Recent years have seen an increase in academic and policy interests regarding how individuals and groups come to choose terrorism as a tactic. Many studies have been conducted on the processes and pathways of radicalization, especially in light of the large online-propaganda machinery of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and the unprecedented number of foreign fighters leaving their Western homes to ISIS-controlled territories in Syria and Iraq. It is, however, just as important to ask about the outcomes and effectiveness of terrorist actions as it is asking about the individual and organizational causes of extremist violence.

Terrorism is assumed to be used as a tactical and strategic tool by various groups because ‘it works’ and is an effective means to further the political agenda of the groups employing it. Despite this common belief, academic research has not found a clear indication that terrorism is as effective as it is presented to be.  Some scholars, including Dershowitz and Pape who wrote on the effectiveness of suicide terrorism, have postulated that terrorism is indeed an effective means to bring about political change. Employing terrorism as a tactic, so the argument, delivers the results terrorist organizations desire, including a superior bargaining position against the state and a higher likelihood of concessions. Other scholars disagree. While few would claim that terrorism never works, many have cautioned it may not be as effective as we are led to believe. For instance, Abrahms is of the opinion that terrorists rarely achieve their strategic goals, while Neumann and Smith explain that terrorist organizations rarely achieve their stated objectives.

Part of the reason for disagreement in the field is that researching the effectiveness of terrorism is a challenging endeavor for a variety of reasons. There are three main types of challenges in determining the effectiveness of terrorism, namely the characteristics of terrorist organizations, the role of external parties, and the nature of the academic research conducted.

1) The first problem when seeking to judge the effectiveness of terrorism is the clandestine nature of the groups. Because scholars are unlikely to understand the internal structures and considerations of those in power, they will never be able to obtain an exhaustive list of goals the organization has. How is one to judge effectiveness if one does not know what the measure of effectiveness should be? Simply assuming certain goals will lead to false conclusions. Furthermore, terrorist organizations may have goals on many different levels, including tactical and strategic, but also individual goals of leaders and challengers of the leader. The goals may be in conflict with each other and actions by the group may be aimed at achieving multiple desired outcomes. The desired outcomes of a certain action taken may be aimed internally at the organization itself (or even a fraction of the group) or externally at wider audiences. These audiences could be as diverse as the government of a certain state, a single politician, NGOs, the wider public, potential recruits or competing organizations. To make matters worse, terrorist actions also have undesired outcomes, so simply judging the end result may not be sufficient in judging effectiveness. Given the sheer multitude of goals on different levels aimed at different audiences and the clandestine nature of the groups, it is very difficult to judge whether a terrorist campaign should be considered effective from the terrorists’ point of view.

2) The second factor making an evaluation of the effectiveness of terrorism difficult is the fact that effectiveness for certain goals depends on the reaction and circumstances of external parties. While terrorist action almost always succeeds in gaining publicity and spreading fear, other goals aimed at external parties such as a mobilization of potential recruits, concessions or overreaction by the state authorities, and an influence on the next elections do not follow automatically from terrorist action. The effectiveness of these types of goals largely depends on the terrorists’ external environment. Here the first and second problem overlap in researching the effectiveness of terrorism. Was 9/11 an effective way to manipulate the actions of the US government? Was intervening in Afghanistan an overreaction Al-Qaeda anticipated and sought to achieve or was it an unexpected and undesired outcome for the group? Effectiveness partially depends on the actions of external actors and the interplay of goals and outcomes. Furthermore, the effectiveness of terrorism needs to be judged by external circumstances. Causing a small anti-government protest may be considered a huge success in a dictatorship but only a very small one in a democracy. Terrorism does not exist in a vacuum and not all groups find themselves in comparable situations. It is therefore important to consider situational factors as well as the behaviors of third parties when judging the terrorists’ success.

3) The third problem relates to the way academic research is conducted on this topic. Academic studies examining the effectiveness of terrorism reach fundamentally different conclusions partly because they use different methods to code and operationalize the concept of effectiveness. The very same terrorist attack could be presented as a failure or a success depending on how the scholar chose to code his or her data. This vastly decreases the comparability of findings and thereby our overall knowledge of the issue. Another issue is selection bias. Understandably, research is focused on well-known cases, in which the gap in knowledge about goals and internal affairs of the organization is as small as possible. However, these cases may not be representative of terrorist organizations as a whole and lead to incomplete conclusions. In addition to these problems, it is difficult to adequately assess effectiveness without comparisons. Effectiveness is a relational and relative concept and we should be asking whether our assessment of effectiveness still stands when considering other options such as insurgency or even non-violent protest.

Overall, it is difficult to determine the effectiveness of terrorist activity due to a variety of factors, including the clandestine nature of terrorist groups, a large number of goals on different levels terrorist actors would like to achieve, the reactions of third parties, and the multitude of academic approaches to the topic. While more research is certainly needed to further explore the effectiveness of terrorism and make research comparable, policymakers and civil society at large need to be aware that not only do they play a large part in preventing extremist violence and uncovering plots, the political and social climate can directly influence the effectiveness of terrorist campaigns depending on the goals of the organization. Therefore, increasing our understanding of the factors influencing how impactful terroristic violence is and how successful terrorism is can aid counter-terrorism efforts just as much as understanding the processes of radicalization can.

Image: Prioryman [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.