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Journal of Peace Research
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DOI: 10.1177/0022343312465424
2013 50: 235 Journal of Peace Research
Chia-yi Lee
Democracy, civil liberties, and hostage-taking terrorism

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Democracy, civil liberties, and hostage-
taking terrorism
Chia-yi Lee
Department of Political Science, Washington University in St Louis
While hostage-taking has been a common form of terrorism for decades, which types of governments are more prone
to it remains unclear. Does democracy motivate terrorists to engage in hostage-taking acts because of how easy nego-
tiating with a democratic government is? Or does democracy impose audience costs on the government leaders,
driving them never to negotiate with hostage-taking terrorists following the long-held principle of no negotiation?
This article argues that hostage-taking terrorists are more inclined to target democratic governments because of the
greater value given to human life and personal freedom in democracies. Additionally the helplessness of held hostages
is more freely exposed by the media in democracies, which leads to the audience focusing on the hostages themselves
rather than on the interests of the nation. This in turns compels decisionmakers to concede, especially near election
time. It is only when institutional constraints on the executives are high that democratic leaders refuse to make
concessions. Using data on hostage events from 1978 to 2005, this article finds strong evidence that supports this
theory, showing that democracy has competing effects on hostage-taking terrorism civil liberties and press freedom
are positively associated with hostage-taking incidents, whereas executive constraints have a negative association.
bargaining, civil liberties, democracy, hostage-taking, terrorism
Hostage-taking is a unique form of terrorism because it
involves direct negotiation between the state and
hostage-takers under time pressure. It also attracts enor-
mous attention from the public and the media because
the act itself typically lasts longer than other forms of
terrorism and there is a buildup leading to the outcome.
However, which types of governments are more likely to
be the targets of hostage-taking terrorists remains an
unanswered question. Does democracy represent an
incentive for hostage-taking terrorists because of the ease
of negotiating with a democratic government? Or does
democracy generate audience costs (Fearon, 1994) on
the government by the promise of never negotiating with
hostage-taking terrorists?
In the terrorism literature, a predominant and impor-
tant finding is that democracies suffer terrorist attacks
the most (Eubank & Weinberg, 1994, 2001; Weinberg
& Eubank, 1998; Piazza, 2008). Hostage-taking is a
subset of transnational terrorism, but the reasons why
democracies are plagued by transnational terrorism may
not be able to explain the case of hostage-taking. Further,
terrorists seize hostages for specific aims, such as ransom,
safe conduct, or the release of their imprisoned
compatriots, so hostage-taking terrorism usually involves
bargaining between the hostage-takers and their targets,
which, compared to other forms of terrorism, may attract
greater public attention, may mobilize more government
resources for the purpose of the bargaining process, and
may lead to more such future incidents occurring if the
hostage-takers should succeed in their endeavor. There-
fore, distinguishing hostage-taking from other types of
terrorism may uncover distinct theoretical mechanisms
Corresponding author:
Journal of Peace Research
50(2) 235248
The Author(s) 2013
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/0022343312465424
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that condition democracys correlation to terrorist
In this article, I argue that democracies are more likely
to be targeted by hostage-taking terrorists, just as they are
more likely to suffer all types of transnational terrorism,
though the mechanisms differ. Democracies are more
likely to be attacked by transnational terrorists because
their active foreign involvement often triggers hatred and
discontent abroad (Savun & Phillips, 2009), because
democratic accountability may weaken the governments
ability to combat terrorism (Li, 2005), and because a
high level of political competition may motivate terrorist
groups to pursue political influence through violence
(Chenoweth, 2010). Hostage-taking is different in that
the key to the outcome hinges on the decisionmakers
cost/benefit calculations regarding whether to compro-
mise with hostage-takers, which are largely shaped by the
domestic political environment. One feature of democ-
racy, the respect for personal freedom and human life,
leads the public to focus on the security of hostages. The
media coverage of a hostage situation in democracies also
magnifies and conveys the public sentiment. The deci-
sionmaker, who cares about being re-elected, is driven
to associate personal political interests with the hostages
interests while casting aside national interests. Only
when the leaders decisionmaking power is heavily con-
strained can national interests be stressed. As a result, ter-
rorists tend to undertake hostage-taking to make
demands on democratic governments since their goals
are more likely to be achieved, particularly when election
time is near, but governments that are highly constrained
are less susceptible to public pressure and thus less likely
to suffer from hostage-taking terrorism.
I examine my hypotheses using a unique dataset on
hostage-taking incidents from 1978 to 2005. The results
show that democratic governments are more likely to be
the targets of hostage-taking terrorists, although the rela-
tionship is statistically weak. By decomposing democ-
racy, I find that hostage-taking terrorism is positively
correlated to civil liberties and freedom of the press but
negatively correlated to executive constraints. The tim-
ing of the next election also matters; as elections
approach, hostage-taking events are more likely to occur
since government executives are more sensitive to public
opinion. These results are robust to the exclusion of an
outlier country, an alternative measure of civil liberties,
and alternative estimators.
While the findings indicate a similar correlation
between democracy and hostage-taking terrorism to that
between democracy and transnational terrorism, this
study is significant in two respects. First, it provides a
novel theoretical explanation of why hostage-taking ter-
rorists prefer to target democratic governments, which is
distinct from the existing explanations of all forms of ter-
rorism. In particular, this study emphasizes the key role
played in a hostage-taking situation by a decisionmaker
who is constrained by the domestic pressure from the
public and the media as well as by government bureau-
cracy. The theory and empirical results contrast with
existing work on other forms of terrorism (Li, 2005).
