Rules for Rebels: The Science of Victory in Militant History
Introduction: The Stupid Terrorist
Abstract and Keywords
Islamic State was depicted in the media as a bunch of terrorist masterminds. The leadership was supposedly strategic to maximize fear by encouraging Muslims to inflict bloodshed around the world and then bragging about it over social media. But pundits were too busy extolling the genius of this evil strategy to realize that the caliphate was going up in smoke. The Islamic State’s plight was predictable from the get-go because the leaders failed to follow the rules for rebels. The author has extensively studied the political plights of hundreds of militant groups throughout world history and reveals that successful militant leaders have followed three rules. These rules are based on original insights from the fields of political science, psychology, criminology, economics, management, marketing, communication, and sociology. It turns out there’s a science to victory in militant history. But even rebels must follow rules.
Throughout history, militant groups have engaged in violence to overturn the political status quo. Some groups have battled to end poverty, persecution, and foreign occupation. Others have fought to achieve an independent state, communist revolution, or caliphate. What nearly all militants have in common is that their grievances exceed their capability to redress them. If their groups were stronger, militants wouldn’t be fighting the government; with any luck, they would be leading it. The history of militant groups is thus a story about failure.
But not always. This book offers welcome news for the rebel. It analyzes hundreds of militant groups with a variety of social scientific methods from an array of disciplinary perspectives to discern the determinants of political success. The main take-away is that militant leaders possess a surprising amount of agency over their political destiny. Triumph is possible. It’s neither arbitrarily nor structurally determined. But they need to know what to do. People often make the mistake of what’s called “leader attribution error.” They see something going right or wrong with a group and attribute the outcome to the skill of the leader.1 This is the first book to identify a cohesive set of actions to enable militant leaders to win. Join me in exploring the secrets of their success. In the pages below, you’ll discover the three simple rules of successful militant leaders. It turns out there’s a science to victory in militant history. But even rebels must follow rules.
Leadership in Social Movements
Since the publication of Frederick Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management at the turn of the twentieth century, business schools and consultancy firms have studied companies in search of timeless leadership rules.2 The very concept comes from business, with its longstanding belief in the power of leaders to lift a firm’s performance.3 Empirical studies from retail to education (p.2) attest to the value of leadership on all sorts of outcomes.4 A Harvard Business School study of forty-two industries shows that on average the effect of the CEO accounted for about 14 percent of the difference in corporate performance, ranging from about 2 percent in the meat processing industry to 21 percent in telecommunications.5
But my book is revolutionary. For starters, the field of international relations pays short shrift to the role of leaders.6 As Daniel Byman and Ken Pollack have remarked, “Political scientists contend that individuals ultimately do not matter, or at least they count for little in the major events that shape international politics.”7The political psychologist, Robert Jervis, observed several years ago, “The study of leadership has fallen out of favor in political science.”8 According to Michael Horowitz and Allan Stam, political scientists have consistently “ignored the role of leaders” over the past sixty years.9 As Elizabeth Saunders notes, international relations theorists “have rarely incorporated a central role for leaders.”10 The limited work in international affairs focuses on specific individuals without formulating a generalizable theory of what smart leadership means or entails across time and space.11
Leadership neglect is particularly rampant in the study of international social movements. The sociologists Colin Barker, Alan Johnson, and Michael Lavalette acknowledge, “There is something of a black box in social movement studies in that leadership has been under-theorized.”12 The applied social psychologist, Bert Klandermans, agrees: “Leadership and decision-making aspects of social movement organizations … are more often debated than studied empirically … systematic studies of the way in which movement leaders function are scarce.”13 Sharon Erickson and Bob Clifford plead, “Whatever the reasons for scholars’ relative neglect of the subject, we believe that leadership merits greater attention.”14 Aldon Morris and Suzanne Staggenborg also appeal that “social movement analysts need to open up the black box of leadership and develop theories and empirical investigations of how leadership affects the emergence, dynamics, and outcomes of social movements.”15 This book helps to fill that research lacuna.
