Daniel Pipes: The Limits of Terrorism

[Mr. Pipes is the director of the Middle East Forum. His website address is http://www.danielpipes.org. Click here for his blog.]

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." 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 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, Abrahms took a close look at each of the 28 terrorist groups so designated by the U.S. 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 3 of those goals, for a measly 7 percent success rate. Those three victories would be: (1) Hezbollah's success at expelling the multinational peacekeepers from Lebanon in 1984, (2) Hezbollah's success at driving Israeli forces out of Lebanon in 1985 and 2000, and (3) the Tamil Tiger's partial success at winning control over areas of Sri Lanka after 1990.

That's it. The other 26 groups, from the Abu Nidal Organization and Al-Qaeda and Hamas to Aum Shinriko and Kach and the Shining Path, occasionally achieved limited success but mostly failed completely. 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 lack of success should"ultimately dissuade potential jihadists" from blowing up civilians.

This final implication, of frequent failure leading to demoralization, suggests an eventual reduction of terrorism in favor of less violent tactics. Indeed, signs of change are already apparent.

Sayyid Imam al-Sharif

At the elite level, for example the former jihad theorist, Sayyid Imam al-Sharif (a.k.a. Dr. Fadl), now denounces violence:"We are prohibited from committing aggression," he writes,"even if the enemies of Islam do that."

On the popular level, the Pew Research Center's 2005 Global Attitudes Project found that"support for suicide bombings and other terrorist acts has fallen in most Muslim-majority nations surveyed" and"so too has confidence in Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden." Likewise, a 2007 Program on International Policy Attitudes study found that"Large majorities in all countries oppose attacks against civilians for political purposes and see them as contrary to Islam. … Most respondents … believe that politically-motivated attacks on civilians, such as bombings or assassinations, cannot be justified."

On the practical level, terrorist groups are evolving. Several of them – specifically in Algeria, Egypt, and Syria – have dropped violence and now work within the political system. Others have taken on non-violent functions – Hezbollah delivers medical services and Hamas won an election. If Ayatollah Khomeini and Osama bin Laden represent Islamism's first iteration, Hezbollah and Hamas represent a transitional stage, and Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, arguably the world's most influential Islamist, shows the benefits of going legitimate.

But if going the political route works so well, why does Islamist violence continue and even expand? Because they are not always practical. Rita Katz of the SITE Intelligence Group explains:"Engaged in a divine struggle, jihadists measure success not by tangible victories in this life but by God's eternal benediction and by rewards received in the hereafter."

In the long term, however, Islamists will likely recognize the limits of violence and increasingly pursue their repugnant goals through legitimate ways. Radical Islam's best chance to defeat us lies not in bombings and beheadings but in classrooms, law courts, computer games, television studios, and electoral campaigns.

We are on notice.

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Elliott Aron Green - 6/2/2009

Omar and Art, let's not forget that Arab irregulars attacked Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem and south Tel Aviv in December 1947, long months before the Deir Yassin incident. Uri Milstein has a book out about the Deir Yasin battle. Not 250 but only about 110 villagers were killed in the battle. Iraqi troops were present in the village too. This number of 110 villagers is, inter alia, based on interviews with former residents of Deir Yassin by academics at Bir Zeit U.

In February and March 1948 there were several mass killing bomb attacks in Jerusalem against Jews: Ben Yehuda Street [ca. 50 slaughtered], "Palestine Post" [now Jerusalem Post; ca. 12 killed], Jewish Agency building [ca. 15 killed], etc. These massacres all occurred before the Deir Yassin battle. Moreover, there were many smaller incidents in which firearms were used, not bombs. Deir Yassin took place in April, as I recall. The slaughter of the doctors and nurses took place several days later, possibly motivated by grossly exaggerated reports of Deir Yassin. For instance, the ICRC [Red Cross] rep in Jerusalem, one Jacques Reynier [spelling?; in Un Drapeau sur Jerusalem or some such title] reported rapes and disembowelings, denied by villagers. By the way, I believe that British forces were present during the massacre of the doctors and nurses and did nothing to stop it.
The doctors and nurses were massacred on the road to Mount Scopus very near the former Jewish neighborhood of Shim`on haTsadiq, whence the Jews had been driven out in December 1947, the first people driven out of their homes in that war who could not go back after the war was over.

art eckstein - 6/1/2009

Deir Yassin, Deir Yassin (not an example of STATE terror in any case, since the Irgun was not the official Israeli army)--and have you read Benny Morris on Deir Yassin, after I gave you the scholarly citation? (Answer: NO). BUT WHEN, OMAR, ARE YOU GOING TO EXAMINE THE MT. SCOPUS MASSACRE OF JEWISH DOCTORS AND PATIENTS?

omar ibrahim baker - 5/31/2009

True enough particularly state terrorism of which you give several good examples to which should be added Israel's as in Deir Yassin, Qibya etc but NOT Gaza nor South Lebanon and Al Dahiya.

