Does Terrorism Work?


Mar 21, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in The Mercury News on March 21, 2004.

The March 11 Madrid train bombings -- which claimed more than 200 lives, wounded more than 1,400 people and helped oust Spain's governing party from power -- raise a disturbing question. Does terrorism work?

Americans recoil at the possibility. From childhood, we are taught that violence doesn't solve problems, but only creates them. As adults, we believe that "anger management" is preferable to violent rage. As a nation of pragmatists, the idea that there are violent people with whom no compromise will ever be possible is hard for us to digest.

The American system is built on the belief, after all, that governments are best changed with ballots, not bombs. But the terrorists who carried out the attack in Madrid seem to have succeeded in using violence as an instrument of public policy, altering history by installing a party in power that might not otherwise have been elected.

Although a majority of the Spanish people had opposed the Iraq war, polls just days before the election indicated that Spaniards were still ready to re-elect the government party by a comfortable margin. That changed with the terrorist attack.

Stunned by the casualties and angered by the government's initial determination to blame Basque separatists for the carnage, voters turned out the government party. Just three days after the bombings, a government that was a strong supporter of America's global war on terror and a participant in the war in Iraq was replaced with a government determined to pull Spanish troops out.

The Madrid attack sent shock waves through other European capitals, especially where governments had supported the war despite domestic opposition -- the United Kingdom, Italy and the Netherlands. Spanish, Italian, and British forces as well as the United Nations had been the targets of terrorist attacks in Iraq. Madrid brought the violence home.

Has "regime change" now become a terrorist tactic to eliminate governments most committed to fighting terrorism? Can fear of this prompt governments to change their policies? If terrorists listen to our chatter as we listen to theirs, they would find a new line of attack clearly laid out for them.

Previous understanding

Terrorists worldwide have shown they are good at terrorizing -- even those who don't succeed in accomplishing any other goal, such as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Terrorists have spread fear by kidnappings, murders, bombings and releases of poison gas. They have attracted attention to themselves and their causes, prevented settlements and provoked repression. They have sometimes won political concessions and even brought down a few policies. The United States, for instance, has begun pulling troops out of Saudi Arabia, years after Osama bin Laden demanded a complete withdrawal.

But up to now, although terrorists have won tactical victories, they have not been a major force in overturning governments or in achieving their often-grandiose objectives. In fact, nowhere, outside of the colonial era, have terrorists been able to achieve their own stated strategic goals, as we are able to understand them.

Terrorist kidnappers have been able at times to win political concessions in return for the release of their hostages, although governments over the years increasingly adopted no-concessions policies.

Terrorists have also been able to provoke government repression that is designed (but usually fails) to rally people to the terrorists' cause. For example, terrorist campaigns in the late 1960s and early 1970s brought about the collapse of democratic governments in Uruguay and Argentina. And Turkey's inability to quell growing terrorist violence prompted a military coup in 1980.

But these were Pyrrhic victories that led to destruction of the terrorist organizations that won them. The masses did not rally to the terrorists' cause. Like suicide bombers, terrorist groups became their own victims.

Even when the use of terrorist tactics brought both the Irish Republican Army and the Spanish terrorist group ETA a measure of political legitimacy, it ultimately weakened both groups before they achieved their ultimate goals of a united Ireland and an independent Basque state. Governments were willing to address the terrorists' grievances with their political arms if the terrorists would agree to halt the violence. Compromise, however, split the movements as hard-liners broke off to continue the killing.

Terrorism successes

Terrorism has succeeded at times in killing policies. A suicide bombing -- one of the first -- that killed 241 U.S. Marines and other U.S. other military service members in Beirut in 1983 destroyed American policy of helping to create a stable government in Lebanon. America withdrew a few months after the attack.

Bin Laden boasts that the 1992 jihadist bombing of a hotel that Americans had occupied in Aden, Yemen, caused the United States to retreat again, thus underscoring what the jihadists regard as America's fundamental weakness: Exquisitely sensitive to casualties, when struck by terrorists, Americans fold and withdraw. It was this reasoning that lay behind the jihadist attacks on U.S. military service members in Riyadh in 1995 in Saudi Arabia, the USS Cole in 2000 in Yemen, and the continuing attacks in Iraq.

Terrorists have also been able to create political crises, and on occasion wobble and even topple governments. Failure to rescue or negotiate the release of American hostages held in Iran contributed to President Carter's defeat in the 1980 election. President Reagan's bid to win the release of American hostages in Lebanon by secretly selling arms to Iran created a major political scandal that deeply wounded his administration.

Americans understandably tend to see terrorism solely from the receiving end without realizing that terrorist attacks are often designed to influence the terrorists' intended constituencies. Terrorism is meant to create fear and alarm, but it is also calculated to inspire and instruct potential supporters.

Terrorism can in dramatic fashion prevent grievances from being ignored, causes from being lost, strong views from being eroded in dialogue and compromise. Terrorism can offer consolation, satisfaction, even pride to those who feel desperate, defeated and humiliated.

The actions of Palestinian terrorists, for example, have kept their dream of an independent state alive for decades when others -- including nominally supportive Arab governments -- would have let it die. Palestinian terrorists have kept their cause on the front pages and in the international agenda, and obliged Israel to state public acceptance of the idea of creating a Palestinian state at some future time.

But that is only half the story. Palestinian terrorism created a powerful sense of national identity among a stateless people. This was the fear of Israel's own counterterrorist strategists. Israel could defeat the terrorists, kill their leaders, destroy their organizations -- but the greater danger to Israel was the emergence of a more profound Palestinian resistance manifest in the intifada.

The Palestinians' terrorist strategy also had its perverse consequences. It invited repression, creating an even more desperate situation for the Palestinian people. And in exalting violence, Palestinians fostered a mindset now so warped by decades of blood that it celebrates the death of its own sons and daughters in suicide bombings.

Al-Qaida's force

Al-Qaida, too, is a cult of violence. Its terrorist campaign is intended not only to drive the United States out of Saudi Arabia and Iraq, but also to awaken, galvanize and incite Muslims throughout the world to embrace its version of jihad as perpetual warfare with the infidel.

In a taped speech broadcast on Al-Jazeera in January, bin Laden said Muslims are engaged "in a religious-economic war" against infidels. "The struggle between us and them, the confrontation and clashing began centuries ago, and will continue until judgment day."

Every attack is a recruiting tool for new terrorists and new money, and a demonstration of its power and prowess and foes' weakness.

Al-Qaida seeks to inspire on a global scale what Palestinian terrorism achieved locally -- a worldwide intifada against the West that would be a continuing campaign of terrorism designed to demoralize our society, ruin our economy, make ordinary life untenable, and ultimately bring about our collapse and submission.

Terrorism will certainly continue. Extremists will look at the past several decades of terrorist attacks and see their utility. Meanwhile, power -- defined crudely as the capacity to kill, destroy, disrupt, alarm, force the diverting of vast resources to security -- will continue to descend to smaller and smaller groups whose grievances, real or imaginary, it will not always be possible to satisfy.

And as weapons have become more lethal, the fanatics who have existed throughout history have become a more important force to be reckoned with. How our democratic society is going to deal with this development -- and remain a democratic society -- is one of the major challenges we face at the beginning of the 21st century.

Brian Michael Jenkins is a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp., a non-profit research organization. He wrote this article for Perspective.

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