Is Terrorism an Effective Strategy? Definiton, Propaganda and Overreaction

Essay, 2017
10 Pages, Grade: 70

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Table of Contents


Understanding Terrorism as an Effective Strategy

Effective Terrorism

Propaganda and Overreaction


Reference List


Terrorism is an instrument of political change through which fear is used to achieve political goals. The common discourse surrounding terrorism and terrorists portrays them as groups of mentally ill extremists who irrationally attack people for inexplicable and unjustifiable reasons. Fearmongering politicians refer to terrorists as “madmen” (Obama, 2009) and the media ask questions like “are terrorists insane?” (Heroux, 2012). Although, this is not the case as in most cases terrorists are in fact rational actors and “humans who think like we do” but choose to use terrorist tactics to engage in a politically motivated armed struggle (Richardson, 2006:7). The question that has yet to see a conclusive answer is whether these rational actors who undertake terrorism are engaging in an effective strategy to gain political change. This essay will assert that terrorism is an effective strategy but only under certain conditions. The essay will first address the definition of terrorism and the logic in choosing terrorism as a strategy before addressing what effective terrorism is and briefly addressing the issue of the overemphasis of the effectiveness of terrorism as a strategy through propaganda.

Understanding Terrorism as an Effective Strategy

To gain a full understanding of the effectiveness of terrorism as a strategy the definition of what terrorism is must be addressed and the strategic logic behind the choice to engage in terrorism must also be taken in to account. There is not a universally accepted definition of terrorism, although, as Schmid (2011:39) highlights, there is wide agreement amongst scholars as to the attributes of terrorism. These include, that it is a form of political violence, it aims to convey a wider message and that it targets civilians and non-combatants. However, in judging the effectiveness of terrorism as a strategy it is not suitable to limit terrorism to acts committed against non-combatants and civilians as to do so would effectively rule out the inclusion of ‘successful’ terror attacks against combatants and military targets. For example, the 1983 Hezbollah suicide bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, which caused the deaths of 241 US service personnel and forced the US to withdraw from Lebanon should clearly be included in any attempt to gauge the effectiveness of terrorism as the desired political goal was achieved by terrorist means (CNN, 2016). In accordance with this reasoning the effectiveness of terrorism as a strategy has been addressed in the context of Rosendorff & Sandler’s (2005:172) definition, which states:

“Terrorism is the premeditated use of violence by individuals or subnational groups to obtain a political or social objective through intimidation of a large audience beyond that of the immediate victims.”

In gauging the effectiveness of terrorism as a strategy it should be emphasized that the main purpose of an act of terror is to communicate credible threats as a form of “costly signaling” by small groups unable to impose their political will by direct use of force (Kydd & Walter, 2006:50). Terrorism is seen as a logical choice “when the power ratio of government to challenger is high” as the weaker minority views violence as the most effective or only choice they have to continue their campaign for political or social change (Crenshaw, 1981:387). Nelson Mandela echoed the positions of many others who have been involved in terror campaigns by stating that “we had no choice but to turn to violence” (Whittaker, 2012:280). Terrorism is often viewed as acceptable when all options supporting peaceful settlement have been foreclosed.

Terrorism is indeed a ‘weapon of the weak’, as the oft-cited cliché suggests, primarily due to its affordability as a low-cost, high reward strategy. However, there are those such as Fortna (2015:527) who argue that terrorism’s affordability is the same thing that undermines its credibility as an effective strategy by pressurizing governments not to concede to terrorist demands. Abrahams (2006:43) adds to this stating that claims that terrorism is an effective strategy lack any firm empirical basis and that in reality terror groups only achieve their full policy objectives an average of 7 per cent of the time. Yet, this strict view of the effectiveness of the strategy of terrorism promoted by Abrahams is somewhat unhelpful as the partial success which terrorism may attain through the achievement of strategic secondary goals is also a valid indicator of terrorism as an effective strategy. English (2016:31) correctly highlights this, asserting that due to the fact that most human ambition falls short of attaining the desired goals, terrorists who have brought about a 60 per cent political change towards their desired goal may legitimately claim that their terrorism was effective. For instance, terrorism can be said to have been an effective tactic for ISIS as they declared the establishment of a caliphate in 2014 through the use of terrorist tactics but the same cannot be said other terror groups who share the aim of establishing a caliphate such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) who have made very little gains towards this goal through the use of terrorism (Tran & Weaver, 2014). The effectiveness of terrorism as a strategy is not to be measured against original policy goals as these are most likely to be overly ambitious, rather effectiveness is to be measured against how the use of terrorist strategies aided an organisation in furthering the pursuit of their desired political goals.

