- Does Terrorism Work? A History by Richard English
Oxford, 367 pp, £25.00, July, ISBN 978 0 19 960785 3
His aim is to interpret these campaigns so far as possible as the work of rational agents employing violent means to pursue definite political ends: the motives of lone-wolf terrorists are liable to be inchoate. All four of English’s main examples have been very explicit about what they want and how they hope to get it, and he observes that they have all failed in their main aims, as have almost all other terrorist campaigns, with a few important exceptions. But he also looks closely at the full range of their effects, to determine whether they have ‘worked’ in some more qualified sense.
He distinguishes three further senses, short of strategic victory, in which terrorism might be said to work: partial strategic victory, tactical success and the inherent rewards of struggle as such – and there are further subdivisions within these categories. (It seems to me that the last item doesn’t really belong on this list. If, as English reports, the members of the IRA and other groups have enjoyed the inherent rewards of comradeship, excitement and an ennobling sense of purpose, that is at best a beneficial side-effect of their terrorist activity, not a way in which it succeeds or ‘works’.)
Three of the four (not al-Qaida) are nationalist organisations – Irish, Palestinian, Basque – aiming to overthrow the rule of another nation: Britain, Israel, Spain. The IRA wants British withdrawal from Ulster and a united Ireland, Hamas wants the elimination of the state of Israel and the establishment of a strict Islamic regime over the entire territory of Mandate Palestine, and ETA wants a Basque state independent of Spain. All three were founded in competition with more moderate nationalist movements pursuing related but less radical aims by non-violent means: the Social Democratic and Labour Party in Northern Ireland, the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and the Partido Nacionalista Vasco. Rivalry with these moderate nationalists has been a very important part of the drama. The terrorism of the IRA and ETA never had more than minority support among the populations they purported to represent, and they officially renounced violence in 2005 and 2011, respectively. Hamas, on the other hand, won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, but was prevented from taking power except in Gaza, and continues to employ violent means. Al-Qaida is not a nationalist but what English calls a ‘religio-political’ movement, with global ambitions, dedicated to the expulsion of the US military from the Middle East, the overthrow of what it regards as apostate Muslim regimes such as Saudi Arabia, and the eventual restoration of the Caliphate, a Salafist theocracy governing the Muslim world under sharia law. But again, these aims are not shared by most Muslims.
English makes it clear that one of the things these four groups share is hatred and the desire for revenge, which comes out in personal testimony if not always in their official statements of aims. He quotes Osama bin Laden: ‘Every Muslim, from the moment they realise the distinction in their hearts, hates Americans, hates Jews and hates Christians.’ Revenge for perceived injuries and humiliations is a powerful motive for violence, and if it is counted as a secondary aim of these movements, it defines a sense in which terrorism automatically ‘works’ whenever it kills or maims members of the target group. In that sense the destruction of the World Trade Center and Mountbatten’s assassination were sterling examples of terrorism working. But even though English includes revenge in his accounting, this is not what would ordinarily be meant by the question, ‘Does terrorism work?’ What we really want to know about are the political effects.
And here the record is dismal. What struck me on reading this book is how delusional these movements are, how little understanding they have of the balance of forces, the motives of their opponents and the political context in which they are operating. In this respect, it is excessively charitable to describe them as rational agents. True, they are employing violent means which they believe will induce their opponents to give up, but that belief is plainly irrational, and in any event false, as shown by the results. As English says,
the main obstacle to a united Ireland actually lay in Ireland, rather than in London or in Britain. Most Northern Irish people clearly, unarguably and lastingly preferred (and still prefer) to stay in the UK than to be expelled from it into a united Ireland, as has been made unambiguously clear in repeated surveys and elections. Neither political argument nor the pressure of impressively sustained IRA violence has shifted Ulster unionist attitudes on this point. Indeed, it may have hardened unionist opposition still further.
ETA had even less support in the Basque country for its secessionist aims. And no amount of Hamas terrorism is going to persuade the Israelis to dismantle their state.
