Evidence on the Effectiveness of Terrorism

Readers of this blog will know that I like the works of Max Abrahms, and regularly blog them. He has a new paper (full paper behind paywall) in Defence and Peace Economics, 22:6 (2011), 583–94, “Does Terrorism Really Work? Evolution in the Conventional Wisdom since 9/11”:

The basic narrative of bargaining theory predicts that, all else equal, anarchy favors concessions to challengers who demonstrate the will and ability to escalate against defenders. For this reason, post-9/11 political science research explained terrorism as rational strategic behavior for non-state challengers to induce government compliance given their constraints. Over the past decade, however, empirical research has consistently found that neither escalating to terrorism nor with terrorism helps non-state actors to achieve their demands. In fact, escalating to terrorism or with terrorism increases the odds that target countries will dig in their political heels, depriving the nonstate challengers of their given preferences. These empirical findings across disciplines, methodologies, as well as salient global events raise important research questions, with implications for counterterrorism strategy.

EDITED TO ADD (2/14): The paper.

Posted on January 26, 2012 at 10:36 AM27 Comments


NobodySpecial January 26, 2012 11:14 AM

It worked in Malaysia (1960), Isreal (1948) and Ireland (1922) and arguably N. Ireland in the 90s – simply make it uneconomic, in money and casualties, for the big powerful country to continue opposing you.

Of course the same strategy hasn’t worked in Afghanistan

Tomasz Wegrzanowski January 26, 2012 11:31 AM

NobodySpecial: There’s no way in hell Northern Ireland is any terrorist success.

It’s still part of UK and barely got some limited government, headed by an Unionist no less, and with barely any more power than Government of Ireland Act 1914 already established.

Meanwhile Scotland is getting its independence referendum in two years without ever blowing a single bomb.

IRA has been a total failure by any reasonable standard.

Spartacus January 26, 2012 11:34 AM

Since I’m not going to pay $46 (plus tax) for a 12-page paper, I have to go on the abstract.

Terrorism sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, and its objectives aren’t always obvious. Two examples:

IRA terrorism didn’t achieve the stated objective (the whole of the island of Ireland united in one nation) despite decades of intermittent rebellion and terrorism. But in the end, it did achieve concessions for the IRA and for the tribe that supported them in Northern Ireland, where a former IRA leader is now Deputy First Minister.

I don’t know what the objective of 9/11 was, but the Bush administration eagerly responded by doing such stupid things that the US has utterly lost what moral authority it had in the world. And the Bush regime’s ‘war on terror’ is with us to this day: the DHS harasses US citizens everywhere they go in their own country, and the US is so resented in the rest of the world that there are many places where it’s unwise for them to travel. Was that success?

Fred P January 26, 2012 11:56 AM


I don’t know what you’re thinking of in Malaysia in 1960, but the other two conflicts are more typically considered civil wars (or possibly, in the case of Israel, a regional war – 1948 starts in a civil war and ends in the 1948 Arab–Israeli War). One major difference between terrorists and fighters in a war, even if they use similar tactics to achieve similar ends, is that the later often have broad support in a significant population.

alan January 26, 2012 11:57 AM

The N.Ireland conflict was not just about a united Ireland, it was about civil rights. Irish Catholics were treated as second class citizens.

The IRA did achieve all its goals, except a united Ireland. Which become a mute point when the UK & Eire joined the EU.

Joe Buck January 26, 2012 12:22 PM

There’s a problem: what is terrorism?

It used to refer to attacks or threats on civilians for the purpose of achieving a political end. But now it seems to include attacks on military targets if the targeted military is the US, Israel or NATO (this kind of thing used to be called guerilla warfare), and it seems to exclude attacks on civilians in many cases (attacks on abortion providers or Iranian nuclear scientists don’t seem to count, even though the victim is civilian and the goal is political).

NobodySpecial January 26, 2012 12:45 PM

In Israel I meant the ‘spirited’ opposition to the British colonial forces by Irgun which resulted in their political victory in 1948.

The same process happens: Terrorists attack, the powerful country decies it can beat them and pour money and troops into the conflict.

At some point somebody does the sums and wonders if the cost and casualties for ‘defending’ a worthless bit of sand/bog is worth it.

Then the rhetoric changes from “no negotiation with terrorists” to “an ongoing peace discourse”. Then they pull out and it’s congratulations and Nobel peace prizes all round.

