Skip to main content

"Explaining Indiscriminate Violence: Leadership Deficits and Militant Group Tactics"

CIS Seminar Series

CIS welcomes Philip Potter from University of Michigan.


Certain types of militant groups are prone to indiscriminate violence—those suffering from leadership deficits. These deficits exacerbate the principal-agent problem between leaders and foot soldiers, who have stronger incentives to attack civilians. We establish the validity of this proposition with a tripartite research strategy that balances generalizability and identification. First, we demonstrate in a sample of over a hundred militant organizations operating in the Middle East and North Africa that those lacking centralized leadership are more likely to target civilians. Civilian targeting is equally prevalent when leaders are impeded from communicating tactical instructions to the rank and file. Second, we show that when the leaderships of militant groups are degraded from drone strikes in the Afghanistan-Pakistan tribal regions, the selectivity of organizational violence plummets. Third, we elucidate the mechanism with a detailed case study of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a Palestinian group that turned to terrorism during the Second Intifada because decapitation strikes empowered low level members with incentives to attack civilians. These findings indicate that a lack of principal control is an important, underappreciated cause of militant group violence against civilians.


Dr. Potter is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at University of Michigan. He researches and teaches in the areas of international security and American foreign policy. His current research projects explore the impact of domestic politics on foreign policy and international terrorism.