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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’.)

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