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As a Strategy for Achieving Political Change, Terrorism is Ineffective or Has Terrorism Ever Achieved its Aim?

Posted By June 21, 2019 No Comments

A paper

Presented to: Dr. Shiraz Maher and Dr. Alexander Hitchens

For: Terrorism and Counterterrorism

By Bartek Zalech R Ph

War Studies Department

King’s College, London

The answer to the question of terrorism being a strategy able to achieve political change or as being effective in achieving its aims is one that is complicated by several factors. In order to answer these questions this essay will address these factors by first providing a working definition of terrorism. After which the distinction between tactics and strategies will be discussed and how each can affect the outcomes of the goals that a terrorist group may have established for themselves. Following this a contrast will be made between how tactics may only gain short-term aims whereas a strategy could achieve a well-defined and attainable goal. Also a review of articles and arguments from several leading scholars in the field of terrorism regarding the topic of  “if the strategy of terrorism works” will be presented along with the statistics that give credence to some of the conclusions that will be reached on the initial questions governing this essay. And finally a case study from the ethno-nationalist wave of terrorism will be presented to show that given the right geopolitical circumstances a strategy involving terrorism can achieve a reasonable and well-defined political goal.

The definition of terrorism remains highly contested to this day both from an international legal perspective and from an academic perspective. Schmid in 2012 narrowed down an academic consensus of definitions of terrorism down to twelve after copious research.[1] The single most compelling reason for this difficulty is because the meaning of the word has changed so often over the course of the last two centuries.[2] Terrorism is the use of violence or the threat of violence by non-state actors in order to achieve a politically desired outcome. The violence used is meant to have longstanding psychological effects on individuals other than the victims or targets of the violence. Fundamental to most descriptions and definitions of terrorism is the notion that those who engage in it do not abide by conventional norms of political violence instead they intentionally target innocent individuals.[3] The definition of terrorism makes the distinction between terrorism and insurgencies, guerilla warfare, and militant attacks; terrorist acts are generally reserved for targeting civilians, whereas the latter three types of violence typically concentrate on military targets.[4] For the purpose of this essay the working definition of terrorism will be comprised of the following characteristics: Terrorism is a combination of strategies and violent tactics in which the victims are ordinary civilians and noncombatants, which are a sub-element of the broader target being the government. The tactics make up strategies that are used by groups in pursuit of objectives of a political, social, economic, and/or religious nature. And the violence has a symbolic meaning that is carried out by non-state actors. [5]

Terrorism is just one form of political violence that can be used by groups to achieve their goals.[6] Terrorism is not an ideology but rather one tactic amongst many in the repertoire of political violence used in order to achieve strategic goals that stem from an ideology.[7] A terrorist organization must continually reassess the appropriateness of their tactics relating to political violence on a scale of least to most appropriate based on the following four factors: “Method, target, regime type being contested, and their goal or ideology.” [8]An organization that understands these concepts and is able to apply them correctly throughout their strategy could mean the difference between success and failure in achieving their goals.[9] The tactical portion of a terrorist organization is used to help achieve objectives of the main strategy. An example of a tactic is the use of suicide bombings by Hamas.[10] The tactic of terrorism rarely if ever achieves the full political aims a group formulated, however some scholars have identified that terrorism may achieve partial aims such as territorial or policy concessions.[11]

