Does Democracy Promote or Reduce Transnational Terrorist Incidents ?

The question of the linkage of democratic forms of government with the incidence of terrorist violence is explored. Distinguishing the presence of terrorist groups in a nation and violent terrorist events, and using multiple indicators of democratic development, evidence is presented clearly linking democracy with the presence of terrorist groups. Terrorist groups are less likely to be found in non‐democratic settings than in democratic ones.

Does Democracy Promote or Reduce Transnational Terrorist Incidents?
Terrorism is defined as the premeditated or threatened use of extra normal violence or force to obtain a political, religious, or ideological objective through the intimidation of a large audience. Because extant empirical evidence in the democracy-terrorism literature is exclusively based on transnational terrorism data.

A transnational terrorist incident in a country involves victims, perpetrators, targets or institutions of another country. Based on the incident venue, transnational terrorist incidents can involve

(1) terrorist attacks initiated by foreign terrorists against some domestic target in a country.
(2) Attacks by domestic terrorists against some foreign target in a country, or
(3) attacks by foreign terrorists against some other foreign target in a country.

Some of the authors think that democracy refers to the notion of representative democracy that typically implies free and fair elections of the executive and legislative offices, the right of citizens to vote and compete for public office , and institutional guarantees for freedom of association and expression such as an independent judiciary and the absence of censorship. Distinct institutional characteristics of democratic polity produce effects on transnational terrorism.
Promoting democracy has long played a role in United States foreign policy, but in recent years it has emerged as one of the country’s primary instruments of statecraft. Among the central arguments in favor of democracy promotion has been its putative benefits for reducing the incidence of global terrorism.
1. As, for example, the George W. Bush administration articulated in its 2006 National Security Strategy, with the advancement of democracy, the conditions allowing terrorist groups to operate will worsen and therefore their incentives to continue operations will diminish: democracy is less likely to generate terrorists and terrorist violence.
2. That the idea of spreading democracy as a means to reduce terrorist violence has many supporters, in fact, is unsurprising. It has profound intuitive appeal: provide mechanisms for the peaceful redress of grievances, and militant groups and the societies that support them will forgo violence in favor of nonviolent political action. In other words, terrorism is a tool of last resort, used only in the absence of peaceful opportunities for political expression.
Given the centrality of these ideas, both to policy debate and to the scholarly study of political violence, it is striking how little systematic study of the relationship between democracy and terrorism has been undertaken. Aside from a smattering of case studies and large-n empirical analyses, minimal research has been completed on the topic. As one recent study relates, when a senior Bush administration official involved in drafting the president’s 2006 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism was asked to justify the document, he could not cite a single authoritative study in support of the contention that the spread of democracy reduces terrorist violence.

One argument in the democracy – terrorism literature posits that aspects of democracy reduce terrorism. In non democratic societies, the lack of opportunities for political participation induces political grievances and dissatisfaction among dissenters, motivating terrorism. In contrast, in democratic societies, free and fair elections ensure that rulers can be removed and that desirable social changes can be brought about by the voters, reducing the need to resort to violence.

Democratic rules enable non violent resolution of political conflict. Democracies permit dissenters to express their policy preferences and seek redress. Different social groups are able to participate in the political process to further their interest through peaceful means such as voting and forming political parties. Since democracy lowers the cost of achieving political goals through legal means, groups find costly illegal terrorist activities less attractive.

Within the context of transnational terrorism, wide democratic participation helps to reduce incentives of domestic groups to engage in terrorist activities against foreign targets in a country. When citizens have grievances against foreign targets, greater political participation under a democratic system allows them to exert more influence on their own government so that they seek favorable policy changes or compensation more successfully. Joining a terrorist group and attacking the foreign target become less appealing options. To the extent that democratic participation leads to public tolerance of counter terrorist efforts, a democratic government will be more effective stopping a variety of terrorist attacks, including those by domestic terrorists against foreign targets as well as those committed by foreign terrorists in a country.

