Why Terrorist Groups Form International Alliances, Tricia Bacon

Reviewed by Victor Asal


Over the last 20 years, research in the area of terrorism studies has expanded enormously in many directions, including studies focusing on terrorist events as well as on individual behavior and the behavior and characteristics of organizations. One of the topics that has been of great interest to researchers of terrorist organizations is the nature, impact, and cause of terrorist organizational alliances. From Marc Sageman’s groundbreaking book Understanding Terror Networks and a growing body of articles and books, researchers are trying to understand the impact of such connections on terrorist organizations. There is still a lot of research, though, that needs to be done in this area. For example, Sageman’s book focuses more on internal connections and especially on jihadist organizations. Much of the other literature focuses on organizations allying in the same milieu.

In Why Terrorist Groups Form International Alliances, Tricia Bacon expands on this perspective by exploring why terrorist organizations would form connections beyond their domestic competition and make the effort to ally with other groups internationally. This is an interesting and important effort in the literature on terrorist alliances given the regular focus on like organizations making alliances with like. The book is well laid out and explains its argument and the supporting evidence in a clear and useful manner.

Bacon lays out a theory that explains why some terrorist organizations make international alliances while others do not. Her analysis takes a case study approach, which allows her to dig deeply into why some of these organizations make such connections. She focuses on a key issue that many ignore when it comes to why organizations form alliances. We often think of alliances being made by very strong terrorist organizations, but Bacon argues that what pushes organizations to make alliances is not their strength but in fact their weakness and need for support. Bacon argues that this need drives alliance formation, and that, contrary to conventional wisdom, alliances are not driven by ideology or common enemies; rather, these factors help groups identify useful allies and build those relationships.

To examine these questions, Bacon focuses primarily on organizations in the Middle East looking at al Qaeda, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Egyptian jihadist groups and the Red Army Faction and its search for alliances with Palestinian organizations. Bacon does an excellent job of exploring the factors that drive the establishment of alliances and the problems and advantages they bring. Bacon builds a strong argument backed by qualitative evidence for the forces that drive organizations to seek out and make alliances.

I found this book very informative, and it made me think about new ways of analyzing the factors that drive alliances. It is also a book that I am likely to use in a future class on terrorism. If I have any critique of the book it is that there is a very strong focus on one region—the Middle East. I would have liked to have seen a broader and more diverse array of actors across a variety of regions. That said, I strongly recommend the book to readers interested in terrorist organizations and alliance formation.

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