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It’s Sunday and everything’s going crazy. Who’s up for a new installment of #radicalbookclub?
For the new folks, #radicalbookclub is a feature where I do Twitter threads on books by and/or about radicals of various stripes.

My original plan was to write about the actualfa, so I did a very deep dive, reading books about them and by them

but today I’m not gonna do that
Because recently I learned something very interesting: 18 yrs into GWOT there are lots of databases of detailed information on terrorism and counter-terrorism, so if you’re quantitatively inclined you can crunch numbers and learn interesting things about political violence.
That’s what Max Abrahms did, and his findings are the subject of his book RULES FOR REBELS: THE SCIENCE OF VICTORY IN MILITANT HISTORY, which came out last year.…
What struck Abrahms was that while there is quite a substantial volume of research on business leadership, there is a relative dearth of leadership study as it pertains to international social movements, as if people in the field don’t think leadership matters.
(I would say that this is likely more true of Abrahms's area of study rather than the literature of professional organizers, myself.)

But for his part, Abrahms does think leadership matters, very much — though not in the way you might expect.
Many people, most notably Hard Righties, think of militant leadership as a “positive action” kind of thing. The leader decides something should be done; he tells people to do it; those people obey; the thing is done.
But for Abrahms, the key function of militant leadership is telling people what *not* to do.
Abrahms’s Rules for Rebels, basically, are:

Rule One: Don’t murder civilians.
Rule Two: Don’t let your subordinates murder civilians, either.
Rule Three: Distance the organization when your subordinates, being militants and probably dumbasses, inevitably murder civilians anyway.
Rule One first: the reason not to murder civilians is that a) it doesn’t work, and b) it actually fucks militant organizations over.
The dominant Strategic Model of Terrorism theory claims people use terrorism because it works. But Abrahms crunched numbers on a bunch of militant campaigns and discovered that only around 30% got at least partial compliance with one of their policy demands.
All but one of those were guerrilla campaigns (i.e., against military and government targets).

The only terrorist campaign (i.e., against civilian targets) that yielded a policy objective: the 2004 Madrid bombings, credited with forcing Spanish withdrawal from Iraq.
But Abrahms points out, the election held shortly after was a very close election and the pro-withdrawal guy might well have won anyway.
Abrahms found that campaigns targeting the military increases the odds of at least partial success by 55% and does not materially impede concessions. Targeting civilians makes a militant group 77% more likely to completely fail, no matter the nature of the group nor its demands.
Targeting civilians craters popular support. Multiple groups learned this the hard way: Quebecois separatists (FLQ), ETA, the Real IRA, Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group (GIA). And ISIS.
Abu Bakr Naji’s hugely influential MANAGEMENT OF SAVAGERY held that murdering civilians created deterrence against fucking with a caliphate; what it actually did was unite the entire world, Muslims included, in agreement that the caliphate needed to be crushed.
Groups that target civilians are twice as likely to see government repression and four times as likely to be targeted by lethal force. Fewer people want to join, or support, a group that murders civilians.
After the Oklahoma City bombing, for example, the number of militia groups in America dropped by over *eighty percent.*
This is one reason supporters love false-flag theories. When the Quebecois FLQ lost support after killing a cabinet minister, so supporters of independence speculated feverishly it was a false flag.

This pissed off the terrorist who did it: “I know what happened, I was there!”
So: if you’re a militant group, don’t murder civilians.

Rule Two is harder: *make sure your subordinates don’t do it either.*
Here’s how that works in practice: the militant leader has to a) tell subordinates not to murder civilians b) build the organization in such a manner as to minimize their opportunities to do that.
But militant groups have what’s called a principal-agent problem. The leaders and the followers often want different things, because they’re different kinds of people.
Leaders tend to be older, more experienced, and better educated. Low-level followers, especially, are the opposite. Less educated, less experienced, and often dumber, they tend to make bad choices.
Low-level militants also tend to have suffered more than their leaders, meaning they want revenge and look for opportunities to take it, despite the political cost.
Often, militant recruits are isolated people looking for group, rather than happy and well-adjusted people who are merely extremely politically committed.
NEET incels abound in foreign terrorist organizations, meaning they’re looking for a way to bond with their fellows in the organization, and guess what offers them a bonding opportunity? Committing violence together.
The lower levels of a militant group positively have *incentive* to harm civilians: that’s how they show they’re bad-ass! It gives them a chance to move up.

