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Is Terrorism a “Weapon of the Weak”? The Evidence Says No

August 29, 2022
Page Fortna


In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, Page Fortna, Harold Brown Professor of U.S. Foreign and Security Policy at Columbia University, analyzes the cliché that terrorism is a weapon of the weak.

For scholars and policymakers who work on terrorism, the notion that terrorism is a weapon of the weak is such strong conventional wisdom that it is practically a cliché. But a systematic look at whether weaker groups are more likely to use terrorism than stronger ones debunks this idea. In a recent study examining all rebel organizations from 1970–2013, and measuring their strength in lots of different ways, I found virtually no evidence that weaker groups are more likely than stronger ones to use terrorism.

Rebel groups in civil wars provide a good testing ground for arguments about terrorism because all such groups have a strong grievance against the state, all are organized and capable of using violence, but not all of them choose to employ terrorism. In this study, I focused on a particular type of terrorism: deliberately indiscriminate attacks against civilians, such as bombing a bus or a public market. The “weapon of the weak” argument should be most true for this type of attack, because it is harder to carry out discriminate attacks like assassinations, not to mention attacks on military targets. If we don’t see evidence that this type of attack is a weapon of the weak, it is even less likely to be so for other forms of terrorism.

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance.