent trend that signals a potentially significant shift in the future distribution of global terrorism, but it is not the only one. Looking ahead, three additional emerging issues stand out. As the Global Coalition Against Daesh dismantles ISIS's territorial control in parts of Iraq and Syria, and as other forces – the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) in the vast Sahel region, the Egyptian military in Sinai, the Houthi militia in Yemen – drive al-Qaeda affiliates out of their existing safe-havens, many thousands of fighters, including thousands of women and children, are currently in search of new sanctuaries. Over 5,600 ISIS activists are known to have already returned to their home countries from Iraq and Syria alone, with authorities in 33 states reporting arrivals of fighters in the past two years. These include countries across the regime-type spectrum, notably Saudi Arabia (760 fighters), Turkey (800), Tunisia (800), Jordan (280), Russia (400), the United Kingdom (400), Germany (250), and France (270).[xxviii]

As pressure grows on existing epicenters of jihadi activity, a giant guessing game is currently at play. Intelligence services worldwide are seeking to predict where the squeezed-balloon of extremist concentrations will pop up next. Will it Europe and Turkey? East or North Africa (Somalia, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Sudan and Egypt), South East Asia, back to Afghanistan-Pakistan, or some combination of the above? While returnees present different levels of risk, one thing is clear: regimes that are better able to deter, prevent, or otherwise diffuse the incoming wave of foreign fighters will almost certainly experience relatively less terrorism in the decade ahead compared with those who lack the foresight or capacity to manage the problem effectively. This augurs well for advanced democracies and other states that possess reasonably high levels of state capacity, but badly for those who don't.

Which brings us to a second main area where the terrorism-regime type literature needs to evolve. As in other realms of social science, scholarship examining the relationship between terrorist attacks and political regimes has, for decades, largely taken the state for granted and so largely eschewed the statehood dimension of regimes.

This major blind spot has become increasingly jarring. Indeed, when we expand Møller and Skaaning's typology to cover the sixteen most fragile states in the world over the 2002-16 period, adding a seventh distinct sub-category to the analysis to better capture the statehood dimension, we observe an enormous, and growing, correlation between state fragility and terrorism incidents. Whereas in the 2002-2004 period rates of terrorism among the most fragile states were either lower or roughly on par with the remaining six sub-categories, by 2014 the number of terrorist attacks and fatalities in the fragile states group dwarfed those in all other regime types. Within this time period, we observe a substantial gradual increase in the number of attacks between 2003 and 2011, and then an astronomical rise in levels of terrorism from 2011 onwards, driven primarily by incidents in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, but also Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic (CAR).

Regime type and terrorist attacks, 2002-2016, fragile states as distinct category, Fragile States Index and the GTD.

This pattern in the distribution of terrorist attacks is broadly consistent with important shifts in the nature of post-2003 civil wars – what Walter recently called "The New New Civil Wars".[xxix] It suggests that future research needs to view terrorism not only as a standalone species of political violence, but as one part of a broader repertory of order-contestation involving terrorism, insurgency and civil wars, but also efforts on the part of anti-systemic challengers to establish non-state based governance configurations, Islamist social-welfare systems ("Dawa"), and electoral politics.

Third and lastly, scholars of democracy and political violence need to turn their attention to risks of decay and decline within the liberal order itself. Contemporary challenges to liberalism emanate as much from populist nationalism as they do from radical Islam or other overtly authoritarian ideologies. Populism is an amalgam of moralistic, discursive political propositions, constituting four essential claims: (1) Society is sharply separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, "the pure people" and the "corrupt elites" (or "the establishment"). Right wing populism often includes immigrants and religious minorities in the castigated out group said to be preying upon "decent folk". Internationally too, society is divided starkly into "us" and "them". Security, economic, and cultural threats from outsiders deprive the people of their safety, prosperity, identity, and voice. (2) There is no legitimate middle-ground or room for dissent. Populism is fundamentally anti-pluralist. Whoever opposes the populists is excluded from "the people" and, in extremis, is marked as their enemy. (3) Conspiracy. The corrupt elites and outsiders (including immigrants) have conspired against "the people". The enemies are everywhere. There is something vast and shadowy going on behind the scenes. The political system is rigged and so is the economy. The world is dangerous and hostile. Democracy is a sham, the security organizations that are meant to protect us are failing, and the media lies. There is a permanent state of crisis and an apocalyptical confrontation between the forces of good and evil is coming. And (4) Solutions are simple. The singular common good of the people (the volonté générale) is clear and commonsensical, capable of being simply articulated and implemented by "a strong leader" or "the party". What needs to be done is obvious and decisive, "no debate about values or weighing of empirical evidence is required."[xxx] Whoever opposes "the solution" harms the people and is therefore a traitor.