A strategy involves the terrorist organization, the enemy-state or government and the target audience and is made up of several tactical objectives. Crenshaw’s definition of strategy: “requires a precisely specified political objective” along with a plan or scheme that will achieve the stated objectives.[12] Groups that are successful are those who establish what success is  (perpetuation of tactical violence, maintenance of status quo, or political shift) and who have a precise and well defined ideology. Terrorist’s five most prominent goals that have endured throughout history are: Regime change, territorial change, policy change, social control, and maintenance of the status quo.[13] Strategic success is measured by attaining the objectives set forth by the ideology of the group.[14] Scholars have established and defined a set of five strategies that terrorist groups use at specific times in the course of their campaigns, these are: Attrition, intimidation, provocation, spoiling, and outbidding.[15] Leaders of terrorist organizations must know which of these tactics to employ in timely manner and in specific conditions and must also be able to recognize and understand the environment they find themselves in: democracy versus an authoritarian regime. Democracies may be more dovish in their approaches to counterterrorism whereas authoritarian regimes are more likely to act in a hawkish way.[16] Information is key for terrorist groups, especially when having to change perceptions about their acts and communicating these to their target audience effectively as part of their strategy. Without such adaptations they could overplay their hand by overusing terrorist tactics leading to miscalculations that set their strategic considerations behind, such as the 1972 massacre at the Munich Olympics, which led to condemnation of the PLO by a majority of nation-states at the United Nations General Assembly.[17] Successful terrorist organizations have a leader who is knowledgeable and who surrounds’ himself with individuals who are well versed in a broad range of topics.[18] The organization must have recruits who are willing to learn and study the past successes and failures of previous terrorist organizations, these are known as learning organizations. The group must also have solid means of recruitment of fighters, resources such as safe haven or territory as well as funds. These are all pieces of a greater strategy that give a terrorist organization the best chance at attaining its established strategic goals.[19]

An ideology is a system of ideas, motivations, and goals that form the basis of terrorist theory and policy. An ideology influences the objectives, tactics, targets, weapons that are used, and the overall strategy of the terrorist organization. The historical and contextual dimension of society could determine the ideology of a terrorist group. In order for a terrorist organization to be successful the first step is to precisely define its ideology and goals, but also to make sure that these goals are realistic and attainable.[20] According to Gupta: “While terrorist organizations are most often able to achieve their short-term strategic objectives, very few can reach their long-term goals.”[21] Wilkinson and Richardson come to the same conclusions about terrorist organizations: “in certain conditions they may be able to achieve some level of strategic impact on macro-political events but it’s clear that terrorism rarely, if ever, wins strategic political goals.”[22]

English argues that in order to determine whether or not “Terrorism Works”, the consequences of the acts of terrorism perpetrated by each group must be studied by comparing the group’s declared ideology or strategic goals and the outcome of their campaigns.[23] A good way to answer this is to look at a terrorist groups’ manifesto, ideology, or set of stated goals and compare these to the actual achievements of the organization. As stated earlier the most common goals of terrorist organizations are: Regime change, territorial change, policy change, social control, and maintenance of the status quo. And strategy involves three players: the terrorist organization, the state or government against which they act, and the target audience.[24]  Therefore the objective is to analyze whether the strategies employing terrorism are successful in achieving these goals. By comparing the five most common strategies used by terrorists and their objectives an inference may be drawn that shows that there is a “calculated and systematic approach to the way in which terrorist organizations employ violence to accomplish their goals.” From this it can be argued that “winning” or “working” is closely tied to: “An agenda based on shifting the terrorists’ bargaining position and overall dynamics of the conflict in the group’s favor, as well as increasing levels of support and social control.”[25] The model of “Strategies of Terrorist Violence” developed by Kydd and Walter indicate that coercive diplomacy or bargaining are performed via strategies of attrition (power and resolve) and spoiling (trustworthiness) which are used against the enemy-state in order to create an initial psychological impact and shift the balance of political conflicts in their favor. These strategies alone may lead to concessions from the government with regards to policy or territory.[26] A classic example of attrition is the 1983 attacks by Hezbollah against the U.S. Marine Barracks, which although a military target, led to the withdrawal of the U.S. from Lebanon. Depending on the level of success of this coercive diplomacy, a terrorist organization must also concentrate its efforts on the domestic audience being repressed by the enemy-state. Here techniques such as provocation, outbidding, or intimidation are used in order to gain public support and compliance for the terrorist group.[27]

