The big question: Has terrorism ever achieved its aims?

Since terrorism evolved in the 19th century, professed political 
and religious groups have targeted global locations from Nepal to 
New York, Paris to Peru and, recently, Manchester, Melbourne, Tehran and London. But have such tactics ever met their objectives? Seven historians assess the aims and aftermaths of terrorist campaigns

This article was first published in the August/September 2017 issue of BBC World Histories Magazine

illustration by joey guidone
Illustration by Joey Guidone
 

Rosemary O’Kane

Terrorist groups – 
most strikingly those concerned with ‘global jihad’ – often lack clear political goals”

Terrorism is a chosen strategy in which the deliberate targeting of innocents as victims is of its essence. In modern times, the choice of terrorism as strategy was first made by the delegates of the Italian Federation at the Anarchist International in 1876. ‘Propaganda by the deed’ was advocated as the means to destabilise the government and rally support for the overthrow of the existing bourgeois system, the Federation’s objective being to replace that system with its interpretation of socialism. Thereafter, the 1890s became known as ‘the decade of the bomb’; infamously, in 1894 a French anarchist, Émile Henry, bombed a crowded Paris café.

Two of the aims of such a shocking act – propaganda and the rallying of support – reached their apogee on 11 September 2001, when members of al-Qaeda hijacked planes to attack targets including the World Trade Center in New York City. The high drama of the act and its toll of innocent victims – nearly 3,000 died – achieved worldwide publicity and stimulated not only recruitment but also emulation. In terms of these aims, terrorism succeeds when an act attracts publicity and recruits. 

But, as the 19th-century anarchist position made clear, terrorism as a strategy has political ends: first, the destabilisation of government; second, the replacement of that order. For the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), that meant 
a united Ireland; for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, 
a Tamil state in Sri Lanka; according to Hamas’s 1988 charter, the rejection and replacement of the state of Israel. 

Has terrorism achieved the political ends of its perpetrators? A while ago, I would have answered “no”. Terrorist groups had always fallen short of achieving their stated political goals, whether because of defeat (as in Sri Lanka), agreement (as in Northern Ireland) or collapse in recruitment. 

Now, I am not so sure. In the 21st century, terrorist groups – most strikingly those concerned with ‘global jihad’ – often lack clear political goals, some not even claiming responsibility for their acts. Now, the means – the sacrifice of the perpetrators’ lives – seems to be the end in itself: martyrdom and the passage to (and rewards in) heaven that it claims to bring.

Rosemary O’Kane is emeritus professor of comparative political theory at Keele University, and author of Terrorism (Pearson, 2012)

 


Black-clad militants abseil in front of a giant Hezbollah banner in Beirut in 1999. This Islamist organisation – which has participated in numerous terrorist acts, particularly fighting Israeli occupation in Lebanon – has become a significant political power with quasi-international status. (Getty Images)

Adrian Guelke

“Attitudes towards lethal political violence are 
affected by whether it achieves its objectives”

There are clear examples of terrorism achieving tactical successes. One of the most well-known is the simultaneous twin truck-bomb attacks on barracks in Beirut on 23 October 1983, which killed 241 American and 58 French troops. These attacks prompted the rapid withdrawal of both American and French peacekeeping forces from Lebanon. A legacy of this episode is that the method used – closely co-ordinated suicide missions designed to cause a maximum number of casualties – continues to be copied. 

At the same time, it can confidently be stated that terrorists rarely achieve their ultimate strategic goals. But the reason for that is less reassuring than it appears. Terrorism is a bit like treason. A consequence of the (rare) success of treason is that the actors are no longer viewed as traitors. 

Our attitude towards lethal political violence is profoundly affected by whether it achieves its objectives. Generally speaking, violence is instrumental – a means to an end. That is true of political violence, almost by definition. We may repudiate violence even if we agree with the end and believe that the violence in question is an effective means to that end. However, we may stop short of calling the individuals involved in such violence terrorists. The likelihood is that, in such circumstances, we are more likely to focus on the aims of the violence and the context in which it occurred than on what it entailed for its victims. 