The cumulative meaning of these claims is anti-liberal and corrosive to democratic values and institutions. It also happens to be potentially toxic to the effective management of terrorist threats. While the causal mechanisms that link terrorism to democratic decline remain undertheorized and poorly understood empirically, we can illustrate the dangers inherent in the populism-terrorism imbroglio with reference to several pathways by which populist politics and state-craft can exacerbate terrorist threats in democracies, reduce democratic resilience, and manipulate public fear of terrorist threats (real, inflated, or imaginary) in ways that undermine democratic quality and the rule of law.

For instance, the sharp division of society, domestic and international, into two homogenous and antagonistic camps, risks expanding the number of people incentivized into the orbit of radical ideology and action. Perhaps the greatest success of free societies in the ongoing fight against terrorism, thus far at least, lies in the relatively tiny number of recruits that the radicals have managed to win over in the West. Ironically, jihadists and populists share an anti-pluralist stance as a key dimension in their respective doctrines. Both advance an image of a world in which "the sons of light and the sons of darkness" are not only absolutely and irreconcilably pitted against one another, but are destined to clash in existential battle. Both insist that there is no neutral space or middle-ground.

By maintaining pluralism, and avoiding forcing individuals with competing civic and religious identities to make sharp choices among those competing identities, liberal societies provide potential sympathizers of radical Islam with diffuse but potent "opting out" possibilities from terrorism and terrorism-supporting activities. At one important level, effective counter-terrorism is primarily about creating and strengthening material and symbolic incentives for potential activists in political violence to eschew or exit such involvement. In a pluralist society, an individual may occupy identity and social spaces where civic and religious loyalties can co-exist, albeit in some degree of metaphysical tension. These spaces are invariably restricted in social environments where Muslim citizens or residents are collectively branded as dangers to, or worse as enemies of, "the People".

The responsible management of terrorist threats requires that political and security decision-makers pursue measured, fact-based risk-analyses and policy responses. As part and parcel of a strategic counter-terrorism posture, leaders must assuage public fears, inspire trust in the values and institutions of the democratic state, nurture unity, and promote hope for a safer more harmonious future for all members of society. This involves the careful handling of intelligence information, supporting law and order agencies while simultaneously holding them accountable for wrongful conduct, and signaling to adversaries that society is resilient and united. It also entails the development and maintenance of a credible political communication strategy that informs the public of existing levels of threat while maintaining trust in the security apparatus of the state, encouraging the continuation of normal economic and social life, and discouraging vigilantism or reprisals against minority communities. And in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack, democratic leadership requires the skillful balancing of rapid, decisive action and public reassurance with the avoidance of knee-jerk reactions that are likely to prove counter-productive in the longer-term.

The populist instinct for antagonism and conspiracy is antithetical to these goals. In pitching "the People" against "corrupt elites", religious or ethnic minorities, and foreign bogeymen, the temptation for populists to stoke public fears, accentuate internal differences, nurture a permanent atmosphere of emergency, and encourage aggressive nationalism, xenophobia, and militarism is often overwhelming.

In an atmosphere of fear and mistrust "terrorism" can readily serve as a catch-all excuse for a "strong leader" to stack intelligence services, the police, prosecution, and courts with party loyalists, and suppress dissent. In Ergodan's Turkey and Putin's Russia, for example, “terrorism” has come to mean making statements the government doesn’t agree with, terrorist attacks exploited to crack down on dissidents, and anti-terror legislation expanded and used systematically to target opposition politicians and journalists.

Terrorism incidents provide opportunities for illiberal governments to trigger a range of emergency powers that constrict or suppress conditions necessary for open political expression and competition. Perhaps the starkest historical example here is the Reichstag fire incident of February 1933 where, the day after the German parliament building was set ablaze – an act controversially blamed on a pro-Communist Dutch laborer, Martinis van de Lubbe – the Nazis undertook a massive round-up of suspected opponents and suspended key articles of the Weimar Constitution, effectively leveraging the incident (which some argue was a Nazi ploy to begin with) as a pretext to establish a dictatorship.

More recently, Vladimir Putin systematically utilized a handful of Chechen terrorists attacks – including one that killed 41 people on a train two days before the 2003 parliamentary elections and the horrific Beslan school hostage siege in September 2004 – to achieve radical changes in Russia's state structure and the colonization of the state; stripping all its provincial governments of power while greatly enhancing direct Kremlin control over security and political institutions in the country. Even the prospect of a terrorist threat creates potent incentives for governments to incrementally introduce legal, bureaucratic, and technological reforms to state institutions that facilitate incursion into erstwhile protected private spheres and the weakening of civil liberties. The acquisition of new surveillance powers, coercive investigation and arrest rules, as well as extraordinary legal provisions – such as "administrative detention" at the hands of the military or policy – can gradually corrode the rule of law.

Once these capacities are available and acquire a degree of public legitimacy, as seemingly necessary counter-terrorism measures, the temptation to use them against political adversaries is strong. Surveillance and financial regulation authorities developed originally to identify and subvert terrorism can easily be reoriented to gather information on political adversaries; information that could then be leaked to inflict electoral damage, withheld to blackmail individuals, or used selectively in tax, corruption, or other embarrassing investigations. Counter-terrorism legislation that prohibits various forms of "terrorism-supporting" activities can readily be expanded and misused to threaten actual and potential opposition with tough fiscal and criminal sanctions.[xxxi] The inherently clandestine nature of the actors and information involved, as well as by the constant march of new surveillance technologies, provide potent opportunities for populist state-craft.

Understanding the relationship between regime type and terrorism is essential for both domestic and foreign policy reasons. Among liberal democracies and polyarchies, the knowledge that preserving and deepening democratic substance enhances their safety, should help refute calls to erode civil liberties and rule of law protections for the sake of improved security, and to enhance democratic resilience in the face of the long-term struggle against the scourge of terrorism. Reasonably high-quality democracies enjoy a vital, and seemingly growing, "triple democracy advantage" – with the number of attacks, their rate of increase and lethality all significantly and increasingly lower compared with all other regime types. Against the background of a global terrorism surge, and contrary to popular hype, the consolidated high-quality democracy is increasingly proving to be the best counter-terrorism organization known to humanity. At the same time, political leaders, security professionals, and voters in electoral and minimalist democracies can expect to reap greater safety from improved democratic quality, whereas multiparty autocracies – and external actors supporting their liberalization – need to prepare for contending with a curvilinear effect in which liberalizing authoritarian regimes suffer increased incidents of terrorism unless and until they manage to get over the inverted "fish hook" hump and attain reasonably high levels of democratic quality. Closed-autocracies, long thought to be insusceptible to terrorism, appear to have lost much of the advantage they may have once enjoyed. Oppression and denial of political access cannot keep them safe.



[i] Richard Barrett, "Beyond the Caliphate: Foreign Fighters and the Threat of Returnees," The Soufan Center (October 2017).

[ii] Alex P. Schmid, "The Definition of Terrorism" in Alex P. Schmidt ed., The Routledge Handbook of Terrorism Research (London and NY: 2013): 39-98.

[iii] Pew Research Center, "Globally, People Point to ISIS and Climate Change as Leading Security Threats" (August 2017).

[iv] Eric Gould and Esteban Klor, "The long-run effect of 9/11: Terrorism, backlash, and the assimilation of Muslim immigrants in the West," Economic Journal 126 (November 2016): 2064–2114; Augustin Echebarria-Echabe and Emilia Fernández-Guede, "Effects of terrorism on attitudes and ideological orientation," European Journal of Social Psychology 36/2 (2006): 259–265; Jeffrey Mondak and Jon Hurwitz, "Examining the terror exception: Terrorism and commitments to civil liberties," Public Opinion Quarterly 76/2 (2012): 193–213.

[v] Influential examples include: William Eubank and Leonard Weinberg, "Does democracy encourage terrorism?," Terrorism and Political Violence 6/4 (1994): 417-463; Joe Eyerman, "Terrorism and democratic states: Soft targets or accessible systems," International Interactions 24/2 (1998): 151-170; Quan Li, "Does democracy promote or reduce transnational terrorist incidents?," Journal of Conflict Resolution 2 (2005): 278-97.

[vi] Khusrav Gabulloev, James A. Piazza, and Todd Sandler, "Regime Type and Terrorism," International Organization 71 (Summer 2017): 491-522; Erica Chenoweth, "Terrorism and Democracy," Annual Review of Political Science 16 (2013): 355-78.

