Why terrorism is not an effective political strategy

Why terrorism is not an effective political strategy

Terrorism often works. Extremist organizations such as al-Qaeda, Hamas, and the Tamil Tigers engage in terrorism because it frequently delivers the desired response. However, with its reliance on basic psychology, wrong target choice and high degree of violence, terrorism is an inefficient strategy to reach political goals.

Clausewitz argues, “war is not an act of senseless passion but is controlled by its political object.” For the purpose of this article, Clausewitz’s point of view will be adopted by defining terrorism as a military strategy employed primarily by non-state actors who wish to influence a much broader political context.

9/11, Charlie Hebdo, and the 13th of November attacks in Paris successfully established a climate of fear. Nevertheless, it should be emphasized that while terrorists can be successful at spreading the feeling of fear, they might not reach their political objectives. Indeed, Max Abrahms underlines that merely 7% of terrorist campaigns can be qualified as “successful”.

For all intents and purposes, the political strategy of terrorism is doomed to fail, but it is crucial to understand the reasons why.

Terrorism’s use of amateur psychology

Terrorism fails to reach political goals since it is based on false or unproven assumptions about society and its relation to fear. Terrorists have often made wrong assumptions about their ability to generate fear and its political consequences.

Terrorism is inefficient at disorienting people. On the contrary, the strategy of terrorism can trigger opposite reactions.

Firstly, instead of rallying people to their cause, terrorists are blamed for the situation’s deterioration and encourage counter-terrorist measures. The British public’s response to the IRA illustrates well this mechanism. Bombings were perceived as unfair because of their indiscriminate nature. A strong notion of defiance grew among the British public, which led them to strongly support the government’s military operation against the group.

Secondly, sustaining a climate of terror by repeated attacks can create indifference. By perpetrating constant acts of terror, the extra-normality, which constitutes terrorism, is replaced by normality. Terrorism loses its symbolism and its power to terrify. Grant Wardlaw studied the psychological impact of air raids on London during the World War 2 and concluded that citizens indirectly affected became indifferent to the bombings. Thus, people can adjust their level of tolerance to high levels of violence.

Misinterpretation of political objectives

There is a need to make a distinction between two sets of goals: limited and maximalist. The former focuses on evicting an occupying power from a country, or winning control over a territory; while the latter deals with transforming or annihilating a political system.

According to Fritz Heider, people “attribute the behavior of others to inherent characteristics or dispositions rather than external factors.”

This leads to the belief that the actors’ objectives will be interpreted according to the consequences of their actions. By targeting civilians, the target country will believe that the terrorists’ main goal is to destroy their society and values.

It will draw conclusions on objectives according to the short-term consequences of terrorism: deaths of innocent citizens, mass fear, etc. Consequently, external conditions such as poverty or territorial occupation will be excluded from explaining terrorists’ action. Thus, the target government believes that the terrorists are motivated by maximalist objectives.

Moreover, this miscommunication influences target countries’ ability to make concessions. If terrorists want to destroy society, there is little society can grant them. Therefore no political concessions can be made and terrorists will fail to achieve their political goals.

For example, the Middle East Media Research Institute underlines that the American response to 9/11 ignored Al-Qaeda’s rationale for violence. Instead of focusing on Al-Qaeda policy demands, they concentrated on the short-term consequences of the terrorist attacks and inferred that they were targeting America to destroy its society. President George W. Bush claimed the enemy “hates not our policy, but our existence.”

The escalation trap

Terrorism empowers government to respond with force. In order to coerce a target country, terrorist groups need to perpetrate actions that will confront the target’s limits, compelling it to efficiently respond to terrorists’ objectives.

However, it is significant to note that war is a reactive environment, which means that the adversary will also try to challenge its enemy. This phenomenon is called escalation of violence. According to Clausewitz, “If the enemy is to be coerced, you must put in him in a situation that is even more unpleasant than the sacrifice you call on him to make.”

Nevertheless, at some point escalation can be lethal for the terrorists. Escalation may provoke counter-escalation from the targeted government.

By escalating to a point of extreme violence, terrorists can push the enemy into a corner where the only option is to respond with total repression. Such a degree of violence is a direct threat to the survival of terrorist groups.

The military response of the British government towards the IRA illustrates the escalation trap and its impact. In 1972, the IRA perpetrated 21 bombings in Belfast. This event was the key for the government to realize that the IRA’s decision to escalate violence had fundamentally changed the political and military framework within which they could respond.At the end of July, an operation involving 30,000 men took place in the IRA strongholds. By counter-escalating the threat, the British government broke up the core center of IRA operatives and severely reduced the organization’s operational capacity.

Terrorism is an inefficient strategy to reach political goals. In that respect, terrorists are unable to efficiently manipulate the emotional impact of the target population in order to reach their political goals.

Furthermore, by attacking civilians, terrorists mislead the government by making them interpret their goals as maximalist, i.e. focused on the destruction of the society and its values.

Finally, when terrorist actors reach a high degree of violence, target government are likely to retaliate against the group, often threatening the group’s existence.

In the end, the failure of terrorism to achieve political goals offers a new perspective on the often too alarmist media coverage, which overemphasizes the effectiveness of current terrorist groups.

Categories: Europe, International, Security

About Author

Jason Dozier

Jason specializes in crisis management and the organizational development of terrorist groups. He currently works for the Embassy of Malta in Paris where he serves as Executive Assistant to the Ambassador. Jason holds a Master’s in Terrorism, Security and Society at King’s College London concentrating on a comparative analysis between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. He also obtained a Bachelor in International Relations from the Institute of International Relations in Paris.