Nearly 14 years into the war on terror, there are signs of terrorism all around us, from Memorial Day tributes to the victims of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the raging congressional debate over reauthorizing the Patriot Act.
Yet some of the most basic information about terrorism remains surprisingly elusive. For example: Does it work?
There have been some attempts at answering the question, but many of them are either largely anecdotal or geographically constrained. Other studies have focused on international terror. But as political scientist Page Fortna of Columbia University notes, the vast majority of terrorism isn’t transnational—it’s localized, utilized in the context of civil wars and fights for territorial control. Many of the intractable conflicts the U.S. is involved in today fit this definition: the fighting between ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other groups in Iraq and Syria; the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria; al-Shabab’s terrorism in Somalia and Kenya; Yemen’s civil war; the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Is terrorism an effective tool when used in those conflicts?
In short, no. “The disadvantages of terrorism generally outweigh its advantages,” Fortna writes in a new paper, “Do Terrorists Win? Rebels’ Use of Terrorism and Civil War Outcomes.” She ranks the possible results of conflicts for groups from worst to best—with total defeat, “fizzling,” and stalemate on one side, and negotiated settlement and outright victory on the other. Fortna finds that terror “is a cheap way to inflict pain on the other side, and terrorist groups are hard to eliminate completely, but it is useless for taking or holding territory.”
Picture: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Aaron Peterson. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons