Prospect Theory Suggests the Islamic State is Primed for Risk-Seeking Behavior

By: Collin Meisel

Photo Credit: The Guardian

Iraqi forces have recaptured Mosul, Raqqa is surrounded by US-backed forces, and, in all likelihood, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is no more.[1] For all intents and purposes, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate is dead. So, is it time to celebrate and declare victory?

Not exactly.

Much like a cornered animal, the Islamic State has—at least in the short term—grown more dangerous, not less. Given its current situation, the Islamic State is more likely to pursue high-risk, high-reward attacks now more than ever, including attempted uses of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons. Thus, last month’s thwarted Islamic State plot to deploy a chemical dispersion device in Australia may be the first of many.[2]

This perhaps counterintuitive argument, that the Islamic State on its heels is actually more prone to deploy CBRN weapons, is driven by the economic principle known as prospect theory. First described by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky, prospect theory contends that individuals are risk averse relative to gains and risk-seeking relative to losses.[3] In other words, given a choice between two actions that have identical payouts, most individuals will prefer the “sure bet” (100% chance of a $1,000 reward) over the “risky” option (50% chance of a $0 reward and a 50% chance of a $2,000 reward) when their decision is framed in reference to gains. Conversely, those same individuals will typically prefer the “risky” option (50% chance of 0 deaths and a 50% chance of 10 deaths) over the “sure bet” (100% chance of 5 deaths) when their decision is framed in reference to losses.

This behavior flies in the face of the more commonly understood expected utility theory, which suggests that people assess the probability of events multiplied by their costs (or benefits) and choose the option with the highest payout. In the examples above, rational people should be indifferent between the “sure bets” and “risky” options given their equal payouts. And yet, as Kahneman and Tversky’s experiments demonstrated, human beings are rarely so rational.

Prospect theory may appear to be an odd lens through which to examine terrorism given its origins in experimental psychology and typical application in microeconomic models of behavior, but this lens is fitting for two reasons. First, prospect theory illuminates the ever-present subconscious drivers behind both routine and radical decisions made by each and every one of us every day, whether a teacher, tow-truck driver, or terrorist. But second, and more importantly, the theory jibes with the Islamic State’s particular brand of Jihadi-Salafism, which, in the words of al-Baghdadi, encourages “offensive jihad” against non-believers “in their home territory” until “no idolater remain[s] in the world.”[4] This is indeed a risky prospect, and one that essentially declares it is each Islamic State fighter’s duty to continue the struggle no matter what.

Whether these fighters are likely to embrace such a risky prospect first demands an answer to the following: is the Islamic State winning or losing?

Unequivocally, the Islamic State is losing. After the group’s recent loss of Mosul, the Islamic State now holds less than one-fifth of the territory in Iraq that it had initially conquered in 2014.[5] As the Institute for the Study of War recently reported, the Islamic State’s outlook in Syria is similarly bleak.[6] No longer “remaining and expanding”—as Islamic State’s early mantra insisted—these territorial losses will invariably translate into a loss of prestige.

Given these losses, prospect theory suggests the Islamic State’s decision-making calculus will subconsciously shift to more strongly favor “risky” attacks—those with a high risk for failure but sure to grab headlines if successful. Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service Daniel Byman recently made a similar argument in testimony before Congress, asserting the Islamic State “will require high-profile actions to stay relevant.”[7] A CBRN attack, while risky, would undoubtedly be “high-profile.”

Disturbingly, the Islamic State has reportedly attempted to obtain nuclear materials in the past.[8] Additionally, the group is said to be establishing a “chemical weapons cell” near the Iraqi-Syrian border.[9] And while Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London has discounted the likelihood of terror groups weaponizing biological agents,[10] the Islamic State’s unique assortment of experts and financial resources, at least from a conventional perspective, place the group more in the league of state-sponsors than a traditional terrorist organization.[11] Thus, such an attack is not outside the realm of possibility.

It is important to note, however, that there is some indication the Islamic State’s external operations wing, and particularly its ability to coordinate with the organization’s leadership, has been severely degraded by the elimination of top-tier foreign fighters.[12] If this is the case, the coordination required to construct, smuggle, and ultimately deliver a CBRN weapon may truly be out of the organization’s reach. Indeed, the Washington Post recently reported the Islamic State’s failure to capitalize on radiological material stored in a Mosul university under its control for over two years, but this “near-miss” may have simply been dumb luck (or un-luck).[13] Should even the remote possibility remain that the group can carry out a CBRN attack—and indeed, Jennifer Cafarella and Melissa Pavlik of the Institute for the Study of War have recently argued that the Islamic State’s external network is very much intact[14]—the potentially devastating consequences demand that this nightmare scenario not be ignored.

Perhaps the Islamic State has previously calculated that CBRN attacks are too costly and too likely to fail to be worth the effort. Prospect theory warns us that this may no longer be the case. Rather than celebrate, the Islamic State’s foes should be their most alert. The group is primed for its most risk-seeking behavior yet.

Collin Meisel is Master of Public Policy candidate at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy and a research intern for the Unconventional Weapons and Technology Division at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START).

[1] Krishnadev Calamur, “Is the ISIS Leader Al-Baghdadi Dead?” The Atlantic, July 11, 2017,

[2] Jaqueline Williams, “Australia Details ‘Sophisticated’ Plot by ISIS to Take Down Plane,” New York Times, August 4, 2017,

[3] Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk,” Econometric 47, no.2 (1979): 263-91, doi: 10.2307/1914185.

[4] Cole Bunzel, “From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State,” The Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World Analysis Paper no. 19 (March 2015): 10,

[5] Jack Moore, “After Mosul Losses, ISIS Now Controls Less than Seven Percent of Iraq,” Newsweek, April 11, 2017,

[6] Institute for the Study of War, “ISIS Sanctuary: July 10, 2017,” July 11, 2017,

[7] Beyond Iraq and Syria: ISIS’ Ability to Conduct Attacks Abroad: Hearing Before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 115th Cong. (2017)(statement of Daniel Byman, Senior Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution),

[8] Patrick Malone, “A Terrorist Group’s Plot to Create a Radioactive ‘Dirty Bomb,” The Center for Public Integrity, February 29, 2016,

[9] Ryan Browne and Barbara Starr, “First on CNN: ISIS Creating Chemical Weapons Cell in New De Facto Capital, US Official Says,” CNN, May 17, 2017,

[10] Filippa Lentzos, “Ignore Bill Gates: Where Bioweapons Focus Really Belongs,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July 3, 2017,

[11] Audrey Kurth Cronin, “ISIS is More Than a Terrorist Group,” Foreign Affairs¸ March 23, 2016,

[12] Thomas Joscelyn, “CENTCOM: Three Senior Islamic State Foreign Fighters Killed,” Long War Journal, May 26, 2017,

[13] Joby Warrick and Loveday Morris, “How ISIS Nearly Stumbled on the Ingredients for a ‘Dirty Bomb,” Washington Post, July 22, 2017,

[14] Jennifer Cafarella and Melissa Pavlik, “ISIS’s Global Campaign Remains Intact,” Institute for the Study of War, June 14, 2017,

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