This explains a lot about why the Palestinian independence movement in particular is so screwed up, BTW.
The lower levels of a militant group are less focused on the group’s political goals, and often don’t know much about them. Insanely, one survey of IRA members found nearly half of the ones interviewed *didn’t know about discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland.*
So how does a leader introduce high task cohesion (that’s strong cooperation for a common goal)? By educating the rank and file in the organization’s political ends and the best means to achieve them. Surprising numbers of militant groups neglect this step.
(Hezbollah, by contrast, spends a year on education before its recruits get combat training.)
The transition from nonviolent to violent group is especially dicey: militants gone hard are prone to going too hard out of the gate and shooting themselves in the foot. Clear rules of engagement are a must.
The National Resistance Army in 1980s Uganda had a code of conduct that not only barred killing or stealing from members of the public, but insulting and shouting at them as well. The Free Syrian Army bans its members from committing public executions — they scare people!
Centralized structure works for militant leaders because they can 1) communicate tactical instructions 2) discipline wayward members 3) vet out assholes who will fuck the organization. The problem with decentralization is that it erodes communications.
Units separated from central command tend to become inefficient, impatient, and impossible to discipline. And then they tend to do what they want rather than what the organization wants. The same applies to affiliates and subsidiaries (and operations in foreign countries).
Crunching the numbers bears this out: centralized groups are less likely to attack civilians than decentralized ones. Centralized groups where the leadership specifically forbids attacking civilians are even less so.

But guess what? Shit happens.
Even if a militant leader forbids harming civilians and sets rules to enforce it, *at some point some follower(s) will harm civilians because that’s what militants do.*
So, Rule 3: when the followers invariably screw the organization over by murdering civilians, the leader has to protect the organization by distancing it from the actions.
There are a variety of ways to do this. PFLP, Fatah, and the Red Brigades don’t claim an action until there’s been positive press coverage. Hezbollah has fictitious organizations claim responsibility for damaging actions.
And, of course, damage control: apologizing, concession (a super-apology where you accept total responsibility), scapegoating, justification (“actually this is much more acceptable than it looks, because”), and/or bolstering (“but we have a fantastic free lunch program!”).
So, what does this mean for militant violence here in the US? Well, here are some interesting ramifications of Abrahms’s work.
If you take the bull male elephants out of a herd, the younger males run rampant. If a gang leader is arrested, the violence level of his gang ticks up.

So what happens when a terrorist leader is killed in a decapitating drone strike?
Answer: the late terrorist leader's organization starts killing more civilians.
This is what happened as Israel launched decapitation strikes against the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade during the Second Intifada. Suddenly, the lower-level fighters were freed up to do more of what they really wanted to do, which was to kill Israeli civilians.
Which, in turn, of course, undercut popular support for the peace process among Israelis.
If you think about it, this creates a perverse incentive for counterterrorists: with decapitating strikes, you can actually get your enemies to increase their attacks on civilians, which undermines their public support.
It also sounds kind of like what antifa’s done pretty effectively to white nationalist organizations, doesn’t it?
Admittedly, white nationalism is a grossly unpopular movement. The ideology is not a draw. The adherents tend to be incompetent, fractious backbiters. Some groups really admire and envy ISIS-style violence, and think it would be effective for them.
And on top of that, would-be leaders are impeded from centralizing and establishing operational control. Ineffective organizations: good news in terms of their inability to achieve white nationalist goals, bad news in terms of their inability to rein in their garbage people.
And lone wolves, of course, are the worst of a bad lot. Agents without a principal, they have no admission standards to meet by definition, which means no quality control. Often they are unstable.
Abrahms sees more lone wolf attacks coming in international terror, as counterterrorism efforts get better at disrupting organizations & the internet offers more opportunities to self-radicalize.

Which also sounds uncomfortably like our situation on the white nationalist front.
But there are implications of Abrahms’s work for Team Hard Lefty, too. They face three challenges: managing growth, managing failure, and managing decentralization.
The number-one predictor of the survival of a militant group — or a non-militant one, for that matter — is size. But while growth is essential, growth that comes too quickly can fuck over an organization.
Uruguay's Turamaros began with 50 ppl in 1966. By 1971 they had 3,000. Thus new recruits wildly outnumbered the old hands, in a militant version of the Year of Perpetual September. The new recruits were way violent against civilians, public support cratered, and infighting rose.
If you haven’t noticed, Hard Lefty groups have been growing like weeds at the same time as they’re getting Leftier and more militant. That’s potentially not a good combination. Because political success is not guaranteed. And Hard Lefty groups do not cope well with failure.
As Abrahms notes, one reason movements escalate from nonviolence to violence is their sense that nonviolence has failed. (And then, in making the transition, they typically go too hard and shoot their organization in the foot.)

This was the case for Weatherman, for example.
The third challenge: a lot of Hard Lefty groups — anarchists in particular — are decentralized. To be fair, they are also very well-disciplined in their use of violence, because they have learned hard lessons from generations of fuckups.
To set rules of operation, Hard Lefties use spokescouncils and consensus discussions, and agree give each other leeway. Hence, the phrase “diversity of tactics.”
But as militance increases, loose structure may not be effective restraint. An anarchist attacked an ICE facility this weekend, and his group — and many such groups — are cheering. If more decide to go hard, it may prove difficult or impossible for their groups to hold them back.
And, unlike white nationalists, who can be very dangerous as individuals but are a wet fart as a movement, the Hard Lefties are a functional community with a track record of effective organization for the purpose of actually doing stuff.
Max Abrahms’s RULES FOR REBELS notes that groups that are centralized, with strong leadership, who firmly oppose murdering civilians, are the ones *least* likely to turn to murdering civilians wholesale.
What unsettles me, after reading the book, is the realization that those are not the kind of radical groups we’ve got.

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