Benjamin Acosta



Militant organizations pursue two common aims: to survive and to achieve the goals that define their raison d'etre. Yet, elements that sustain the life spans of militant organizations are not necessarily the same components that advance the accomplishment of their core, or "outcome," goals. Further, some organizational practices, such as the use of suicide attacks, generate a tradeoff that bolsters survivability while detracting from the effective pursuit of outcome goals. This study demonstrates that three operating conditions explain variation in the duration and achievement of contemporary militant organizations: receptiveness to tradeoffs, levels of external support, and the nature of adversaries. As such, the unique effects of different operating conditions reveal why many militant organizations survive for long periods of time but only a few acheve the goals that justify their existence.

Peer-Reviewed Publications


This article examines the contemporary phenomenon of suicide attacks by fusing network analysis and time-series econometrics. We find that a global network of militant organizations drives the reproduction of the suicide-attack phenomenon, and brokers within the network mark the primary prepetrators and diffusers of the tactic. The introduction of a fourth level of analysis of political violence demonstrates that network connections between organizations form a system that perpetuates suicide attacks. An organization-level analysis reveals that ideological congruence facilitates the establishment of network connections. As exemplified by the wide range of employers and targets, and moreover by the generation of an autogamous function, contemporary suicide attacks represent a unique sociopolitical phenomenon. Accordingly, organizations that use the tactic warrant a distinct classification.


Book Chapters


Since the Sunni-Arab world's sahwah (Islamic awakening) in the mid-1970s and Khomeini's 1979 Shi'a revolution in Iran, acts of violence committed in the name of Islam have risen sharply. In dramatic fashion, Islamic concepts of martyrdom have taken a central position in violent campaigns made on the behalf of Islamic entities and identity groups. Concepts of martyrdom have played important roles throughout Islamic history and today's "martyrdom operations" display the continuing importance of martyrdom in the expression of Islamic grievances and rituals/practice of armed combat. Signifying the idealized hero of many Islamic collectives, the self-annihilating martyr (suicide bomber) offers an optimal conceptual prism for deciphering the sanction of violence in the contemporary Islamic world.


Benjamin Acosta, "Palestinian Precedents: The Origins of Al-Qaeda’s Use of Suicide Terrorism and Istishhad,” in Political Islam from Muhammad to Ahmadinejad: Defenders, Detractors, and Definitions, ed. Joseph M. Skelly (Praeger Security International, 2010)


With the deliberate targeting of civilians, Palestinian organizations made the suicide attack's initial transition from a guerrilla tactic to a weapon of terror. Further, by demonstrating that participation in a "martyrdom operation" marked the fullfillment of a personal religious goal, the Palestinian istishhadi (deliberate martyr)/suicide bomber captivated mass media and sympathetic populations, particularly in the Sunni-Arab world. Palestinian shuhada (martyrs) consequently gained widespread support from prominent Sunni authorities for carrying out martrydom operations against civilians. Today, a transnational-Sunni culture of martyrdom, similar to the one developed in Palestinian society during the 1990s, stands as the strongest force behind suicide terrorism's increased use.

201006 SCT2


This article evaluates Israeli national identity and its core founding features of Zionism, democracy, and Judaism. For decades, Israel's demographic change and associated cultural and ideological fluctuations have gradually pushed Israel into a national identity conflict as multiple ethnic and sectarian identity groups have come to promote competing interpretations of the state's purpose, political nature, and connection to territory. Continued demographic shift, situated amid the socio-political dynamics of Israel's democratic tribalism, will further test the compatibility of the constituent parts of Israeli national identity--the respective roles of Zionist ideology, democratic institutions, and the territory of the historic Jewish homeland.


When do militant organizations transition to political parties? Once reaching the productive limits of violence, militant organizations sometimes seek to adopt party politics in order to continue pursuing their political ends or "outcome" goals. However, most militant organizations remain incapable of transitioning due to two common constraints: the base constituency's preference for violence and credibility deficiencies vis-a-vis the adversary. Analyzing an original dataset of 406 organizations, I find evidence that partial outcome goal achievement and state supporters help militant organizations overcome the obstacles preventing transition. Crucially, whereas the complete achievement of militant outcome goals absorbs the chief organizational incentive to transition, partial achievement of outcome goals fosters transition to the party format more than any other factor.




