TerrorismDoes terrorism work? We studied 90 groups to get the answer

By John A. Tures

Published 20 December 2018

Do terror attacks actually work? Terrorist groups may occasionally achieve a limited goal, but when it comes to accomplishing broader strategic goals, terrorists usually fail. Terrorists can threaten modern nation-states into offering minor concessions, such as giving up a small piece of territory, forcing the resignation of a leader or promising to return to the negotiating table, but nation-states are too militarily and economically strong to be overthrown by terrorists, or to surrender their own aims that they see as vital to national security.

The famous Christmas Market in Strasbourg, France, became the latest place to be struck by terrorists.

On 12 December 2018, a gunman on a terror watch list named Cherif Chekatt yelled “Allahu Akbar” and opened fire on shoppers, killing five people and wounding 11, according to media reports. The attack was labeled terrorism by a Paris prosecutor.

The shooting grabbed headlines around the world. But do such terror attacks actually work?

I am a scholar of international relations. My students and I conducted an analysis of political groups around the world to answer this question.

Comparing terror groups with peaceful ones
We examined 90 political groups to determine whether terrorism works to achieve a group’s goals.

Half of the groups we studied used terrorism to achieve their ends, and the other half used peaceful means.

One example of a peaceful group was the Catalan movement in Spain that held a peaceful vote to support their declaration of independence.

We made sure the groups we designated as using terrorism fit the definition set out by expert Bruce Hoffman, who defines terrorism as “the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change.”

To choose the 90 groups, we identified 45 pairs of groups operating in the same country or region in relatively the same time period.

For example, in Chile during the rule of autocratic dictator Augusto Pinochet from 1973 to 1990, people organized to end his rule.

One group, Chile’s Concertación, sought to bring Pinochet down using a referendum. Meanwhile, the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front opposed Pinochet with shootings, bombings, kidnappings and assassinations.

We found that only six of the 45 terror groups – that’s 13.3 percent – accomplished their broader goals; the others did not.