Do Terrorists Ever Win?

War headlines

Will the recent tragic Bastille Day attack help the terrorists achieve their goals?

A 2006 analysis by Max Abrahms suggests that it probably won’t.

As horrifying as their attacks are, terrorists who bomb and shoot noncombatants don’t win.

Looking at the 28 groups that the U.S. Department of State had designated as foreign terrorist organizations at the time, Abrahms set out to systematically determine whether they’d achieved the things they set out to do.

Abrahms starts out by looking at the terrorist groups’ stated objectives. This makes sense, he wrote, because scholars of terrorism generally understand these groups to be explicit about their goals. Altogether, he lists 42 policy objectives named by the groups.

Then, he considers whether the groups achieved all or part of their goals. He does find some clear instances of success by well-known terrorist forces. Hezbollah succeeded in two of its goals: driving peacekeeping and Israeli forces out of southern Lebanon in 1984 and in 2000. The Tamil Tigers also won a major victory, taking control over parts of Sri Lanka starting in 1990.

But Abrahms wrote that those three victories—which are frequently cited by scholars of terrorism—are the only terrorist success stories out of the 42 objectives surveyed. That’s only a 7 percent success rate. In contrast, he wrote, other forms of coercion have much better chances of success. Even economic sanctions, which are not generally considered a very effective way to accomplish anything, succeed about a third of the time.

Part of the reason terrorists were generally unsuccessful was that, in many cases, their goals were enormous. Twenty-two of the objectives Abrahms looked at were “maximalist”—things like converting a country to a Marxist or Islamist political system, or destroying it entirely. Not surprisingly, the groups did not accomplish any of the goals in this category. The three success stories involved much narrower objectives concerning control over a piece of territory.

But even in eight cases where the goal involved territory, five of the terror campaigns failed. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Harakat ul-Mujahidin in Pakistan, the Basque group ETA, and the Real Irish Republican Party all failed to end what they considered foreign occupations.

Abrahms writes that another key to whether terrorists succeeded or failed was their method. The State Department list included both organizations that mainly targeted civilians and guerrilla groups that usually attacked military targets. The guerrilla groups were the only ones that had any success.

He writes that this is the result of the way target countries perceive the attacks. Groups that indiscriminately murder civilians are automatically seen as having maximalist goals—that is, wanting to completely destroy a society. And that perception makes it very unlikely that anyone will grant them even minor concessions.

So the upshot is, as horrifying as their attacks are, terrorists who bomb and shoot noncombatants don’t win.

JSTOR Citations

Why Terrorism Does Not Work

By: Max Abrahms

International Security, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Fall, 2006), pp. 42-78

MIT Press

Livia Gershon

Livia Gershon is a freelance writer in Nashua, New Hampshire. Her writing has appeared in publications including Salon, Aeon Magazine and the Good Men Project. Contact her on Twitter @liviagershon.

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