Second, this study then suggests policy implications that
are specific to reducing hostage-taking terrorism. The
results imply that, facing hostage-takers, governments
may be better advised to take a firm stand to try to not
only counter the belief that they tend to give in to terror-
ists, but also prevent the occurrence of such future
In the next section, I will review the literature that
discusses the relationship between democracy and
terrorism, and argue for the need to disaggregate
hostage-taking from other types of terrorism. I will then
introduce the dilemma of democracy (Enders &
Sandler, 2006; Netanyahu, 1997) which occurs not
only in the general prevention of terrorism but also
more ostensibly in the negotiation with hostage-
taking terrorists. My arguments are also advanced in the
same section. The section that follows will present the
research design and data followed by the results and
model checking. The final section will conclude and
provide policy suggestions.
Democracy, terrorism, and hostage-taking
Whether democracy promotes or reduces terrorism is
theoretically debatable. One argument posits that some
inherent characteristics of democratic political systems,
including political participation, rule of law, civil society,
and free and fast transmission of information, can miti-
gate the resentment toward governments and reduce the
possibility of the recruitment of extremists (Windsor,
2003; Li, 2005). In contrast, some scholars argue that
democracy is not useful in reducing terrorism since ter-
rorists interests are not represented through democratic
politics (Gause, 2005). Still others contend that terror-
ism flourishes primarily in prosperous democracies
because several factors exist in democratic regimes
directly or indirectly resulting in grievances or the ease
with which terrorists undertake their activities, such as
the accessibility of victims by terrorists, civil liberties that
permit the freedom of movement, freedom of and access
to the media, and the free expression of dissatisfaction
and disagreements (Ross, 1993).
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Empirically, a majority of studies discover a positive
relationship between democracy and transnational terror-
ism (Eubank & Weinberg, 1994, 2001; Weinberg &
Eubank, 1998; Piazza, 2008), and this relationship per-
sists even when the sample is limited to Middle Eastern
countries (Piazza, 2007).
Given this predominant find-
a new scholarly trend is to examine the disaggregated
features of democracy or to explore the mechanisms
through which terrorism thrives in democracies. Li
(2005) shows that democracy has two competing effects;
democratic participation reduces the number of transna-
tional terrorist incidents because of the lowered grie-
vances, but government constraints increase the
number, because checks and balances often lead to polit-
ical deadlock. Chenoweth (2010) argues that democratic
competition induces terrorist groups to resort to violence,
and the evidence indicates a positive association between
political competition and terrorism. Savun & Phillips
(2009) show that terrorist activities are more related to
active foreign connections than to democracy.
In short, there is near consensus that democratic
regimes face more terrorist threats because of a higher
level of institutional constraints, because of a greater
degree of political contestation, or because of their active
foreign policies. These factors, however, do not necessa-
rily lead to more incidents within a subtype of terrorism.
For example, a higher level of executive constraints may
weaken the states ability to fight terrorism in general,
leading to more terrorist attacks (Li, 2005), but, as I
argue in the next section, it may lower the possibility that
the executive arbitrarily concedes to hostage-takers, thus
reducing hostage-taking terrorism. So, singling out
hostage-taking incidents is vital to understanding how
the effects of political institutions may differ depending
on terrorism type.
Existing studies that isolate hostage-taking from
other types of terrorist attacks can be classified by the
research approach they utilize. Scholars in one group
examine the logic of hostage-takers through psychologi-
cal approaches (Wilson, 2000; Houghton, 2006).
Those in a second group conduct case studies to probe
into specific and famous incidents, such as the 1979
Iran hostage crisis and the 2002 Moscow theater
hostage crisis (Piadyshev, 2003). Others draw upon
quantitative analyses to delve into the factors affect-
ing bargaining success in hostage seizures (Atkinson,
Sandler & Tschirhart, 1987; Sandler & Scott, 1987;
Gaibulloev & Sandler, 2009) or rely on game theory
or time-series analyses to explore the attributes or
dynamics of hostage events (Lapan & Sandler, 1988;
Brandt & Sandler, 2009).
Indeed, these studies contribute greatly to the research
on hostage-taking terrorism, but they focus mainly on
the bargaining process or the features of hostage-takers
rather than on the targets. In reality, terrorists may ran-
domly choose the victims, but they do not target a gov-
ernment unintentionally (Mani, 2004). In this article,
therefore, I focus on the targets of hostage-takers, asking
what types of governments are more likely to be the tar-
gets of hostage-taking terrorists. I intend to discover the
political factors of hostage-taking from the governments
perspective. In so doing, I hope to contribute to the
development of a better understanding of hostage-
taking terrorism and the provision of more effective
counter-terrorism policy advice.
The dilemma of democracy in hostage-taking
Liberal democracies face a dilemma between the pur-
suit of democratic values and counter-terrorism. On
the one hand, democratic governments are expected
to secure the lives and property of their citizens with-
out severely encroaching on civil liberties and personal
freedom. On the other hand, political and civil free-
doms and the protection of human life in liberal
democracies provide a vulnerable environment for ter-
rorists to engage in terror activities (Enders & Sand-
ler, 2006; Netanyahu, 1997).
In a hostage-taking situation, this dilemma gets more
complicated since the government directly faces a trade-
off between fighting with terrorists and rescuing
hostages. The decisionmakers may face pressure from
various sources, including the hostages families, the
domestic constituency, the media, the bureaucracy, and
even foreign governments. They need to consider and
evaluate three sets of competing interests national
interests, personal political interests, and hostages inter-
ests (Nacos, 1994: 136). Therefore, the dilemma of
democracy is most evidently exhibited in hostage-
taking terrorism.
Yet, Eyerman (1998) finds an inverse-U relationship between
democracy and terrorism, whereas Gassebner & Luechinger (2011)
point out no relationship between them.
In addition to the statistical results, direct evidence comes from the
data. According to the transnational terrorism data partitioned by
Enders, Sandler & Gaibulloev (2011) from the Global Terrorism
Database, from 1970 to 2007, 36.8% of the transnational terrorist
events occurred in North America and Western Europe, more than
those occurring in Latin America, Middle East, and North Africa,
which account for 32.1% of the total.
