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Carrots, Sticks, and Insurgent Targeting of Civilians

Parked cars on fire

A new paper co-authored by AU School of Public Affairs Associate Professor Joe Young looks at how governments react to terrorist attacks on civilians — with conciliatory actions or counterattacks — and what kind of response that elicits from insurgents.

“Carrots, Sticks, and Insurgent Targeting of Civilians” by Young, Victor Asal, Brian J. Phillips, R. Karl Rethemeyer, and Corina Simon recently appeared online in the Journal of Conflict Resolution. The researchers compared how nonviolent and violent counterinsurgency tactics affect militant group violence against civilians.  

“We often just want to punish groups that use terrorism without considering that they will have a response to that punishment. We should consider what that response is going to look like,” says Young.

Results of the study suggest that using a “stick” — government coercion against a group — is associated with subsequent terrorism by that group. However, this is only the case for larger insurgent groups, which raises questions about the notion of terrorism as a weapon of the weak.

“When you are using violence and you are punishing rebels, they tend to respond in kind,” says Young.

On the other hand, “carrots” are often linked to fewer incidents of group terrorism.

“If you think about rebels as political actors who want something, when they are given pieces of that or are negotiated with, it might encourage more nonviolent interaction,” explains Young.

While other research on the topic has looked at case studies, this project used a new data set on terrorism featuring 140 insurgent groups from across the globe spanning 1998 through 2012. The data structure allowed the scholars to investigate changes to group attributes and tactics over time.

Young says the results should prompt leaders to take seriously the modeling of insurgent and government dynamics and think about what both are doing and how the interaction of their tactics can lead to particular outcomes.

“I hope policymakers would consider when they are thinking about responding to a group with violence or nonviolence that they don’t just think about what they are trying to signal to the other side,” says Young. “We should be also thinking, ‘What do we expect they will do in response?’