There are basically two camps of belief when it comes to the strategy of terrorism being able to achieve its stated goals: those who believe that it works, and those who believe it doesn’t. The debate centers around the achievability of the goals, which according to English fall into four categories: Achieving a full strategic victory centered around a group’s primary goals, a partial strategic victory where a group partially secures its central goal or its secondary strategic goal, tactical success such as securing concessions, gaining publicity, undermining the opponents, and finally attaining the inherent rewards of struggles independent of central goals. Some scholars who believe that terrorism works are: Dershowitz, Pape, Gould, and Klor. Dershowitz’ work on the effects of terrorism comes from a political/law perspective but is extensive looking at a period of time between 1968 and 2001. According to Dershowitz the strategy works:  “The real root cause of terrorism is that it is successful, terrorists have consistently benefited from their terrorist acts.” [28] He blames the international community in rewarding terrorists by offering concessions to them over a period of thirty-five years. There is no quantitative work performed by Dershowitz only examples of concessions awarded to terrorist organizations such as the PLO. Dershowitz hence judges that terrorism is a successful strategy because it gains some tactical successes and perhaps partial gains in secondary strategic goals. Gould and Klor on the other hand took a quantitative approach to Palestinian terrorism and its effects on Israeli responses between 1986 and 2006.[29] The data obtained from the study lead the authors to conclude two things regarding the effectiveness of terrorism as a strategy, first over time Israeli’s became more willing to accommodate the demands of the terrorists due to the violence which led to favorable effects such as granting territorial concessions, however as demands and violence kept creeping up there seems to be a breaking point at which the Israeli population tends to demand a stop to the concessions and a shift to greater voting for right-wing politicians. Pape who looked at suicide-terrorism examined the effects of eleven terrorist campaigns of which according to him six led to some kind of  “significant policy changes by the target state.” According to Pape the campaigns he chose to observe between 1980-2003 had a success-rate over 50 percent, which he found “remarkable.”[30] The problems with his findings are twofold, first it lacks empirical basis as the sample size is extremely small, and second his data reveals that the campaigns only achieve tactical victories such as the release of Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin. [31]

Those who stand in opposition and fail to see terrorism as a winning strategy are numerous but the most prominent are: Abrahms, Rapoport, Neumann, Smith, and Cronin.[32] Of these Abrahms and Cronin’s quantitative approach will be analyzed since they bring value with statistics and empirical data. Abrahms looked at twenty-eight foreign terrorist organizations designated by the U.S. State Department since 2001.[33] The conclusions found by Abrahms are the following: First terrorist groups rarely achieve their policy objectives, only 7% or three out of forty-two policy objectives expressed by these twenty-eight groups were achieved. Of these three positive policy outcomes, two belong to Hezbollah: The expulsion of peacekeepers and the withdrawal of the IDF from Southern Lebanon, and the third was the establishment of a Tamil state in Sri Lanka achieved by the Tamil Tigers. [34] Second, the technique of terrorism, especially when it comes to the targeting of civilians plays a crucial role in the success of the organizations achieving their strategic objectives. Groups that target civilians more than they do the military are at greater risk of failing to achieve their political objectives.[35] Cronin used the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism database in which she analyzed 450 terrorist groups’ campaigns. Her conclusions showed that the majority -87.1%- of these campaigns did not succeed in attaining any strategic goals, and only 6.4% achieved limited strategic aims: “2% had achieved a substantial component of their aims, and only 4.4% had succeeded in the full achievement of the group’s primary stated aims.”[36] From Cronin we conclude that while terrorism may succeed tactically it rarely leads to success in achieving its strategic aims. Louise Richardson from Harvard perhaps captures it best when she suggests that: “Terrorists groups have been singularly unsuccessful in delivering the political change they seek, but they have enjoyed considerable success in achieving their near-term aims.[37]

The colonialism era showed an amalgamation of factors that were favorable for a terrorist group to achieve its long-term strategic aims. The National Liberation Front (FLN) gaining full independence from France is a good example and case study to show how these factors helped terrorists achieve their political goals. The main factor being nationalism itself, Muslim Algerians, the target audience of the FLN slowly began to want to regain independence from France once they started to notice how repressive the French government was. The main strategic goal of the FLN was to obtain complete independence from French colonialism, which required unity among Algerians.[38] When the FLN started its campaign of terrorism it made a point to not target civilians and to limit casualties, instead they bombed French symbolic targets. However with time and with lack of results the FLN resorted to the use of violence in the form of terrorism and guerilla warfare, which became a second tenet of the strategy of the FLN. As escalations mounted between the two sides the FLN used women as bomb dispatchers and targeted European’s living in Algeria, such as Air France pilots and flight attendants at popular local bars and bistros or in crowded streets and stadiums. The French responded by rounding up FLN operatives and torturing them to gain information on the group’s strategy. By acting in such a brutal and repressive way the French lost Algerian support, which sided with the FLN and gave them safe haven amongst the streets so that they could hide or escape after an operation.[39] The battle of Algiers (1956-1957) was a big turning point in the fight and was seen as a huge victory for the FLN and their cause as it was timed with a UNGA meeting.[40] This strategy gave the group a great amount of publicity via the international papers documenting the battle and especially the brutality of the tactics used by the French military. The repercussions of the battle resonated all the way to Paris and under UN guidance the hostilities ended and in 1962 the FLN achieved their original goal of independence.[41]

