The Thin Black Line: Why Authoritarians Make Bad Counterterrorists

The tragedy of any democratically elected representative lies in striking the delicate balance between security and freedom. It is this very freedom that, according to some, enables terrorism to strive.

Martha Crenshaw (1981: 382), in her appraisal of the causes of terrorism, suggests that democracy may provide a permissive environment for terrorists. Empirically, Eubank and Wienberg (1994) showed that a greater number of terrorist organizations appeared in democratic states from 1945 to 1987 than those that appeared in non-democratic states. They argued that democracy helps give rise to terrorist activity by allowing terrorists to exploit freedoms of speech, expression and communication to advance their political agenda.

James Piazza’s (2008) empirical study also criticized the conventional wisdom of the George W. Bush administration that democratic change in the Middle East was necessary to ebb the tide of terrorism. His study aimed to show that democracy and liberal democracy are not indicators of the level of terrorism.

The problem with these studies is that while they reveal the number of terrorist groups which appeared in democratic states over a certain period of time, they neglect to provide information on the number of terrorist groups which subsided in these states, and compare that to the number of terrorist groups which non-democratic states were able to successfully counter. A comparison of such nature, or of the number of terrorist incidents afflicting democratic and non-democratic states, would likely show that democracies are more effective counter-terrorists.

The argument of permissibility misses the point that all states, except for the most brutal dictatorships, are bound to suffer from some degree of inefficiency in responding to the threat from terrorism

Suggestions that democracies encourage terrorism because of their vulnerability to compromise, or because of their low tolerance to human losses, have also been forwarded as reasons for why democracies might be more prone to terrorism. If this were true however, data set analyses would show a significant favouritism on part of terrorists to target Western democracies. Max Abrahms’ (2007: 232) study showed that no such correlation existed, and that the incidence of terrorist attacks was not linked to regime type. The study also sought to draw a correlation between “coercibility” of a government to terrorism and its regime type. Strikingly, and based on three different datasets of incidents, Abrahms found that illiberal regimes were five times more likely to give in to terrorism than democracies.

Terrorist organizations often cite political and social oppression as justification for their terrorism. If perceived as true, these justifications of political violence will find resonance in swathes of the population who may develop sympathies for the terrorist group. The presence of a democratic system of government, with open channels for upward social and economic mobility, deprives terrorist groups of this important justification for their activities and limits their chances of finding abettors within the population.

Effective counterterrorism is not primarily “kinetic”. Before a government looks at how to defeat terrorism on the ground within its territory, it must first defeat the terrorist’s message within the minds of its people. Because of their perceived legitimacy, and superior ability to mobilize people and resources, democracies will almost always have an edge on dictatorships in confronting terrorism. Steps taken to partially limit freedoms, such as expanding phone or camera surveillance, will be more tolerated in a democracy, for it will be easier to communicate these measures as a necessary means to enhance security, whereas people living under authoritarian rule would identify these measures as a deeper infringement on their rights.

A democracy would also be able to shift resources to counterterrorism and away from other forms of public spending without creating a likely backlash. Authoritarian governments however will find it more difficult to cut portions of their social spending in favour of counterterrorism, as this would further detract from their legitimacy and political capital.

So far, it seems that the very attributes that may be seen as weaknesses of democracy, such as the freedoms of association, movement and speech, and the accountability to a constituency, are in essence what gives democracies their power to sustain long-term successful counter-terrorism campaigns that address, not only the kinetic threat of terrorism, but also the ideational threat, socio-economic roots, and normative underpinnings of terrorism.

This argument is further evidenced by a study of how terrorism ends. Drawing on a dataset of 648 groups between 1968 and 2006, Jones and Libicki (2008) showed that 40% of the terrorist groups they studied ended through a diligent endeavour by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and that 43% ended by ex-terrorists engaging with their respective country’s political processes after renouncing violence. The study illustrates that the termination of the overwhelming majority of terrorist groups came about by means which cannot be delivered by an authoritarian regime, since it would likely refuse to democratize, and would lack the ability to mobilize necessary resources for a sustained police campaign. It would also lack the legitimacy that would enable its police force to gain the trust of the population and their cooperation in gathering vital intelligence on terrorist outfits.

Democracies may provide a permissive field for the rise of terrorism and the appearance of terrorist groups, but their very nature also ensures the ability to carry out a sustainable and balanced counterterrorism campaign. Democracy is the regime type best suited to address any root causes of terrorism, whether they are real or perceived, and mobilize the resources and the popular support to implement policies that mitigate the terrorist threat. They are also more amenable to coopt terrorist groups into the political system, provided that these groups forgo violence.

The legitimacy of democracies enables them to come closer to striking the balance between freedom and security in a way that is acceptable by their constituents and which does not play into the hands of the terrorists’ rhetorical justifications. The history of terrorism in democratic states suggests that its citizens are more willing to accept risks, and resiliently adapt to any added security measures deemed necessary by their elected government. The scores of Western terrorist outfits which have ceased to exist, all but in history books on terrorism, are a testament to the power of democracies in countering political violence, not by military might alone, nor by sacrificing their population’s fundamental rights, but by walking that fine line between freedom and security which only democracies are fit enough to walk.



Abrahms, Max, 2007. “Why Do Democracies make Superior Counterterrorists”, Security Studies, Vol. 16, No. 2, pp. 223-253.

Crenshaw, Martha, 1981. “The Causes of Terrorism”, Comparative Politics, Vol. 13, No. 4, pp.379-399.

Eubank, William Lee, and Weinberg, Leonard, 1994. “Does Democracy Encourage Terrorism?”, Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol.6, No. 4, pp. 417-443.

Jones, Seth G., and Libicki, Martin C., 2008. How Terrorist Groups End. (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation).

Piazza, James A., 2008. “Do Democracy and Free Markets Protect Us From Terrorism?”, International Politics, Vol. 45, No. 1, pp. 72-91.

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