Al-Qaida thought it had some reason to believe that the US would retreat from the Middle East in response to its attacks. English reports that bin Laden was encouraged in this direction by Reagan’s withdrawal from Lebanon and Clinton’s withdrawal from Somalia, both in response to the loss of American lives. Bin Laden also had in mind the example of the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and its subsequent internal collapse. But as it turns out, the US presence in the Middle East has not been reduced, and the apostate Islamic regimes have not been replaced. There is, however, one indirect result of al-Qaida’s actions which, as English puts it, may not be ‘entirely out of tune with their overall wishes’ – namely, the formation of Isis, which presents itself as a restoration of the caliphate under Salafist rule. ‘Isis has far more fighters than al-Qaida, and controls territory in a manner that bin Laden never managed; but its roots lay in the post-2003 violent resistance to an invasion of Iraq which bin Laden and his colleagues had stimulated.’
The violence of the IRA also probably held back for many years the kind of compromise solution in Northern Ireland sought by the non-violent SDLP, but in this case there is a twist to the story: after Sinn Féin, the political arm of the IRA, suspended its support of violence, it became the chief negotiator with the British and the Unionists to bring about just such a power-sharing solution in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Tony Blair himself has made it clear that more attention was paid to Sinn Féin than to the SDLP at least in some degree because the former represented part of a violent, armed movement:
The SDLP thought that they often got ignored because we were too busy dealing with Sinn Féin. ‘If we had weapons you’d treat us more seriously’ was their continual refrain. There was some truth in it. The big prize was plainly an end to violence, and they weren’t the authors of the violence.
Terrorism did not achieve its aim of abolishing the northern unionists’ veto on the unification of Ireland, but it did give the former terrorists a seat at the negotiating table. Many believe that the results of the Good Friday Agreement could have been achieved much earlier if there had been no terrorism, though English is non-committal about this, as he is about most counterfactual conditionals.
The pattern that emerges in these examples – and in many of those English cites in his final chapter, such as the Tupamaros, the Baader-Meinhof Group, Shining Path in Peru and the Weathermen in the US – is of groups employing violence in a hopeless cause. They perceive correctly that their aims cannot be achieved by non-violent means, but fail to see that that is because they cannot be achieved by any means, given the existing circumstances of power and public opinion. Hatred and the desire for revenge probably provide essential motivational support, but justification by expected political results is completely delusional.
It is instructive to compare the rare cases in which terrorism achieves its ends. English mentions a few, but two stand out: the establishment of Israel and the independence of Algeria. In Mandate Palestine after the Second World War, the Irgun carried out terrorist attacks against the British, and this probably sped up Britain’s withdrawal. But as English points out, it was not in Britain’s interest to maintain a presence there: there were plenty of other problems to deal with in the country’s straitened postwar condition – India, for example. The explosive problem of Palestine would have been handed over to the UN sooner or later: the Irgun was pushing at an open door.
English is mainly concerned to establish the historical facts, but he thinks that their ‘practical importance … for many people (terrorists and counter-terrorists among them) could be huge’. I doubt that he expects his findings to have much influence on current or future prospective terrorists – despite his insistence that they are rational actors. But he does think that states faced with terrorism from non-state groups can take something useful from these facts. If a terrorist campaign has no real chance of achieving its grandiose aims, the state should not overreact to it. Of course the prevention of terrorist atrocities is an essential part of public security, but it is a mistake to exaggerate the threat terrorists pose, beyond the atrocities themselves. It only leads to action that makes the situation worse:
For example, the years of the post-9/11 War on Terror (easily the most extensive, ambitious, expansive, expensive attempt ever made to extirpate non-state terrorists and terrorism) in fact witnessed an increase in the number both of terrorist actions and of terrorist-generated fatalities … Whatever else it achieved during these years, the War on Terror clearly did not achieve a reduction in fatal terroristic violence. Quite the reverse.
English instead favours a ‘calm, measured, patient reaction’ that focuses on prevention rather than on supposed threats to civilisation or wars to end evil: reasonable advice. But this approach has to contend with the emotions aroused by terrorist acts and their inflammatory political effect in states where they occur – an acute problem in France and the United States today.