Some scholars in the field of terrorism studies insist, controversially, on putting members of the French Resistance during the Second World War into the category of terrorists. And there are any number of other examples of groups who fought for the independence of a region or colony in which the appropriateness of the label of terrorism is hotly disputed in the literature. 

It is obvious that wider opinion is strongly influenced by outcomes. Success of any reasonably acceptable objective excuses almost everything – though one way we may seek to qualify such a conclusion is by stressing other factors that played a role in bringing about the change. Major historical developments rarely have single causes – and that, at least, provides a legitimate reason for resisting the uncomfortable conclusion that what we may previously have called terrorism sometimes works.

Adrian Guelke is professor emeritus in the School of History, 
Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast, 
and author of Terrorism and Global Disorder (IB Tauris, 2006)


Wreckage litters barracks in Beirut after twin truck-bomb attacks on 23 October 1983 killed 299 US and French troops as well as civilians. Within a year, international peacekeeping forces had withdrawn from Lebanon. (Getty Images)

Charles Townshend

“There is a spectrum of outcomes on which failures vastly outnumber even partial successes”

The repeated use of terrorism over the past two centuries shows that – at some level – it works. Perhaps not one in 20 terrorist groups ‘succeeds’ in obtaining its ultimate objective; most such objectives are highly ambitious. But 
a range of less-ambitious objectives 
have been achieved – some quite easily. 

One of the most elementary terrorist motivations is the simple need to take action in an intolerable situation. As the Russian populist Alexander Ulyanov (older brother of Vladimir Lenin) asked: “What can I do if there is no other way?” For Gudrun Ensslin of the far-left Red Army Faction (the 1970s German terrorist gang also known as the Baader-Meinhof Group), “words are useless without action”. Terrorist action is inherently outrageous – its intent is to shock – and, like any outrageous violence, it invariably commands public attention.

At the political level, there is a spectrum of outcomes on which failures vastly outnumber even partial successes. For instance, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers), elements of which used terror attacks on a huge scale in Sri Lanka, were destroyed after a long, semi-conventional war. Terrorists of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have conducted a 40-year campaign in Turkey without significantly improving the prospect of Kurdish autonomy, let alone independence. By contrast, the Islamist movements of Hezbollah (in Lebanon) and Hamas (Palestinian territories) have become real powers in their lands, with a quasi-international status. 

More successful still was the ‘Jewish revolt’, a campaign launched in the wake of the Second World War that made Palestine ungovernable and led the British government to abandon the country. The prime targets of the Irgun (Zionist paramilitary organisation) in 1946–7 were British security forces, but more indiscriminate attacks on Arabs had begun in the late 1930s, escalating into a campaign of ethnic cleansing after the British withdrawal. The Palestinian Arabs who fled then have never been able to return. Israel was not wholly secure, but it had the power to proclaim itself a Jewish state.

Charles Townshend is professor emeritus of international history at Keele University, and author of Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, second edition 2011)

Marianne Elliott

“The IRA set back its 
political goals of getting Britain to withdraw” 

Modern terrorism may have political ends, but it draws its emotional appeal from origin stories and stereotypes refined over centuries. Challenging such stories is crucial to combating terrorism. 

Stereotypes, of course, have some foundation in fact. However, in Ireland they were simplified and perpetuated over centuries by religious and political elites, and the resulting simplified national story forms the basis of the Republican terrorist (IRA) message. This narrative usually takes the form of oppression of Catholic Irish/Gaelic victims by the colonial victimiser; in this, ‘our’ nation – that of the victims – is the only legitimate one. This origin story is retold in the murals of nationalist and republican Belfast. You are not allowed to forget. This makes it difficult to envisage Protestants as part of the republican vision of Ireland, because they are deemed the perpetrators of past persecution and dispossession.

