Metin Basoglu's blog on war, torture, and natural disasters

Do drone strikes increase risk of revenge attacks? – A behavioral science perspective


Currently much debate centers on the issue of whether drone strikes radicalize some people and increase the risk of retaliatory attacks. This article addresses this issue by presenting some research data demonstrating that war violence with similar contextual characteristics as drone warfare have certain cognitive and emotional effects (e.g. sense of injustice, anger, outrage, helplessness, loss of meaning in life, and desire for revenge) that are indistinguishable from those of torture in their nature and intensity. Such emotional reactions in humans possibly reflect evolutionarily-determined responses to threats to their physical and psychological well-being. As such, they could well contribute to the motivational processes behind retaliatory violence around the world and at least some case studies and other anecdotal evidence support this point. Although drone strikes are only one of the many factors that may contribute to such violence, their strong helplessness-inducing effects possibly play an important role in radicalizing people. The emotional impact of drone strikes could also contribute to the increasing trend in anti-US sentiments in some countries.


Many commentators in the media argue that drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan Yemen, and Somalia motivate people for retaliation, thereby making recruitment of “militants” for revenge or even suicide attacks much easier. The New York Times(1) noted that drones have replaced Guantanamo as the recruiting tool of choice for militants. A recent study(2) by the Stanford Law School and NYU School of Law involving interviews with more than 130 survivors, witnesses, and experts cited survivor accounts, journalists, NGO and humanitarian workers, medical professionals, and Pakistani governmental officials who believe that drone strikes likely increase retaliatory attacks. According to a study by the Middle East Policy Council,(3) “it is probable that drone strikes provide motivation for retaliation, and that there is a substantive relationship between the increasing number of drone strikes and the increasing number of retaliation attacks” between 2004 and 2009.

In explaining the socio-political dynamics of retaliatory attacks, the Middle East Policy Council study pointed to the “accidental-guerilla” phenomenon described by a military strategist, David Kilcullen. This phenomenon involves four phases: infection, contagion, intervention, and rejection. Infection occurs as a result of lack of governance in a particular region or country (e.g. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia), which allows violent movements to establish themselves. Contagion takes place when the movement spreads their ideals and increases violence to continue growing. Intervention refers to local or international forces trying to curb the movement. During the rejection phase the local population reacts negatively to the intervention, often bolstering recruitment and popularity of the movement. The phenomenon described in this account raises certain important and related questions. What accounts for the emergence of violent movements in the first place and what motivates people to become part of them to the point of self-sacrifice, as in the case of suicide bombers? In addition, what motivates the local population to reject outside intervention and support a violent movement?

To address these questions effectively, one needs to have some understanding of how people react to war violence on cognitive, emotional, and behavioral levels. Although some cognitive theories have proposed that trauma alters people’s beliefs about safety, trust, and justice, there have been relatively few empirical studies that investigated this issue. In this article I present some data from a study (4) of war survivors in former Yugoslavia countries to examine how different kinds of war events impact such beliefs and the emotional responses that follow.

In my previous article I had presented a learning theory analysis of trauma caused by drone warfare to highlight the severity of trauma induced by drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. As such, it might be helpful to read that article first to have a better understanding of the contextual characteristics of the trauma environment in FATA.

Cognitive and emotional responses to war trauma

In our study (4) we examined this issue by using an Emotions and Beliefs after War questionnaire, which included items relating to cognitive and emotional responses to perceived impunity for those held responsible for trauma, including sense of injustice, anger, outrage, feelings of helplessness, demoralization, loss of meaning in life, pessimism, and desire for vengeance (items rated on a 0-8 scale: 0 = not at all true, 4 = moderately true, 8 = very true). Three groups were selected for comparison on this questionnaire:

  • 133 civilians who were exposed to the 4-year-long siege of Sarajevo, prolonged shelling, or sniper fire (but not combat or torture),
  • 279 survivors who had an experience of captivity and torture in addition to other war events, and
  • 946 survivors exposed to other war events (including combat, refugee status, internal displacement, but not torture).

In my previous article I had noted that the people in FATA have been exposed to unpredictable and uncontrollable drone strikes. Furthermore, many people in FATA are likely unable to escape to safer regions because of poverty, restrictions of travel in and out of the region by the Pakistani military, mobility-limiting curfews, intense interrogation and harassment encountered at military checkpoints, and dangers posed by armed non-state actor activity. Thus, their trauma experiences are similar to the war experiences of the study participants in the first group in certain important respects. These include (a) prolonged exposure to unpredictable and uncontrollable bombs falling from the sky, (b) being targeted for killing or witnessing others being targeted for killing (by sniper fire in the case of Sarajevo residents), and (c) having been helplessly trapped in a dangerous region from which escape is difficult.

