Does terrorism work as a political strategy? The evidence says no

Apr 3, 2016

Photo credit: Olivier Hoslet/EPA

By Max Abrahms

The conventional wisdom holds that Islamic State is mean and successful, and that Islamic State is so successful precisely because it is so mean. That’s because most people unwittingly subscribe to what I call the Strategic Model of Terrorism. As the name suggests, the Strategic Model assumes that angry young men turn to terrorism because it’s strategic behavior. Terrorism may be immoral, but it offers them the best chance to redress their grievances by coercing governments into accommodating their political demands.

According to this view, Hamas members are smart to attack Jews; the Kurdistan Workers’ Party is shrewd to kill Turks; and the Islamic State exhibits cunning when it decapitates journalists. The violence may not be pretty, but it’s a dependable way to secure a Palestinian state or a Kurdish state or to force the international community to accept a caliphate.

Although governments say they don’t negotiate with terrorists, the causal logic of the Strategic Model may seem sound: As the pain to their civilians mounts, governments are tempted to grant the terrorists’ demands in order to appease them. Proponents of the Strategic Model highlight how governments soften their political stances when their civilians are attacked in order to help protect them.

There’s just one problem with this common narrative – it lacks empirical support. Over a decade ago, I began publishing the first systematic studies on the political effects of terrorism. What I’ve found is that terrorism is actually a surprisingly ineffective political instrument.

Conventionally, terrorism means violence committed by nonstate actors against civilians for a presumed political goal. If we define terrorism in this standard way, it turns out that the tactic is highly correlated with political failure. There are some anomalous cases in which attacks on civilians worked out politically, such as when Spain decided to withdraw from Iraq after the 2004 Madrid train attacks. But throughout history, there are surprisingly few exceptions to this rule.

Statistically, my research establishes that attacks on civilians actually lower the likelihood of government concessions. This is true even after we account for all sorts of other factors that could possibly explain the association between terrorism and political failure, like the capability of the perpetrators and the nature of their demands. Rather than appeasing the perpetrators, governments almost always go on the offensive when their civilians are struck.


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19 comments on “Does terrorism work as a political strategy? The evidence says no

  • Terrorism : killing civilians with the intent of changing their political affiliation.
    ~ Caleb Carr 1955-08-02 , military historian

    It is still terrorism even when our soldiers kill civilians.



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  • The Israeli state came into being because of terrorism, the Irish Republic was formed due to terrorism, Sinn Fein sit in power in N Ireland due to terrorism, Kenya is a state due to terrorism, S Africa is free due to terrorism, Zimbabwe likewise. OK, terrorism might not be the whole story, but it’s certainly a very big part of it. I could go on, to Latin America, the former Soviet Union, North Africa, but I won’t bore you. BTW, I completely agree with Roedy, armies use terror, AKA Shock and Awe.



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  • I think Abrams might argue that just because terrorism occoured in the run up to the creation of the states that Eejit mentions does NOT necessarily mean that terrorism was an effective or major factor. As we often state in relation to other discussions in these columns, co-occurrence is not a proof of causality.



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  • hardy #3
    Apr 4, 2016 at 7:43 am

    I think Abrams might argue that just because terrorism occoured in the run up to the creation of the states that Eejit mentions does NOT necessarily mean that terrorism was an effective or major factor.

    Clearly other political factors have to be involved – Quite often terrorist leaders, are placed in government following successful revolutions, or settlements of conflicts.

    The chaos and turmoil in Iraq after the gulf wars, was largely down to the absence of any Bush senior or junior follow-up plan, when the shock and awe of battle ended.



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  • eejit #2
    Apr 4, 2016 at 5:09 am terrorism might not be the whole story, but it’s certainly a very big part of it

    hardy #3
    Apr 4, 2016 at 7:43 am

    I think Abrams might argue that just because terrorism occoured in the run up to the creation of the states that Eejit mentions does NOT necessarily mean that terrorism was an effective or major factor

    Thanks Hardy, I already said that.

    co-occurrence is not a proof of causality

    Hume D, <>A Treatise of Human Nature:</> Bk1, Pt 1, Sect 1V, <>Of the Connection or Association of Ideas,</> Bk 1, Pt 111, Sec11, <>Of probability; and the idea of cause and effect</>



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  • eejit @ # 2.

    The exception in the list you cite is South Africa; the parents of a girlfriend of mine were deported for assisting the ANC, and they told me that their policy was to target the social and economical infrastructure of the country, not its people.

    The deportees of whom I speak were of course white; had they been black, doubtless a worse fate would have befallen them.

    Apart from the brilliant speech he made at his trial, I think that was why Mandela wasn’t executed; he had not suborned or committed murder; the charge was treason.

    However, as always, I stand to be corrected. And I know of no better place than this to do that.