Effective Terrorism

Due to the inherently political nature of terrorism the coercive leverage of a terrorist act does not lie with the actual damage that it causes, rather it is in the message that it sends. The terrorism literature identifies five less direct ways by which terrorism is understood to be an effective strategy including advertising the cause, attrition, provocation, spoiling and outbidding (Fortna, 2015:525). Due to the “globalization of extremism” and the wider audience that globalization inherently affords, the strategic logic of advertising the cause has become the primary goal of terrorist acts (Mallet, 2016). The most potent and obvious example of terrorism as an effective strategy to advertise the cause is the 9/11 attack by Al-Qaeda which transformed Jihadi terrorism and its message from being primarily associated with only the Middle East into a worldwide phenomenon (Bakker, 2006:2). These attacks to advertise the cause have been dubbed as “performance violence” by Juergensmeyer (2015:280). Additionally, another key component of the effectiveness of terrorism as a strategy is the apparent lack of discrimination of target selection, with Walzer (2015:197) asserting that “randomness is the crucial feature of terrorist activity.” The seemingly brazen disregard for life, whether it be combatant or non-combatant, greatly contributes to the terrifying and outrageous nature of terrorism (Fortna, 2015:522). The apparent randomness of attacks in combination with the aforementioned assertive power of “performance violence” has long lasting effects and ensures that the targeted society remains in a constant state of fear with the expectation of more attacks in the near future (Pape, 2003:346).

The effectiveness of terrorism as a strategy, however, is undermined by repeated and deliberate attacks against large numbers of civilians. Gould & Klor (2010:1463) note that terrorism beyond a certain threshold can cause the opposite of the intended effect, citing with reference to the Israel-Palestine conflict that terror makes Israeli’s more accommodating to demands up to a certain point, after which their stance hardens against making concessions. The effects of passing the effective threshold of terrorist acts was also demonstrated by the loss of support the Provisional IRA saw in the late 1980s and 1990s which came in direct correlation with attacks against innocent civilians, such as the Warrington bombings of 1993 which caused the deaths of two children and led to public demonstrations against the IRA in Dublin (Darnton, 1993). The key to terrorism as an effective strategy then, is target selection as those groups who consistently and indiscriminately attack only civilians undermine any support they may have and inadvertently signal that they are incapable of or unwilling to commit to a political compromise (Abrahams, 2012:383). Further, terrorism is only effective as a strategy if it is deployed as part of a wider political and armed struggle, and not the primary vehicle through which a group aims to achieve their goals. Groups that engage in a political struggle alongside armed struggle are much more likely to be effective than those groups that employ terrorism as their primary instrument for change. For example, the inability and unwillingness of the ETA to engage in political struggle within the Spanish political framework alongside their armed struggle played a major role in the ineffectiveness of their terror campaign, whereas terrorism was a much more effective strategy for the IRA whose political wing, Sinn Fein, has become an integral part of the Northern Irish government (Blake et al., 2012:6). A political wing also compliments the effectiveness of terrorism by assisting in the advertising of the cause and maintaining support within the communities the groups claim to represent. Therefore, terrorism with the aim of advertising the cause through the stimulation of fear in a targeted society is an effective strategy provided that the mistakes outlined above are not made.

Propaganda and Overreaction

Terrorism has evolved in to a more effective strategy as practitioners of terrorist methods have drawn attention to themselves and spread their political message through propaganda distributed via the internet and other forms of media. Propaganda may be said to be a natural extension of terrorism as they are both strategies to gain benefits by influencing a wide audience (Tugwell, 1986:5). A clear technology driven evolution of terrorist propaganda has brought it from the early low-budget, press-conference style videos produced by Osama Bin Laden during the 1990s and early 2000s to the high quality propaganda produced by ISIS we see now including slickly produced execution videos and online magazines which are shared across multiple different social media platforms (Burke, 2016). The propaganda effectively serves to produce a skewed view as to what the actual threat of attack is and as a result there are statistics such as that as of 2016, 40 per cent of Americans believed terrorists to be more capable of launching a major attack against the US, the highest result portion of the American public to believe so since 9/11 (Pew Research Centre, 2016). The view that terrorists pose an imminent threat as espoused by propaganda is also much more apparent in this era of post-truth politics as people are influenced more by uncomfortable subjective beliefs rather than objective realities such as the likelihood of them being involved in a terror attack. The climate of fear that has been fostered by President Trump has also contributed to the distortion of the effectiveness of terrorism as he has fabricated fake terrorist attacks, causing the fear without the attack (Topping, 2017). The overestimation of the capabilities of terrorists as a result of propaganda only serves to aid the effectiveness of terrorism as a strategy. Yet, if it were to be shown that terrorism is not as effective as it is made out to be by propaganda and fear-mongering politicians, then perhaps the self-damaging overreaction to a terrorist threat may be offset (English, 2016:5).


