I want to review an article called ‘Why Terrorism Does Not Work’ by Max Abrahms (International Security, Volume 31, Number 2, Fall 2006, pp. 42-78). I discuss this article because it has showed up in several syllabi in courses related to terrorism, and appears to have flaws which so fundamentally undermine its central thesis that I do not think it deserves the high regard in which many seem to hold it.
To briefly summarise Abrahms’ argument and methodology: Abrahms compiled a case set of 28 terrorist organisations listed by the U.S. Department of State as such since 2001, and examined their demands and political impact to see whether they were able to achieve their objectives. He categorised their particular objectives and the extent to which each group was successful in reaching them. He then used statistical methods to examine how often terrorist groups achieved their those objectives in either partial or full form. His finding was that they very rarely achieve them, which he explains using psychological theories and illustrates with three in-depth case studies.
Abrahms begins by defining terrorism as attacks on civilians intended to coerce their governments into making policy concessions. (42) I don’t like this definition. It does not well capture the nuances of terrorist strategy, where attacks – be they on civilian or combatant targets – can be used not only to directly pressure a population to demand that its government make concessions, through psychological intimidation, but also among other things to prompt disproportionately harsh counterterrorism that alienates a government from its constituents, to bolster a terrorist group’s status amongst its own constituents, or to scuttle a peace process and prevent concessions. In fact, terrorism under Abrahms’ definition describes a lot of what militaries do and have done in both ‘conventional’ and ‘irregular’ warfare. However, let’s be charitable and assume that Abrahms is identifying one particular type of terrorism.
I also don’t like Abrahms’ assertion that the time period from 2001-2006 is adequate to assess the success or failure of terrorist groups. This assertion, which defends the 5-year period of his analysis, would be difficult to sustain in a good assessment of groups using terrorism as part of a ‘long strategy’ such as the IRA. But if one doesn’t accept it then one would not accept Abrahms findings no matter how well argued they otherwise are.
Abrahms critiques what he identifies as a trend in the current literature to presume that terrorism by this definition is effective. He reviews much of the literature discussing the strategic nature of terrorism – as a rational means to an end – and notes that this literature claims terrorism’s efficacy on poor empirical foundations. It is in this review that Abrahms deals a terrible blow to his own credibility, while discussing the Israeli case:
[Robert Pape] counts as a victory the Israeli decision to release Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin [sic] from prison in October 1997, ignoring the hundreds of imprisonments and targeted assassinations of Palestinian terrorists throughout the Oslo “peace process.” (46)
Though it is certainly true that the release of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was a product of Israel’s failed attempt to kill Khaled Meshaal and King Hussein‘s subsequent rage over Petra having been the site for the attempted assassination, and not any particular campaign of terrorism, the phrase ‘hundreds of imprisonments and targeted assassinations’ needs attention.
During the Oslo process and the subsequent years of the 1990s, Israel carried out two counterterrorist assassinations: the leader of PIJ Fathi Shiqaqi, in 1995, and Hamas/PIJ bombmaker Yahya Ayyash, in 1996. Two. Not hundreds. I suppose if one makes a category called ‘imprisonments and assassinations’ then one can perhaps talk about such numbers.
But isn’t this basically analogous to saying that Glenn Beck and Ted Bundy collectively hold dozens of parking tickets and murder convictions?
That’s a bit facetious. What I mean is, creating a category of ‘arrests and assassinations’ is a pretty bizarre thing to do. There is a huge difference between an arrest and an assassination, legally, operationally, and strategically. To be honest, it is such an absurd grouping that the most charitable interpretation by far is to ascribe it to an ignorance of how many assassinations actually took place.
In which case, one has to wonder just how much research Max Abrahms has put into his cases.
Abrahms explains his methodology for determining the objectives of terrorist groups. He writes ‘Instead of arbitrarily defining the objectives of the terrorist groups in this study, I define them as the terrorists do. In general, the stated objectives of terrorist groups are a stable and reliable indicator of their actual intentions.’ (47) [Italics mine] This is a problematic statement. Even in advanced democracies the stated objectives of leaders or parties are not always a reliable indicator of their actual intentions. In situations of armed conflict or terrorism, it is downright negligent to assume this without further enquiry.