A second argument in the literature claims that democracy encourages terrorism. This is based on the premise that democracies provide greater civil liberties (e.g., Schmid 1992). By guaranteeing civil liberties, democracies allow terrorists to become organized and maneuver easily, reducing the costs of conducting terrorist activities (Ross 1993; Eyerman 1998). Expansive and secure civil liberties also make it harder for the legal systems in democracies to convict terrorists and for democratic governments to prevent or retaliate against terrorism (Schmid 1992; Eubank and Weinberg 1994, 2001). As Crenshaw (1981, 383) notes, “The desire to protect civil liberties constrains security measures.”

The hypothesized effect of civil liberties, however, involves two confounding issues. First, civil liberties may also generate a mitigating effect on terrorism. Citizens enjoying more civil liberties are more likely to influence the political process successfully. To the extent that civil liberties reduce political grievances, they may also reduce terrorist activities. Therefore, civil liberties alone do not help us separate the positive and negative effects of democracy, either theoretically or empirically.

Second, press freedom, as part and parcel of civil liberties, may induce possible terrorist incident reporting bias and create an additional incentive for terrorism. The bias in the reporting of terrorist incidents between different regime types has been widely recognized (see, e.g., Schmid 1992; Eubank and Weinberg 1994; Sandler 1995; Li and Schaub 2004). Terrorist incidents are more likely to be reported in democratic countries but less so in nondemocratic ones. This is so because democratic countries place fewer restrictions on the media, the less restrained news-seeking media in democracies tend to provide more extensive coverage of terrorist events, or both. In contrast, reporting of such incidents in nondemocratic countries is heavily controlled and censored. Since data on terrorist incidents are collected from open sources, one is likely to conclude that democracies have more terrorist incidents. Even if nondemocratic countries experience the same number of incidents, observers may never find out, using data collected from open sources. The reporting bias may falsely cause one to observe a positive correlation between the level of civil liberties and the number of terrorist events. The reporting bias, however, may be more real than it seems. A terrorist group succeeds because of its ability to terrorize. To terrorize a wide audience, terrorists pursue recognition and attention by seeking to expand publicity and media coverage of their activities (see, e.g., Crenshaw 1981; Atkinson, Sandler, and Tschirhart 1987). Press freedom increases the opportunities for terrorists to be heard and watched by a large audience and hence their ability to create widespread fear. All else equal, that press freedom can satisfy the desire of terrorists for publicity creates greater incentives for terrorist activities. In addition, because of the newsworthiness of terrorist events, free press often reports terrorist incidents with excessive details, helping to recruit, teach, and train new terrorists (Schmid 1992). Press freedom and its alleged reporting bias thus generate a real positive effect on transnational terrorist incidents.
Freedom of action of an autocratic government is largely defined by the support of the elite. The democratic government, in contrast, is held accountable to the legislature and the electorate through checks and balances and elections. Relative to the autocratic ruler, the democratic government faces a wider range of institutionalized constraints over its exercise of power. This institutional difference between regime types means that there are more veto players over government policy in democracy than in autocracy. Such political constraints prevent the democratic government from encroaching on civil liberties. Democracies with inadequate executive constraints are less likely to respect civil rights. Therefore, the effect of civil liberties on terrorism is epiphenomenal of the institutional constraints on government because the extent of civil liberties, particularly press freedom, is fundamentally determined by the strength of those constraints. Institutional constraints on the democratic government are likely uncorrelated with the negative effect of democracy on terrorism. Policy inaction and political deadlock often occur in democratic polities as a result of the constraints on the policy-making power of government. To the extent that policy inaction and political deadlock fail to reduce grievances but heighten public frustration, government constraints do not reduce but rather encourage terrorism. If one considers the implication of Fearon and Laitin’s (2003) argument on civil war, terrorist groups are typically extremely marginal groups whose political grievances are too narrow to be resolved through a democratic system. Policy inaction and political deadlock, induced by institutional checks and balances, will increase the grievances of marginalized groups, pushing them toward violence.