Terrorism is an effective strategy of political change if ‘effective’ is understood as meaning the achievement of partial success and not the achievement of overly ambitious policy objectives set out at the beginning of a conflict. At its core terrorism is about stimulating fear in a targeted society in the hope of generating support for political change by radicalizing moderates and pressurizing governments (Lake, 2002: 23). Terrorism is a strategic instrument and if it is to be used effectively it should not be employed in a reckless manner through the consistent and deliberate targeting of civilians, nor should it be employed as the primary driving force of a political struggle. Although terrorism is effective in some cases, it is not effective in every case and therefore the skewed view that it is much more of a threat than it is in reality is not justified. Thus, the misconception of terrorism as being much more effective than it really is which is caused by propaganda and fearmongering raises the question of “which is the greater threat: terrorism, or our reaction against it?” (Mueller, 2006:1).

Reference List

Abrahams, M. (2006) 'Why terrorism does not work', International Security, 31(2), pp. 42-78.

Abrahams, M. (2012) ‘Does terrorism really work? Evolution in the conventional wisdom since 9/11’, Defence and Peace Economics, 22(1), pp. 583-594.

Bakker, E. (2006) Jihadi terrorists in Europe, The Hauge: Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

Blake, C., Sheldon, B., Strezelecki, R. & Williams P. (2012) Policing Terrorism, London: SAGE.

Burke, J. (2016) 'How the changing media is changing terrorism', The Guardian, 25th February.

CNN (2016) Beirut marine barracks bombing fast facts, Available at: (Accessed: 13th March 2017).

Crenshaw, M. (1981) 'The Causes of Terrorism', Comparative Politics, 13(4), pp. 379-399.

Darnton, J. (2016) Rage at I.R.A. in England as second boy dies from a bomb, Available at: (Accessed: 14th March 2017).

English, R. (2016) Does Terrorism Work?, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fortna, V.P. (2015) 'Do terrorists win? Rebels' use of terrorism and civil war outcomes', International Organisation, 69(3), pp. 519-556.

Gould, E. & Klor, E. (2010) 'Does terrorism work?', The Quarterly Journal of Economics, pp. 1459-1510.

Heroux, P. (2012) Are terrorists insane?, Available at: (Accessed: 14th March 2017).

Juergensmeyer, M. (2015) 'Religious terrorism as performance violence', in Jerryson, M., Juergensmeyer, M. & Kitts, M. (ed.) The oxford handbook of religion and violence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 280-293.

Kydd, A. & Walter, B. (2006) 'The Strategies of Terrorism', International Security, 31(1), pp. 49-80.

Lake, D. (2002) 'Rational Extremism: Understanding terrorism in the twenty-first century', Dialog-IO, Spring.

Mallet, V. (2016) 'Terror: The globalisation of extremism', The Financial Times, 1st February.

Mueller, J. (2006) Overblown, New York: Simon and Schuster.

Obama, B. (2009) Remarks by President Barrack Obama in Prague as delivered, Available at: (Accessed: 3rd December 2016).

Pape, R. (2003) 'The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism', American Political Science Review, 97(3), pp. 343-361.

Pew Research Centre (2016) 15 years after 9/11, a sharp partisan divide on ability of terrorists to strike US, Washington DC: Pew Research Centre.

Richardson, L. (2006) What terrorists want: Understanding the terrorist threat, London: John Murray.

Rosendorff, P. & Sandler, T. (2005) 'The Political Economy of Transnational Terrorism', Journal of Conflict Resolution, 49(2), pp. 171-182.

Schmid, A. (2011) 'The Definition of Terrorism', in Schmid, A. (ed.) The Routledge handbook of terrorism research. London: Routledge, pp. 39-157.

Topping, A. (2017) ''Sweden who would believe this?': Trump cites non-existent terror attack', The Guardian, 19th February.

Tugwell, M. (1986) ‘Terrorism and propaganda: Problem and response’, Conflict Quarterly.

Walzer, M. (2015) Just and Unjust Wars, 5th edn., New York: Basic Books.

Whittaker, D. (2012) The Terrorism Reader, 4th edn., Oxon: Routledge.

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Is Terrorism an Effective Strategy? Definiton, Propaganda and Overreaction
Queen's University Belfast
Violence, Terrorism and Security
Catalog Number
terrorism, effective, strategy, definiton, propaganda, overreaction
Quote paper
Mr Aaron Murchan (Author), 2017, Is Terrorism an Effective Strategy? Definiton, Propaganda and Overreaction, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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