In the early 1970s, Saul Alinsky published Rules for Radicals to help future community organizers wrest power from the political elite. In this primer for the “have-nots,” the founder of modern community organizing shared targeted lessons he had learned over the years for successful protest.16 But what about when protesters conclude that protesting isn’t enough? Historically, many social movements have escalated to violence after nonviolence failed. In the late-nineteenth century, the leader of the Irish National Invincibles declared: “There comes an hour when protest no longer suffices. After philosophy, there must be action. The strong hand finishes what the idea has planned.”17 Michael Collins was convinced that “Irish Independence would never be attained by constitutional means” and that “when you’re up against (p.3) a bully you’ve got to kick him in the guts.”18 In his memoire, Irgun leader Menachem Begin described the Zionist group’s predicament after nonviolence failed to protect the Yishuv: “What use was there in writing memoranda? What value in speeches? No, there was no other way. If we did not fight we should be destroyed.”19 When asked why they adopted violence in the 1950s, Algerian nationalists complained that the French had just shrugged off their futile strikes and boycotts.20 In her autobiography of her time in the American Weather Underground, Susan Stern explained why the radical left-wing group escalated to violence: “As the years have passed, I’ve seen my efforts fail with thousands of others in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. The time has come not merely to protest but to fight for what we believe in.”21 The leader of the Tamil Tigers shared a similar rationale for why his group embraced violence: “The Tamil people have been expressing their grievances … for more than three decades. Their voices went unheard like cries in the wilderness.”22 The African National Congress released a similar statement in July 1963 about why it ramped up its anti-apartheid tactics: “It can now truly be said that very little, if any, scope exists for the smashing of white supremacy other than by means of mass revolution action, the main content of which is armed resistance leading to victory by military means.”23 Accounts of the Syrian rebels suggest that many “picked up weapons as a last resort.”24 According to the Palestinian intellectual Zaid Abu-Amr, “As it became evident that the peace negotiations were not yielding any tangible results … Hamas was emboldened and became more aggressive in its opposition to the PLO and its tactics against Israel.”25 For this reason, some scholars expect violence whenever mass-based movements of nonviolent reform are politically unprofitable.26 Like it or not, many radicals will become rebels. And there are rules for them, too.
The Rise and Fall of Islamic State
Islamic State (ISIS) may come to mind when you think of a savvy, successful militant group. Clad in black robes, ISIS leader Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri al-Samarrai a.k.a. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit of the Great al-Nuri mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul on July 5, 2014 proclaiming the emergence of a new caliphate. In his Friday sermon, the self-proclaimed caliph announced to the umma that his foot-soldiers had just captured swathes of land in Iraq and Syria, effectively creating an Islamic State. “As for your mujahedeen brothers,” he intoned, “Allah has bestowed upon them the grace of victory and conquest … He guided them and strengthened them to achieve this goal.”27 By year’s end, ISIS would control one-third of Iraq and one-third of Syria—land mass roughly equal to the size of Great Britain—where the terrorists ruled over nine million people.28 The Islamic State was (p.4) bolstered by the largest influx of international jihadis in history. Over 40,000 foreign fighters from 110 countries headed to Syria and Iraq, more than four times the number of mujahedeen who had traveled to Afghanistan to battle the Red Army in the 1980s.29 This recruitment rate was “unprecedented,” as the head of the National Counterterrorism Center testified in early 2015.30 ISIS’ reach was hardly limited to the caliphate. With varying degrees of organizational involvement, scores of ISIS attacks in dozens of countries terrorized the world.31 By 2016, Baghdadi had accepted the bayator allegiance of forty-three terrorist group affiliates from Boko Haram in Nigeria to Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. Not only did ISIS have territory and fighters, but cash. Billed as “the world’s richest terrorist group,” Islamic State raked in over a billion dollars a year from oil sales, taxes, looting, antiquity smuggling, and hostage-taking.32
The international media was quick to crown Islamic State leaders as terrorist masterminds. The Guardiancredited its apparent feats to “highly intelligent leaders calling the shots.”33 In a story entitled “Military Skill and Terrorist Technique Fuel Success of ISIS,” the New York Times gushed that the group’s “battlefield successes” were due to the “pedigree of its leadership.” The story concluded, “These guys know the terrorism business inside and out.”34 The Financial Times claimed that “ISIS is chillingly smart.”35 So, too, did the Washington Post, which described ISIS as “wildly successful” with its “calculated madness.”36 Vox likewise extolled ISIS as a “calculating, strategic organization.”37 The Los Angeles Times went even further, exalting ISIS leaders for having evidently “perfected their operations.”38 The word “sophisticated” was bandied about from The Wall Street Journal to Foreign Policy to characterize the “evil genius” of Baghdadi and his lieutenants.39 If ever there was a smart, strategic militant group, Islamic State was apparently it.
This conventional wisdom in the media was fueled by think tank pundits, who said ISIS leaders were astute in three main ways.40 First, ISIS leaders are smart to recognize the strategic utility of brutalizing civilians not only in its stronghold of Iraq and Syria, but in indiscriminate massacres throughout the world. In a Politicoarticle entitled “How ISIS Out-Terrorized Bin Laden,” Will McCants of the Brookings Institute explains: “The Islamic State’s brutality … has been remarkably successful at recruiting fighters, capturing land, subduing its subjects, and creating a state. Why? Because violence and gore work.”41 The ISIS leadership may be immoral, but it’s clever enough to appreciate that “brutality would be a winning political strategy” since “this terrifying approach to state building has an impressive track record.”42 McCants developed this argument into a major book, which stresses how ISIS’ unmitigated savagery and gore are “the very qualities that made the Islamic State so successful.”43 Massacring the population is allegedly a better way to gain compliance than winning over its hearts and minds. As he puts it, ISIS “doesn’t believe a hearts (p.5) and minds strategy is effective, and for the past few years it has been proven right.”44 His Brookings hallmate, Shadi Hamid, shared this assessment with National Public Radio that indiscriminate “violence actually does work.”45 For Hamid, the late 2015 mass shooting at the Bataclan theater in Paris was a “smart move,” as was blowing up the Russian passenger jet over the Sinai because such seemingly wanton acts of depravity are all part of the winning “method to ISIS’s madness.”46 Hamid waxes eloquent about the strategic logic of killing civilians in his book: “Instilling terror in the hearts of your opponents undermines their morale, making them more likely to stand down, flee, or surrender” and “the willingness to inflict terrible violence has a deterrent effect, raising the costs for anyone who so much as thinks of challenging the group.”47 Echoing McCants, Hamid asserts that ISIS has proven that “capturing and holding large swathes of territory is possible” even “without the benefit of widespread popular support.”48 In their bestseller on ISIS, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan repeat that “the group’s notorious brutality helped it.”49 In countless media interviews and op-eds, they argue that the grisly head-chopping and cage-burning of hapless victims follows a “brutal logic” and indeed showcases “the genius of ISIS.”50 Clearly, pundits have been impressed with the ISIS leadership’s strategy of sanctioning unbridled barbarism. Though sickened by the indiscriminate bloodshed like the rest of us, they claimed it nonetheless worked.
Second, pundits accredit the ISIS leadership’s strategy of empowering operatives all over the world to maximize the bloodletting, largely by decentralizing the organization. Unlike more hierarchical groups such as Al Qaeda, which place a greater premium on educating, disciplining, and vetting members, the ISIS leadership takes a hands-off approach, beckoning fanatics across the globe to butcher civilians of their choosing in the group’s name. According to Clint Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, ISIS’ achievements stem from the fact that the leaders have “empowered its networked foreign fighters to plan and perpetrate attacks at will.”51 The key to ISIS gains is that the leadership recognizes the benefits of “diffuse operational control,” which grants extremists everywhere “the autonomy to plot and plan locally.”52 Fawaz Gerges likewise proclaimed that “the strategic logic of the Islamic State” is based on delegating tactical decision-making to extremists across the globe. This green light to slay anyone on their wish-list “enables ISIS to reap all of the benefits of an attack, while incurring none of the costs.”53 Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation also attributed the apparent success of the group to its diffuse structure. “What empowers ISIS,” he wrote for CNN.Com, is that it “accepts all comers,” encouraging risk-acceptant lunatics to travel to the caliphate, strike locally, or develop regional affiliates under the black banner.54 “The brilliance of the ISIS system,” expanded terrorism commentator Malcom Nance, “is that its recruitment system is almost passive.” The self-described caliph invites every nutcase to the global massacre; (p.6) “Baghdadi welcomes them all.”55 The leaders could never have inflicted so much carnage on their own. But they were allegedly strategic enough to expand the bloodbath by decentralizing ISIS operations and recruitment.
