Does terrorism work? Richard English gives the answer.

Summary: A large literature discusses the effectiveness of foreign armies and their tools against insurgencies, but few ask about the other side. Does terrorism work for insurgents? A new book by Richard English fills that gap, with some surprising conclusions. Since terrorism is a key tool of 4GW, the dominant form of war in our time, the fate of the world depends on the answer.


By Any Means or None

By Thomas Nagel.
London Review of Books. 8 September 2016.
Posted with the author’s generous permission.

Review of Does Terrorism Work? A history by Richard English (2016).


When I am hit with news of yet another terrorist attack, I often wonder what these people hope to achieve. In a depressingly timely book, Richard English tries to answer that question for a number of important cases, in order to address the broader question of his title.

First, he has to specify what would count as ‘working’, and then he has to look at the historical facts to determine what the groups he studies have actually achieved. He devotes a chapter each to al-Qaida, the Provisional IRA, Hamas and the Basque separatist group ETA, and in a final chapter runs quickly through a score of other examples. While he emphasises that terrorism is also practised by states, his subject here is terrorism by non-state actors – specifically, non-state organisations that have pursued a campaign of terrorism over a significant period of time.

His aim is to interpret these campaigns so far as possible as the work of rational agents employing violent means to pursue definite political ends: the motives of lone-wolf terrorists are liable to be inchoate. All four of English’s main examples have been very explicit about what they want and how they hope to get it, and he observes that they have all failed in their main aims, as have almost all other terrorist campaigns, with a few important exceptions. But he also looks closely at the full range of their effects, to determine whether they have ‘worked’ in some more qualified sense.

He distinguishes three further senses, short of strategic victory, in which terrorism might be said to work: partial strategic victory, tactical success and the inherent rewards of struggle as such – and there are further subdivisions within these categories. (It seems to me that the last item doesn’t really belong on this list. If, as English reports, the members of the IRA and other groups have enjoyed the inherent rewards of comradeship, excitement and an ennobling sense of purpose, that is at best a beneficial side-effect of their terrorist activity, not a way in which it succeeds or ‘works’.)


“Guerre terrorisme mort” by iPatou .

For each of the four groups, English patiently and somewhat ploddingly creates an itemised report card of success, partial success or failure with respect to the group’s overall objectives and also its subsidiary instrumental aims. Items on the list include primary goals, secondary goals, determining the agenda, operational successes (i.e. killing people), obtaining interim concessions, getting publicity (pretty much a sure thing), undermining opponents (e.g. by provoking counterviolence), maintaining control over a population, strengthening the organisation. The detailed information is both interesting and valuable, but some broader themes emerge from the details.

Three of the four (not al-Qaida) are nationalist organisations – Irish, Palestinian, Basque – aiming to overthrow the rule of another nation: Britain, Israel, Spain. The IRA wants British withdrawal from Ulster and a united Ireland, Hamas wants the elimination of the state of Israel and the establishment of a strict Islamic regime over the entire territory of Mandate Palestine, and ETA wants a Basque state independent of Spain. All three were founded in competition with more moderate nationalist movements pursuing related but less radical aims by non-violent means: the Social Democratic and Labour Party in Northern Ireland, the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and the Partido Nacionalista Vasco. Rivalry with these moderate nationalists has been a very important part of the drama.

The terrorism of the IRA and ETA never had more than minority support among the populations they purported to represent, and they officially renounced violence in 2005 and 2011, respectively. Hamas, on the other hand, won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, but was prevented from taking power except in Gaza, and continues to employ violent means. Al-Qaida is not a nationalist but what English calls a ‘religio-political’ movement, with global ambitions, dedicated to the expulsion of the US military from the Middle East, the overthrow of what it regards as apostate Muslim regimes such as Saudi Arabia, and the eventual restoration of the Caliphate, a Salafist theocracy governing the Muslim world under sharia law. But again, these aims are not shared by most Muslims.

Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, India on 29 Nov 2008. REUTERS/Arko DattaCorbis.

Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, India on 29 Nov 2008. REUTERS/Arko DattaCorbis.

English makes it clear that one of the things these four groups share is hatred and the desire for revenge, which comes out in personal testimony if not always in their official statements of aims. He quotes Osama bin Laden: ‘Every Muslim, from the moment they realise the distinction in their hearts, hates Americans, hates Jews and hates Christians.’ Revenge for perceived injuries and humiliations is a powerful motive for violence, and if it is counted as a secondary aim of these movements, it defines a sense in which terrorism automatically ‘works’ whenever it kills or maims members of the target group. In that sense the destruction of the World Trade Center and Mountbatten’s assassination were sterling examples of terrorism working. But even though English includes revenge in his accounting, this is not what would ordinarily be meant by the question, ‘Does terrorism work?’ What we really want to know about are the political effects.

And here the record is dismal. What struck me on reading this book is how delusional these movements are, how little understanding they have of the balance of forces, the motives of their opponents and the political context in which they are operating. In this respect, it is excessively charitable to describe them as rational agents. True, they are employing violent means which they believe will induce their opponents to give up, but that belief is plainly irrational, and in any event false, as shown by the results. As English says…

…the main obstacle to a united Ireland actually lay in Ireland, rather than in London or in Britain. Most Northern Irish people clearly, unarguably and lastingly preferred (and still prefer) to stay in the UK than to be expelled from it into a united Ireland, as has been made unambiguously clear in repeated surveys and elections. Neither political argument nor the pressure of impressively sustained IRA violence has shifted Ulster unionist attitudes on this point. Indeed, it may have hardened unionist opposition still further.

ETA had even less support in the Basque country for its secessionist aims. And no amount of Hamas terrorism is going to persuade the Israelis to dismantle their state.


Source: Syed Zaid Zaman Hamid.

Al-Qaida thought it had some reason to believe that the US would retreat from the Middle East in response to its attacks. English reports that bin Laden was encouraged in this direction by Reagan’s withdrawal from Lebanon and Clinton’s withdrawal from Somalia, both in response to the loss of American lives. Bin Laden also had in mind the example of the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and its subsequent internal collapse.

But as it turns out, the US presence in the Middle East has not been reduced, and the apostate Islamic regimes have not been replaced. There is, however, one indirect result of al-Qaida’s actions which, as English puts it, may not be ‘entirely out of tune with their overall wishes’ – namely, the formation of Isis, which presents itself as a restoration of the caliphate under Salafist rule. ‘Isis has far more fighters than al-Qaida, and controls territory in a manner that bin Laden never managed; but its roots lay in the post-2003 violent resistance to an invasion of Iraq which bin Laden and his colleagues had stimulated.’

One of the aims of the three nationalist movements has been to block the moderate solutions of their non-violent counterparts. ETA intensified its campaign of terrorism after Spain’s socialist government reversed the repressive policies of the Franco regime and accorded significant autonomy to the Basque regions, including scope for the Basque language. ETA signally failed to undermine these developments. (As English observes, it is significant that the non-violent separatists in Catalonia have had much more success in gaining local support for total independence and the rejection of any compromise involving Catalan autonomy within Spain.)

Hamas, on the other hand, has certainly succeeded in weakening the secular and (now) non-violent PLO and blocking the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Its suicide attacks in 1996 helped bring Netanyahu to power, and its actions since have sustained hardline Israeli policies and reactions.

The violence of the IRA also probably held back for many years the kind of compromise solution in Northern Ireland sought by the non-violent SDLP, but in this case there is a twist to the story: after Sinn Féin, the political arm of the IRA, suspended its support of violence, it became the chief negotiator with the British and the Unionists to bring about just such a power-sharing solution in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Tony Blair himself has made it clear that more attention was paid to Sinn Féin than to the SDLP at least in some degree because the former represented part of a violent, armed movement…

The SDLP thought that they often got ignored because we were too busy dealing with Sinn Féin. ‘If we had weapons you’d treat us more seriously’ was their continual refrain. There was some truth in it. The big prize was plainly an end to violence, and they weren’t the authors of the violence.

Terrorism did not achieve its aim of abolishing the northern unionists’ veto on the unification of Ireland, but it did give the former terrorists a seat at the negotiating table. Many believe that the results of the Good Friday Agreement could have been achieved much earlier if there had been no terrorism, though English is non-committal about this, as he is about most counterfactual conditionals.

The pattern that emerges in these examples – and in many of those English cites in his final chapter, such as the Tupamaros, the Baader-Meinhof Group, Shining Path in Peru and the Weathermen in the US – is of groups employing violence in a hopeless cause. They perceive correctly that their aims cannot be achieved by non-violent means, but fail to see that that is because they cannot be achieved by any means, given the existing circumstances of power and public opinion. Hatred and the desire for revenge probably provide essential motivational support, but justification by expected political results is completely delusional.

It is instructive to compare the rare cases in which terrorism achieves its ends. English mentions a few, but two stand out: the establishment of Israel and the independence of Algeria. In Mandate Palestine after the Second World War, the Irgun carried out terrorist attacks against the British, and this probably sped up Britain’s withdrawal. But as English points out, it was not in Britain’s interest to maintain a presence there: there were plenty of other problems to deal with in the country’s straitened postwar condition – India, for example. The explosive problem of Palestine would have been handed over to the UN sooner or later: the Irgun was pushing at an open door.

