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Spoiling for a Fight

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Joseph Young has researched how terrorism prolongs civil wars.

A Strong Finding

After the September 11 attacks, many foreign policy experts emphasized the transnational and borderless nature of terrorism. Al Qaeda was not a nation state, and new thinking was required to defeat the terror network. While undoubtedly true, this also obscures the fact that the vast majority of terrorist attacks are aimed at domestic targets. “About seven out of eight attacks are domestic. So the 9/11 style attack is a rarity,” says Joseph Young, an associate professor at American University.

Young, who has appointments with both the School of Public Affairs and the School of International Service, looked at the impact such terrorist attacks have on civil wars. In a study recently published in The Journal of Politics, Young and co-author Michael Findley at University of Texas at Austin found that during civil wars, terrorism from fringe or marginal groups can derail peace processes. In addition, after a lull in violence, terrorist attacks frequently lead to a recurrence of a civil war.

Outside actors who disrupt peace processes are often called “spoilers,” and terrorism is a common means of obstruction.

Through their research, they have built a bridge between two disciplines that were, especially after 9/11, mostly separate. “You had people who were studying civil wars, and the people who were studying terrorism. And they were studying them very differently,” he says. “These are part of larger processes of violence, and they should be connected.”

Disruptive and Destructive

For this study, they used a large database with civil conflicts in many countries, such as Angola, Bangladesh, Colombia, and Iraq. In fact, the majority of nations beleaguered by civil war are also dealing with terrorism, making their research extremely pertinent.

This research could have policy implications, too. If national leaders are politically prepared for terrorist spoilers, they can disregard the violence and continue pursuing peace.

“You should expect there are going to be spoilers. You often see in these negotiations where someone will say, ‘Look, the other side isn’t serious about negotiating. Look at the violence that’s going on!’ Well, that violence may be awful, but it may not at all be a signal that they’re not interested in negotiating,” says Young. “Moderates in these negotiations should try not to get derailed by this violence, and they should at some level kind of expect it.”

Motive and Opportunity

In their research, Young and his colleague did not ascribe spoilers’ motives. Young surmises that outside actors often use terror when they believe a pending peace deal could undercut their interests. In some instances, these actors reject any sort of agreement out of hand. This complicates negotiations, as moderates may be willing to make concessions while more radical elements want to sabotage talks altogether.

“Usually, the spoilers want some real maximalist kind of gains. Take, for example, Al Qaeda. How does the U.S. negotiate with Al Qaeda if it wants a global caliphate? That’s not something the U.S. is really willing to negotiate over,” he says.

There’s an incentive to incorporate disgruntled parties into a coalition, but the objectives of supposed allies might be completely incompatible. In the early 2000s, Israel and the Palestinian Authority were reportedly close to a landmark two-state solution to the Mideast conflict. “But Hamas rejected the two-state solution and wanted Israel gone,” he says. “That’s one of the problems with bringing the spoilers in; their goals might be non-negotiable.”

Young has examined the conflict in Colombia, where the government and the FARC guerilla group are attempting to secure a bilateral ceasefire. But Young notes that there are other paramilitary groups and potential spoilers in Colombia, which could make a peace agreement tenuous.

“You’re still seeing some terrorism in the region,” he explains. “It could either be they’re spoiling, or it could be a tactic where groups are saying, ‘Hey, don’t forget about us. We should have a seat at this table, too.’”

Future Areas of Study

Young is considering related areas for future research, including how terrorists select certain targets. What is the symbolic value of striking a sacred shrine or a government agency? For his deadly Oklahoma City bombing, Timothy McVeigh specifically chose a federal building that housed agencies like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

“It’s not necessarily the number of fatalities, or the number of attacks, that are really changing people’s outcomes,” Young says. “There’s something about the nature of the place that they’re attacking.”