For example, most scholars on Hamas, inside Israel and out, agree that the organisation is likely to, or at least potentially could, agree to some sort of stable and long-term peace within the framework of a two state solution, despite the hardline language of its charter. What was once a group with maximalist nationalist goals is now a pragmatic and canny political actor. This highlights another important consideration: objectives change, can be hierarchically arranged, and may be compromised upon. If one views conflicts as political bargaining situations, then it would be unreasonable to typically expect that any party’s demands will remain absolute. Yes, there is plenty of psychological study on radicalisation and groupthink (incidentally showing that one major goal of terrorist organisations is survival), but there is also plenty of evidence to show that terrorists compromise as much as any other ‘rational’ actor in many situations, under the right circumstances (IRA, ETA, PLO, etc).
Further examples of what I consider to be improper identification of goals include:
- Ascribing to the Abu Nidal organisation the maximalist goal of destroying Israel, when good evidence suggests that Abu Nidal was interested in gaining wealth and social prestige, and that his primary concern was competition with other Palestinian groups and with prolonging the struggle that had proved so profitable for him. He may have even contracted his organisation out to Israeli intelligence services, according to some sources.
- Ascribing to Hizbullah the maximalist goal of destroying Israel, when so much evidence suggests that Hizbullah’s attention is primarily paid to Lebanon and to consolidating its position in that country by building strategic alliances with other regional entities, such as Syria and Hamas.
- Ascribing to the PFLP the maximalist goals of destroying Israel and establishing a Marxist state in Palestine, when the PFLP has been a participating member of the Palestinian Authority for some time, and should be considered analogous to Hamas in that it is likely to accept a compromise within the framework of a two-state solution.
To compound these mistakes, Abrahms assigns multiple goals improperly to several groups. For example, Hamas receives two goals: ‘destroy Israel’ and ‘establish Islamic state in Palestine’. However, as I mentioned earlier, there is substantial consensus amongst scholars on the group that Hamas is capable and willing to compromise on the former, and good evidence suggests that the latter is akin to any other overall ideological goal of a political party. PFLP’s goal to establish a Marxist system should be viewed similarly. No further goals are assigned to either group – not ‘gain substantial legitimacy’ and not ‘reach a position to affect policy’ – and thus these groups are considered failures. Such small flaws highlight a much larger one.
Abrahms groups all his terrorist organisations together in the same sample, making no meaningful essential differentiation between groups that use terrorism almost exclusively and consist of a small ‘vanguard’ of activists, and vast multilayered entities engaged in multiple spheres of activism. To cite but one example, Abrahm’s sample includes both Hizbullah and Aum Shinrikyo (49). This is unreasonable bordering on unforgivable. Hizbullah is a wealthy political entity engaged in widespread social welfare work, has a significant presence in the Lebanese parliament, and has a large army that receives funding, training, and direction from Iran. It operates in the fractured environment of Lebanon and grew to power during a civil war combined with an invasion by two states (Israel and Syria). It even owns its own tv channel. Aum Shinrikyo was a millenarian apocalyptic cult that attacked the Tokyo metro in an attempt to bring about the End of Days. There is little ground for comparison between these two types of groups, and to include them both in the same sample is to deprive it of much of its analytic potential.
Abrahms concludes based on his analysis of the sample that ‘In the aggregate…the terrorist groups achieved their main policy objectives only three out of forty-two times—a 7 percent success rate. Within the coercion literature, this rate of success is considered extremely low…terrorism is thus a decidedly unprofitable coercive instrument’ (51-52) Yet as I’ve already explained, many of the 42 cases in his sample are constructed from shoddy research and bad attributions.