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Positive effect of democracy
Based on the above idea, I argue that democracy is more
likely to induce hostage-taking terrorism for two rea-
sons. The first and most important point hinges on the
values people widely hold in liberal democracies.
Human rights and personal freedom are highly
respected in the democratic world (Beetham, 1999;
Sen, 1999; Dahl, 2000).
The limit to the hostages
personal freedom and the threat to the hostages lives
are therefore difficult for the audience in democracies
to bear. And since terrorists employ terrorism in order
to influence a larger population than solely the victims
(Crenshaw, 1981; Hoffman, 2006), how the mass pub-
lic responds to terrorist attacks shapes the conditions on
which they act. Terrorists understand that seizing
hostages has greater impact on the public feeling in
democracies than in authoritarian regimes and hence
tend to target democratic governments.
This respect for human life characteristic combined
with another important feature of democracy regular
and effective elections drives democratic leaders to have
different considerations from authoritarian leaders. It is
widely agreed that public opinion can substantially con-
strain or influence democratic decisionmakers in foreign
policymaking or international negotiations (Putnam,
1988; Holsti, 2004), especially when the intensity of
issues under negotiation is high (Trumbore, 1998).
When a hostage crisis happens in democracies, the public
is unlikely to accept sacrificing hostages, and therefore a
rational decisionmaker who faces pressure from constitu-
ents usually sees rescuing hostages as a higher priority. In
other words, democratic leaders who are concerned
about their political prospects have to link their personal
interests to the hostages interests because the latter
receive more public attention.
In contrast, authoritarian leaders do not place their
political survival in voters hands. They need a relatively
smaller winning coalition to secure their leadership and
hence lack a motivation to provide public goods (Bueno
de Mesquita et al., 2005). Once a hostage incident
occurs, an authoritarian leader will tend to consider con-
cessions costly since capitulation may encourage more
terrorist activities, which may be more problematic than
the loss of hostages lives. Only when hostages are crucial
to political survival for example, if patrons are taken
hostage are authoritarian leaders willing to provide pri-
vate goods to trade for the hostages lives.
Second, in democracies, the media play an important
role in affecting public attitudes during hostage-taking
incidents. Terrorists, to a large extent, depend on media
exposure to gain access to the public agenda (Nacos,
1994; Hoffman, 2006), and they may thus strategically
select a form of attack that can help attract the highest
media attention. While literature on public opinion
shows that public support for wars, counter-terrorism,
or wartime presidents tends to be high (Holsti, 2004;
Willer, 2004; Huddy et al., 2005; McFarland, 2005),
particularly due to the media coverage of threatening
images (Gadarian, 2010; Nacos, Bloch-Elkon & Sha-
piro, 2011), this effect can be counteracted by casualties
(Mueller, 1973; Gartner & Segura, 1998, 2000; Karol &
Miguel, 2007), which suggests that public opinion is
sensitive to human costs. Building upon this literature,
I argue that, although people are apt to support hawkish
anti-terrorism policies, their attitudes may depend on the
media focus. In a hostage situation, hostages lives are at
risk, which not only provides news values to media but
also creates a negative atmosphere among the public and
within the government. The media emphasis on the vic-
tims further increases peoples sympathy for these inno-
cents and reduces attention to government officials. The
government leader recognizes that the public attitude is
in favor of the hostages and of their loved ones, and thus
is eager to wind up the event peacefully. In his/her calcu-
lations, resistance is more costly than capitulation, so the
final decision is highly likely a concession, and national
interests may be cast aside.
In fact, one of the longstanding tenets of US counter-
terrorism policy is no concessions and no deals with ter-
rorists, such as ransom payments. Making concessions or
striking a deal not only creates incentives for terrorists to
keep engaging in such activities but also generates moral
hazards; that is, citizens may take more risks since they
know the government will cover them (Pillar, 2004:
214). However, this principle is often broken by presi-
dents because of their personal political considerations,
which are influenced by the domestic pressure from the
public and the media (Nacos, 1994: 123124). In the
1985 TWA hostage crisis, for example, 153 hostages
were taken captive, including 85 Americans. The first
priority for the Reagan administration was to get the
US hostages home, partly because the media incessantly
spotlighted the predicament of the victims (Nacos, 1994;
Hoffman, 2006). Compelled by the US government,
Israel finally released 756 Shia prisoners, as the hijackers
demanded, to free the hostages. This case highlights the
For instance, Dahl (2000: 51) mentions that a democratic culture
is almost certain to emphasize the value of personal freedom and thus
to provide support for additional rights and liberties.
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importance of media and how they may affect the deci-
sionmaking process.
A critical issue that arises concerns the audience costs
generated in democracies.
Based on this theory, consti-
tuents may blame government leaders who surrender to
terrorists since the publicly announced policy is not to
concede. A hostage-taking situation, however, differs in
that citizens typically prefer to see hostages set free. They
may not want a public concession to terrorists, but a
peaceful outcome can mitigate their disapproval. The
formal model developed by Browne & Dickson (2010)
shows that leaders can more likely induce terrorists to
enter secret negotiations by making a public commit-
ment to never negotiating with terrorists because the
audience costs of reneging on this promise is high. Simi-
larly, in a hostage-taking crisis, without a certainty that
terrorists can be wiped out without hurting any hostage,
the government leader may choose to accept the
demand, although probably fulfilling it in secret or with
other cover. Terrorists are aware of the costs imposed on
democratic leaders when the non-concession policy is
broken and thereby prefer to target democratic govern-
ments since the leaders cannot withstand the conse-
quence of failed bargaining.
In short, the above discussion can be summarized into
three testable hypotheses:
H1: Hostage-takers are more likely to target a demo-
cratic government.