The other example, Algeria, is particularly instructive. The FLN’s campaign for independence included terrorism as well as more conventional military operations, and provoked a brutal response from the French military that the French public eventually could not support, even though there was no possibility of the FLN defeating the French army. French withdrawal depended on the decision to abandon the French settlers in Algeria, the pieds-noirs, and as De Gaulle realised, the French in the home country were simply unwilling to continue to fight for them. Here again it was the balance of motivation, more than the balance of forces, that allowed terrorism to work; but it is doubtful that Algeria’s independence, unlike Israel’s, could have been achieved in the near term without violence.

English is mainly concerned to establish the historical facts, but he thinks that their ‘practical importance … for many people (terrorists and counter-terrorists among them) could be huge’. I doubt that he expects his findings to have much influence on current or future prospective terrorists – despite his insistence that they are rational actors. But he does think that states faced with terrorism from non-state groups can take something useful from these facts. If a terrorist campaign has no real chance of achieving its grandiose aims, the state should not overreact to it. Of course the prevention of terrorist atrocities is an essential part of public security, but it is a mistake to exaggerate the threat terrorists pose, beyond the atrocities themselves. It only leads to action that makes the situation worse…

For example, the years of the post-9/11 War on Terror (easily the most extensive, ambitious, expansive, expensive attempt ever made to extirpate non-state terrorists and terrorism) in fact witnessed an increase in the number both of terrorist actions and of terrorist-generated fatalities … Whatever else it achieved during these years, the War on Terror clearly did not achieve a reduction in fatal terroristic violence. Quite the reverse.

English instead favours a ‘calm, measured, patient reaction’ that focuses on prevention rather than on supposed threats to civilisation or wars to end evil: reasonable advice. But this approach has to contend with the emotions aroused by terrorist acts and their inflammatory political effect in states where they occur – an acute problem in France and the United States today.

Richard English

Richard English

Though the writing is wordy and sometimes graceless, this is a very interesting book thanks to the information it presents so clearly. But it has one repellent aspect: the author seems to be morally anaesthetised. English doesn’t limit himself to the facts, but occasionally ventures, with great caution, into the territory of moral judgment. And his standard of moral assessment is entirely instrumental. Here, from the conclusion, is his take on the moral justification of terrorism, also expressed elsewhere in the book…

What has emerged is the profound uncertainty of terrorism achieving its central goals, together with a complex pattern of other successes and failures at lower level. What is almost certain (in fact, the historical record suggests it to be certain in all major terrorist campaigns) is that terrible human suffering will ensue from terrorist violence. Taken together, this doesn’t mean that such violence is necessarily illegitimate. But weighing the certainty of damage against the much less certain achievement of beneficent outcomes is vital. Every one of the case studies examined sustainedly in this book has involved considerable human suffering being caused; none of them has involved the achievement of the relevant group’s central goals.

In other words, the costs are certain, the benefits much less certain, so terrorism may not be justified by a cost-benefit analysis. That is the outer limit of his moral criticism.

Two things are missing from such a judgment: evaluation of the ends and evaluation of the means. First, English ignores the question whether goals like the unification of Ireland, the abolition of Israel, or the establishment of a Basque state are so valuable that it would be worth killing lots of people if that were an effective way to achieve them. Even if one limits moral assessment to cost-benefit analysis, the value placed on the supposed benefits by the perpetrators of violence cannot be taken as given.

But the main thing missing from English’s response is any sense that there might be something intrinsically wrong in deliberately killing and maiming innocent civilians as a means to bring about even a desirable outcome. That is what people find morally revolting about terrorism, not just the death and suffering it causes. The sense that there are limits on what may be done to people is a crucial part of the morality most of us share. Contempt for such moral boundaries is the defining mark of both state and non-state campaigns of terror.

In spite of his acknowledgment of what he calls the ‘terrible human costs’ of terrorism, English seems clueless about this essential aspect of the phenomenon, and of the normal reaction to it. ‘The casualness with which we all tend to be comfortable with other people’s suffering lies at the heart of the problem of terrorism,’ he says. Note that ‘all’. To assimilate terrorism to a universal human failing is morally obtuse. It is something much more radical than that.

The persistence of terrorism appears to be impervious to its overwhelming record of failure to ‘work’, in the normal sense. Terrorists, it seems, are at least as attached to their means as to their professed ends, and to those for whom killing is an end in itself, there is not much to say by way of rational counterargument.

——————- End article. ——————-

Thomas Nagel

About the author

Thomas Nagel is a Professor of Philosophy and Law, Emeritus, at NYU. His best-known work is “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?” (1974), a rebuttal to reductionist explanations of the mind.

See links to his books and papers, and his articles at the LRB and the New Republic.

I recommend adding the LRB to your reading list!

For More Information

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