Votes and violence: Pursuing terrorism while navigating politics

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2014
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Journal of Peace Research 52 (1): 32-45
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Many of the world’s most infamous terrorist organizations demonstrate clear political aptitude, maintaining highly successful political parties while simultaneously carrying out terrorist attacks. Yet the relationship between terrorism and a group’s political fortune is unclear. Groups like Hamas and Hezbollah appear to have gained significant support as a consequence of certain attacks, most notably those against US and Israeli targets. Other organizations fight for their political life after certain attacks. The Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its political wing, Sinn Fein, scrambled to restore its public image after bombs in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, killed 11 Protestant civilians. In this article I examine the relationship between violence and political participation. I show that rebel groups are less likely to attack civilians when they simultaneously participate in democratic elections. I argue that attacking civilians is not good for political business. Not only can it distinguish the group as a terrorist organization and alienate supporters as a result, but attacking civilians also imposes high costs on the group’s own civilian support base. For these reasons, civilians frequently withdraw political support for rebel groups after they target civilians, which can be profoundly harmful to rebels. I analyze the violent and political behavior of non-state violent organizations from the Middle East and North Africa from 1980 to 2004. I also examine the IRA as a means of describing the causal mechanism advanced here.