Loyalist (Protestant) terrorism is less understood, but is based on a counter-narrative, equally refined over centuries, and equally exclusive of the other. Regardless of widespread UK secularism, British identity in Northern Ireland is rooted in a perceived common Protestantism with the British mainland. Loyalists also have a origin story of past persecution, taking its cue from actual events when Catholics killed – even massacred
– Protestants. Loyalist newssheets in the 1970s, the worst decade of the Troubles, were full of reminders of such events, and the analogy drawn with contemporary IRA atrocities. 

There are still Protestants and Catholics who subscribe to these origin stories. Such stories may be stronger when societies feel threatened, but they do not disappear when the threat diminishes. Modern peace processes ignore them at their peril. Commentators are right to be concerned about republicans’ further refinement of such stories in the portrayal of the IRA as the ‘ordinary, decent’ terrorist/freedom-fighter of the past, distinct from the savagery of today’s Islamic terrorists.

Did terrorism work in Ireland? No. The IRA set back its political goals of getting Britain to withdraw and re-unifying Ireland, while Sinn Féin participation in government could have been won by other means. Elsewhere, one needs to ask: what are the aims of terrorism? If to cause division or to make governments over-react, then it does work. However, there are few cases where political aims cannot ultimately be won by political methods, as has happened in Ireland. 

Marianne Elliott is professor emeritus, University of Liverpool, and author of When God Took Sides: Religion and Identity in Ireland (OUP, 2009)


A mural in Belfast commemorates dead fighters of the 
Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary organisation classed as terrorist by the UK, Irish and US governments. The UVF was responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths. (Alamy)


Richard English

“The majority of terrorist groups end their violence without securing their central strategic aims”

Terrorists have achieved many things, of course. Publicity for a cause has been repeatedly secured through bloody acts of violence, from the hijackings of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to the bombings of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) to al-Qaeda’s still-shocking 9/11 atrocity. In each of these cases, and in many more throughout history, it is hard to imagine that the respective grievances behind the violence would have become as globally or dramatically conspicuous had terrorism not been pursued in their name.

At a similarly tactical level, terrorists have frequently achieved operational success. Outrageously daring killings of prominent politicians have been carried out by groups such as the Basque separatist organisation ETA and the Italian leftists of the Red Brigades. More recently, suicide terrorism has represented an ingenious means of targeting opponents with repeatedly lethal, operational effectiveness.

These are emphatically tactical successes, yet major terrorist groups have presented such tactics as a necessary means towards the achievement of strategic aims. How have terrorists fared in regard to this more demanding test of strategic efficacy? 

Not well, for the most part. The vast majority of terrorist groups end their violence without securing their central, primary, strategic aims. There have been exceptions (the Jewish terrorism that helped produce the state of Israel in the 1940s, for example), but these are very much the minority.

More common is what might be termed partial strategic victory, in which a diluted form of a group’s main aims can be claimed to have been furthered by terrorism, or in which secondary goals (revenge against an enemy, the sustenance of resistance into future generations) have been secured. Revenge has, perhaps, been one of the main arenas for terrorist effectiveness, though hardly the most appealing – especially since the majority of those targeted have been defenceless at the time.

In addition to strategic or tactical aims, there can be inherent rewards in terrorism (adventure, comradeship, fame, financial gain, local power). But, important though these are in sustaining involvement, the ultimate test of efficacy surely lies in the strategic realm – and here it is the extent of human suffering rather than the frequency of terrorist victory that is most striking.

Richard English is professor of politics at Queen’s University Belfast, and author of Does Terrorism Work? A History (Oxford University Press, 2016)


Members of the French Resistance aim at German snipers during the Second World War. The distinction between freedom fighters or guerrillas and terrorists can be contentious: some scholars have labelled Resistance fighters as terrorists. (Alamy)

Bruce Hoffman

“So-called Islamic State has certainly achieved its short-term objectives of generating attention, fear and publicity”

The premier example of terrorism’s power to rocket a cause from obscurity to renown was the murder of 11 Israeli athletes seized by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Despite condemnation of the terrorist operation, just over two years later the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Yasser Arafat, was invited to address the United Nations General Assembly, and shortly afterwards the PLO was granted special observer status in that international body. Indeed, by 1979 the PLO had formal diplomatic relations with more countries (86) than the established nation-state of Israel (72). 

