A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

When Terrorism Works: Explaining Success and Failure Across Varying Targets and Objectives


The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its ever-expanding record of terrorism may still make headlines, but a growing number of academics suggest that terrorist attacks generally fail to achieve their stated strategic goals, especially maximalist objectives like ending foreign occupations and challenging the very foundation of the Westphalian system with the establishment of a “caliphate.” We should not let these claims-which often reflect the perspective of scholars and governments rather than that of the perpetrators and victims themselves-mislead us into thinking that terrorism is an ineffective tactic with singular and unattainable goals. Terrorism can in fact be effective in a number of ways overlooked by academics and policymakers, all of which are relevant for understanding the intentions and impact of groups that utilize terrorism-including ISIS. Under certain conditions, terrorism can strengthen or weaken organizations that employ it (as with the Irish Republican Army [IRA] and the Italian Red Brigades); drive the death or spread of ideas (as with attacks on Sony’s The Interview and Charlie Hebdo) and provoke disruptive population flows that remake states and societies (as with Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Shia militias in Baghdad). Furthermore, even the deadliest terrorist organizations have both tactical successes-like 9/11-and tactical failures-like the shoe and underwear bombers-which drive organizational and strategic outcomes while requiring explanation in their own right. As observers try to anticipate whether the terrorist attacks of ISIS and other organizations will succeed (and how to prevent them from doing so), considering such outcomes should be paramount, lest policymakers not see the forest for the trees. This chapter presents a robust, multi-level framework for analyzing the effectiveness of terrorism that includes all three types of effectiveness explicit in its definition: the use of violence and creation of fear (tactical) by an organization seeking to survive and strengthen itself (organizational) for political ends (strategic). The analysis here presents key conditions under which terrorism can kill or spread ideas, polarize societies, strengthen or destroy organizations, and inspire fear in individuals, as well as when success in one area complements or contradicts success in another.

Publication Information

Full Citation:

Krause, Peter. "When Terrorism Works: Explaining Success and Failure Across Varying Targets and Objectives." In When Does Terrorism Work? ed. Diego Muro. London: Routledge. https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/e/9781317300977/chapters/10.4324%2F9781315648422-12

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