Third, pundits laud the ISIS leadership’s public relations strategy of broadcasting the group’s misdeeds over social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, thereby capturing the evil in graphic detail. ISIS has used social media to showcase many aspects of the group, but none more assiduously than its innovative sentencing techniques—from beheadings with a knife to decapitation through explosive detonation cord to death by dragging, drowning, immolation, burial, mashing, mutilation, stoning, roof-chucking, and squashing, sometimes with a tank.56 Phillip Smyth of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy affirms that ISIS succeeded by developing “the perfect sociopathic image.”57 Colin Clarke of RAND and Charlie Winter of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation proclaim that the “quality” of ISIS propaganda “truly has been unmatched” in human history.58 In a story called “How the Islamic State’s Massive PR Campaign Secured its Rise,” an anti-Russia think tank known as Bellingcat explained that their “Public relations programs are perhaps singlehandedly responsible for their success in both recruiting foreigners, and even seizing control of sizeable swaths of land in Iraq and Syria.”59 Weiss and Hassan add that ISIS’ secret sauce has been its “slick propaganda machine,” especially its “peerless ability to produce sleek, hour-long propaganda and recruitment films.”60 The Al Qaeda in Syria specialist Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute also attributes ISIS success to its “slick propaganda media releases,” as these “jihadists in particular proved especially adept at managing their use of social media and the production of qualitatively superior video and imagery output.”61 These pundits are in good company with this narrative; a search for the terms “slick,” “video,” and “ISIS” on Google yielded over 5 million hits in November 2014 alone.62 The international media has promoted this group-think. “Where the Islamic State innovated the most,” the New York Timesgushed, “was in carrying out increasingly gruesome violence explicitly to film it—to intimidate enemies and to draw recruits with eye-catching displays on social media … Those techniques have proved so effective.”63Business Insider raved, “It’s well-known that ISIS has been very successful” because of its gruesome online propaganda.64 Wired magazine went so far as to say that “Islamic State has been singularly successful” because of its unique ability to “inspire dread” and “cultivate this kind of image.”65 Advertising grotesque atrocities against innocent people is apparently terrific for militant groups and ISIS does it best.
