Op-ed Explaining Why Terrorism Doesn't Work

Good essay by Max Abrahms.

I've written about his research before.

Posted on June 25, 2012 at 6:58 AM • 23 Comments

Comments

D0RJune 25, 2012 7:14 AM

Seems that Al-Qaeda & Co. are starting to get it, finally. Probably now they'll start opening up fast foods (heart diseases kill an american every 37 seconds).

Rob Graves June 25, 2012 7:15 AM

I think there is a reasonable argument to say that terrorism does work, but only if your aim of to subvert society. There has been significant encroachment on civil rights, and substantial expenditure on anti-terrorism measures (regardless of how pointless they are) as a consequence of terrorism. A lot of people's lives are more disrupted now than they were before 9/11.

However, the point against targettting people is also well made. The IRA in Britain only seemed to get any real political traction for its agenda after the bombing campaign startd to cost companies real money, and not too many real lives.

brazzyJune 25, 2012 7:40 AM

I think it's pretty ignorant to believe that bin Laden's intended goal with the 9/11 attacks was "safeguarding the Ummah from Western encroachment". Nobody with an ounce of insight into the American mentality could believe that. Bin Laden knew very well that it would inevitably result into massive military campaigns, countless Muslim deaths and more support from the USA to just those despotic regimes in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan he wanted to get rid of most of all.

Provoking and escalating armed conflict *was* the goal, and the USA did exactly what bin Laden wanted it to do. Where he went wrong was the belief that the "righteous" would necessarily *win* those conflicts. And that expectation went wrong mainly because the conflicts divided Muslim populations rather than uniting them against a common enemy.

That in turn may be in large parts because the example bin Laden set in attacks against American civilians were followed by too many in the form of attacks against Muslim civilians on the wrong side of some ethnic divide.

The mostly peaceful regime changes in northern Africa were something nobody at all expected and which changed a lot of people's minds about various things.

Mike BJune 25, 2012 7:55 AM

Terrorism most definitely can work if it maintains popular support and non-violent alternatives are not available. I suggest watching the movie "The Battle of Algeria" for a well executed terrorist campaign that ultimately lead to a political victory. Remember that terrorism and freedom fighting are largely indistinguishable at the tactical level and the label that is ultimately applied is determined by either the victor or majority opinion.

What most Terrorists that end up being labeled as such fail to realize is that some sort of extreme minority rule or occupation is required for a violent insurgent campaign to be successful. For dispersed minorities or fringe ideologies terrorist campaigns will never succeed because if they already lack popular support...violence isn't going to win people over. Of course the mistake Terrorists make is to assume that their fringe ideology is embraced by some sort of silent majority. Therefore since they are already working under false premises these sorts of studies aren't going to do very well as persuading them.

MartinJune 25, 2012 8:32 AM

A number of comments here about how "terrorism can work". Like, the IRA bombings causing financial damage to companies and not lives or if it has "public support". . .The problem is, those aren't terrorism. They lack the central concept involving "terror". Terrorism is separate from "bombing campaigns" or fighting back. It is absolutely not true that freedom fighting and terrorism are essentially the same. They're not. The terrorist chooses targets for the specific purpose of creating terror (ie. making people afraid). A freedom fighter chooses targets for the purposes of winning the fight. One fairly common human trait is that we don't give in to our terrors. That's why there's no phobia acceptance schools of thought, but dozens of different schools of thought on how to conquer phobias.

indeedJune 25, 2012 9:05 AM

John Ralston Saul also writes about how the worst place a terrorist can end up is jail. They want martyrdom with their peers/cause and prison just renders them criminals like the red army faction in Europe

Clive RobinsonJune 25, 2012 9:55 AM

A lot of what the article claims can also be explained by the advancment of history and the accompanying societal norms (Arab Spring being a case in point).

As others have noted "direct terrorism" does not work but other forms of what many call terrorism do work.

Back in the 1980's Uk PM Maggie Thatcher made a policy choice not to reward "terrorism" with publicity. What she did was encorage media outlets to downplay events that hurt people and play up those that hurt only infrestructure. The result was an IRA bombing campaign that moved fairly quickly to attacking track side infrestructure in and around South London which whilst causing major disruption did not directly involve loss of life (indirectly is open to significant interpretation as the likes of the Londan Ambulance Service and Fire Brigade saw increased response times due to traffic). When a change in this policy occured then the result was a couple of vary magor bombs and London getting it's "Ring of Steel", which caused and continues to cause problems even though "The Irish Problem" has been effectivly resolved (manly by economic means and small political changes). Neither side realy won but they both benifited from the peace process and the result was a "rising tide" that significantly benifited the N.I. population economically.

So whilst the population of an area may (for many reasons) initialy support the "fredom fighters / terrorists" they do fairly quickly learn to vote with their pocket.

Which brings us around to Iraq, Sadam may have been a dictator and quite ruthless to his enemies (percieved or real) but untill the first gulf war he ensured the general populous had a fairly high standard of living, and thus quelled most opposition before it even started.

If you look into many other examples a working and healthy economy is the basis by which peace is bought and payed for and wars ended.

It is why applying economic sanctions to countries is a very bad idea as it engenders conflict and war. Worse "self sancttioning" by poor taxation and favouring vested interests over the common good likewise engenders conflict and eventualy civil war.

One of the problems with a swing towards the right and the hawks is the result will be eventually civil unrest. People who see unfair distrubtion of wealth and worse being taxed to give benifit to vested interest will only put up with it as long as it does not effect them directly due to the economy expanding. When the economy slows, stagnates or goes into recession it starts to hurt the majority first and if they can see that vested interests are actually benifiting from their pain unrest starts.

Thus we are currently living on a powder keg currently in the West, and right of center policies towards vested interests are quite clear to see and causing pain. At some point soon somebody is going to strike a match, and when they do (as they have often done so in the past) the backlash from the right of center politicos and hawks will result in significant problems that will cause major social changes.

The trick as some have found is to peacfully fight the vested interests and force their hand to react, this causes the political position of the hawks to become untenable usually without to much civil unrest. Provided the social changes occur then the transistion will be mainly peacfull, if not as we are seeing with Syria the results will quickly result in significant social strife and unrest with the accompanying violence.

Lastly I will draw peoples attention to Egypt, where some but not all the required social changes have occured. Unfortunatly the military there are trying to reverse back to the position prior to the changes. This is very very likely to result in much worse civil unrest, only time will tell if the military will back down and allow the required social changes or become an extreamly oppressive regime and eventualy it's own downfall.

No OneJune 25, 2012 10:06 AM

This essay made me laugh a little. The way I read it terrorism did work -- the US terrorized the terrorists by being irrationally aggressive and willing to throw away everything to swat the mosquito with a cruise missile.

tzJune 25, 2012 10:09 AM

In what sense didn't it work? 9/11 cost us several trillion, we shred the constitution and Magna Charta, are getting involved in wars that are making a greater portion of a billion or more people hate us daily, and we are still terrified so have to kow-tow (or do far more humiliating things) to the TSA.

Chris LawsonJune 25, 2012 10:19 AM

The article makes one very large mistake: the released documents do *not* show that bin Laden changed his mind on terrorism -- he wanted al-Qaida affiliates to stop killing Muslim civilians, but he did not want them to stop killing American civilians.

Petréa MitchellJune 25, 2012 11:15 AM

brazzy:

"I think it's pretty ignorant to believe that bin Laden's intended goal with the 9/11 attacks was 'safeguarding the Ummah from Western encroachment'. Nobody with an ounce of insight into the American mentality could believe that."

Bin Laden's first experience with American reactions to terrorism was the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, which led to the US pulling out of the country.

LisaJune 25, 2012 11:53 AM

Bin Laden's was upset that himself and his organization did not cash in to all of the revenue he generated for the military industrial complex.

Sure, they set him and his family up in a nice house in Pakistan, plus they covered the expenses for food, water and drinks, utilities, property taxes, etc. But I guess he expected more than a few crumbs for the trillions of dollars he generated. ;^)

Buck TurgidsonJune 25, 2012 11:53 AM

@brazzy:

...too many...attacks against Muslim civilians on the wrong side of some ethnic divide.

Ethnicity has nothing to do with it, it's religion. For half the muslims out there (sunni/shi'a), the other half (shi'a/sunni) "isn't muslim enough" (or are even "apostate") and are legitimate targets. This also holds if a muslim target is associating with, Allah forbid, infidels.

If Islam cannot even peacefully coexist with other Islam, how can we possibly expect it to coexist peacefully with not-Islam?

John HardinJune 25, 2012 12:00 PM

Paranoid suspicion of tourist photographers, increasing surveillance of everyone, the Patriot Act, the Theatrical Security Agency, potential extra-judicial executions of American citizens are "terrorism not working"?

I'd accept that terrorism hasn't necessarily worked to achieve the terrorists' putative goals, which is to scare "the west" out of the Ummah, but terrorism is quite effectively changing US society for the worse.

John CampbellJune 25, 2012 1:14 PM

Terrorism only works to tamper with the product called "civilization".

Sadly, the damage done to civilization-- awakening the "rough men"-- can end up strengthening it... but only if there is an effort to brush it off and "get over it".

Instilling fear is easy but, depending upon the type of societal trust within the culture, may only unify a people for a limited amount of time rather than destroy these links. What works against a familial trust culture may not work as well against a societal trust culture. We all see what we're used to seeing... and this myopia impacts *anyone* trying to understand the world.

Sadly, we have political leaders working to teach us to fear... but, over time, this may fail to provide the kind of political unification they want.

Refuse to be terrorized regardless being by insurgents or your own political "leadership".

Refuse to follow the seductive tune selling you safety in exchange for your freedom, for no "leader" will truly reward the lemmings.

(chuckles)

The American form of "Russian Roulette" is played with a voting booth. (Mind you, if it was January, I'd say a "1040 form".)

John CampbellJune 25, 2012 1:19 PM

@Buck Turgidson: "If Islam cannot even peacefully coexist with other Islam, how can we possibly expect it to coexist peacefully with not-Islam?"

Anyone remember the unpleasantness in Northern Ireland?

Religious decisions have encouraged wholesale (rather than retail) murder... and religious fervor has also been used for "secular" causes, too.

I guess freeing souls from their bodies wholesale must provide quite a discount, eh?

(shakes head)

Peoples are insane; Only individuals may be proven otherwise.

Michael BradyJune 25, 2012 2:07 PM

@ buck turgidson

For half the Muslims out there (Sunni/Shi'a), the other half (Shi'a/Sunni) "isn't Muslim enough" (or are even "apostate") and are legitimate targets. This also holds if a Muslim target is associating with, Allah forbid, infidels.

If Islam cannot even peacefully coexist with other Islam, how can we possibly expect it to coexist peacefully with not-Islam?

Perhaps you meant to say half of the militant Muslims? From what I gather most Muslims - even in the war torn parts of world - are just trying to get their families through the day without getting killed, imprisoned, or tortured.

On the other hand it's not like the other Abrahamic monotheisms have much to brag about when it comes to peaceful coexistence. Christianity only gave up killing other Christians for religious purposes in 18th century and genocide against Jews was practiced as recently as the 20th.

Osama McDonaldsJune 25, 2012 6:18 PM

Osama's leaked emails clearly show how so-called Al Qaida ideology is polar opposite to what OBL was pushing. He was constantly arguing with lower 'commanders' about how they should stage worldwide suicide attacks but the lower guys only cared about ousting their current corrupt leaders. There's repeated emails of him demanding they start planning more US attacks with his correspondents matter of factly telling him he's insane and to stop living in a fantasy world: attack the closest police and military targets, oust the regime, install sharia law. That's all they cared about.

The "second in command" Egyptian guy has continually argued in leaked emails against any involvement in the US or UK or anywhere except ousting the Egyptian pres and installing the brotherhood. Now that he presumably runs whatever is left of AQ you'll never hear from them again unless you live in Syria or Egypt.

In Syria the rebels were quick to point out how terrorism and armed insurrection only plays into Assad's hands. He can point at their legitimate democracy protests and claim they are simply criminals and terrorists, and have an excuse to issue a bloody crackdown. I found it almost too convenient that car bombs were going off outside military installations in Damascus and only civillians were getting injured, with Assad immediately blaming the rebels afterwards then issuing orders to raze entire villages of all human life in retribution for national security's sake.

BrazzyJune 26, 2012 3:03 AM

@Buck Turgidson: Do you even know what the Shi'a/Sunni divide is actually about? Certainly not about being "Muslim enough".

And just like Northern Ireland, the real causes of conflict between Shiites and Sunnites, especially in Iraq, has absolutely nothing to do with religion and everything with "us vs. them" thinking, one group dominating the other politically and economically, both fearing and distrusting each other. Religion is jsut another thing that distinguishes the groups.

WinterJune 26, 2012 6:49 AM

Some French writers posed the theory that the muslim extremists desperately want to create a divide between young European muslims and the modern West. And the terrorists are succeeding in this.

The biggest threat to fundamentalist Islam are successful modern muslims getting rich and liberal in democratic Europe.

Arab youth uses them as role models. Comparing their own "righteous" poverty (and inability to marry) with the richness of the young immigrants to the north.

Our Western anti-Islamists were Al Qaida's best, and willing, allies.

anonJune 26, 2012 4:42 PM

I guess I would modify what Bruce says...


AGREED:Terrorism definitely doesn't work. The exception is this:

It works when perpetrated by nation-states (e.g. JP v US & Gaza v Israel).

In someways you can argue that nukes are a weapon of terror. The "threat" of their use is actually what prevents wars (apparently).

MikeJune 26, 2012 5:18 PM

Terrorism doesn't work? Try checking where the nearest clinic capable of performing an abortion is to you (in the US). It's a pretty effective, though by no means perfect, tactic.

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