My previous article concluded that the traumatic impact of drone warfare is likely to be as severe as that of torture. If this is true, then one would expect that they also have similar impacts on beliefs and induce emotional responses of comparable intensity.  The second group was included in the analysis to test this hypothesis. The third group, on the other hand, was included for comparison with all other types of war trauma.

Table 1 shows the mean item scores (and standard deviations) in 3 groups of study participants. All comparisons (one-way analysis of variance) are significant at the p < .001 level.

Table 1 – Comparison of civilian survivors of siege of Sarajevo, survivors of torture, and survivors of other war events in cognitive and emotional responses to trauma

Sarajevo civilians

Survivors of torture

Other war survivors

  • I feel angry when I think of what they did to me and to my loved ones.

6.8 (1.8)

6.7 (1.8)

5.2 (2.5)

  • I feel distressed by the thought of the perpetrators of such atrocities getting away with what they have done.

6.5 (2.1)

6.4 (2.1)

4.9 (2.5)

  • Everything in life loses meaning when I see the perpetrators getting away with what they have done.

5.2 (2.6)

5.7 (2.4)

3.6 (2.8)

  • If I had the chance, I would punish the perpetrators with my own hands.

3.8 (3.2)

3.8 (3.0)

2.4 (2.9)

  • I feel demoralized when I see the perpetrators getting away with what they do.

5.5 (2.4)

5.6 (2.3)

3.7 (2.7)

  • I frequently fantasize about perpetrators being punished.

3.9 (2.8)

4.2 (2.7)

2.3 (2.6)

  • It is great injustice that the perpetrators get away with what they do.

7.5 (1.3)

7.1 (1.6)

6.4 (2.1)

  • In my dreams I commit acts of revenge against the perpetrators.

1.8 (2.4)

2.7 (2.7)

1.1 (2.1)

  • Seeing atrocities go unpunished makes me feel helpless.

5.0 (2.8)

5.2  (2.6)

3.5 (2.7)

  • Sometimes I daydream that I take revenge from the perpetrators.

1.9 (2.4)

2.4 (2.6)

1.1 (2.0)

  • I feel rage at the thought of perpetrators getting away with their deeds.

5.5 (2.6)

5.2 (2.6)

3.5 (2.7)

  • There is nothing I want more in life than seeing the perpetrators punished.

5.5 (2,8)

5.6 (2.6)

3.6 (2.9)

  • The perpetrators’ getting away with their deeds makes me pessimistic about the future.

4.6 (2.7)

5.2 (2.5)

3.6 (2.8)

Seventy to 100% of the study participants in the Sarajevo group endorsed the items relating to anger, distress, rage, loss of meaning in life, demoralization, sense of injustice, fantasizing about punishment of perpetrators, helplessness, and pessimism. Ninety percent reported helplessness (compared with 92.5% of torture survivors and 79% of other war survivors), over 80% had fantasies about perpetrators being punished, 70% felt, if they had the chance, they would punish them with their own hands, and about 50% had dreams and daydreams about committing acts of revenge against the perpetrators. Comparing mean scores, the Sarajevo civilians did not differ from torture survivors in their cognitive and emotional responses (except for dreams about revenge). On the other hand, both groups had stronger emotional responses to their trauma than did other war survivors in the third group.

These findings show that war experiences involving more uncontrollable life-threatening events are likely to induce as much sense of injustice, anger, outrage, feelings of helplessness, demoralization, loss of meaning in life, pessimism, and desire for vengeance as torture. Indeed, such psychological profile could well explain the acts of violence carried out by all sides of the conflict in former Yugoslavia. These findings are consistent with other evidence (5,6) showing that both animals and humans respond with anger, hostility, and aggression to threats to their physical and psychological well-being. We also know that the ability to aggress during uncontrollable stress can dramatically reduce the impact of the stressor in both animals and humans. During torture, for example, expression of anger and hostility toward the torturers alleviates helplessness effects of torture.(7) Thus, the fact that drone strikes safely conducted from thousands of miles away do not allow any kind of immediate and direct retaliatory action against those responsible for these strikes is likely to generate much more intense anger, hostility, aggression, and desire for vengeance in people than conventional warfare. This process could well contribute to the motivation behind incidents of retaliatory aggression against military or civilian targets perceived as representing those responsible for the strikes.