And yet, something unexpected happened. The ISIS caliphate died as quickly as it had appeared. Pundits had been too busy glorifying its strategy to realize the group was losing. Indeed, ISIS was failing by its own standards. (p.7) In 2015, ISIS territory shrank by 40 percent in Iraq and 20 percent in Syria.66 ISIS lost another quarter of its territory the following year.67 By early 2017, ISIS had ceded two-thirds of its land.68 By springtime, ISIS controlled less than 7 percent of Iraq and was being defeated in Syria by the Syrian Arab Army, its Shia militia partners, American and Russia airpower, Kurdish warriors, and a smattering of other militants.69 In his May 2017 Pentagon press conference, Defense Secretary James Mattis noted that “ISIS had lost 55,000 square kilometers and regained none of it.”70 The leading Arab daily conceded, “ISIS is battered and in retreat, and its alleged ‘caliphate’ is nearly destroyed on the ground.”71 The Guardian acknowledged later that summer “the crumbling of the ISIS caliphate,” as “black flags are no longer flying.”72 Even its erstwhile capitals in Mosul and Raqqa were falling fast. Former Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, was prepared to call it then—ISIS had “lost” in its core goal of establishing a caliphate.73 Tellingly, that June ISIS blew up the al-Nuri mosque—the very site where the caliphate had been declared.74 Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, described the ISIS own-goal as “an official announcement of their defeat.”75 Later that month, from the ruins of al-Nuri, the Iraqi military spokesman faced no ISIS opposition when he declared “their fictitious state has fallen.”76 Antony J. Blinken, the Deputy Secretary of State under Obama, noted: “Its core narrative—building an actual state—is in tatters.”77 As the group lost land, its revenues also shrank until it could no longer pay fighters, which spurred defections and dissuaded recruits from joining the losing team. Air Force Major General Peter Gersten captured the sorry state of Islamic State: “We’re seeing a fracture in their morale; we’re seeing their inability to pay; we’re seeing the inability to fight; we’re watching them try to leave Daesh in every single way,” using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.78
But nowhere was the ISIS collapse clearer than in its once-vaunted propaganda messaging. ISIS spokesman, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, had gone from encouraging Muslims to perform Hijrah or emigration to the caliphate to telling jihadi-wannabees to stay home.79 Adnani was a dead man by the summer of 2016, as would soon be the guy in charge of producing the ISIS snuff videos, Abu Mohammed al-Furqan, and then his replacement, Abu Bashir al-Maslawi. The content of the videos became almost laughable. ISIS was reduced to broadcasting pictures of a one-legged suicide bomber in need of a cane, while begging members of the apocalyptic group to stop scurrying away from the battlefield.80 A Syrian opposition activist told the Associated Press in June 2017: “The propaganda of the organization has become zero to be frank. It indicates their collapse and that the group is retreating.”81 Even the sympathizers or so-called “fan-boys” in pro-ISIS chat rooms conceded the caliphate project was a complete bust.82 As one journalist put it, “Defeat is hard to sell.”83 Baghdadi was reportedly seen looking “thin and stooped.”84 (p.8) Although ISIS’ raison d’être of a caliphate went up in smoke, there was a clear winner—its arch enemies. The Salafi jihadists repeatedly said the Islamic State was intended to curb the influence of Iran and its Shia proxies, especially Hezbollah. But instead of becoming the seat of a hardline Sunni state, Iraq and Syria were turned into Shia-country.85 The sociologist William Gamson observes, “There is no more ticklish issue … than deciding what constitutes success.”86 The political scientist, James DeNardo, remarks that we cannot ever be sure whether terrorists get what they want; at best, we can evaluate whether they got what they claimed to want.87 The Islamic State project face-planted by this standard. They were “evil losers” as President Trump likes to say.
This reversal of fortune was actually quite predictable. From the moment Baghdadi declared a caliphate in 2014, I gave hundreds of media interviews from the Associated Press to the BBC pointing out the basic analytical problem—the very behaviors lauded as strategic have historically doomed militant groups; ISIS, I always said, would be no exception.88 With a little historical context and methods training, it was obvious that Baghdadi was no mastermind and neither were his fellow strategists. They were, as you’ll see, supremely stupid terrorists. President Barack Obama got blasted in the media for saying early on that ISIS was the “JV team” (i.e., Junior Varsity) of terrorists. Actually, he was right—at least when it came to their cluelessness about devising a winning long-term strategy.