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  • @eejit

    Hi Eejit

    In all the examples you cite there were other factors besides terrorism, (or armed struggle depending on which side of the fence you sit), that played a greater role in precipitating change. African countries that gained independence during the latter half of the last century owe far more to shifting political winds in the rest of the world, (e.g. end of the cold war, disinvestment campaign in SA). Also, and as Stafford pointed out, the ANC made it clear their targets were economic / infrastructure rather than civilians. It was only because Nelson Mandela was perceived as someone with whom the whites could do business that they ended up negotiating their way out of power.

    It’s very hard to argue, for any of the instances you mention, that the violence itself precipitated change. In several cases, such as the guerilla movements in Latin America, there is a compelling argument that the violence actually delayed any progress towards meaningful reform. I can’t help but wonder how much further along the Palestinians would be today in their struggle for a state had their leadership opted for peaceful resistance instead of brutality.



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  • @bonnie

    Hi Bonnie

    Unfortunately the US and other countries are working flat out to ensure that their next wars are fought from the comfort and safety of their own territory. I am very much alarmed by this, as the threat of casualties to their own side is one of the few things that can keep a democratic hegemon in check, (undemocratic hegemons of course need not worry about this).

    A recent movie “Eye in the Sky” touches on this. It’s well worth seeing.



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  • 10
    rocket888 says:

    I thought Bin Laden said he wanted to bankrupt the US as one of his top goals for 9/11. He also wanted to make us feel the oppression of our own government. What with the militarism of the police (no more peace officers) using swat teams to enforce parking tickets, I think something has definitely changed this century.

    Considering how broke we’ve become (unless you ignore the huge debt) and how we’ve lost most of our bill of rights, one has to think that goal too is nearly achieved. We went from the richest nation on the earth to the largest debtor nation in history.

    How much of that was because of 9/11 we’ll probably never really know. Trump’s message that invading countries doesn’t do us any good seems to be resonating with the economically challenged public. I think it’s a bit early to call terrorism a political failure.



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  • The MK was the military wing of the ANC, or more correctly the SA Communist Party which was one of the main constituents of the ANC. I’m no expert, but they did target civilians, or at least let off bombs where civilians were killed. A great deal of it came out in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. There was also widespread African-on-African political violence in the townships.



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  • rocket888 #10
    Apr 4, 2016 at 10:36 pm

    I thought Bin Laden said he wanted to bankrupt the US as one of his top goals for 9/11.

    He certainly had high finance from fighting the Russians earlier and from Saudi oil money!

    http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/03/01/468692846/osama-bin-ladens-will-29-million-that-should-be-spent-on-jihad

    A handwritten will by Osama bin Laden said he had a fortune of “about 29 million dollars” and that most of it should be spent “on Jihad,” according to documents released by the U.S. government on Tuesday.

    One of the world terrorism problems is dirty money and weapons fed to terrorists by foreign powers!



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  • john.wb #8
    Apr 4, 2016 at 4:01 pm:

    It’s very hard to argue, for any of the instances you mention, that the violence itself precipitated change.

    It’s very hard to see that the whites of Africa would have given up their political and economic power and their pleasant lifestyle, unless they had been driven to it by violence. Nor would the Israelis have handed back power and land, which they won by terror, even if the Palestinians had rolled over and passively accepted everything. Terrorism hasn’t worked for them, neither has, or would anything else. And for that matter, the British didn’t withdraw from their responsibilities in the Mandate, ’cause they thought the Israelis were nice blokes. The French wouldn’t have got out of Algeria, or the British from Cyprus without terror.

    Street demonstrations and good will from people don’t win political power, as those in Sharpville, on Burntullet Bridge, or in the Bogside will tell you quickly enough. In India the British used as much violence as they wanted to suppress civil unrest, until they finally realised that they were on a loser, but then to win in that sort of peaceful confrontation you need to be facing a small population of colonialists, with a very large population of natives.

    When the dominant, controlling enemy, war-weary and realising that it’s likely to go on for ever, when they finally realise that the cause is lost, they negotiate and then dress the whole agreement up as a new beginning, a dawning of peace, maturing population, realising the mistakes of the past, new willingness to cooperate from the opposition…anything: as the Chinese proverb says: the reality that has no name and the name that has no reality.



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  • or the British from Cyprus without terror.

    In his memoirs Grivas admits to “by deeds of heroism and self sacrifice to draw the attention of international public opinion, especially among the allies of Greece”.[9]

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EOKA

    The Greek Cypriots are very keen to distiguish between EOKA (A) and EOKA (B). Even in the link the second line is keen to show this, “Not to be confused with EOKA B.” EOKA (A) were the ones seeking independence whilst at the same time wanting union with Greece, ENOSIS (A religious word wanting all greek speaking people and lands united. EOKA (B) is disowned by Greek Cypriots as terrorists from Greece and are the ones that tried to wipe the Turkish Cypriots from Cyprus. EOKA (A) day is still celebrated in South Cyprus waving Greek flags. They are seen as heroes. They would rather forget about EOKA (B). The Greek Cypriots are now the recognised government of Cyprus with no real explanation as to how and under which constitution. Since 1974, although isolated, there has been no terrorist attacks from Turkish Cypriots as Turkey has been their international voice (Which has its own problems as in robbing Turkish Cypriots of their voice and identity).