H2: A country in which people have higher respect for
personal freedom and human life is more likely to
become the target of hostage-takers.
H3: A country with a higher level of press freedom is
more likely to become the target of hostage-takers.
Negative effect of institutional constraints
Democracy provides a favorable environment for terror-
ists to engage in hostage-taking activities, but some attri-
butes of democracy may bring about a counteractive
effect. A significant attribute is the constraints on the
government. Li (2005) argues that institutional con-
straints may lead to an increase in terrorist events because
of the political stalemate and the weakened counter-
terrorism ability. In this article, conversely, I argue for
a negative effect of executive constraints on hostage-
taking, and the key is the structure of decisionmaking.
Returning to the discussion of the competing interests
political leaders face during hostage-taking events, I
argue that in democracies the leaders political interests
are greatly influenced by the hostages interests since the
public and the media pay more attention to the latter.
When decisionmakers put their personal interests ahead,
national interests can only be represented by the govern-
ment bureaucracy. The bureaucracy is composed of gov-
ernment officials or technicians who are independent of
political pressure, and national interests involving the
interests of their branches or their expertise would be
their focus. In other words, some relevant administra-
tions such as the army or the security department may
be the main voice insisting on the adherence to the
non-concession policy during a hostage-taking crisis.
And only in a government in which checks and balances
are functioning well and the decisionmaker is horizon-
tally accountable can the bureaucratic concerns surpass
the leaders political concerns.
A second reason why institutional constraints serve to
prevent hostage-taking terrorism is that leaders are less
able to take unilateral action given the constraints. When
the chief executives power is less limited, the negotiation
with terrorists can be informal and flexible. When the
decisionmaking power is highly constrained or institutio-
nalized, most of the governmental decisions should be
made via standard operating procedures (Allison & Zeli-
kow, 1999), which means the head of the government has
to stick to formal rules and has less leeway to make an
independent decision. In a hostage-taking situation, as a
result, greater constraints on the executive lead to a firmer
stance against terrorists, which is the long-held principle.
Audience costs punish leaders who take action in the first place but
do not follow through (Fearon, 1994). This idea was initially
developed in the research on conflicts and has been applied in
many other fields afterwards.
This argument implies that countries setting up centralized or
independent counter-terrorism agencies can be more effective in
combating terrorists or in rescuing hostages during a hostage crisis.
This implication proved true in the Lufthansa case in 1977 and the
Iranian embassy siege in 1980. In the former event, four Palestinian
terrorists hijacked a German aircraft and, five days after the hijacking,
the German counter-terrorist unit GSG9 successfully stormed the air-
craft and rescued 86 passengers (Wilkinson, 2006: 66). The Iranian
embassy siege began with six terrorists seizing the embassy in London
and ended up with the British Special Air Service attacking the build-
ing and executing the rescue (Wilkinson, 2006: 96). The success of
the rescues in these two cases is to some extent attributed to the estab-
lishment of independent counter-terrorism forces.
In other issue areas, it is also found that the constraints on the chief
executive can largely reduce the governments arbitrary actions or
prevent the political leaders rent-seeking behavior. For example, Jen-
sen (2008) shows that democracy provides a friendly environment for
foreign direct investment and decreases political risks through the
constraints on the executive.
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The argument that a higher level of executive con-
straints helps reduce hostage-taking incidents corre-
sponds to the findings in the existing terrorism
literature. Sandler, Tschirhart & Cauley (1983) show
that the no-negotiation policy tends to be more effective
when terrorists engage in riskier activities such as
hostage-taking. Lapan & Sandler (1988) demonstrate
that the no-negotiation policy is more credible when the
behavior of the government is time-consistent, and this
can be achieved by a formal rule that removes the discre-
tion of government negotiators (Sandler & Enders,
2004). In other words, the more institutional constraints
that are placed on the decisionmaker, the more likely
that the no-negotiation or non-concession policy would
be obeyed, and the less likely terrorists would resort to
H4: A country in which the executive is more con-
strained is less likely to become the target of hos-
While the executives are simultaneously constrained
by government bureaucracy, media, and public opinion,
how they react to different sources of pressure may
depend on the timing. As the public opinion literature
suggests, wars or casualties impose high electoral costs
on the executives by reducing their votes in the upcom-
ing election (Abramson et al., 2007; Karol & Miguel,
2007). This effect may be similar or even stronger in the
hostage-taking case because hostages are typically inno-
cent citizens and a failed rescue may engender greater
public discontent. This means that, as election time
approaches, the leader should be prone to negotiate since
the event will be more salient in the publics mind. Ter-
rorists, as a result, are more likely to undertake hostage-
taking when election time nears, even if the institutional
constraints on the executive are binding:
H5: A country is more likely to become the target of
hostage-takers as time to the next election
In sum, democracies are more likely to be harassed by
transnational terrorism because of their inherent charac-
teristics, including their foreign involvement, checks and
balances, and political competition (Li, 2005; Savun &
Phillips, 2009; Chenoweth, 2010). The climate in
democracies favors hostage-taking terrorists as well, but
the key lies in public attitudes and how they affect
decisionmakers. In democracies, the public views human
life as being of great importance. Free media further dis-
play the helplessness of hostages to the public, which in
turn presses government leaders not to take harsh mea-
sures, particularly when an election is close. When lead-
ers decisionmaking powers are largely constrained, they
are more likely to not compromise with terrorists.
Research design and data
To examine my hypotheses, I conduct a quantitative anal-
ysis of time-series cross-sectional (TSCS) data. The unit of
analysis is the country-year. The data I use are from the
ITERATE (International Terrorism: Attributes of Terror-
ist Events) database, which contains a comprehensive list
of transnational terrorist incidents and is continuously
updated (Mickolus et al., 2006). ITERATE includes a
HOSTAGE file, which covers hostage-taking events from
1978 to 2005 and has information about the targets of
demands. Because the research objective is the state, I
exclude events in which the targets are unknown or are
not nation states. In many cases, terrorists made demands
on more than one country; those countries are all counted.