Whether it’s rebels in Malaysia, Irgun in Israel, ANC in South Africa, IRA in N. Ireland the odds do seem to be on the side of the local ‘freedom fighters’ in the long run.

bcs January 26, 2012 12:46 PM

So what then is the reason for terrorism? A shiny object to point your most dangerous potential adversaries at? A way to get them killed off (political purge by proxy)?

NobodySpecial January 26, 2012 12:51 PM

The 9/11 hijackers weren’t insurgents in the same sense – but if their aim was to shock and scare ordinary Americans and lure the American administration into a long and expensive (politically, militarily and financially) ill-defined war on terror.

Then I would say they have succeeded rather well.

RH January 26, 2012 1:13 PM

As someone who is having a lot of fun with transforms and eigenvectors…

Terrorism doesn’t work, unless your goals are congruent to the natural responses of terrorism defense.

Thus, its very hard to use terrorism to spread Islam to the US. Its very easy to use terrorism to make the US spend a lot of money.

Shachar Shemesh January 26, 2012 1:57 PM


I’m not sure why you think Irgun brought Israel it’s independence, as opposed to a thousand other factors that were at play?

For one thing, allowing a Jewish state was the mandate the British received to begin with. Another was the between 1944 and until Israel was formed, Irgun was completely neutralized by the Jewish organization, which is exactly the time period you state as when it worked.


alan January 26, 2012 2:16 PM


I dont buy it. How the British treated Irish Catholics was immoral. The aims of the IRA (not their methods) were justified.

The UK government didn’t give up because it cost too much. The UK government (slowly) changed laws to prevent discrimination against Irish Catholics. The original IRA stopped because Irish Catholics where treated as equals in the UK, and no longer treated like scum.

If the IRA had gone down the path of Gandhi I think the civil rights issues would have been resolved quicker as the IRA would have held the moral high ground.

NobodySpecial January 26, 2012 2:19 PM

They still seem to have been pretty effective at planting bombs in 1946.

I wasn’t being specific about Irgun/ Hagana/ Stern/ People’s front of Judea – just that acts which would be regarded as terrorism, were strongly correlated with the British leaving.

Of course this doesn’t imply any causation. Perhaps, just like Afghanistan, they were simply waiting for a legitimate political authority to be ready to be take over – and the bad publicity at home from IED attacks on ordinary soldiers had no bearing.

Peter January 26, 2012 2:22 PM

“…political science research explained terrorism as rational strategic behavior…”

The problem with this line of thinking is the word “rational.” While human beings are capable of reason, we are not (by and large) rational creatures. We rarely deduce the best course of action for anything. Instead, we make quick, instinctive judgements.

It’s really easy to understand terrorists: they hate their enemies and want to hurt them.

NobodySpecial January 26, 2012 2:26 PM

@alan – there are lot of background reasons for the NI peace accord.

The improved economic situation – new industry making unionist dominated shipyards irrelevant. A new labour government with less political baggage. The EU making the difference between Ireland and Britain less relevant. An ageing IRA leadership wanting some of the comforts of political success.

If it was purely due to changes in the laws against catholics the problem would have been solved in 1829!

But the financial costs of the Baltic exchange bombing and attacks on the City of London brought a LOT of political pressure to bear in a way that a few dead civilians in a distant province didn’t.

Sidethought January 26, 2012 7:52 PM

Every fascism state has its convenient ‘terrorist’ scapegoat, be it from the capitalist sleeper cells in Soviet russia to the jews in Nazi germany. These terrorists are not the threat.

Ask yourself who the real terrorists are? How about the NDAA, Patriot act, rendition, waterboarding, TSA, ACTA warmongering pushers?

Actions talk louder than rhetoric.

Sean January 27, 2012 3:00 PM

Thus validating a Chinese maxim I once heard which, roughly translates to “He who resorts to violence only does so because he lost the argument”.

Gweihir January 30, 2012 6:17 AM


I think it is, but I am unsure whether this is for public consumption. Found it by googeling the title, which is a normally good way to find a free tech-report version of papers.

For Google to have it as first hit, there should be quite a few links to it though.

Maj Variola February 15, 2012 1:31 PM

Terrorism also worked for Moses.

“Let my people go, or else”… worked against the State.

Funny how Americans forget this..

Clive Robinson February 15, 2012 9:37 PM

@ Maj Variola,

Funny how Americans forget this

It’s even funnier how all the WASP Nations forget this as well.

Science changes technology not people so history tends to be quite predictable from the human asspect, hence as we get older our many feelings of deja vue.

As was once observed,

“Those that fail to learn the lessons of history are condemned to relive them”.

Or as Shakespear would have Mark Anthony say,

“The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interned with their bones!”

Jake in Jerusalem July 15, 2012 3:08 PM

I have just read the later article by Max Abrams of whom Bruce Shneier writes “I like the works of Max Abrams”. Boy is Abrams wrong on this! Terrorism DOES work and can be very, very profitable. It is precisely your inability to recognize this that proves it!

Yasser Arafat invented the tools and techniques of modern international terrorism. People forget that his first Intifada to liberate Palestine was started on the Jordanian-occupied East Bank of Palestine. King Hussein responded and nearly 10,000 people were killed in the single month that came to be known as Black September of 1970. By comparison, butchers like Assad, Saddam, Qaddafi, et al were pussycats. Arafat correctly recognized that it would be easier to get land from the Jews and so began terrorizing Israel. The rest of the world ignored him and his bogus claims at that time. Arafat was treated as just another blood-thirsty third world warlord.

It was precisely the Palestinians’ atrocities commited as terrorist acts against third-party civilians in nightclubs, airports, kindergartens and restaurants and on cruise ships, public transport and airliners in a whole slew of countries, as well as the slaughter of athletes at the Munich Olympics, that got the rest of the world to give in and accept the “Arab narrative” that posits that the so-called Palestinians are a real nation and that their homeland is inside Israel, when none of that is true in the slightest. Arafat was then treated like a head of state, established embassies in many countries, took billions of dollars in “aid” (and hid lots of it in his private accounts) and started his own army and state within a state in Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and Israel.

If not for massive Palestinian terrorism, Arafat and his demands would still be ignored. Instead, he has profited handsomely from terrorism and many people in many places today even believe his re-writing of history and geography. That some people will disagree with these facts actually demonstrates how PROFITABLE terrorism really is!

Some guy November 18, 2012 12:10 PM

The terrorists are winning, the US is well on its way to going bankrupt and the American public has already lost its desire to continue the Afghan war and we have been out of Iraq for a while now.

Why do terrorists exist? Largely because of the blowback from US foreign policy.

“All the way back in 2004, the Rumsfeld Pentagon commissioned a study to determine the causes of anti-US terrorism, and even it concluded: “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies.” Running around the world beating your chest, bellowing “we’re at war!”, and bombing multiple Muslim countries does not keep one safe. It manifestly does the opposite, since it ensures that even the most rational people will calculate that targeting Americans with violence in response is just and necessary to deter further aggression.”

“Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.”

“The frequency with which the US uses this tactic is reflected by this December 2011 report from ABC News on the drone killing of 16-year-old Tariq Khan and his 12-year-old cousin Waheed, just days after the older boy attended a meeting to protest US drones:

"A 2004 official alert from the FBI warned that "terrorists may use secondary explosive devices to kill and injure emergency personnel responding to an initial attack"; the bulletin advised that such terror devices "are generally detonated less than one hour after initial attack, targeting first responders as well as the general population". Security experts have long noted that the evil of this tactic lies in its exploitation of the natural human tendency to go to the scene of an attack to provide aid to those who are injured, and is specifically potent for sowing terror by instilling in the population an expectation that attacks can, and likely will, occur again at any time and place:

"'The problem is that once the initial explosion goes off, many people will believe that's it, and will respond accordingly,' [the Heritage Foundation's Jack] Spencer said … The goal is to 'incite more terror. If there's an initial explosion and a second explosion, then we're thinking about a third explosion,' Spencer said."

A 2007 report from the US department of homeland security christened the term “double tap” to refer to what it said was “a favorite tactic of Hamas: a device is set off, and when police and other first responders arrive, a second, larger device is set off to inflict more casualties and spread panic.” Similarly, the US justice department has highlighted this tactic in its prosecutions of some of the nation’s most notorious domestic terrorists. Eric Rudolph, convicted of bombing gay nightclubs and abortion clinics, was said to have “targeted federal agents by placing second bombs nearby set to detonate after police arrived to investigate the first explosion”.

In 2010, when WikiLeaks published a video of the incident in which an Apache helicopter in Baghdad killed two Reuters journalists, what sparked the greatest outrage was not the initial attack, which the US army claimed was aimed at armed insurgents, but rather the follow-up attack on those who arrived at the scene to rescue the wounded. From the Guardian’s initial report on the WikiLeaks video:

"A van draws up next to the wounded man and Iraqis climb out. They are unarmed and start to carry the victim to the vehicle in what would appear to be an attempt to get him to hospital. One of the helicopters opens fire with armour-piercing shells. 'Look at that. Right through the windshield,' says one of the crew. Another responds with a laugh.