These basic human responses to helplessness-inducing trauma also need to be considered in the context of the tribal culture of FATA. Pashtun social life and legal norms are defined by Pashtunwali / Pukhtunwali (“the way of the Pashtuns”), an ethical code and system of legal norms characterized by emphasis on “honor of the individual and honor of groups, fighting spirit and bravery, equality and respect for seniors, consultation and decision making, willpower and sincerity, compensation and retaliation, generosity and hospitality, and pride and zeal.”(2) Social codes that reinforce and reward retaliatory behaviors would be expected to increase the likelihood of some people’s desire for revenge finding expression in actual acts of revenge.

In our study described above, a control group of civilians who had no direct exposure to war events had similar cognitive and emotional responses to war events, showing that people can vicariously experience the psychological impact of war violence on others. Such vicarious trauma experiences associated with drone strikes may well have contributed to anti-US sentiments in Pakistan and elsewhere in the world. Indeed, Pew Research Center (8) data show that 74% of Pakistanis consider the US an enemy.

Revenge attacks are also likely to alleviate feelings of helplessness in ordinary civilians, which might explain, at least in part, why resistance movements garner sympathy and support, not just from the local community, but also from around the world. A case described by Brian Glyn Williams, a scholar of Islamic history, in his article (9) about Turkish jihadists fighting in Afghanistan demonstrates this point:

Another Turk killed in Afghanistan in 2006, Osman Özkan, was also outraged by the perceived injustices inflicted on Muslims in conflict zones, according to his wife Zehra. Interviewed by the Turkish newspaper Vakit in 2009… Zehra recalled: “He was very sad as a result of the cruelty and slaughter going on in the Muslim countries. He was devastated because of the things done to children in Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Palestine.” However, she also noted that he had become obsessed with the idea of martyrdom. “A few months before he went to Afghanistan, all we talked about was martyrdom. He envied martyrs,” she told Vakit. “When he was leaving for Afghanistan with nothing else except what he was wearing, he kissed me on my forehead and said: ‘My martyrdom will have a huge impact. With my death, I will tell people all the things I could not convey when I was alive.’” Perhaps surprisingly, Zehra supported her husband’s sacrifice. “He got me used to the idea of martyrdom. I was already feeling that he would be a martyr, because he had fallen in love with martyrdom,” she said. “I am proud of my husband. If all the Muslim men were as sensitive as my husband, our brothers and sisters would not be living under such cruelty.”

This case shows that the vicarious effects of trauma, particularly outrage associated with sense of injustice, can be strong enough to drive some people to self-sacrificing acts of revenge. The state of mind described as being obsessed about the idea of martyrdom is essentially an indication of the intensity of such emotions (and not necessarily a sign of “fanaticism” as some mistakenly think). In addition, the hope that one’s martyrdom will have an impact on the world, telling people things that could not be previously told, reflects a basic human need to achieve some degree of control (or sense of control) over one’s environment or life. Indeed, the need to exercise some control over a world perceived as malevolent, unjust, or dangerous is possibly an evolutionarily determined psychological phenomenon without which avoidance of threats to physical and psychological well-being (and therefore survival) would not have been possible. It is important to note here that the idea of martyrdom valued by many Islamic militants is not necessarily the driving force behind the desire to fight an enemy. It is merely a religious belief (or cognitive framework) that facilitates acceptance of death as a possible outcome of one’s efforts to make an impact on the enemy.

It might be argued that motivational processes behind human behavior are determined in complex ways by multiple factors and therefore reducing them to an experience of trauma is too simplistic. This is very true. This does not, however, alter the fact that a possibly evolutionarily determined human (and animal) response to threats to physical and psychological well-being likely plays a major role in vengeance-seeking behavior. This does not necessarily mean that every human being responds to such threats by displaying the same behaviors. But, given certain circumstances, many respond in similar ways and this is sufficient in explaining incidents of retaliatory aggression around the world.

In this connection it is important to note that drone warfare is only one of the instruments that radicalize people. Economic policies contributing to poverty in the world in the name of national interests, use of other weapons dropped from the sky in the name of national security, invasion of countries in the name of democracy, and humiliation, imprisonment, torture, and killing of people in the name of “war on terror” all contribute to feelings of outrage and helplessness in people, thereby creating a favorable climate for vengeful action.(10) Nevertheless, the increasing use of drones deserves special attention, because it represents a turning point in high-tech warfare that tells us something about the scheme of things to come in the so-called war on terror.

