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Why Terrorism Does Not Work

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International Security, Vol. 31, page(s): 42-78

Fall 2006

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This study analyzes the political plights of twenty-eight terrorist groups- the complete list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) as designated by the U.S. Department of State since 2001.7 The data yield two unexpected findings. First, the groups accomplished their forty-two policy objectives only 7 percent of the time. Second, although the groups achieved certain types of policy objectives more than others, the key variable for terrorist success was a tactical one: target selection. Groups whose attacks on civilian targets outnumbered attacks on military targets systematically failed to achieve their policy objectives, regardless of their nature. These findings suggest that (1) terrorist groups rarely achieve their policy objectives, and (2) the poor success rate is inherent to the tactic of terrorism itself. Together, the data challenge the dominant scholarly opinion that terrorism is strategically rational behavior.8 The bulk of the article develops a theory to explain why terrorist groups are unable to achieve their policy objectives by targeting civilians.

This article has five main sections. The first section summarizes the conventional wisdom that terrorism is an effective coercive strategy and highlights the deficit of empirical research sustaining this position. The second section explicates the methods used to assess the outcomes of the forty-two terrorist objectives included in this study and finds that terrorist success rates are actually extremely low. The third section examines the antecedent conditions for terrorism to work. It demonstrates that although terrorist groups are more likely to succeed in coercing target countries into making territorial concessions than ideological concessions, groups that primarily attack civilian targets do not achieve their policy objectives, regardless of their nature. The fourth section develops a theory derived from the social psychology literature for why terrorist groups that target civilians are unable to compel policy change. Its external validity is then tested against three case studies: the September 1999 Russian apartment bombings, the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, and Palestinian terrorism in the first intifada. The article concludes with four policy implications for the war on terrorism and suggestions for future research.

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