Joel Rosenblum - 5/30/2009

Japan surrendered after we killed a few million of them in WWII.
Our School of terrorism of the Americas deposed socialist regimes in Latin America.
Iraq has been reshaped and oil contracts given to U.S. and British companies.
Afghanistan once again supplies us with the heroin we need.
I could go on and on and on.

art eckstein - 5/25/2009

It is Omar who distorts the definition of terrorism, not the West. His definition--"imposition of one's will by terrorizing the adversary through brute force and violence"--is simply a definition of war (or even, if he doesn't like the political situation, peace!).

Terrorism, however, is something specific: it involves the INTENTIONAL targetting of INNOCENT CIVILIANS in order to gain a political or religious objective.

For instance, the suicide bombing of busses filled with schoolchildren, the murdering of schoolchildren on their way home from school (as Hamas did to Fatah officials' children in Gaza), the bombing of old people at a religious service (I'm thinking of the Passover Massacre, but one could include many hundreds of fellow Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, murdered in mosques), the blowing up of nightclubs filled with civilians, the blowing up of university cafeterias filled with students. Not to mention the flying of airplanes filled with screaming women and children into office-buildings filled with peaceful office-workers. Not to mention the murder of 34,000 (mostly Muslim) civilians in Iraq in 2005/2006--every single one of those murders being consciously and publicly done for the glory of Allah. Etc. Etc.

This behavior is the behavior of terrorists all of whom say they are motivated by Islam. It is qualitatively different from other types of war, and qualitatively different from what anyone else does. It is not of course universal among Muslims (in fact the Iraqi population turned on Al-Qaeda because of its violence against Muslim civilians). Nevertheless, since only Muslim terrorists engage in this sort of intentional hyperviolence against civilians, it is legitimate to see this sort of terrorism as a Muslim cultural problem. Thus even the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka eventually gave up intentionally targetting civilians, and they rejected helping Al-Qaeda because Al-Qaeda did so, and they rejected helping the Palestinians for the same reason ("we don't blow up children in Pizza Huts").

omar ibrahim baker - 5/25/2009

As only to be expected what Pipes is after is a new angle from which to demonize Islamists and Islam.
His veneer of objectivity fails with a conclusion that presumes that "terrorism" is an exclusively Islamist phenomena.
However the failure is neither originally nor exclusively Pipes’.

The failure stems principally from the general, mainly Western, unwillingness to deal with all forms of violence with the same criteria and its reluctance to judge both official/state violence and non official/public violence by the same standards.
Had the term "terrorism" remained faithful to its original inherent significance and strict meaning (Imposition of one's will by terrorizing the adversary through brute force and violence) it would have immediately recognized occupation, as for Israel's of the West Bank, Gaza and the Syrian Golan, as an outstanding case of state terrorism by which the state of Israel "terrorizes" and imposes its will on several millions through brute and unbridled military force .
Equally had the term remained faithful to its inception it would unhesitatingly recognize the aggressive and wanton American war of choice on Iraq, with or without Abu Ghraib, as another outstanding case of USA state terrorism.

Similarly had the scope, magnitude , intensity, severity of "terrorism", both official/state and public, been adjudicated by the same standard, i.e. the number of victims each caused , then compared and juxtaposed emerging figures in the same arenas the overwhelming preponderance of the number of victims of official/state(s) terrorism by both the states of Israel and of the USA in Palestine and Iraq respectively would for all practical purposes almost acquit public/non official violence from the charge of terrorism and lodge it firmly, but not exclusively, with both states thus indisputably indicting them in the process as the super or mega "terrorists" in their respective fields of operations!

Such an indictment, though, evidently presupposes an overall unqualified acceptance of the equal worth for the lives of the victims of both forms of terrorism; a state of affairs that should not be taken for granted with neither but particularly with Israel.

Which general issue, and this particular episode, high lights the perennial issue with the WEST and particularly with the USA: the historical tendency to define matters in a manner that NOT only serves its purposes BUT also pre indicts its adversaries in their ongoing battle of domination and resistance.

omar ibrahim baker - 5/25/2009

The photo next to the article is of AL ZAWAHIRI and NOT of al Sharif.

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