In 2004 Donald Rumsfeld directed the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication to review the impact of US foreign policy – specifically the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – on “terrorism” and Islamic radicalism. As the conclusions of the task force are as relevant today as they were then, I quote below some sections from their report: (11)

Opinion surveys conducted by Zogby International, the Pew Research Center, Gallup (CNN/USA Today), and the Department of State (INR) reveal widespread animosity toward the United States and its policies… America’s image problem, many suggest, is linked to perceptions of the United States as arrogant, hypocritical, and self-indulgent…

American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies. Muslims do not “hate our freedom,” but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states. Thus when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy. Moreover, saying that “freedom is the future of the Middle East” is seen as patronizing, suggesting that Arabs are like the enslaved peoples of the old Communist World — but Muslims do not feel this way: they feel oppressed, but not enslaved. Furthermore, in the eyes of Muslims, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering. U.S. actions appear in contrast to be motivated by ulterior motives, and deliberately controlled in order to best serve American national interests at the expense of truly Muslim self-determination. Therefore, the dramatic narrative since 9/11 has essentially borne out the entire radical Islamist bill of particulars. American actions and the flow of events have elevated the authority of the Jihadi insurgents and tended to ratify their legitimacy among Muslims. Fighting groups portray themselves as the true defenders of an Ummah (the entire Muslim community) invaded and under attack — to broad public support. What was a marginal network is now an Ummah-wide movement of fighting groups. Not only has there been a proliferation of “terrorist” groups: the unifying context of a shared cause creates a sense of affiliation across the many cultural and sectarian boundaries that divide Islam.

The information campaign — or as some still would have it, “the war of ideas,” or the struggle for “hearts and minds” — is important to every war effort. In this war it is an essential objective, because the larger goals of U.S. strategy depend on separating the vast majority of non-violent Muslims from the radical-militant Islamist-Jihadists. But American efforts have not only failed in this respect: they may also have achieved the opposite of what they intended.

This is indeed a remarkable analysis, coming from a Task Force selected by Rumsfeld himself! Eight years on, not much seems to have changed, considering that more recent evidence by Pew Research Center (12) still points to anti-American sentiments in a substantial proportion (ranging from 44% to 86%) of the people in Germany, Lebanon, Tunisia, China, India, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, and Jordan. However convenient and politically expedient, drone warfare conducted from a safe distance, far from winning “hearts and minds,” is likely to generate strong feelings of injustice, outrage, and vengeance around the world. This is very basic human psychology and it does not take much research, scholarly reviews, or expertise in strategic communications, diplomacy, or social psychology to understand this simple fact. If the US and its western allies, are indeed genuinely concerned about their image, they need to reconsider how their ‘national interests’ conflict with the desperate needs of the impoverished nations of the world and the violent means by which they overcome these conflicts. Only then they can be credible in their claims to the moral high ground of a civilized society.


1 Becker J & Shane S. Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will. The New York Times, May 29, 2012., Last accessed on November, 14, 2012.

2 International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School and Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law (2012) Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan. (accessed December 5, 2012).

3 Hudson L et al. Drone warfare: Blowback from the New American way of war. Middle East Policy Council. Last accessed on November, 14, 2012.

4 Başoğlu M, Livanou M, Crnobarić C et al.(2005) Psychiatric and cognitive effects of war in former Yugoslavia:  Association of lack of redress for trauma and posttraumatic stress reactions. JAMA, 294, 580–90.

5 Averill JR (1982) Anger and Aggression: An Essay on Emotion. New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.

6 Baron RA (1977) Human Aggression. New York, NY: Plenum Press.

7 Başoğlu M, Mineka S. (1992) The role of uncontrollable and unpredictable stress in posttraumatic stress responses in torture survivors. In: Başoğlu M, ed. Torture and its Consequences: Current Treatment Approaches.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 182–225.

8 Pew Research Center, Pew Global Attitudes Project. Pakistani Public Opinion Ever More Critical of U.S.: Overview. June 27, 2012.

9 Williams BG. Tribal Turks: Turkish jihadists travel to fight in Afghanistan. Jane’s Intelligence Review, July 2011. Last accessed on November, 18, 2012.

10 Basoglu M. You can’t fight violence with violence. New Scientist, 10 July 2010, 2768, 22-23.

11 Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication, September 2004. Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, Washington, D.C. 20301-3140. Last accessed November 23, 2012.

12 Pew Research Center, Pew Global Attitudes Project. Pakistani Public Opinion Ever More Critical of U.S.: Chapter 1. Views of the U.S. and American foreign policy. June 27, 2012. Last accessed on November, 14, 2012.

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