More important, It is argued that institutional constraints significantly weaken the ability of the democratic government to fight terrorism. Because the winning coalition in democracy tends to be larger, institutional checks and balances hold the democratic government accountable to a broader range of societal interests. It is, therefore, difficult for democracies to enact antiterrorist strategies that are as strict as those commonly adopted by nondemocratic regimes (Wilkinson 2001). Enacting repression and effective deterrence is more costly to the government in a competitive political system because it may harm political support and cause the government to lose power. In contrast, the largely unconstrained, repressive military regime, for example, can disregard civil liberties, effectively crush terrorist organizations, and reduce terrorist incidents (Crenshaw 1981).
Finally, it says that institutional constraints perversely strengthen the strategic position of terrorists in their interactions with the government. Institutional checks and balances allow a broad range of interests to influence government policy making and involve careful and regular oversight and scrutiny of government performance and policy failures. As a result, the security of a vast number of citizens becomes the concern of the democratic government. Creating a general terrorist threat that affects most citizens is likely to be effective in democratic countries. Also, the cost of generating such a threat is low because of the abundance of targets valuable to the democratic government. In nondemocratic countries, the government is constrained only by the ruling elite, so an effective terrorist threat need only target those in the small ruling coalition. Because the ruling elite are easier to protect than the general population, an effective terrorist threat is much more costly and difficult to mount in nondemocratic regimes. Within the context of transnational terrorism, the effect of government constraints applies to both domestic terrorists and foreign terrorists in a country, thus influencing all three types of transnational terrorist attacks.

Democracies are not homogeneous but have different electoral systems. Asthese systems aggregate preferences differently, they influence citizen satisfaction and political grievances differently, producing disparate effects on the incentives to engage in terrorism. Huber and Powell (1994) explore how two different democratic systems affect the congruence between citizen preferences and public policies. The majoritarian system creates single-party majority governments, while the proportional representation system produces legislatures that often represent the preferences of all citizens. In the majoritarian system, the government winning the election is committed to policies corresponding to the preferences of the median voter. In the proportional system, bargaining in the legislature that reflects the preferences of all citizens results in policies that are linked to the position of the median voter. With regression analysis of the proportional, mixed, and majoritarian systems in twelve nations in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Huber and Powell show that, on average, the proportional system leads to closer congruence between citizen self-placements and the estimated positions of governments than the other two systems. Analyzing the effects of different democratic systems on civil wars, Marta Reynal Querol (2002) argues that the proportional system has a lower probability of group rebellion than the majoritarian system. This is so because the opportunity cost of rebellion is higher under the more participatory proportional system than under the majoritarian system. She finds that countries of the proportional system have a lower probability of experiencing civil wars than those of the majoritarian system. Based on the analyses by Huber and Powell (1994) and Reynal-Querol (2002), it is argued that variations in democratic electoral systems also systematically influence transnational terrorism. Because the proportional system is most inclusive and has the closest congruence between citizen preferences and public policies, the proportional system is more likely to resolve political grievances than either the majoritarian or the mixed system, reducing incentives to resort to terrorism. Alternative nonviolent solutions to grievances also are more accessible under the proportional system than under the majoritarian system. Within the context of transnational terrorism, citizens under the proportional system will have less incentive to turn violent against some foreign target within their countries than those under the majoritarian or the mixed system. Different democratic systems will experience different frequencies of terrorist attacks.

Thus the results show that democratic participation reduces transnational terrorist incidents in a country, while government constraints increase the number of those incidents, subsuming the effect of press freedom. The proportional representation system experiences fewer transnational terrorist incidents than either the majoritarian or the mixed system.


I would like to thank Professor Arvind Radhakrishnan for giving me an opportunity to do a research paper on the link between terrorism and democracy which say does democracy encourage or reduce transnational terrorists? This research gave me a vivid idea about the research question. It was a very interesting and I have learnt a lot regarding this topic.

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