If it wasn’t for points of contention amongst scholars with issues such as the multiple definitions of terrorism, causation, the consequences and what constitutes a “win” or what is meant by the phrase “does terrorism work”, there perhaps would be much more productive research and consensus that could advance research in a way that could contribute to diverse areas in the fight against terrorism. Given the various descriptions, arguments and empirical analyses above it is clear that terrorism as a tactic does work in achieving short-term goals such as psychological fear, costs for targeted states, and perhaps even territorial or partial policy concessions, however as a strategy to attain primary strategic goals that a group established via its ideology the evidence clearly shows that terrorism fails in achieving these goals in the grand majority of times. As with almost every theory, exceptions exist, such as the FLN gaining independence from France, the Irgun establishing the state of Israel, and even an organization like Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah went from a small state-sponsored terrorist group to a paramilitary and political organization that in roughly thirty years achieved a few of its partial goals described in its manifesto but is still working on its main goal to eradicate Israel. At this point it certainly does not seem that Hezbollah will achieve its remaining goals through terrorism but rather through its political strength in Lebanon and therefore via conventional and asymmetrical warfare.[42] Hezbollah provides a good example of how a terrorist organization can evolve through time into a paramilitary and political organization that can survive almost indefinitely bearing a drastic miscalculation from the organization.


Abrahms, Max & Lula, Karolina. “Why Terrorists Overestimate the Odds of Victory,” Perspectives on Terrorism 6, no. 4-5 (2012): 46-62.

Abrahms, Max “Why Does Terrorism not Work,” International Security 31, no. 2 (2006): 42-78.

Connelly, Matthew “Rethinking the Cold War and Decolonization: The Grand Strategy of the Algerian War for Independence,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 33, no. 2 (2001).

Crenshaw, Martha. Revolutionary Terrorism (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1978).

Crenshaw, Martha. “Terrorism, Strategies, and Grand Strategies,” in Attacking Terrorism (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2004).

Cronin, Audrey Kurth. How Terrorism Ends. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Dershowitz, Alan. Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).

English, Richard. Does Terrorism Work (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Forest, James J.F. The Terrorism Lectures. (Santa Ana: Nortia Press, 2015).

Gould, Eric D. & Klor, Esteban F. “Does Terrorism Work?” Quarterly Journal of Economics 125, no. 4 (2010).

Gupta, Dipak K. Understanding Terrorism and Political Violence: The Life Cycle of Birth, Growth, Transformation, and Demise (London: Routledge, 2008).

Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).

Horne, Alistair. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962. (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1977).

Kelly, Robert E. “Is Terrorism Always Wrong,” Perspectives on Terrorism 1, no. 1 (2007): 16-23.

Kydd, Andrew H. & Walter, Barbara F. “The Strategies of Terrorism,” International Security 31, no. 1 (2006): 49-80.

Mannik, Erik. “Terrorism: Its Past, Present and Future Prospects,” Estonian National Defense College, December, 2009,

Richardson, Louise. What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Terrorist Threat (London: John Murray, 2006).

Schmid, Alex P.  “The Revised Academic Consensus Definition of Terrorism,” Perspectives on Terrorism 6, no. 2 (2012): 158-159.

Zehra, Sameen. “The Logic of Terrorism: Identifying a Coherent Strategy,” The Mackenzie Institute. April 5, 2017,


Bartek Zalech R Ph. Is currently pursuing MA in Terrorism, Security, and Society from King’s College War Studies Department, London and credited with a certificate in International Security from University of Massachusetts, and an MSc in Forensics with a specialization in Chemical and Biological Weapons from the University of Florida.