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Is Terrorism Effective?

It doesn't usually achieve its objectives—and the perpetrators know it.

There might well be thousands of books on terrorism, which means that it is extremely difficult to imagine something new. But Richard English’s Does Terrorism Work? A History, due to be released next month, differs from most discussions of the terror phenomenon.

English is not a former intelligence officer or national-security official, nor a self-styled foreign-policy expert. He is instead a distinguished historian, born in Northern Ireland and currently a professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He has written four books on the Irish Republican Army and is very knowledgeable of the history and development of terrorist groups, primarily European ones. He is prone not only to ask questions, but also to try to answer them, having written in 2009 Terrorism: How to Respond.

I found Does Terrorism Work? particularly interesting, as my own career as a counterterrorism officer began in the mid-1970s, when terrorism was still pretty much Western European. I know quite a bit about the groups that English discusses, and I am also intimately familiar with the countermeasures that were employed to combat and eventually defeat them.

English basically accepts the United Nations language on what constitutes terrorism, which is: an action “intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a Government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.” He observes that the threat of terror is greatly exaggerated for political reasons, and he notes that efforts to confront it through a global crusade like the U.S.-led War on Terror do little other than create more terrorists. He counsels a restrained response.

In coming to those conclusions he is far from alone. But English also shares his historian’s insights into how groups develop and are motivated, in part to help readers understand how public policy might respond to the actual threat that these groups constitute. As his title indicates, one of the central questions relating to terrorism—and one that oddly has received little attention—is whether it’s effective in achieving what terrorists seek to achieve.

English grades terrorist groups based on whether they achieved their objectives—a process that Thomas Nagel, writing in the London Review of Books, describes as a “report card.” Along the way he makes some assumptions. For example, he posits that terrorist leaders are not as a rule crazy. They are rational players in that they have well-defined political objectives that they seek to attain and that they explicitly lay out in their manifestos. Terror is consequently best seen as a tool in a political process.

English focuses on four terrorist entities—the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Euskadi Ta Akatasuna (ETA), Hamas, and al-Qaeda—though he discusses a number of other groups in passing. Three of his four groups have clearly demonstrated nationalist aspirations; they seek the union of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland (IRA), Basque independence from Spain (ETA), and restoration of Arab-Muslim hegemony in Palestine (Hamas). Al-Qaeda is defined by English as a “religio-political” movement that is transnational, but it too embraces territorial objectives, including removing the United States from the Middle East and overthrowing and replacing most of the “corrupt” Muslim regimes that are universally in power both in the region as well as in the remainder of the Islamic Ummah.

The book examines in considerable detail the histories of these groups. It notes that an overwhelming percentage of Irishmen and Basques do not and never have embraced the violent agenda promoted by the IRA and ETA, meaning that any kind of terrorist political ascendancy would never have popular support. And the groups have understood from the get-go that they would never defeat, say, the British Army or the Guardia Civil.

English also observes that the existence of terrorist groups actually hampered the moves toward greater regional autonomy, as terrorism hardened existing government positions and tended to undermine the efforts being made by more moderate reformers. In other words, Basque and Northern Irish autonomy would have come sooner without the distraction provided by the IRA and ETA—and change, when it did come, came in spite of the presence of these hostile armed groups, not because of it.

Al-Qaeda likewise is not particularly popular in the Muslim world and has accomplished little more than empowering the existing Islamic governments to get even tougher with dissidents. Its “victories,” as at 9/11, have been merely tactical and have led to the virtual destruction of the group. Hamas falls into the same trap with its continued support of violence against Israel, actually empowering leaders like Benjamin Netanyahu (who are skillful at using the “threat” to justify increasingly hardline responses) while frustrating any attempts by moderates to establish a viable modus vivendi between Jews and Arabs. Netanyahu might not even exist without Hamas.

One might also mention Hezbollah. The group scored a major tactical success when it blew up the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, but the bombings did not translate into any larger political role until the group became more conventional.

Indeed, the book describes in detail only two terrorist movements that plausibly were driving forces in bringing about real political change. The first was 1945-47 Palestine, where Jewish terrorists (primarily associated with the Stern Gang, Irgun, and Haganah) eventually compelled the British to hand over the problem to the United Nations, resulting in the creation of the state of Israel. The second was the campaign by the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) to drive the French out of Algeria from 1954 until 1962. But even in those cases, English plausibly makes the case that the British or French could easily have crushed the terrorists, but were not motivated to make the effort, because both countries were retrenching militarily and politically post-World War II. There was also very little popular support back at home for either war, which means that while terror may have accelerated the timetable for withdrawal, it was not a major factor in bringing it about.

All of which leads English to conclude that terrorism has never “worked”—that it has failed to succeed in achieving its principal objectives in strategic terms—a judgment that I would share based on my own experience. And that point is where the book really becomes interesting, as English goes on to argue that terror is unsuccessful not because it employs violence, but rather because its goals are generally unachievable by any means. Given the dismal record of failure by terrorists, English concludes that terrorists cannot win and must even know that they can never win.

And winning is important. One only has to note how ISIS was flooded with volunteers when it was seen as successful, a process that has been reversed now that it is in decline. The persistent failure of terror actually challenges English’s assumption that its leaders are truly rational players, and it also demands some exploration of what motivates the rank-and-file, as it is hardly logical to pursue a policy that you know will not succeed and that will eventually lead to your death. Nagel describes terrorist activity as “delusional.” This failure to connect with reality also potentially upends the perception, which I have shared, that all terrorism is at heart political.

English’s meticulous examination of documents and personal testimony from various groups reveals that both leaders and followers who are prepared to kill large numbers of innocent civilians do not necessarily expect to be rewarded with victory over government forces or benefit personally from political transformation. English concludes instead that they are frequently driven by hatred and the desire to get revenge for the suffering and humiliation inflicted on them by what they regard as an illegitimate government, or by foreigners or foreign governments. He cites, among other evidence, a quotation by Osama bin Laden: “Every Muslim, from the moment they realize the distinction in their hearts, hates Americans, hates Jews and hates Christians.”

So is it possible that George W. Bush was right when he said “they hate us for our freedom”? Well, not exactly, though they certainly do hate us. To be accurate, a lot of the hatred from Islamic terrorist groups is blowback for what we Americans have been doing to Muslims in a tangible and very visible way. If I were a Muslim living in the Middle East or South Asia, it would be very difficult for me to concur with any mainstream-media depiction of the United States as some kind of benevolent hegemon.

English perhaps underappreciates how the brutality and unpredictability of terrorist attacks serve as force multipliers, providing “little victories” and often compelling governments to act contrary to their true interests, even if the eventual result is something less than regime change. And it is certainly possible to disagree with him over the rationality of terrorist leaders in light of his own conclusions. But his observation that terrorism always fails certainly gives one pause in attempts to explain the appeal of quasi-political violent movements that are by nature suicidal. Perhaps attributing it to hatred and revenge taken together, rather than to any rational process seeking to bring about real change, is as close as we can come to understanding it.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.

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