Op-Ed: Does terrorism work as a political strategy? The evidence says no

People gather to commemorate the victims of the March 22 terror attacks at the site of a memorial in Brussels, Belgium, on March 27.

People gather to commemorate the victims of the March 22 terror attacks at the site of a memorial in Brussels, Belgium, on March 27.

(Olivier Hoslet / EPA)

The conventional wisdom holds that Islamic State is mean and successful, and that Islamic State is so successful precisely because it is so mean. That’s because most people unwittingly subscribe to what I call the Strategic Model of Terrorism. As the name suggests, the Strategic Model assumes that angry young men turn to terrorism because it’s strategic behavior. Terrorism may be immoral, but it offers them the best chance to redress their grievances by coercing governments into accommodating their political demands.

According to this view, Hamas members are smart to attack Jews; the Kurdistan Workers’ Party is shrewd to kill Turks; and the Islamic State exhibits cunning when it decapitates journalists. The violence may not be pretty, but it’s a dependable way to secure a Palestinian state or a Kurdish state or to force the international community to accept a caliphate.

Violence committed by nonstate actors against civilians for a presumed political goal ... is highly correlated with political failure.

Although governments say they don’t negotiate with terrorists, the causal logic of the Strategic Model may seem sound: As the pain to their civilians mounts, governments are tempted to grant the terrorists’ demands in order to appease them. Proponents of the Strategic Model highlight how governments soften their political stances when their civilians are attacked in order to help protect them.

There’s just one problem with this common narrative – it lacks empirical support. Over a decade ago, I began publishing the first systematic studies on the political effects of terrorism. What I’ve found is that terrorism is actually a surprisingly ineffective political instrument.


Conventionally, terrorism means violence committed by nonstate actors against civilians for a presumed political goal. If we define terrorism in this standard way, it turns out that the tactic is highly correlated with political failure. There are some anomalous cases in which attacks on civilians worked out politically, such as when Spain decided to withdraw from Iraq after the 2004 Madrid train attacks. But throughout history, there are surprisingly few exceptions to this rule.

Statistically, my research establishes that attacks on civilians actually lower the likelihood of government concessions. This is true even after we account for all sorts of other factors that could possibly explain the association between terrorism and political failure, like the capability of the perpetrators and the nature of their demands. Rather than appeasing the perpetrators, governments almost always go on the offensive when their civilians are struck.

Indeed, it’s the politicians least sympathetic to terrorists who tend to benefit most from their violence. Predictably, the most hawkish Republican presidential candidates in the field, from Donald Trump to Ted Cruz to Marco Rubio, soared in the polls after the San Bernardino attacks, while relative doves like Rand Paul disappeared from the race entirely. Right-wing candidates in Israel like Benjamin Netanyahu also tend to get a boost in the polls after Palestinian terrorist attacks, as the public sours on a peace process. This is the political norm all over the world – just ask French nationalist Marine Le Pen.

For all the talk of Islamic State’s success, its terrorism is already backfiring. Islamic State said it beheaded the American journalist James Foley to pressure the United States into leaving Iraq. In response, President Obama decided to not only ramp up operations in Iraq, but to extend them into Syria. The Paris attacks had a similar effect on France by dramatically increasing its participation in the military coalition, reflected best in the deployment of the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf. Indeed, every single country hit by Islamic State terrorism has stiffened its resolve, from Australia to Canada to Russia to Turkey to even military-less Japan.

Because Islamic State has amassed so many enemies, the group is now losing battles, territory and revenue. It has trouble paying fighters, and its propaganda output is declining. Within Syria, other Islamist groups such as Ahrar al Sham and Al Nusra Front are gaining recruits at a faster clip than Islamic State precisely because they’re not as notorious for harming civilians. More and more, Islamic State members are defecting or going elsewhere to fight, like Europe. But the cherished dream of a caliphate was probably fun while it lasted.

A possible counterargument is that Islamic State wants to provoke governments in order to make them look bad. But that’s not what leaders of groups like Islamic State generally say. Based on my content analysis of all known Osama bin Laden statements translated into English, the Al Qaeda founder primarily expressed interest in gaining concessions from governments. According to Bin Laden, the purpose of the 9/11 attacks was fourfold: to sever U.S. relations with pro-Western Muslim governments such as in Egypt; to erode U.S. relations with Israel; to stop “crusader wars” in which Western countries have killed Muslims around the world; and to eject the U.S. from the Persian Gulf. In response to the attacks, however, the Bush administration bolstered relations with so-called “apostate regimes” as well as with Israel and killed countless Muslims in counterterrorism operations all over the world, while increasing the troop presence in the Gulf by a factor of 15.

Rarely do terrorist leaders say their aim is to provoke governments, and usually only after the latter have already started to go on the offensive.

Islamic State has an even lower IQ than its parent group and most other terrorist organizations in history. This really shouldn’t surprise anyone since Islamic State has zero admissions criteria. If you want to become an Islamic State terrorist, just attack somebody who isn’t looking and yell “Allahu akbar.”

It’s time the media stopped overhyping Islamic State operatives and other terrorists by lionizing the sophistication of their attacks. It doesn’t take a mastermind to blow up grandma, stir up a lot of fear and get the media to cover it. Of course, if that’s how you define success, then the tactic of terrorism, by its very definition, has a 100% success rate.

Max Abrahms is a professor of political science and public policy at Northeastern University and a member at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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