Benjamin Acosta, How Political Violence Works: Explaining Variation in Resistance Outcomes (2014)

MEJ Spring 2014 Cover JPR


Suicide attacks continue to plague a multitude of conflict zones. However, the scholarly literature on the phenomenon has yet to produce a theory that explains why militant organizations at different stages of development, facing dissimilar enemies, and situated in unique conflict environments adopt suicide attacks. Moreover, the suicide-attack phenomenon now presents an intriguing puzzle. While most militant organizations fail to achieve their core political ends or ‘outcome goals,’ organizations that employ suicide attacks are even less likely to succeed. Still, organizations have adopted suicide attacks at increasing rates. Given their ineffectiveness in precipitating outcome-goal success, why do organizations continue to adopt suicide attacks? Like all organizations, militant organizations share two common aims: (1) to survive and (2) to achieve outcome goals. As martyrdom operations often fulfill the ideological or cultural expectations of certain identity groups, representative organizations may adopt suicide attacks to expand constituent support or enhance status within a particular political landscape. Further, organizations can conduct suicide attacks to signal ideological solidarity with fellow militant organizations. This article analyzes an original large-n dataset of militant organizations alongside an original database of over 5,000 suicide attacks, as well as evaluates numerous case examples. The results demonstrate that militant organizations across regions and over time have adopted suicide attacks in order to gain supporters, promote organizational longevity, and boost or preserve status.


The introduction of the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) nearly a decade ago sparked a revolution in terrorism studies. However, one major flaw in the database continues to plague GTD users. Data lost prior to digitalization, along with unsuccessful data recollection efforts, have left GTD without data on events that took place during the year 1993. The missing data prevents researchers from using the entirety of GTD’s annual range (1970-2014) to conduct reliable time-series analyses. Additionally, it has likely contributed to the formation of theories and claims on faulty empirical ground. To remedy the problem, we have collected data on 4,206 unique terror-attack incidents, with the aim of documenting the universe of 1993 terrorism events. This article showcases our 1993 dataset and illustrates the importance of terrorism events in 1993 for the development of conflicts in Israel, Afghanistan, Colombia, and India.


SCT2 Yambert ed 2016


Although fundamentalist Sunni Muslims commit more than 85% of all suicide attacks, empirical research has yet to examine how internal sectarian conflicts in the Islamic world have fueled the most dangerous form of political violence. We contend that fundamentalist Sunni Muslims employ suicide attacks as a political tool in sectarian violence and this targeting dynamic marks a central facet of the phenomenon today. We conduct a large-n analysis, evaluating an original dataset of 6,224 suicide attacks during the period from 1980 to 2016. A series of logistic regression analyses at the incidence level shows that, ceteris paribus, sectarian violence between Sunni Muslims and non-Sunni Muslims emerges as a substantive, significant, and positive predictor of suicide attacks. Indeed, the context of sectarian conflict predicts the use of suicide attacks to a much greater degree than the contexts of militant outbidding or foreign occupation. We also present five case examples, illustrating the use of suicide attacks in sectarian conflicts in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and Nigeria. Our overall results indicate that only a reduction in sectarian violence, and especially conflicts involving fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, can prevent the continuing spread of the suicide-attack phenomenon.



In recent years, scholars of various forms of conflict involving revolutionary and militant organizations (such as terrorism, civil war, and nonviolent contestation) recognized that arbitrary organizational categories and typologies often leave large-n studies incomplete and biased. In moving away from nominal categorical boundaries that produce such selection biases and looking to a more generalized conception of resistance organizations, I constructed an original dataset that aims to bridge the gap between conflict literatures. Transcending traditional classifications, the Revolutionary and Militant Organizations dataset (REVMOD) consists of over 500 resistance organizations operative sometime between the years 1940 and 2014 and includes a diverse array of types of resistance organizations—many of which utilize a multitude of tactics, operate in various conflict contexts, and/or confront numerous target types. The dataset documents organizational attributes, allies, and adversaries at annual intervals (organization-years), making reliable time-series analyses possible. Tracking variables like organizational outcome-goal type and degree of achievement, political capacity, leader/s, constituent identity group, violence and demonstration levels, size, organization aliases, and several others, REVMOD breaks new ground in the collection of information on resistance organizations and can spur countless studies. A preliminary data analysis demonstrates that differences in organizational political capacity explain variation in resistance outcomes generally and in particular contexts like civil war, terrorism, and nonviolent revolutions. REVMOD provides a unique opportunity to develop a new research paradigm for resistance studies that employs large-n empirical analyses to uncover generalities between different forms of political contention in the contemporary era, as well as to better understand why and how distinct resistance processes may produce specific outcomes.


In seeking to overthrow, reform, or separate from an existing political system, both violent and nonviolent resistance organizations emerge. A common finding shows that democracies face violent resistance more often than autocracies. Studied less remains the pattern of organizations using nonviolence in efforts to topple autocratic regimes. What explains these trends in conjunction with one another? I put forth a theory contending that exclusionary politics frames the organizational use of violence and nonviolence in resistance campaigns. To test hypotheses, I analyze an original dataset of 536 resistance organizations (1940-2014). I complement the large-n tests by reviewing resistance organizations that formed amid Lebanon’s Civil War (1975-1990) and Cedar Revolution (2005) using field methods, qualitative contextualization, and process tracing. The results reveal that the relationship between the target political system and the degree of inclusion of a resistance organization’s constituent identity group helps explain the adoption of violent strategies.

Benjamin Acosta, "Exclusionary Politics and Organized Resistance," Terrorism and Political Violence (Forthcoming)