The Wane of Command: Evidence on drone strikes and control within terrorist organizations

Mar 2019 | 218

Authors: Anouk Rigterink


This paper investigates how counterterrorism that targets terrorist leaders, and thereby undermines control within terrorist organizations, affects terrorist attacks. The pa¬per exploits a natural experiment provided by strikes by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones) ‘hitting’ and ‘missing’ terrorist leaders in Pakistan. Results suggest that ter¬rorist groups increase the number of attacks they commit after a drone ‘hit’ on their leader, compared to after a ‘miss’. This increase amounts to 29 terrorist attacks (43%) worldwide per group in the six months after a drone strike. Game theory provides sev¬eral explanations for the observed effect. Additional analysis of heterogenous effects across groups, and the impact of drone hits on the timing, type and target of attacks, attacks by affiliated terrorist groups, infighting and group splintering, indicates that aggravated problems of control (principal-agent and collective action problems) explain these results better than alternative theoretical mechanisms.

JEL Codes: D74, F5, O10

Keywords: Terrorism, Targeted Leader Killing, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles


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