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The limits of terrorism

The limits of terrorism

Author: Daniel Pipes
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: May 6, 2009
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/174287/The-limits-of-terrorism.html

Does terrorism work, meaning, does it achieve its perpetrators' objectives? With terror attacks having become a routine and nearly daily occurrence, especially in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the conventional wisdom holds that terrorism works very well. For example, the late Ehud Sprinzak of the Hebrew University ascribed the prevalence of suicide terrorism to its "gruesome effectiveness". Prof Robert Pape of the University of Chicago argues that suicide terrorism is growing "because terrorists have learned that it pays". Harvard law professor Alan M Dershowitz titled one of his books Why Terrorism Works.

But Mr Max Abrahms, a fellow at Stanford University, disputes this conclusion, noting that they focus narrowly on the well-known but rare terrorist victories - while ignoring the much broader, if more obscure, pattern of terrorism's failures. To remedy this deficiency, Mr Abrahms took a close look at each of the 28 terrorist groups so designated by the US Department of State since 2001 and tallied how many of them achieved its objectives.

His study, "Why Terrorism Does Not Work", finds that those 28 groups had 42 different political goals and that they achieved only three of those goals, for a measly seven per cent success rate. Those three victories would be: (1) Hizbullah's success at expelling the multinational peacekeepers from Lebanon in 1984; (2) Hizbullah's success at driving Israeli forces out of Lebanon in 1985 and 2000; and, (3) the Tamil Tigers' partial success at winning control over areas of Sri Lanka after 1990. (They have since lost the territory.) Mr Abrahms draws three policy implications from the data.

Guerrilla groups that mainly attack military targets succeed more often than terrorist groups that mainly attack civilian targets. (Terrorists got lucky in the Madrid attack of 2004.)

Terrorists find it "extremely difficult to transform or annihilate a country's political system"; those with limited objectives (such as acquiring territory) do better than those with maximalist objectives (such as seeking regime change).

Not only is terrorism "an ineffective instrument of coercion, but … its poor success rate is inherent to the tactic of terrorism itself".

This final implication suggests an eventual reduction of terrorism in favour of less violent tactics. Indeed, signs of change are already apparent. In the long term, Islamists will likely recognise the limits of violence and increasingly pursue their repugnant goals through legitimate ways. We are on notice.


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