Abrahms does recognise that large political entities that use terrorism as a component within a broad strategy of insurgency enjoy successes, though, but doesn’t attribute those successes to organisational scope or overall political strategy. Rather, he attributes them to another variable: target selection
Abrahms writes: ‘Target selection is a superior explanatory variable for predicting the outcomes of terrorist campaigns.’ (55) When terrorists attack civilians, Abrahms argues, this leads to those targeted populations assuming maximalist objectives and an unwillingness to negotiate on the part of the terrorists. He supports this with the statistics he derived from his sample, a review of psychological theory to show that people are likely to assume that terrorist groups that attack civilians are more radical than those which focus their attentions on military targets, and three case studies. Abrahms’ theory about public perceptions of target perception is incredibly simplistic. It makes no use of studies of risk assessment heuristics, nor does it try to explain how public perceptions of terrorist goals translate into government policy. Since changes in government policy are the sort of goal that terrorism by Abrahms’ definition is used to pursue, this renders his explanation entirely insufficient.
Abrahms case studies on how terrorists that target civilians are likely to fail are the attacks by Chechen separatists which prompted the First and Second Chechen Wars, 9/11 and US response to it, and the First Intifada.
These are not good case studies. The choice of two cases which led to highly uncommon and extreme state responses are unlikely to produce many generalisable conclusions. The Intifada, which is broadly considered to have led to domestic and international pressure so great that Israel felt forced to accept the return of the PLO, to sign the Oslo Accords, and establish the PA, is generally considered not only to be an example of Palestinian success, but is not considered to be a terrorist campaign. Indeed, the Intifada does not actually fall under Abrahms’ definition of terrorism: ‘Throughout the intifada, only 15 percent of Palestinian demonstrations were violent. ‘ (73) Of that violent 15% only a small fraction comprised violence against Israeli civilians. Most violence was Palestinian-on-Palestinian. Yet Abrahms argues that this is irrelevant: ‘an absolute majority of Israelis (80 percent) believed that the means employed by the Palestinians to protest Israeli rule were “mainly violent.”’ (73) However, regardless of Israeli perception, the actual behaviour of Palestinian nationalists during the Intifada does not fit Abrams definition, which does not include target perceptions as a condition.
Abrahms still believes that the Intifada can be a good case study of his argument: ‘Because the majority of Israelis regarded the intifada as a protracted terrorist campaign, and Israelis inferred from Palestinian terrorism their intentions of wanting to destroy Israel, the intifada undermined Israeli confdence in the Palestinians as a credible partner for peace.’ (74) But regardless of Israeli public confidence, the Palestinians won semi-autonomy. The PLO returned from exile in Tunisia. Hamas became a relevant political actor, in no small part due to Israeli assistance during its early activities as a competitor to the PLO. Yassir Arafat shook hands with Yitzhak Rabin before the eyes of the world; no greater legitimacy could be bestowed upon the Palestinian leader, and by no greater enemy of his than was once Rabin. Far from being an example of the failure of an organisation to exact concessions from the government of a target population, this was an unmitigated success for Palestinian nationalist groups.
So Abrahms has given us:
- A limited definition of terrorism
- A false or dissembling throw-away claim about Israel’s counterterrorism that immensely undermines his credibility
- A controversial claim about the truthfulness and robustness of the political objectives expressed in statements by terrorist organisations
- A dataset which groups together widely disparate organisational types operating in widely disparate contexts and treats them as analogous cases
- Statistical conclusions of dubious use, given the relevance of ‘garbage-in-garbage-out‘ in reference to his methods for constructing a data sample
- Some psychological theory that adds very little new perspective, and which fails to in any way explain the results he finds.
- Two highly irregular cases of terrorism prompting extreme counterterrorism: the Chechen Wars and the US response to 9/11
- A ‘black is white’ interpretation of the First Intifada, which not only flies in the face of the starkly obvious narrative in which Israel makes enormous concessions as a result of Palestinian activism, but which is internally self-contradictory given Abrahms’ own definition of terrorism
Anyone considering assigning Max Abrahms’ article for any other reason than to set up a straw man example of bad scholarship on terrorism should thus think twice.