Effectiveness of sanctions
Almost half a century ago, scholars generally concluded that economic sanctions were ineffective in obtaining policy goals (Galtung 1967; Doxey 1971; Knorr 1975; Losman 1979). This consensus was changed when Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliott (1985) first published their study of a large sample of sanction episodes, which posited that the success rate was 34%. Pape (1997) responded with evidence from the same data that the success rate of economic sanctions was actually closer to 5%. Subsequently, Elliott (1998) responded, holding to her initial assertions with Pape (1998) once again issuing a rebuttal. Other studies find problems in the initial Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliott study by positing that when using logit estimation, the relationship between variables is insignificant, thus once again casting doubt on the efficacy of sanctions (Drury 1998). More recently, Shin et al. (2016) showed sanctions to have practically no impact on macroeconomic conditions in targeted countries, at least in terms of trade, foreign investment, and portfolio investments.
Research using more recent data gives greater attention to the roles that international institutions and severe costs on target states play in determining the success of an episode of sanctions (Bapat et al. 2013), a departure from the determinants used by previous studies. Over the development of the literature around terrorism’s effectiveness, a shift has occurred in what determines success for a sanction episode. The research also now finds that the threat of sanctions instead of their imposition is an essential stage in obtaining success during a sanction episode (Bapat et al. 2013; Lacey and Nion 2004) with novel approaches such as game theory models, confirming that the threatening of sanctions can yield significant concessions (Drezner 2003).
However, much of the literature concluding that economic sanctions achieve policy goals overlooks the unintended consequences of sanctions. This omittance is problematic as even if concessions are made, the domestic and global costs might be too high to consider a particular sanction episode as successful. For example, if the USA can use sanctions to coerce Iran to comply with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but doing so increases transnational and domestic terrorism, it is hard to empirically or objectively conclude the sanctions yielded a ‘success.’ Thus, the unintended consequences of sanctions have received increased attention in research.
Recent research has examined various possible consequences of sanctions in the target country. For example, child mortality rates have been found to increase under sanctions, especially when the sanctions are costly or when the USA is the imposer (Peksen 2011). Parker et al. (2016) quantifies that infant deaths rose by at least 143% in the Democratic Republic of the Congo when sanctions were imposed.
Human rights decline as well when sanctions are imposed, typically in conjunction with the deterioration of democratic institutions within a target country (Peksen and Drury 2010). Primarily, sanctions seem to deteriorate the physical integrity rights of citizens, which include freedom from disappearances, extra-judicial killings, torture, and political imprisonment (Peksen 2009), with Wood (2008) confirming the findings. Gender seems to play a role in the process as well, with Drury and Peksen (2012) finding that economic sanctions reduce the level of respect for women’s rights in the imposed country.
The literature also finds consequences extending beyond a sanction episode, particularly in the criminalization of the state. Sanctions can foster a symbiosis among political leaders, organized crime, and transnational smuggling networks, leading to transient corruption and crime (Andreas 2005). Naturally, the totality of these conditions during a sanction episode such as decreased public health and human rights and increased state criminalization creates a breeding ground for both transnational and domestic terrorism.
Terrorism from sanctions
According to strain theory, economic sanctions disrupt political and economic structures within a country, stressing the institutions of society in ways that make terrorist actions more likely (Agnew 2010; Nivette et al. 2017) and providing reasons for opposition groups to use terror to shake the authority of state leaders (Goodwin 2019; Tilly 2005). Several studies in the past decade provide evidence supporting the theory that the strain from sanctions leads to terrorism through aid shocks, heightened grievances, increased oppression, and a more active black market.
Ultimately, the greatest burdens resulting from sanctions tend to fall on regular citizens, and the poor in particular, intensifying deprivation and its social effects and inspiring discontents to take action (Choi and Luo 2013; Heffington 2017). Nielsen et al. (2011) provide a framework for armed conflict from a sanction episode type called aid shocks. These aid shocks, or severe decreases in international aid revenue, shift the balance of powers and induce violence by granting bargaining strength to potential rebels. Allen (2008), Nielsen et al. (2011), and Peksen (2009) all suggest that grievances resulting from sanctions induce civilians to turn to political violence. Moreover, multiple other studies connect sanctions to increased repression which in turn increases the amount and duration of terrorism (Daxecker and Hess 2013; Escriba-Folch 2011; Peksen 2009; Peksen and Drury 2010; Piazza 2008; Walsh and Piazza 2010).
Linking sanctions more directly to terror, Heffington (2017) finds that when costly sanctions are imposed on a country, frustration allows for easier recruiting and carrying out of attacks by domestic terrorist organizations due to costly economic hardship on regular citizens. Building on the work of Andreas (2005), Heffington (2017) argues that sanctions enhance terrorist operations by increasing access to black-market weapons. Both Choi and Luo (2013) and Choi (2014) argue that economic hardship in target states resulting from sanctions increases grievances among the poor, increasing the probability that some of them will support or engage in terrorism. In sum, there is ample empirical evidence suggesting that while economic sanctions may be intended to punish a country’s leadership, a substantial portion of their impact will be felt by regular citizens, some of whom will become more likely to increase terrorist efforts. We suspect that those increased efforts will yield more fatalities.
Measurements of effective terrorism
There is a consensus in the literature that terrorists are rational actors (Abrahms 2008). Crenshaw (2014) argues that the decision to engage in terrorism is a calculation meant to obtain a specific goal through the use of collective action against civilian targets. Gambill (1998) finds terrorists use an expected utility analysis whereby they engage in terrorism because they perceive its chances of success as greater than alternative means of collective action. Krause (2013) posits that terrorist groups do not exclusively seek to affect government decisions and instead hope to achieve long-term ideological goals such as independence, revolution, societal transformation, and regime change. Therefore, the decision calculus made by terrorists, as predicted by the strategic model, would emphasize increasingly lethal civilian attacks because it would further their own goals through the predicted results of higher lethality (i.e., a more operationally powerful entity). Under both models of viewing terrorism, if a terrorist organization can produce more fatalities and more successful attacks, they would be furthering fear or long-term goals, and thus be a more successful organization.
This article applies novel operationalizations of the concept of effective terrorism in the context of economic sanctions. Young (2019) conducted a meta-analysis of 195 studies and observed that a majority used the number of attacks by terrorists in a given country year as the most common operationalization of terrorism. He noted that using the number of attacks as a measurement could be problematic because it depends on determining whether an instance counts as an attack. Counting the number of fatalities, he points out, addresses that problem. We use that measure as well as a measure of success rate.