A Frightening Thought: When Terrorism 'Works'

Under certain conditions, terrorism can strengthen organizations that employ it; drive the death or spread of ideas; and provoke disruptive population flows that remake states and societies.

ISIS and its ever-expanding record of extreme violence may be on the march, but a growing number of academics suggest that terrorist attacks generally fail to achieve their stated strategic goals, especially maximalist objectives like ending foreign occupations and challenging the very foundation of the Westphalian system with the establishment of a “caliphate.” We should not let these claims—which often reflect the perspective of scholars and governments rather than the perpetrators and victims themselves—mislead us into thinking that terrorism is an ineffective tactic with singular and unattainable goals. Terrorism can in fact be effective in a number of ways overlooked by academics and policymakers, all of which are relevant for understanding the intentions and impact of groups that utilize terrorism—including ISIS. Under certain conditions, terrorism can strengthen organizations that employ it (as with the IRA); drive the death or spread of ideas (as with attacks on Sony’s The Interview and Charlie Hebdo); and provoke disruptive population flows that remake states and societies (as with Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Shia militias in Baghdad). As observers try to anticipate whether the terrorist attacks of ISIS and other organizations will succeed (and how to prevent them from doing so), considering such outcomes should be paramount, lest policymakers not see the forest for the trees.

Terrorism is by definition a political act, and yet most assessments of its impact fail to recognize agents of terror as political players. Analyzing these organizations as serious political entities is distinct from granting them legitimacy—which their wanton killing of civilians denies them—and is necessary to understand their motivations and effectiveness. Politicians give stump speeches about what they would like to do concerning taxes and health care, but scholars assume—with good reason—that politicians care first and foremost about gaining and maintaining office. To only analyze the achievement of publicly proclaimed objectives would miss that which political candidates and organizations who use terrorism crave the most: power.

How Terrorism Can Strengthen Organizations

Terrorism has catapulted numerous organizations into the leadership of their movements and states. The Provisional IRA (PIRA) started out as a minority splinter group from the Official IRA (OIRA) in 1969-1970, and yet its more extreme violence against security forces and civilians in Northern Ireland gave it credibility, in the minds of many, as a defender of the Catholic community. The PIRA and its political arm, Sinn Féin, translated its violence into political capital, as it first eclipsed the OIRA to lead the republican wing of the Irish national movement by the mid-1970s, then surpassed its longtime nonviolent rival, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), in Northern Ireland elections in 2001, before challenging to become the largest political party in Ireland today. The story of the IRA and Sinn Fein is not unique, as groups like the Irgun in Israel, the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front in Eritrea also used violence as a stepping stone to political power, reshaping their states in the process.

There are no guarantees, of course. Terrorism has led to the downfall of groups like the Quebec Liberation Front, Sikh separatists in India, and the Italian Red Brigades. When certain conditions hold, however—such as a polarized public, cohesive social networks, and indiscriminate state repression—terrorism is more likely to help drive up recruits, funding, and credibility in the eyes of its supporters, which can translate into political power long after an organization has put down its arms.

How Terrorism Can Kill or Breathe Life Into an Idea