Get access

Identifying and Structuring the Objectives of Terrorists


Address correspondence to Gregory L. Keeney, 2612 Erwin Rd., Apt. 2106, Durham, NC, 27705 USA;


The risk of terrorism is of great concern to many countries and significant resources are spent to counter this threat. A better understanding of the motivation of terrorists and their reasons for selecting certain modes and targets of attack can help improve the decisions to allocate resources in the fight against terrorism. The fundamental question addressed in this article is: “What do terrorists want?” We take the view that terrorists’ preferences for actions are based on their values and beliefs. An important missing piece in our knowledge of terrorists’ preferences is an understanding of their values. This article uses a novel approach to determine these values and state them as objectives, using principles from decision analysis and value-focused thinking. Instead of interviewing decisionmakers and stakeholders, as would be normal in decision analysis, we extract the values of terrorists by examining their own writings and verbal statements. To illustrate the approach, we extract the values of Al-Qaeda and structure them in terms of strategic, fundamental, and means objectives. These objectives are interrelated through a means-ends network. This information is useful for understanding terrorists’ motivations, intent, and likely actions, as well as for developing policies to counter terrorism at its root causes.