What Terrorist Leaders Want: A Content Analysis of Terrorist Propaganda Videos

Max Abrahms, Joseph Mroszczyk, Nick Beauchamp
Studies in Conflict and Terrorism
October 14, 2016


In recent years, a growing body of empirical research suggests that indiscriminate violence against civilian targets tends to carry substantial political risks compared to more selective violence against military targets. To better understand why terrorist groups sometimes attack politically suboptimal targets, scholars are increasingly adopting a principal-agent framework where the leaders of terrorist groups are understood as principals and lower level members as agents. According to this framework, terrorist leaders are thought to behave as essentially rational political actors, whereas lower level members are believed to harbor stronger non-political incentives for harming civilians, often in defiance of leadership preferences. We test this proposition with an original content analysis of terrorist propaganda videos. Consistent with the principal-"agent framework, our analysis demonstrates statistically that terrorist leaders tend to favor significantly less indiscriminate violence than their operatives actually commit, providing unprecedented insight into the incentive structure of terrorist leaders relative to the rank-and-file.

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