In other words, the outcome variable is the number of
countries that are targets in a hostage-taking incident in
one year. Between 1978 and 2005, there were a total of
358 hostage-taking events in which governments were the
targets. Among these cases, there existed a second target in
201 cases and a third target in 61 cases, so the sum is 620.
Since I do not model event-specific but only country-
specific factors, the existence of multiple targets does not
bias my analysis.
Table I shows a list of the top nine countries that suf-
fered from most hostage-taking events, all of which have
received demands from hostage-takers at least 15 times.
The number of events occurring in these countries
accounts for more than two-thirds of the total events
(241 out of 358). More than half of the hostage-taking
events (205) occurred during the Cold War.
To test if democracies are more likely to be the targets of
hostage-taking terrorists, the first explanatory variable is
democracy, and the data are taken from the Polity IV
dataset (Marshall & Jaggers, 2007), which is the most
commonly used and acceptable measure of democracy
in the political science literature. The Polity index ranges
from 10 to 10 with 10 as the highest degree of democ-
racy. In Table I, the fifth and sixth columns report the
Polity scores for the top nine victim countries, and the
last column categorizes these countries by regime type.
Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for this excellent suggestion.
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As can be seen, most of the top victim countries are
democracies or have transitioned to democracy, offering
preliminary evidence that democracies suffer from more
hostage-taking incidents.
Moreover, I argue that in democracies members of the
public place high value on personal liberty and human
life, forcing political leaders to put the rescue of hostages
as the first priority. Thus, I employ a variable, civil lib-
erty, to measure the importance of personal freedom and
human life. The data are from the Freedom House
indices, which are composed of two scores political
rights and civil liberties and I use the latter because the
point here lies in the democratic values people embrace
rather than the real political rights they enjoy. Indeed,
the civil liberties variable may not fully capture the con-
cept of respect for human life I discuss, but this index
can be a good proxy for how people view and enjoy per-
sonal freedom in a society. And since deeply embedded
democratic values are actually immeasurable, the Free-
dom House index as a widely utilized measurement is
a reasonable choice here. This index ranges from 1 to
7 with 1 as the highest level of civil liberties, and I reverse
the order so that a higher score represents a higher level
of liberties.
I also stress the importance of mass media, which can
largely affect and transmit the public sentiment. Another
variable, press freedom, is therefore used. The data are gath-
ered from the Freedom House, in which the level of press
freedom in each country is categorized into free, partly
free, and not free, and I numerate them to 3, 2, and 1.
To test the hypothesis that institutional constraints
lead to an adherence to the non-concession policy and
thus less hostage-taking incidents, the other variable I
utilize is executive constraints, which is retrieved from the
Polity IV dataset. In the Polity data, the executive con-
straints variable refers to the extent of institutionalized
constraints on the decisionmaking powers of chief exec-
utives. These limitations may be imposed by any
accountability group, such as political parties, indepen-
dent judiciary, or powerful advisers (Marshall & Jaggers,
2007: 23), but the point is that decisionmakers are less
likely to act unilaterally given these institutional con-
straints. This index is from 1 to 7 with 7 being the most
limitations on the executive leaders.
Furthermore, the theory suggests that the executive is
more likely to negotiate as election time approaches since
the executive is sensitive to public opinion due to the re-
election concern. I thus include a variable time to election
denoting the number of years left in the executives cur-
rent term, which is equivalent to the time to the next
election. The data are taken from the Database of Polit-
ical Institutions (DPI) (Beck et al., 2001).
In addition to democracy and its related components,
I include a battery of control variables. The logarithm of
GDP is used to test if wealthier countries are more likely
to become the targets since in many hostage-taking
events terrorists ask for ransom. Economic growth can
measure the short-term economic performance. Data
on both variables are gathered from the World Banks
World Development Indicators (WDI) database.
Crisis is the number of involvements in foreign policy
crises; US ally is whether this country has alliance ties
with the USA. These two variables, particularly US ally,
are too important to exclude because hostage-takers may
target a government due to the resentment caused by this
governments active foreign activities. Without these
variables, we cannot tell whether it is democracy per se
or the foreign policy behavior democratic countries
Table I. Top nine victim countries of hostage-taking, 19782005
Number of hostage events Polity score
Political regime 19781991 19922005 Sum 1985 2005
USA 21 25 46 10 10 Democracy
Colombia 20 14 34 8 7 Democracy
France 27 6 33 7 9 Democracy
Yemen 0 27 27 6 2 Authoritarian
Philippines 9 16 25 6 8 Transitioned
Germany 10 11 21 10 10 Democracy
Russia 8 12 20 7 7 Transitioned
El Salvador 19 0 19 6 7 Democracy
Turkey 9 7 16 7 7 Democracy
Total number 205 153 358
Political regime: democracy if Polity score is 6 in both years; authoritarian if Polity score is < 0 in both years; transitioned if Polity score
transitioned from negative to 6.
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usually exhibit that actually results in a higher hostage-
taking frequency. Following Savun & Phillips (2009),
data on foreign crises are from the International Crisis
Behavior Project Version 9.0 (Brecher & Wilkenfeld,
1997), and data on US allies are collected from the Alli-
ance Treaty Obligations and Provisions dataset with
offensive, defensive, and neutral alliances counted (Leeds
et al., 2002).
Another control variable is national capabilities. A
strong country may have a greater ability to fight terrorists,
and hostage-taking terrorists are no exception. The data
are from the National Material Capabilities Data Version
4.0 in the Correlates of War project (Singer & Small,
2010). Regime durability is the number of years since the
most recent regime change, coded from the Polity data. It
is an important variable in the terrorism literature because
of the finding that a stable regime is less susceptible to ter-
rorist attacks (Eyerman, 1998; Li, 2005).