Though the writing is wordy and sometimes graceless, this is a very interesting book thanks to the information it presents so clearly. But it has one repellent aspect: the author seems to be morally anaesthetised. English doesn’t limit himself to the facts, but occasionally ventures, with great caution, into the territory of moral judgment. And his standard of moral assessment is entirely instrumental. Here, from the conclusion, is his take on the moral justification of terrorism, also expressed elsewhere in the book:
What has emerged is the profound uncertainty of terrorism achieving its central goals, together with a complex pattern of other successes and failures at lower level. What is almost certain (in fact, the historical record suggests it to be certain in all major terrorist campaigns) is that terrible human suffering will ensue from terrorist violence. Taken together, this doesn’t mean that such violence is necessarily illegitimate. But weighing the certainty of damage against the much less certain achievement of beneficent outcomes is vital. Every one of the case studies examined sustainedly in this book has involved considerable human suffering being caused; none of them has involved the achievement of the relevant group’s central goals.
In other words, the costs are certain, the benefits much less certain, so terrorism may not be justified by a cost-benefit analysis. That is the outer limit of his moral criticism.
Two things are missing from such a judgment: evaluation of the ends and evaluation of the means. First, English ignores the question whether goals like the unification of Ireland, the abolition of Israel, or the establishment of a Basque state are so valuable that it would be worth killing lots of people if that were an effective way to achieve them. Even if one limits moral assessment to cost-benefit analysis, the value placed on the supposed benefits by the perpetrators of violence cannot be taken as given.
The persistence of terrorism appears to be impervious to its overwhelming record of failure to ‘work’, in the normal sense. Terrorists, it seems, are at least as attached to their means as to their professed ends, and to those for whom killing is an end in itself, there is not much to say by way of rational counterargument.
What strikes me in the PIRA (and to a lesser extent ETA) case is how the misclassification/flawed analysis of their campaigns as ‘anti-colonial’ blinded them to the futility of their campaigns. In neither case was the obstacle a ‘colonial power’, but rather the people actually living in the territories they wanted to ‘liberate’: they didn’t want to be ‘liberated’.
How preposterous really to cause so much suffering in an effort to remove territory from a state in which the majority of inhabitants don’t want to be removed.
A terrific article in many ways but at least in the Irish case he takes no account of the fact that that the IRA where in many ways created by the State in their refusal to grant civil and human rights to those being subjugated. Those victims of state terrorism had no option in their quest for freedom and justice but take up arms to defend themselves from that state terrorism.
“A terrific article in many ways but at least in the Irish case he takes no account of the fact that that the IRA where in many ways created by the State in their refusal to grant civil and human rights to those being subjugated. Those victims of state terrorism had no option in their quest for freedom and justice but take up arms to defend themselves from that state terrorism.”
‘State terrorism’ in NI was a response to non-state terrorism, not the other way round.
And people did have options other than ‘taking them arms’. And the vast majority exercised those options.
I gave up reading when the article quoted CIA terrorist and al Qaeda bogeyman bin laden. If the article had quoted well known terrorists such as Churchill, Truman etc or indeed frank Kitson I may have read on.
The IRA had the right to demand the removal of British state interference in Ireland, by force if required. Simple really. Urging people to wish or pray they leave just doesn’t work. The occupier is quite happy it you bombard it with prayers, quite happy indeed.
“The IRA had the right to demand the removal of British state interference in Ireland, by force if required.”
Really? Who gave them such a right?
Well it would have been ludicrous if the IRA had to have asked the occupier for the ‘right’. Even more ridiculous if they had wished or prayed for it too, don’t ye think?
‘”Well it would have been ludicrous if the IRA had to have asked the occupier for the ‘right’. Even more ridiculous if they had wished or prayed for it too, don’t ye think?”
Why didn’t you answer the question? Who gave the PIRA the right to terrorise and murder?
Plus you fail completely to address the point as to whether murdering innocent people can ever be justified, even if the PIRA did have such a ‘right’.
Wonder why he didn’t focus his intellectual lens on the largest terrorist group of all ?
From where did the PIRA acquire this right?
Which apparently included the right to kill their fellow Irishmen women and children.
They have as much right as any other people to free themselves and future generations from British state occupation. The world is littered with countries whose people took up arms to force out an occupier. In fact their aim is far more honourable than those of yesteryear and present day who obtained a ‘right’ through duplicity,lies and dictatorial democracy, to use violence to further their own aims. Often those who obtain the ‘right’ to use violence today don’t do it to free their people from an occupier but rather to further dictate,bully and occupy other people’s countries.
Who gave the British state the ‘right’ to bomb the people of Syria? It certainly wasn’t the Syrian people. They have no say in whether democratic Britain(no laughing at the back) should bomb them or not.