It is doubtful whether the PLO could ever have achieved this success had it not resorted to international terrorism. It had achieved what diplomats and statesmen, lobbyists and humanitarian workers had persistently tried and failed to do: focus world attention on the Palestinian people and their plight. It had also provided a powerful example to similarly frustrated peoples elsewhere. Within the decade, the number of terrorist groups either operating internationally or committing attacks against foreign targets in their own country had more than quadrupled.

Today, attention has been attracted to the so-called Islamic State and its aims through tragedies such as 2017 attacks in Manchester, London and Tehran. Though it 
has certainly achieved its short-term objectives of generating attention, fear, and publicity, it is unlikely to gain any of 
its long-term aims. Nonetheless, these terrorists – like others throughout history – soldier on, their gaze fixed on a distant horizon that paradoxically always seems within reach: 
an imperceptible point in time when they will triumph 
over their enemies and attain the ultimate realisation of their dreams and destiny. For them, this future is divinely decreed, and they are specifically anointed to achieve it. This transcendental dimension not only underpins their struggle but assures them success – if only in serving their deity faithfully and unswervingly. For them, that is arguably all that matters.

Bruce Hoffman is professor and director at the Center for Security Studies, Georgetown University, Washington DC, and author of Inside Terrorism (Columbia University Press, revised edition September 2017)


A fighter of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (‘Tamil Tigers’) in Jaffna during the 26-year civil war. Their insurgency campaign, aiming to secure an independent Tamil state in Sri Lanka, was ultimately unsuccessful. (Getty Images)

Diarmaid Ferriter

“Republican terrorism achieved a free state in southern Ireland earlier than otherwise would have been the case”

An estimated 7,500 people were killed or injured in Ireland as a result of political violence between 1916 and 1923. A further 3,500 were killed from the outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1969 to the Belfast Agreement in 1998. The extent to which the violence and loss of life were necessary or justified remains one of the most contentious debates in modern Irish history.

Defining the ‘terrorist’ in history is, of course, always problematic. In Ireland, one person’s terrorist was another’s freedom fighter or defender. What did it all achieve? In Ireland a century ago, political moderation had gone out of fashion. Paramilitary organisations made ‘parliamentarianism’ a term of abuse, and the pursuit of independence sparked a guerrilla war that the Irish Republican Army (IRA) could not win outright, but which could not be won by British troops either. The ultimate result in the early 1920s was the partition of Ireland and the establishment of southern Ireland as a self-governing dominion within the empire. 

Did Irish republican terrorism work? Yes, to the extent that it trumped constitutional politics and achieved a free state in southern Ireland earlier than would have been the case without terrorism. Neither would the state of Northern Ireland have come into existence without the threat of force. 

What the IRA did not achieve was its stated aim of a united Irish republic. The same was true of the more recent conflict, ending with the Belfast Agreement of 1998. The IRA’s opponents got more, by securing continued membership of the UK, the principle of consent for any constitutional change, and the eradication of the republic’s territorial claim over Northern Ireland. Republicans got a share of power and an almost invisible border between northern and southern Ireland, as well as acceptance that they had fought a war, so that prisoners could be released. 

A century of violence has not produced a united Ireland; that fact alone has led many to conclude that Irish terrorism did not work. But terrorism did succeed in untangling southern Ireland from the British empire at an early stage, achieving an autonomy that would not have occurred without violence. It also, as a result of the more recent conflict, forced Britain to accept that the Irish people have a right to self-determination.  

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin, author of The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000 (Profile, 2004)

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