Why terrorism doesn’t work

Security expert Bruce Schneier links to an MIT report saying that most terrorism does not achieve the stated goals of the terrorist group because the attacks are often on civilian targets, not military ones. Such attacks are counter-productive because the population assumes the group is out to kill them all, not just reach a stated objective. Thus, the target country then becomes convinced that negotiation is pointless and the blowback becomes ferocious.

As for the recent UK attacks, he says

Terrorist Special Olympics in the UK

First London and then Glasgow. Who are these idiots? Is there a Special Olympics for terrorists going on in the UK this week?


  1. If terrorism fails to support the goals of a militant organization, why do you suppose its use continues to grow? Some of these guys, as the latest London/Glasgow bombing attempts (and such events as attempted shoe bombings) indicate, are not geniuses. But the successful ones are pretty bright. They would not continue such tactics unless it served them.

    Thus, Schneier, through faulty logical analysis, misses the point: if the tactics do not support the stated goals, it does not then follow that the tactics are flawed. It is equally possible (and as I have argued in recent posts, more likely) that the stated goals are not the actual goals.

    It seems odd that one would assume that an organization that targets civilians would not be deceptive in terms of its goals– when our own government sometimes fails to be honest in this area!

  2. The tactics do support the goal, but the side being attacked then assumes they are all being targeted – which generally isn’t true.

    Sometimes the goal is to create chaos and cause repression which will then make people rise up and join the insurgents, a shaky assumption at best.

    Other times the long-term goal is to hollow out the State (a variant of the above and stated al Qaida aim) but the UK bozos were so inept as to be laughable. So, contrary to the usual “unnamed sources” in the US who want to link them to al Qaida. Uh, no. al Qaida is a lot of things, incompetent isn’t one of them.

    I agree with Mike Davis, long-time radical socialist and author of Buda’s Wagon. A Short History of the Car Bomb. He categorically opposes the use of car bombs regardless of short-term political gain because they are morally abhorrent, target the innocent, and create massive blowback.

  3. “Sometimes the goal is to create chaos and cause repression which will then make people rise up and join the insurgents, a shaky assumption at best.”

    Actually, several astute militant groups have consistently used this “cycle of violence” to their advantage– both LTTE and Al Queda among them. State response is predictable– blowback against the constituency of the militants– and with reasonably good PR whis can be reliably used as a means to increase support and power (and even to generalize the goals of the militants to the entire constitnuency). If thise were not the case, military action against militants would be successful– but it rarely is.

    Unfortunately, a State confronted with such tactics by the militants can rarely bring itself to make a strategically ept decision (and almost never with any consistency). The State is almost politically required to fall into the trap of punishing the civilian contsituency the militants seek to represent. Which ALWAYS plays into the hands of a competent militant leader.

    As to the yoyos in Britain, probably terrorist wannabees. They are not in the same league as those whose strategy uses the reactions of the State against the State, and should not be used as an example to disprove the rule.

  4. The “strategic bombing” theory was advanced by the British to use against the German in the early 1940’s. All studies indicated that all the bombing did was to drive the Germans to support the Nazi government. I believe that studies reached a similar conclusion about the strategic bombing of North Vietnam.

    If professional militaries, who one hopes are trained to think about such things, make the same mistake time after time, why should we be surprised that nonprofessionals make the same mistakes?

  5. I actually think your example supports my argument: militants create a polarization within society by their violence. They drive “the enemy” away, and force “the enemy” to respond, which (as you so aptly show with your example) inevitably drives the militants’ would-be constituency toward the militants. Thus if your goal as a powerless group was to gain power, that is exactly what would serve your needs.

    The problem with the idea that the militants are mistaken is that it doesn’t work in the field: assume that what they say is what they really want and their tactics are failing them. Offer them new tactics that WILL get them closer to what they want. See what happens. I guarantee you 9 times out of 10 they will continue on as they are. The reason is that what they want is NOT what they say they want, and their tactics are serving them well.

    Same is true for governments opposing militants, including both Sri Lanka and the U.S.: they adopt violence and repression even though history has shown that violence will fail to subdue the militants. Why do they do it? Because subduing the militants is at best secondary to the leaders’ real goals. War in the post-modern world is an opportunity, and few leaders have the morals or courage to say no.

    Does this paradigm work in the field? Yes. It helps us to understand that Mahinda Rajapakse is not an idiot, he just has an agenda much different than his public one: he’s much more intent on eliminating the pesky fetters of democracy than in subduing the LTTE. Perhaps one could say the same of leaders closer to home; the actions seem to be consistent.

    But here’s the hard part: having come to a paradigm that explains why the two parties act as they do, what shall we do about it? If there was an easy answer to that, we could probably wipe war from the face of the earth. My next post on the subject will be about using the analysis to try to end a conflict.

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