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Terrorists seek to deliver a message to an audience other than the target, Associate Professor Sandeep Baliga told attendees at the Kellogg School’s recent conference on political economy.

Professor Sandeep Baliga

Decoding terror

At a Kellogg School conference on political economy, Associate Professor Sandeep Baliga explores the messaging strategy of terrorists

By Ed Finkel

3/25/2009 - What message are terrorists trying to send, and how should national leaders respond?

That is a question Kellogg School Associate Professor Sandeep Baliga explored at a recent Kellogg School conference on political economy. The event brought together about two dozen scholars from Kellogg and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Baliga’s talk was one of five presentations at the conference, which addressed a number of issues of top public concern. Bard Harstad, a Kellogg School associate professor of managerial economics and decision sciences, discussed his research on the dynamics of climate agreements. Three University of Chicago professors, including Nobel Laureate and former Kellogg professor Roger Myerson, shared their work as well.

Baliga, who uses game theory to predict the outcomes of terrorist aggression, presented his research on decoding terror. “What’s the strategic intent of terrorism?” he said. “We need to understand it.”

A key component of terrorist strategy is to deliver a message to an audience other than the target to draw attention and support, Baliga said. That audience might be the citizenry or the leader of his own country.

As an example, Baliga cited Al Qaeda, whose online strategy manual talks about forcing America to “abandon its war on Islam by proxy and force it to attack directly so that the noble ones among the masses” will rally against the U.S. The real target of the terrorist action, then, is not America but “the noble masses,” Baliga said. He added that if the noble masses already supported aggression against America, there would be no reason to resort to terrorism. Because they do not, they have to be persuaded to come to the terrorists’ side by provoking an American attack, Baliga said.

So if terrorists intend to provoke, when will they resort to terror? Baliga suggested that a terror act is staged when the terrorists’ target audience is too cooperative with the terrorists’ opponent. However, the target audience may be willing to respond to aggression with aggression, Baliga noted. By provoking the opponent, the terrorists hope to bring about war, their true aim, he said.

Even the absence of terrorism contains information, Baliga continued. It may be that the target audience is already in the terrorist camp, and there is no reason for terrorists to provoke. For example, if the Islamic militant group Hamas wins the Palestinian elections, the incidence of terrorism may fall, Baliga said. But this should be a warning to Israel that an attack may be imminent. The implication is that even the absence of terrorism causes provocation.

Baliga related this to the Sherlock Holmes story about the “curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” The fact that the dog did not bark revealed crucial information to Sherlock Holmes, he noted.

The Feb 23 conference was presented jointly by the Kellogg School’s Ford Motor Company Center for Global Citizenship and the University of Chicago Booth Graduate School of Business.

“There’s a lot of intellectual capital here and at the University of Chicago with interests in political economy,” Baliga observed. “We do research and teaching related to businesses operating in a political environment — regulation, activists, that sort of thing. It’s an opportunity to come together around the cutting edge of research.”

Myerson, who won the 2007 Nobel Prize in economics and taught at the Kellogg School from 1976 to 2001, spoke on capitalist investment and political liberalization. Other University of Chicago presenters included Professor Luigi Zingales, who discussed the media versus special interests, and Professor Christopher Berry, who addressed presidential influence and the distribution of federal spending.

“It’s great to get the political economics communities from the University of Chicago and Northwestern together,” Myerson said. “I’m glad to see the South Siders came en masse.”