Presented by Scott Atran to the National Security Council at the White House on September 14th, from Edge.org:
Ever since the end of the Second World War, Rational Actor models have dominated strategic thinking at all levels of government policy and military planning. In the confrontation between states, and especially during the Cold War, these models were insightful and useful in anticipating a wide array of challenges and in stabilizing the world peace enough to prevent nuclear war. But now our society faces a whole new range of challenges from non-state actors who are committed to die in order to kill and terrorize enough of our citizens to change the course of history. The darkest fear in the current struggle with terrorism is a nuclear bomb exploding in a major city.
Given the operational demise of Al Qaeda and the still generally amateurish capabilities of its spiritual descendents, the present probability of such an event is low. Nevertheless, low probability events do occur and they are responsible for most of the cataclysmic and cascading changes that move human history from one phase to the next. Yet even attacks on the scale of September 11th, such as the recently foiled plane bombing plot out of London, with several thousand casualties and tens of billions of dollars in losses, can cause great and unpredictable changes, just as September 11 set the stage for the Iraq War and its spiraling aftermath.
The ability of a few deeply committed terrorists to change the world is a strategic challenge that standard, rational state actor models do not adequately address. We need new ways of thinking about the Devoted Actor who is routinely willing to make extreme sacrifices that are all out of proportion to the likely prospects of success. That’s what my research tries do.