The Rules for Rebels
Smart militant leaders do three simple things for victory:
- 1. They recognize that not all violence is equal for achieving their stated political goals. In fact, smart leaders grasp that some attacks should be carefully avoided because they hurt the cause. My research is the first to empirically show that there’s variation in the political utility of militant group violence depending on the target. Compared to more selective violence against military and other government targets, indiscriminate violence against civilian targets lowers the likelihood of political success. So, the first thing smart militants do is recognize that civilian attacks are a recipe for political failure. You might say that the first rule for rebels is to not use terrorism at all. There’s no consensus over the definition of terrorism.89 But most scholars define it as attacks against civilian targets in particular.90As the terrorism scholar, Louise Richardson, remarks, “The defining characteristic of terrorism is the deliberate targeting of civilians.”91 The legal scholar Alan Dershowitz also notes, “The deliberate killing of innocent civilians is a central element in most definitions of (p.9) terrorism.”92 The economists Walter Enders and Todd Sandler agree, “Virtually all definitions consider terrorist attacks against civilians as terrorism.”93 When talking about terrorism, we mean attacks on civilian targets like schools, markets, movie theaters, mosques, rock concerts, soccer games, synagogues, commercial airplanes, cruise-ships, churches, businesses, and apartment buildings unless occupied by military personnel. We’re not talking about blowing the treads off a tank. What matters for the rebel, though, isn’t how we define terrorism, but that he learns the folly of harming civilians. In this book, that means opposing terrorism.
- 2. The second rule is to actively restrain lower-level members from committing it. It doesn’t matter whether the rebel understands the futility of terrorism if his members continue to do it anyway. The key is for him to take a stand against terrorism and build the organization so lower-level members abide. Centralizing the organization is invaluable for educating fighters about which targets to avoid, disciplining wayward operatives for harming civilians, and vetting out members who seem prone to undermining the cause with terrorism.
- 3. And the third rule for rebels is to distance the organization from terrorism whenever subordinates flout their targeting guidelines by attacking civilians. Like CEOs, smart militant leaders know how to brand their organization for maximum appeal when members publicly shame it. In practice, this means disavowing terrorism in all sorts of scientifically proven ways to project a moderate image of the group even when members act otherwise. In sum, smart rebels learn that tactical moderation pays, restrain lower-level members so they comply, and mitigate the reputational costs even when they don’t.
As you’ll see, these rules for rebels are based on insights from numerous academic disciplines (e.g., communication, criminology, economics, history, management, marketing, political science, psychology, sociology) and methodological approaches (e.g., field research, qualitative cases studies, content analysis, network analysis, regression analysis, survey experiments). Although this book applies these lessons to hundreds of militant groups throughout the world, one group gets more attention than any other—Islamic State. ISIS gets more ink because of its intrinsic importance as a militant group. This is the worst group the world has ever known in terms of its civilian carnage, geographic reach, and global terror. Conveniently, these characteristics also mirror the rules for rebels, so it’s ideal for illustrating to future generations what not to do.
Ironically, the very behaviors described as strategic did more to destroy the caliphate than create it. For starters, ISIS didn’t acquire its stronghold from terrorism. Patrick Skinner, the former CIA counterterrorism case officer, (p.10) points out that ISIS’ territorial gains in Iraq and Syria “were not terrorist … successes.”94As the historian Walter Laqueur explains, ISIS set up shop in areas “sparsely populated or not populated at all … these regions were a kind of no man’s land in which government forces had lost control, but had not been replaced by any other authority.” The so-called caliphate was “more like a power vacuum than a new state.”95Even in densely populated Mosul, ISIS just stormed into the military void. Although the U.S. had supplied billions of dollars to the Iraqi military over the years, it was woefully unprepared—weapons systems had fallen into disrepair, the officer corps was swollen with political hacks, thousands of “ghost soldiers” short on ammo were on the books, but never even showed up to fight.96 As Brian Fishman observes, “ISIS did not actually fight its way into Mosul … the army collapsed.”97 More to the point, Mosul residents admit they weren’t terrorized or coerced into supporting the group. On the contrary, they “initially welcomed the Islamic State” because they thought it would offer protection.98 The support of locals dissipated, however, the moment the group terrorized them. This indiscriminate ruthlessness ensured ISIS was reviled in every town, ostracized even by other Salafist groups, grossly out-manned in every battle from Tikrit to Raqqa, and unable to hold onto its own fighters, who increasingly defected due largely to the wanton killing.99 The more terrorism ISIS inflicted, the less territory it controlled.100 The decentralization of ISIS’ violence all over the world united it against the group. Made up of over sixty-five countries, the anti-ISIS coalition had no trouble gaining participants precisely because the depraved group threatened citizens everywhere, turning even erstwhile friends like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey into enemies. This anti-ISIS coalition was neither automatic nor inevitable. The turning point came in August 2015, when ISIS made the fateful decision to behead the American journalist, James Foley, and then boast about it over social media. ISIS said in the video that the beheading was intended to deter the U.S. from going after the group.101 ISIS leaders launched hundreds of Tweet-storms threatening to attack the U.S. if it intervened militarily against the fledgling caliphate.102 Yet the video galvanized Obama to assemble the largest counterterrorism coalition ever assembled to pummel the group. ISIS paid a steep, albeit predictable price for breaching the rules for rebels. Baghdadi was a stupid terrorist notwithstanding the think tank consensus.
The three rules for rebels are developed sequentially in this book. In the first part, I develop the first rule for rebels. Specifically, I present evidence from a host of methodological approaches—field research, case studies, regression (p.11) analysis, and experiments—that certain kinds of attacks are more effective than others. These chapters highlight that militant groups are far more likely to achieve their political demands when violence is directed against military targets rather than civilian ones. This original finding going back to my days in the West Bank during the Second Intifada flies in the face of what I call the Strategic Model of Terrorism.103 As its name suggests, this school of thought, prominent in political science, assumes that groups turn to terrorism because it offers the best chance to attain their political goals. In fact, my research reveals that civilian attacks backfire by lowering the prospects of government concessions—not to mention organizational survival. Leaders may not initially grasp the risk of terrorism, but smart ones learn it over time. Learning to win by sparing civilians is the first and foremost rule for militant leaders. Without internalizing this rule, they can’t be expected to follow the other ones and prevail.
The second part of the book spells out the second rule for rebels. In these chapters, I show how smart leaders prevent their fighters from harming civilians, boosting the likelihood of victory. Some political scientists, like Jeremy Weinstein and Stathis Kalyvas, agree that civilian attacks are self-defeating for militant groups at least in civil wars. But these scholars write out the role of the leader by attributing indiscriminate violence to structural conditions such as the availability of resources rather than to decisions from the top.104 I restore agency to leaders by disclosing how smart ones maintain operational control under any structural condition, effectively restricting their members from sabotaging the cause with terrorism. The physical scientist, Brian Jackson, defines operational control as “The ability to control or influence the activities and operations being carried out in pursuit of the organization’s strategic goals.”105 Restraining lower-level members of the organization is tricky because they’re less likely to recognize the political costs of terrorism or even care about them. But leaders aren’t passive observers of militant group behavior; rather, they wield considerable influence over the tactical choices of their subordinates and hence the likelihood of victory. Leaders can dramatically reduce the use of terrorism in their ranks simply by telling them not do it and then building the organization so they comply. As we’ll see, a centralized group is critical for instilling tactical restraint by helping the leader to communicate which targets to avoid, punish targeting violations against civilians, and vet out wannabe-members inclined to commit them. Whereas the first part of the book shows that smart leaders recognize the value of civilian restraint, the second part shows how to achieve it by getting members to comply with it.
The third part of this book explains how smart leaders respond when they don’t. Following the first two rules for rebels substantially reduces terrorism in their ranks. But it doesn’t eliminate it entirely. Even leaders who follow both rules will occasionally face a public relations fiasco. Luckily for rebels, there’s a (p.12)considerable body of academic research on how organizations can restore their image when members engage in face-threatening behaviors that risk tarnishing it. Drawing from the fields of communication, marketing, and psychology, I show how smart militant leaders adopt the same proven crisis management strategies as CEOs to maximize the appeal of the organization when members publicly shame it. Branding is essential for all organizations, but especially militant groups whose fate depends on garnering international and local support. For the militant leader, the key to developing a winning brand is by distancing the organization from terrorism when operatives perpetrate it. In practice, when operatives kill civilians, this means engaging in scientifically-based denial strategies to demonstrate goodwill. These three rules for rebels—learning, restraining, and branding to win—are the secrets for victory. Long before ISIS inverted this playbook, successful militant leaders were following it.