Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

How Successful Is Terrorism?

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

How Successful Is Terrorism?

Article excerpt

How Successful Is Terrorism?

Terrorism has become a frightening phenomenon and a concern for many governments and citizens around the world. A great number of important debates about terrorism have appeared as a consequence. There are major related to the definition of terrorism, causes of terrorism, and evaluations of terrorism that attempt to determine whether terrorism has been successful or not. The present analysis will focus on of how effective terrorism has been. Many have argued that terrorism inevitably fails to achieve its objective or that it only works in very special or exceptional circumstances. Others have argued that terrorism has been much more successful. These different views will be presented below as a backdrop to a consideration of a variety of circumstances in which terrorist organizations have been able to achieve at least some of their goals. Of course, whether or not terrorism succeeds or appears to succeed is important for governments, their publics, and for anyone analyzing the phenomenon. The cases will be subdivided for purposes of discussion into nationalist or ethnic struggles (including those with religious overtones), more clearly religious struggles, and then conflicts involving ideological terrorist organizations. Further, a more general consideration of cases where terrorist organizations have sought to achieve shorter-term or tactical goals with their attacks will be included. Finally, some concluding thoughts about the relative success of terrorism as a technique for achieving political goals will be offered. If terrorism is a successful technique for groups to use, it would also suggest that the success is a cause of terrorism.


There has been much discussion about a working definition of terrorism, and many have been offered. While the debate over definition is important in many respects, a fairly common but comprehensive definition is used in the present study, and it is also consistent with many other definitions commonly used. It consists of the following six parts:

(1) terrorism has political objectives;

(2) it relies on violence or the threat of violence;

(3) it has a target audience beyond the immediate victims;

(4) it involves organization and is not just the actions of isolated individuals

(5) it involves a non-state actor as the perpetrator or the target or both; and

(6) it is a weapon of the weak designed to change the distribution of power (Claridge, 1996;

Enders and Sandler, 2006, p. 5; Hoffman, 2006, Chap. 1; Lutz and Lutz, 2005, p. 7). This definition would include actions such as bank robberies and kidnappings undertaken to finance an organization with political objectives, but would exclude similar actions by criminal groups that are designed to generate profits in what is basically an entrepreneurial activity. The need for a target audience is a key defining characteristic of terrorism since the violence is designed to strike fear into a broader group. Terrorism is ultimately a form of psychological warfare that is directed against this target audience (Chalk, 1996, p. 13; Wilkinson, 1977, p. 81). The violence involved is designed to break the spirit of some group or groups and the immediate victims are a means of sending a message to that audience (Gaucher, 1968, p. 298). Organization is also required in order for a group to attempt to achieve its political objectives. Isolated actions by individuals such as Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, can be ambivalent cases. But his anti-modernization attacks failed when he was caught, thus ending the threat because individuals acting alone are almost inevitably doomed to failure. Individuals operating within the loosely organized networks or within the context of leaderless resistance structures, however, do qualify since they are acting within a broad framework. They share an effort to achieve common political objectives within the context of an at least tacit alliance based on shared political views (Hoffman, 2001, p. …

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