The strategic approach is also known as the rational choice approach, the rationalist model, the instrumental approach, or the bargaining approach, alternatively. This approach follows the view that the actors committing acts of terrorism are all rational actors. This means that the acts of terrorism are merely tools used by these actors (i.e., the terrorists) to achieve their personal interests. This approach is based on the foundation of rational choice, as terrorism is seen here as the result of rational decisions made by two or more actors pursuing their own interests.

This approach is the most widely used approach to analyzing terrorism. This has a solid foundation that has translated well to analyzing the behavior of terrorists in a wide range of cases. Scholars supporting this approach oftentimes assume that there is a rational motive behind the acts of almost all terrorist groups or organizations. It is also widely considered that other theories and approaches to terrorism already have a basis on the strategic approach, in that the acts of terrorist groups have some rational foundation, whether or not they are the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), AumShinrikyo, or the Ku Klux Klan.

The rational choice model is often the most visibly relatable when there is a clear economic incentive to terrorism for the terrorists in action. But the rationale is less clear and often very ambiguous when there is a non-material incentive involved, as seen in the case of suicide bombers. There might be concerns from the general public that in this approach we are trying to morally justify the actions of terrorists by rationalizing their seemingly irrational terrorist activities. However, that is not the case. If we only try to find the reasoning and logic used by terrorists to reach their decisions, we are not adding any moral value to their actions when they engage in terrorism.

The rational choice model is useful to policymakers because the rationalizations made to connect terrorism to the terrorists give very clear paths for policymakers to follow. For example, if a terrorist organization in a country is causing havoc in a particular neighborhood, and communities in that neighborhood have intercommunal disputes to worsen the relations among themselves, then policymakers can connect these two phenomena together when making counterterrorism policies.

Assumptions of this Approach

Several assumptions are connected to this approach. Firstly, outcomes are seen as results of strategic intonations among the actors (i.e., the terrorists) and their audiences. Terrorists generally direct their acts of terrorism towards a particular audience depending on their goals. The terrorists, therefore, consider the best possible reaction from their audiences that can raise their chances of success and act accordingly to get that reaction from their audience. As an example, the Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) attempted to provoke the Spanish security forces so that they overreact, and Basque’s people realize the oppressive reign of Spanish rule and possibly mobilize against it (Bueno De Mesquita & Dickson, 2007).

Secondly, the background of the actor’s rationality is often ignored or compared to a basic standard. This means that the preferences of an actor’s actions, it’s morality and ethics to the actor, are not questioned, but merely looked at objectively. As an example, most people see suicide bombing as irrational. Supporters of the rational choice approach, however, seen it as quite rational, because of the rational foundations that the suicide bomber has accepted.

Thirdly, the preferences of actors have an order of importance. If an actor fails to achieve their most preferable outcome immediately, they will pursue the next, less preferable outcome afterward, and so on, while avoiding the least favorite outcome from happening.

Fourthly, preferences are stable over time. This helps to predict the actions of terrorist organizations as their desires outcomes do not change much over the years of their activities.

Fifthly, terrorists or terrorists organizations are seen as singular actors or entities, whether they are an individual or a group. This becomes more difficult to track as we move on from individuals to organizations with thousands of members. This can oversimplify the group dynamics happening in terrorist organizations, but supporters of this view argue that this simplification helps make proper predictions of their (i.e., terrorist organizations) actions.

Implications of this Approach

The major implication of this approach is that terrorist and terrorist organizations typically anticipate the reactions their acts can cause from the audience. This explains small-scale decoy attacks from terrorist organizations that mobilize government security forces to one area, that leave one or more major targets poorly defended for them to attack a larger scale, as seen in attacks from Al-Qaeda and ISIS (CNN, 2004).

Another implication is that terrorism is used by terrorists and terrorist organizations as a last resort when usual methods of reaching their objectives become nearly impossible for them since terrorism is a high cost and high-risk route to take.

Furthermore, terrorists and terrorist organizations are expected to be more eager to compromise based on this approach, among others. They are also expected to claim responsibility for the attacks that have been successfully operated, as well as move on to attacks that have a wider margin for error and have more variety than simple attacks. They are also expected to attack their enemies as this is a rational move to reduce the opposition.

Limitations of this Approach

The most obvious limitation of this approach is the non-compromising behavior of terrorists driven by ideological positions, as seen from an Islamist militant organization engaging in terrorism. Terrorist organizations rarely work as a single entity, as terrorist organizations can belong to other terrorist organizations (such as the small jihadist groups pledging allegiance to ISIL) to other entities that pursue other activities besides terrorism (such as the Taliban).

Terrorism is often seen as the first resort by terrorist organizations, before they try other paths, as a lot of them have not pursued any lobbying before resorting to terrorism, even when opportunities were present. The record of terrorist organizations claiming responsibility for their attacks is statistically very low in practice, and terrorists often attack other terrorists with similar goals, instead of their target audiences.

These highlight the various sides of this approach in brief.


Bueno De Mesquita, E., & Dickson, E. S. (2007). The Propaganda of the Deed: Terrorism, Counterterrorism, and Mobilization. American Journal of Political Science, 51(2), 364-381. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5907.2007.00256.x

Chenoweth, E., & Moore, P. (2018). The Politics of Terror. New York: Oxford University Press.

CNN. (2004, November 2). Bin Laden: Goal is to bankrupt U.S.: Al-Jazeera releases full transcript of al Qaeda leader’s tape. Retrieved November 2020, from CNN: