How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns

By Audrey Kurth Cronin | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
Failure
IMPLODING, PROVOKING A BACKLASH,
OR BECOMING MARGINALIZED

There is a point at which methods devour themselves.

—Frantz Fanon1

TERRORISM CAN BE SELF-DEFEATING. Most terrorism ends because the group employing the tactic fails and eventually disintegrates. The short life-span and limited success of most groups that use terrorism demonstrate that violence deliberately targeted against civilians repels rather than attracts popular support. Indiscriminate killing creates a backlash and undermines political staying power. Terrorism creates havoc, murders innocent people, draws morbid fascination; but it is insufficient to achieve political or social change. Even when it is combined with more traditional methods of securing power, historical case studies indicate that the tactic most often works against the desired outcome and eventually has to be disavowed. As was demonstrated in the last chapter, terrorism succeeds strategically only when the state overplays or bungles its response and hands the group derivative power, or when the group has gained sufficient popular strength to transition to another form of violence.

But why does terrorism usually fail? What happens in the closing months of a doomed campaign? Since terrorism research tends to be subsidized by governments and affected by policy imperatives, the role of counterterrorism is often overemphasized in answering this question. The degree to which groups evolve independently of government action is seldom fully appreciated. Government data are what analysts know, what they can acquire, what they can most easily quantify and verify. Even with the best of intentions, they can be biased toward linking decline to specific government policies, especially after the fact, although the relationship between cause and effect may be unclear and unverifiable. Frequently the most powerful forces of decay operate within the group itself and are only indirectly affected by the policies of governments.

It is extraordinarily difficult to maintain the momentum of a terrorist campaign. More often than not, terrorism ends because the group

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