Eli Berman's "New Economics of Terrorism" - review by James M. Dorsey

Analysis, posted 04.04.2011, in:

Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman had a terrorism problem in 1973. His guerrillas, including the PLO's elite Black September unit, had forced the plight of the Palestinians onto the international agenda. Now Arafat needed to translate that success, marred by his image as the leader of a bloodthirsty terrorist organization, politically and diplomatically.

Terrorism threatened his ability to achieve international legitimacy. Black September had assaulted the Israeli Olympic team during the 1972 Munich Olympics, assassinated Jordanian Prime Minister Wasfi al Tal and the US and Belgian ambassadors to Sudan, hijacked a Belgian airliner and attacked targets in Germany, the Netherlands, Britain and Greece.

Arafat needed to control Black September's 100 operatives who were itching to launch further attacks. To do so, the PLO leader opted to give members of his elite force a reason to live rather than die by recruiting 100 young Palestinian women dedicated to the cause. 

The operatives were offered each an apartment in Beirut furnished with a gas stove, a refrigerator and a television and $3,000 in cash if they married one of the women. The ploy worked so well that the operatives not only forswore violence but refused to travel on PLO political and diplomatic missions because they were afraid of being arrested outside of Lebanon and didn't want to be separated from their families. Black September has not been heard of since.

Important lessons for counter terrorism strategies

Arafat's approach together with the successful program of the Northern Ireland prison service that offered jailed Irish Republican Army and Loyalist operatives to visit their ageing parents, wives and children is the forerunner of Saudi Arabia's much touted rehabilitation program for Al Qa'ida operatives who are captured or turned themselves in. 

Key to the approach is neutralizing the ability of militant organizations to prevent defection, particularly religiously motivated ones like the currently most lethal groups – Lebanon's Hizbollah, Palestine's Hamas, Pakistan's Lashkar e-Taiba and the Taliban.

In his book, "Radical, Religious and Violent – The New Economics of Terrorism", Eli Berman, a former member of the Israeli military's elite Golani brigade-turned-University of California economist, focuses on the Achilles Heel of militant groups or what he calls "the defection constraint". 

Berman quotes an interview with a former Viet Cong rebel that political scientist Sam Popkin conducted four decades after first meeting the guerrilla fighter. The Viet Cong operative recalled that it took the group a few days to recover from the loss of comrades killed in action, but that it could take months to limit the damage done by a defector.

Black September, Northern Ireland and Saudi Arabia offer important lessons for counter terrorism strategies and Western efforts to defeat insurgencies in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq and stabilize failing states like for instance Somalia. 

[Excerpt- please see accompanying url for full text.]