The next two variables are the logarithm of land area
(in millions of square kms) and the logarithm of popula-
tion (in thousands of people), both of which are from the
WDI. I also add a regional dummy Middle East, which
controls for the possibility that Middle Eastern countries
are more frequently harassed by terrorism due to specific
historical and cultural factors. All the explanatory vari-
ables except time to election are lagged one year behind
the outcome variable to avoid the simultaneity bias or
inverse relations.
Statistical model
The outcome variable is a discrete and non-negative
count of the occurrence of hostage-taking events; the
data are TSCS, which is a structure of multilevel data.
I thus employ a multilevel Poisson model and allow for
varying intercepts across countries to control for country
heterogeneity. This model provides the advantage that
both within- and between-country differences are appro-
priately considered depending on the sample size and the
variation in each country (Gelman & Hill, 2007).
Since the data are TSCS, dynamics is an issue that
should be taken into account (see Wilson & Butler,
2007). Theoretically, all hostage-taking incidents are inde-
pendent of one another, but it does not rule out the possi-
bility that a country that has experienced incidents in the
past has a certain propensity to become a target again.
Thus, following Li (2005), I create a variable history, which
is the average annual number of hostage-taking events that
have occurred in one country since 1978 until the year of
observation. Using history rather than the lagged outcome
variable provides a longer-run view on time dependence.
Moreover, the end of the Cold War and the 11 Sep-
tember 2001 attack are two striking events that have
changed or shocked the international system. Terrorist
or hostage-taking events may have declined after the
Cold War due to the fewer chances governments have
to employ terrorism as a tool to destabilize enemy coun-
tries (Enders & Sandler, 1999); they may have also
decreased after the 11 September 2001 attacks because
of increasingly strict counter-terrorism policies and mea-
sures (Enders & Sandler, 2005). Thus, I add two time-
period indicators: post-Cold War denotes the time period
from 1992 to 2001 and post-9/11 from 2002 to 2005.
These two variables as well as the history variable help
control the temporal effects.
In summary, the multilevel Poisson model can be
stated as follows:
log l
; s
where i denotes the country and t denotes the year. X
are the covariates lagged one year. The first level in the
model is the country-year and the second level is the
country. The varying intercepts a
help control for unob-
served country heterogeneity but compromise the
between- and within-country variations.
Table II presents the results.
In Model 1, the coefficient
for democracy is positive, as expected, but it does not
achieve statistical significance at the 95% level,
suggests that democracy may carry competing effects
working against one another.
In Model 2, I disaggregate democracy into civil liberty,
press freedom, and executive constraints. All the coefficients
for these three variables reach statistical significance, but
executive constraints has a negative sign whereas the other
I conduct multiple imputation to account for missing values,
generating ten datasets. The R package used to impute missing
data is AMELIA, developed by Honaker, King & Blackwell
(2011). The coefficients I present are the averages of the
coefficients estimated from ten datasets. The standard errors are
adjusted upward as a function of the average variance (within-
imputation variance) and the between-imputation variance (Little
& Rubins, 1987), so the uncertainty is slightly larger than that using
the conventional casewise deletion approach.
However, it achieves statistical significance at the 90% level if we
use a less conservative criterion.
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two have positive signs, lending support for Hypotheses
2, 3, and 4. Hostage-taking terrorists are more likely to
target a country where people value personal freedom
highly. Countries with a higher level of press freedom are
also more vulnerable to hostage-taking terrorism.
institutional constraints on the executive, contrarily, lead
to a reduction in hostage-taking incidents.
Other things being equal, a one-unit increase in the
civil liberties index is associated with a 16.5% increase
in hostage-taking events; a change from not free to partly
free or a change from partly free to free in the press free-
dom variable is associated with a 31% increase in
hostage-taking events. In contrast, a one-unit increase
in the executive constraints variable leads to a reduction
of 12.5% in hostage-taking events. Comparing the mag-
nitudes of these coefficients, we can see that the positive
effects resulting from civil liberties and press freedom
outweigh the negative effect of executive constraints,
which contributes to the positive sign of democracy in
Model 1.
From Model 3 to Model 5, I allow civil liberty, press
freedom, and executive constraints to enter the models
individually. As can be seen in Model 3, civil liberty is
positively associated with hostage-taking terrorism, sup-
porting the second hypothesis. In Model 4, press freedom
has a positive effect as well, indicating its importance in
determining hostage-taking terrorism.
In Model 5, the variable executive constraints has a
negative sign, as expected, but it does not reach statistical
significance. This actually makes sense because a high
level of institutional constraints on the executive is an
essential ingredient of democracy and it may thus carry
other effects working against its primary negative effect.
For instance, representation in democracies helps trans-
mit the interests of hostages and their families to deci-
sionmakers, which may instead make hostage-taking
incidents more likely. That is, the negative effect of hor-
izontal constraints could be partially offset by the posi-
tive effect of vertical accountability, resulting in this
insignificance. When other ingredients of democracy
that are positively connected to hostage-taking are con-
sidered in the model, as shown in Model 2, the variable
executive constraints turns statistically significant because
only the variance that is able to account for hostage-
taking terrorism is left.
In Model 6, I include the variable time to election to
test how the executive is constrained by the re-election
consideration. The coefficient for time to election is neg-
ative and statistically significant, indicating that hostage-
taking terrorism is more likely to occur when election
time nears. Other things being equal, a reduction of one
year in the time to the next chief executive election leads
to a 6% increase in hostage-incidents. This result, along
with the above findings, suggests that the chief executive
is the key actor in a hostage situation and his/her political
survival concern substantially determines the final
In addition to the main findings, Table II shows that
economic growth is positively associated with hostage-
taking, suggesting that a state experiencing an economic
boom is more likely to be targeted, probably because of
A bothersome issue regarding press freedom is the potential
underreporting problem. In general, non-democratic governments
put more restrictions on media, which makes terrorist events less
likely to be reported. The ITERATE dataset, particularly, relies on
media as the main source and is thus highly likely to be plagued by
this problem (Sandler, 1995). As Drakos & Gofas (2006) point out,
press freedom may hence carry two effects an underreporting effect
and a publicity effect and it is difficult to distinguish between them.
