Clements Speaker Series

Explaining Violence Against Civilians: Leadership Deficits and Militant Group Tactics

Allan Stam and Philip Potter of the University of Michigan
Monday, Nov 18, 2013   |   12:15 pm   |  SRH 3.124

Certain types of militant groups are more likely to inflict violence on civilians—those suffering from leadership deficits. These deficits exacerbate the principal-agent problem between leaders and foot soldiers, who have stronger incentives to attack civilians.

We establish the validity of this proposition with a tripartite research strategy that balances generalizability and identification. First, we demonstrate in a sample of over a hundred militant organizations operating in the Middle East and North Africa that those lacking centralized leadership are more likely to target civilians. Civilian targeting is equally prevalent when leaders are impeded from communicating tactical instructions to the rank and file. Second, we show that when the leaderships of militant groups are degraded from drone strikes in the Afghanistan-Pakistan tribal regions, the selectivity of organizational violence plummets. Third, we elucidate the mechanism with a detailed case study of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a Palestinian group that turned to terrorism during the Second Intifada because decapitation strikes empowered low level members with incentives to attack civilians. These findings indicate that a lack of principal control is an important, underappreciated cause of militant group violence against civilians.

Philip Potter is an assistant professor of public policy and political science at the University of Michigan. His ongoing research explores the influence of domestic politics on foreign policy and international relations. He also conducts research in the area of international terrorism and is a principal investigator for a Department of Defense Minerva Initiative project to map and analyze collaborative relationships between terrorist organizations. Professor Potter has recently published articles in International Organization, The Journal of Politics, International Studies Quarterly, Political Communication,The Annual Review of Political Science, and The Journal of Conflict Resolution. He has been a fellow at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania and holds degrees from UCLA and McGill University.

Allan Stam is a professor in the political science department at The University of Michigan. He has been teaching and writing about international politics since he finished his PhD in 1993. Professor Stam's research focuses on the dynamics of armed conflict between and within states. His current projects include developing a GIS model of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, investigating political leaders' family structure and social development and their concomitant effects on leaders' willingness to take risks once in office, and modeling the interactive effects of military training and combat trauma on veterans' propensity to engage in post-service criminal behavior.