“They have as much right as any other people to free themselves and future generations from British state occupation. ”
PIRA wasn’t a ‘people’.
“The world is littered with countries whose people took up arms to force out an occupier. In fact their aim is far more honourable than those of yesteryear and present day who obtained a ‘right’ through duplicity,lies and dictatorial democracy, to use violence to further their own aims. Often those who obtain the ‘right’ to use violence today don’t do it to free their people from an occupier but rather to further dictate,bully and occupy other people’s countries.”
That’s great but we’re asking not about peoples in other countries but about the PIRA. Why won’t you answer the question?
“Who gave the British state the ‘right’ to bomb the people of Syria? It certainly wasn’t the Syrian people. They have no say in whether democratic Britain(no laughing at the back) should bomb them or not.”
Why won’t you answer the question? Is it because you realise the PIRA had no right to.murder but you don’t want to admit it?
‘That’s great but we’re asking not about peoples in other countries but about the PIRA. Why won’t you answer the question?’
Eh I thought I did answer it? You sound like a gough barracks torturer. Maybe they applied for the ‘right’ through some BBC survey? Or perhaps they realised that the only way to force the violent and murderous occupier out of their country was by logically using violence? It isn’t rocket science, no pun intended.
Btw the way M.T you are the very last person on here who should be lecturing folk about ‘answering questions’.
“Eh I thought I did answer it?”
Nope. We’re still waiting for an answer. Who gave PIRA the right to.murder and terrorise?
“You sound like a gough barracks torturer. Maybe they applied for the ‘right’ through some BBC survey? Or perhaps they realised that the only way to force the violent and murderous occupier out of their country was by logically using violence? It isn’t rocket science, no pun intended.”
That appears to be an admission that they didn’t have a right to kill.
“Btw the way M.T you are the very last person on here who should be lecturing folk about ‘answering questions’.:
Yes I know.. evil Brits blah blah blah.
So who did you say gave the PIRA the right to kill their own fellow Irishmen?
Blah blah blah and all that but for the record seeing as you know the Brits were evil and all that could you tell me how the Irish people would’ve managed to get them to leave Ireland without violence? Pray? Wish? Vote? Survey? Maybe if you can tell me where one applies for this ‘right’ then you would’ve answered your own question?
If people take it upon themselves to practice violence, be it permission from a Royal,Pope or whatever, then don’t be surprised if others will take the hint and take it upon themselves to use violence as well. We live in a real violent world not fantasy land. You have to create the conditions for revolution; it doesn’t just happen. I think Irish republicans tried to create those conditions and although they were not entirely successful we should all nonetheless be grateful for their efforts. Lord knows without them we would all be running around like right little englanders.
It seems you’re accepting that the PIRA had no right to use violence. Citing other cases of people using violence (when they variously may or may not have had a right to do so) isn’t much of a coherent case.
Yes they may have hoped to create a revolution but they failed abjectly.
In doing so they killed many of their fellow countrymen,Protestant Catholic and dissenter.
Even though they operated from their own territory and could choose their targets at will they still did not choose to engage only the British,or straategic targets that would avoid civilian casualties.
In short, no-one gave them the right you speak of,they decided themselves that they had that right even though they never had the support of the people.
Did the violence get the British to leave Ireland?
‘It seems you’re accepting that the PIRA had no right to use violence. Citing other cases of people using violence (when they variously may or may not have had a right to do so) isn’t much of a coherent case.’
Because it is devoid of reasoning.
‘In short, no-one gave them the right you speak of,they decided themselves that they had that right even though they never had the support of the people.’
In short, will you answer the question-where does one obtain this ‘right’ you speak of? I would really love to know.
“In short, will you answer the question-where does one obtain this ‘right’ you speak of? I would really love to know.”
In the first place, from the people. Secondly, from legal and ethical norms.
Come on now. It was your good self that claimed the IRA had the right to use violence.
I am just trying to find out how they acquired that right.
As you well know it is relevant when we still have armed groups today giving themselves the same right.
But it looks like you are not going to answer and I can’t blame you.
We both know they never had such a right.
Come on now Gio, I have answered already and you havnt but that’s the norm for you.
‘We both know they never had such a right.’
Who gave you the right to speak for me?
The same place that the Britishers acquired the right to declare war on Germany twice!