So far, researchers on terrorism have not developed a sound strategy
to gauge or to deal with the underreporting issue. Here, nevertheless,
I believe that underreporting may not be a problem for the studies on
hostage-taking events because the main goal of hostage-takers is in
fact to get publicity, which helps them negotiate with governments.
In other words, the publicity effect outweighs the underreporting
effect. If this were not the case, the positive effect of press freedom
discovered in the analysis would mean that hostage-taking events are
much better reported in countries with a higher level of press free-
dom. This could have been true, but underreporting should be at
least as common in other types of terrorist incidents as in hostage-
taking incidents, so a positive effect of press freedom should also exist
in the analyses on other types or all forms of terrorist events. How-
ever, in other quantitative studies on terrorism that include press free-
dom as an explanatory variable, press freedom is actually found to
have no or little effect (Li, 2005; Savun & Phillips, 2009; Cheno-
weth, 2010). Thus, the positive effect of press freedom in my statis-
tical analysis must come from the substantial effects of the media,
such as to publicize the incidents or to trigger the public emotion,
rather than merely more reporting of actual incidents.
As one reviewer correctly pointed out, the theory also implies that
the type of executive may matter. For instance, executives in
parliamentary systems may be more afraid of a failed rescue because
they can suffer a no-confidence vote quickly. I test this implication
by including a variable indicating a parliamentary system and a vari-
able indicating a PR system in two separate models. Data for both
variables are from the DPI data. The results (not shown here) indicate
no effect of executive type or electoral systems on hostage-taking.
This finding makes sense because while executives in parliamentary
systems may be more sensitive to electoral concerns, they have less
discretionary power than their counterparts in presidential systems
and thus are less likely to concede during a hostage situation. So, the
potential positive effect of a parliamentary system on hostage-taking
may be offset by a negative effect due to the executives restricted
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the greater probability to pay ransom or to fulfill other
demands. The population size is positively correlated
to hostage-taking, and this relationship is robust across
all models. This is straightforward to explain because,
no matter what goals hostage-takers attempt to achieve,
larger countries provide a larger pool of candidate vic-
tims. They also tend to be more active and more
involved in foreign affairs, which may trigger grievances
or discontent overseas and motivate hostage-taking
activities. This point is born out by the finding that
US allies (and the USA) are also more likely to be the tar-
gets of hostage-takers.
Finally, Middle Eastern countries have a higher prob-
ability than countries in other regions of facing hostage-
taking events, as well as other forms of terrorist events. In
terms of the temporal pattern, the number of hostage-
taking events has substantially declined after 11 Septem-
ber 2011, possibly indicating the success of counter-
Table II. Effects of democracy and its components on hostage-taking events
Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4 Model 5 Model 6
Democracy .020
Civil liberty .153 .121
(.065)* (.048)*
Press freedom .269 .287
(.122)* (.099)**
Executive constraints .133 .038
(.040)*** (.033)
Time to election .062
ln(GDP) .094 .120 .126 .115 .042 .068
(.066) (.070) (.070) (.067) (.068) (.064)
Growth .016 .018 .015 .017 .016 .016
(.008)* (.008)* (.008) (.008)* (.008)* (.008)*
Crisis .151 .160 .144 .155 .158 .152
(.112) (.112) (.112) (.112) (.112) (.112)
US ally .307 .222 .257 .244 .398 .364
(.171) (.175) (.173) (.174) (.174)* (.171)*
National capability 4.433 5.485 4.485 5.053 3.277 3.646
(3.402) (3.466) (3.416) (3.45) (3.444) (3.412)
Regime durability .003 .003 .003 .003 .003 .003
(.003) (.003) (.003) (.003) (.003) (.003)
ln(Population) .264 .317 .303 .286 .256 .269
(.108)* (.111)** (.111)** (.110)** (.111)* (.111)*
ln(Land area) .025 .019 .013 .016 .05 .041
(.069) (.071) (.070) (.071) (.072)
Middle East .949 1.000 1.017 1.011 .766 .844
(.263)*** (.271)*** (.267)*** (.267)*** (.272)** (.261)**
Post-Cold War .174 .018 .115 .093 .123 .140
(.093) (.096) (.092) (.093) (.092) (.091)
Post-9/11 .798 .640 .760 .686 .743 .768
(.161)*** (.165)*** (.160)*** (.163)*** (.161)*** (.160)***
Hostage history .415 .398 .418 .393 .388 .386
(.082)*** (.081)*** (.081)*** (.082)*** (.082)*** (.082)***
No. of observations 2,664 2,664 2,664 2,664 2,664 2,664
No. of countries 98 98 98 98 98 98
Log likelihood 1005 996 1003 1002 1006 1004
Deviance 2010 1992 2006 2004 2012 2008
AIC 2040 2026 2036 2034 2042 2038
Standard errors are in parentheses; *p < .05; **p < .01; ***p < .001.
244 journal of PEACE RESEARCH 50(2)
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terrorism activities after 9/11; the end of the Cold War,
nevertheless, was not followed by a drastic decrease in
hostage-taking incidents.
To illustrate the effects of democracy and its disaggre-
gated attributes, Figure 1 presents the parameter estima-
tions of hostage-taking incidents estimated from Model
In both panels, the horizontal axes denote the level
of civil liberties and the vertical axes denote the estimated
number of hostage-taking incidents. As can be seen, as
the level of civil liberties increases, the likelihood that a
country suffers from hostage-taking terrorism increases.
