Al Qaeda at the bar: coordinating ideologues and mercenaries in terrorist organizations

Kjell Hausken, Sheheryar Banuri, Dipak K. Gupta, Klaus Abbink

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)
18 Downloads (Pure)


Most terrorist groups have limited lifespans. A number of scholars and casual observers have noted that terrorist organizations often are comprised of two types of participants: ideologues or "true believers" dedicated to the group's cause, and mercenaries, who are adept at raising money through illegal means. The latter are interested primarily in their personal gains and have relatively little ideological commitment. Terrorist groups need both participants in order to function effectively. The purpose of the study is to understand the impact of communication on the compositions of terrorist groups. Three experimental treatments consider a coordination problem, and focus on the behavior of the mercenaries. Participants choose whether or not to participate in a terrorist attack. Payoffs are U-shaped in the number of participants, and increase with the number of successful attacks. The treatments allow communication between a leader and frontline fighters ("leader" treatment) or among the frontline fighters themselves ("communication" treatment). In the first treatment, a group leader can post messages to the members, which has a 19 % coordination success rate. For the communication treatment, all participants can post messages anonymously to each other, which yields a 27 % coordination success rate. By contrast, the baseline ("no communication" treatment) shows a success rate of 11 %. We conclude from our experimental evidence that disrupting communications among the frontline fighters is more effective in terminating terrorist organizations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)57-73
Number of pages17
JournalPublic Choice
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2015


  • Terrorism
  • Terrorist organizations
  • Ideologues
  • Mercenaries
  • Laboratory experiment
  • Coordination
  • altruism
  • demise

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