[vii] Eubank and Weinberg (1994); Li (2005); James A. Piazza, "Do Democracy and Free Markets Protect Us From Terrorism?," International Politics 45/1 (2008): 72-91.

[viii] Johann Park and Valentina Bali, "International Terrorism and the Political Survival of Leaders," Journal of Conflict Resolution 61 (2017):1343-70; Jose G. Montalvo, “Voting After the Bombings: A Natural Experiment on the Effect of Terrorist Attacks on Democratic Elections,” Review of Economics and Statistics 93/4 (2011): 1146–54; Sivan Hirsch-Hoefler et al., "Conflict will harden your heart: exposure to violence, psychological distress, and peace barriers in Israel and Palestine," British Journal of Political Science 46/4 (2016): 845–859.

[ix]Aziz Huq, "Terrorism and Democratic Recession," University of Chicago Law Review 85 (forthcoming 2018) (available at

[x] Deniz Askoy, David Carter and Joseph Wright, "Terrorism in dictatorships," Journal of Politics 74/3 (2012): 810-26; Matthew Wilson and James A. Piazza, "Autocracies and Terrorism: Conditioning Effects of Authoritarian Regime Type on Terrorist Attacks," American Journal of Political Science 57/4 (2013): 941-55; Courtney Conrad, Justin Conrad, and Joseph Young, "Tyrants and Terrorism: Why Some Autocrats Are Terrorized While Others Are Not?," International Studies Quarterly 58/3 (2014): 539-49.

[xi] Erica Chenoweth (2013); Khusrav Gabulloev, James A. Piazza, and Todd Sandler (2017).

[xii] Erica Chenoweth (2013) at 357.

[xiii] Martha Crenshaw, "The causes of terrorism," 13/4 Comparative Politics (1981): 379-399, at 383.

[xiv] Testimony of Attorney General John Ashcroft, Senate Committee on the Judiciary (December 6 2001) (available:

[xv] Eubank and Weinberg (1994); Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (2nd edition) (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006) at 174.

[xvi] Mia Bloom, "Palestinian suicide bombing: Public support, market share, and outbidding," Political Science Quarterly 119/1 (2004): 61-88; Ignacio Sanchez-Cuenca and Paloma Aguilar, "Terrorist violence and popular mobilization: The case of the Spanish transition to democracy," Politics & Society 37/3 (2009): 428-453; Erica Chenoweth, "Democratic competition and terrorist activity," The Journal of Politics 72/1 (2010): 16-30.

[xvii] Li (2005); Deniz Eskoy, "Elections and the Timing of Terrorist Attacks," The Journal of Politics 76/4 (2014): 899-913.

[xviii] Jeffrey Ross, "Structural Causes of Oppositional Political Terrorism: Towards a Causal Model," Journal of Peace Research 30/3 (1993): 317-29; Eyerman (1998).

[xix] Khusrav Gabulloev, James A. Piazza, and Todd Sandler (2017) at 494.

[xx] Sandler, "On the relationship between democracy and terrorism," Terrorism and Political Violence 7/4 (1995): 1-9; Konstantinos Drakos and Andreas Gofas, "The devil you know but are afraid to face: underreporting bias and its distorting effects on the study of terrorism," Journal of Conflict Resolution 50/5 (2006): 714-35.

[xxi] Alberto Abadie, "Poverty, political freedom, and the roots of terrorism," American Economic Review 96 (2006): 50-56 at 51.

[xxii] Chenoweth (2013) at 358.

[xxiii] Khusrav Gabulloev, James A. Piazza, and Todd Sandler (2017) at 492.

[xxiv] Jørgen Møller and Svend-Erik Skaaning, "The Third Wave: Inside the Numbers," Journal of Democracy 24/4 (October 2013): 97-109, at 98.

[xxv] Sebastian von Einsiedel, "Civil War Trends and the Changing Nature of Armed Conflict," United Nations University Centre for Policy Research, Occasional Paper 10 (March 2017) at 2.

[xxvi] Khusrav Gabulloev, James A. Piazza, and Todd Sandler (2017) at 497.

[xxvii] Benjamin Valentino, Paul Huth, and Sarah Croco, "Bear Any Burden? How Democracies Minimize the Costs of War, " Journal of Politics 72/2 (2010): 528-44.

[xxviii] Richard Barrett (2017).

[xxix] Barbara F. Walter, "The New New Civil Wars," Annual Review of Political Science 20 (2017): 469-86.

[xxx] Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism? (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016) at 26.

[xxxi] Aziz Huq (2018).

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