The number of hostage-taking incidents, moreover, is
affected by the level of press freedom and the degree to
which the executive is constrained. The left panel shows
that, given the level of civil liberties, countries having
partly free media are more likely to suffer from
hostage-taking events than countries that restrict media
freedom; countries that allow free media are even more
vulnerable than the other two types. The right panel tells
the story that, given the level of civil liberties, countries
in which the executive is highly constrained are less likely
to be the targets of hostage-takers than countries in
which the executive is only weakly constrained. Note
that the estimated numbers in two panels are less than
1, indicating the rareness of hostage-taking incidents.
Model checking and robustness
The statistical results are well supportive of my argu-
ments, but how do the models fit the data? A useful way
to assess the model fit is to perform posterior predictive
simulations, which is to simulate parameters from the
fitted model, to replicate datasets from these simulated
parameters, and to compare the replicated data with the
actual data. In so doing, the uncertainty of parameter
estimation can be considered (Gelman & Hill, 2007).
I simulate 1,000 sets of parameters from the result of
Model 1 in Table II. Then I obtain 1,000 sets of fitted
values. Using these fitted values as the means of the Pois-
son distribution, I generate 1,000 datasets. On average,
these 1,000 datasets successfully replicate 74% of the
actual values. In the actual data, the zeros account for
84.3% of the total; in the replicated datasets, the average
percentage of zeros is 84.4%, suggesting a great model
fit. Moreover, the average percentages of ones and twos
in the replicated data are 13.7% and 1.7% respectively;
the percentages of ones and twos in the actual data are
11.4% and 2.6% respectively. This indicates that the
model fits the data reasonably well (see online appendix
for details).
In addition, I conduct a number of diagnostics and
alternative robustness analyses. First, I test for autocorre-
lation that may appear in TSCS data and the overdisper-
sion problem that may plague a Poisson model. The
diagnostics results indicate no serial correlations or over-
dispersion. Second, since the USA is the biggest target of
hostage-taking terrorists as well as a stable democracy,
Figure 1. The parameter estimations of hostage-taking events.
I set all variables at the mean, the US ally equal to 1, the region as
non-Middle East, and the period as prior-Cold War. In the executive
constraints index, most of the countries have scores 3 or 7. So I com-
pare the predicted values for countries at these two levels.
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the result may be driven by this extreme case. I exclude
the USA from the data and perform the same analysis,
and the result is robust in the absence of this potential
outlier country. Third, I employ an alternative measure
of civil liberties the governments respect for civil and
political rights, which is taken from the CIRI Human
Rights Data Project (Cingranelli & Richards, 2010). The
result shows that the CIRI measure of civil rights pro-
duces a similar effect to the Freedom House measure
of civil liberties. Lastly, I perform multilevel negative
binomial models and zero inflated negative binomial
models, both of which generate similar results to the
Poisson model. In short, this articles findings are robust
to the exclusion of an outlier country, an alternative mea-
sure of civil liberties, and alternative estimators. All the
diagnostics and additional robustness analyses can be
seen in the online appendix.
In the empirical literature on terrorism, there is little
examination of the relationship between country charac-
teristics and hostage-taking terrorism. This study fills this
void by providing a quantitative analysis of hostage-
taking terrorism at the country level, discussing what
types of governments are more likely to be the targets
of hostage-takers. Specifically, it argues that democracy
generates different effects dependent on the type of ter-
rorism. While democracy leads to more terrorist attacks
because of a higher level of executive constraints, a higher
degree of democratic competition, and more active for-
eign policies, its correlation to hostage-taking terrorism
is driven by different attributes.
The results show that democracy produces competing
effects on hostage-taking terrorism. A high level of civil
liberties and a high degree of press freedom make dem-
ocratic countries more at risk of experiencing hostage-
taking incidents. Institutional constraints, by contrast,
have a negative influence on hostage-taking terrorism,
implying that horizontal accountability not only limits
government leaders leeway to choose a flexible means
of resolving crises but also consolidates the commitment
to a non-concession principle. The re-election concern
also compels the leader to concede to hostage-takers
when election time gets close, which is demonstrated
by the negative relationship between the time to the next
election and hostage-taking.
While this article considers free media as one compo-
nent of democracy, it is very likely that countries having
more competitive media systems are more likely to be
targeted by hostage-takers because competing media
tend to increase sensationalistic coverage to attract a mass
audience (Zaller, 1999). Future research may want to
explore this relationship between media competition and
hostage-taking terrorism.
This study highlights the important implications of
institutional arrangements on governments seeking to
reduce the risk of hostage-taking terrorism. A democratic
government is more likely to become the target of
hostage-takers, but the risk can be reduced by imposing
larger constraints on the executive. A formal rule that
regulates the executives power in the negotiation with
hostage-takers can be useful. While dealing with a
hostage-taking crisis, the government may be better
suited to take a strong stand and not to reveal or signal
the intent to compromise. Once terrorists think of a gov-
ernment as a target that is difficult to negotiate with,
hostage-taking incidents may become less attractive.
Replication data
All the statistical results are derived in R version 2.13.2.
The replication data, R code, and online appendix are
available at
I would like to thank the JPR editors, three anonymous
reviewers, Jeff Gill, Andrew Martin, Guillermo Rosas,
Jamie Monogan, Santiago Olivella, Noel Johnston, and
Tsung-han Tsai for their valuable comments and sugges-
tions on this article. Special thanks to Nate Jensen for his
helpful advice and comments during the writing process.
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CHIA-YI LEE, b. 1982, PhD candidate in Political Science
(Washington University in St Louis); current main interests:
international political economy, resource curse, terrorism,
foreign direct investment.
248 journal of PEACE RESEARCH 50(2)
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