"Sitting behind the windscreen were two children who were wounded.

"After ground forces arrive and the children are discovered, the American air crew blame the Iraqis. 'Well it's their fault for bringing kids in to a battle,' says one. 'That's right,' says another.

"Initially the US military said that all the dead were insurgents."

In the wake of that video’s release, international condemnation focused on the shooting of the rescuers who subsequently arrived at the scene of the initial attack. The New Yorker’s Raffi Khatchadourian explained:

"On several occasions, the Apache gunner appears to fire rounds into people after there is evidence that they have either died or are suffering from debilitating wounds. The rules of engagement and the law of armed combat do not permit combatants to shoot at people who are surrendering or who no longer pose a threat because of their injuries. What about the people in the van who had come to assist the struggling man on the ground? The Geneva conventions state that protections must be afforded to people who 'collect and care for the wounded, whether friend or foe.'"

He added that “A ‘positively identified’ combatant who provides medical aid to someone amid fighting does not automatically lose his status as a combatant, and may still be legally killed,” but – as is true for drone attacks – there is, manifestly, no way to know who is showing up at the scene of the initial attack, certainly not with “positive identification” (by official policy, the US targets people in Pakistan and elsewhere for death even without knowing who they are). Even commentators who defended the initial round of shooting by the Apache helicopter by claiming there was evidence that one of the targets was armed typically noted, “the shooting of the rescuers, however, is highly disturbing.”

But attacking rescuers (and arguably worse, bombing funerals of America’s drone victims) is now a tactic routinely used by the US in Pakistan. In February, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism documented that “the CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan has killed dozens of civilians who had gone to help rescue victims or were attending funerals.” Specifically: “at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims.” That initial TBIJ report detailed numerous civilians killed by such follow-up strikes on rescuers, and established precisely the terror effect which the US government has long warned are sown by such attacks:

"Yusufzai, who reported on the attack, says those killed in the follow-up strike 'were trying to pull out the bodies, to help clear the rubble, and take people to hospital.' The impact of drone attacks on rescuers has been to scare people off, he says: 'They've learnt that something will happen. No one wants to go close to these damaged building anymore.'"

Since that first bureau report, there have been numerous other documented cases of the use by the US of this tactic: “On [4 June], US drones attacked rescuers in Waziristan in western Pakistan minutes after an initial strike, killing 16 people in total according to the BBC. On 28 May, drones were also reported to have returned to the attack in Khassokhel near Mir Ali.” Moreover, “between May 2009 and June 2011, at least 15 attacks on rescuers were reported by credible news media, including the New York Times, CNN, ABC News and Al Jazeera.”

In June, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, said that if “there have been secondary drone strikes on rescuers who are helping (the injured) after an initial drone attack, those further attacks are a war crime.” There is no doubt that there have been.

(A different UN official, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, Ben Emmerson, this weekend demanded that the US “must open itself to an independent investigation into its use of drone strikes or the United Nations will be forced to step in”, and warned that the demand “will remain at the top of the UN political agenda until some consensus and transparency has been achieved”. For many American progressives, caring about what the UN thinks is so very 2003.)

The frequency with which the US uses this tactic is reflected by this December 2011 report from ABC News on the drone killing of 16-year-old Tariq Khan and his 12-year-old cousin Waheed, just days after the older boy attended a meeting to protest US drones:

"Asked for documentation of Tariq and Waheed's deaths, Akbar did not provide pictures of the missile strike scene. Virtually none exist, since drones often target people who show up at the scene of an attack."

Not only does that tactic intimidate rescuers from helping the wounded and removing the dead, but it also ensures that journalists will be unwilling to go to the scene of a drone attack out of fear of a follow-up attack.” –http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/aug/20/us-drones-strikes-target-rescuers-pakistan

I could spend a few hours digging through my bookmarks looking for the quotes, but if you are interested by what I have posted you can look at Gleen Greenwald’s other posts he has done excellent journalism on US support of MEK inside Iran (US designated terrorist group that Saddam used to support), our support for Egypt’s Mubarak, our resuming of weapon sales to Behrain (an oppressive regime) after the “Arab Spring” faded from the news, our support for Saudia Arabia an oppressive regime, arresting a man for sending money back to Iraq to feed his family because they were starving from our sanctions, and more…

If you look at the first half of Osama’s letter to the American people from ’02 you will see some more attrocities listed.

The problem isn’t a bunch of backwards people faraway it is our government’s foreign policy.

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