    As usual, we have Russian involvement on one side and the west on the other. The strong links between Greeks and Russia through the Orthodox church was a threat to the west and the British stood to lose to the Russians. The compromise. to appease the Greeks, was an independent Cyprus with two British sovereign bases. The compromise for Turkey was a partnership government with Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Whenever relations between Britain and ‘Cyprus’ gets a bit tense, the British bases come up as to whether they should be allowed on sovereign “Cypriot” soil. A few Russian ships turn up out of the blue as well. On the other side, Turkey is manoeuvring for its own agenda. All acts of terrorism?

    I don’t see how any of these strategies apply to ISIS though. They have no allies…do they? Can they be classed as terrorist, although it is and act of terror, or is it war and that is the only weapon they have against the west? Just asking!



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  • Statistically, my research establishes that attacks on civilians actually lower the likelihood of government concessions

    That’s too narrow a definition of what terrorists are after. There are times when terrorism clearly works. One of the issues is that when it works and some organization wins then they re-write history and the terrorists become freedom fighters. A good example is Israel. The Zionist movement in the 40’s and 50’s had a significant extreme wing that openly advocated and practiced terrorism. Their goal was to make Arabs and Muslims so afraid of Zionist terrorism that they would leave Palestine and they were successful, there was a mass exodus from Palestine as the result of Zionist terrorism.

    Or consider Al Queda. Bin Laden never thought the US was going to give up after 9/11. His goal was to make the US over react and to commit US troops to the region which would cause a backlash against the US and the West. It worked. Bush did exactly what Bin Laden hoped he would do. Or the terrorists who attacked the train in Spain (struggling to avoid My Fair Lady pun). Their goal was to get Spain out of Iraq and it worked.

    Terrorism does work sometimes. But the more important issue is WHY do people resort to terrorism in the first place. They do it out of desperation and a backlash against military power. This has all been documented with academic rigor by people like Scott Atran and Robert Pape.



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  • @RedDog

    Bin Laden never thought the US was going to give up after 9/11. His goal was to make the US over react and to commit US troops to the region which would cause a backlash against the US and the West

    Citation please. I’ve heard this repeated often but I don’t recall seeing any published strategy document outlining such a plan – it seems to have been an invention of the anti-war coalition.

    Regardless of whether this was in fact the plan, the 9/11 attacks were a strategic disaster for Al Qaeda. They led directly to the ousting of the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as the killing or near-killing of most of Al Qaeda’s leaders at the time. The group itself was decimated, it’s leadership decapitated, and since then has never been able to mount any serious operation against targets in the West.

    Actually Al Qaeda has been very clear about what it wants. 1) Establishing a single Islamic leadership, 2) expel the US from Saudi Arabia and 3) end western support for Israel. By any of these measures they have failed miserably.



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  • Disingenuous article, refuted well by eejit.

    I find even the definition of “terrorism” disingenuous, as it excluded state actors, such as invading armies. Terror is terror whether backed by a nation’s government or not.

    BTW, weren’t the colonists who fought for Independence from Britain also called “terrorists”, by the Brits? I mean the ones in the English-speaking colonies of North America, two-hundred-and-something years ago, which later became the USA. Would they have gained their independence without violence? Wasn’t the T-party thing a “terrorist act”? Economic sabotage, certainly, all that valuable tea….



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  • refuted well by eejit

    Many thanks O Hooligan for the nice compliment. Very occasaionally when I try to say somenting sensible, it works! Not often though.



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  • OHooligan #17
    Apr 5, 2016 at 10:00 pm

    Wasn’t the T-party thing a “terrorist act”? Economic sabotage, certainly, all that valuable tea….

    Oh yes it certainly was part of their whole terrorism strategy! I think this should be pointed out to my fellow Bostonians who would give their eye teeth to claim ancestry to those original tea partiers! Relationship to the original American Revolutionaries and to the Mayflower passengers is a source of great pride around here. Apparently their own terrorists are wonderful but everyone else’s are horrifying.

    Just the word “Revolutionaries” is a hint at what was going on. Isn’t some sort of violence implied in the word Revolution?

    Wiki definition:

    A revolution (from the Latin revolutio, “a turn around”) is a fundamental change in political power or organizational structures that takes place in a relatively short period of time when the population rises up in revolt against the current authorities.

    These things are usually messy affairs.

    Hey Red Dog. Nice to see you. Stick around.



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