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Terrorism may not win its objectives, but it's certain to generate suffering

Most violent groups fail in their objectives. Cold comfort for the victims, says Richard English

Published 08/08/2016

Members of the IRA
Members of the IRA
The funeral of French priest Fr Jacques Hamel

Shocking recent violence in France and Germany has reminded us how enduring a threat terrorism can be. Isis represents the most eye-catching current version of this phenomenon. But, as everyone reading this article knows so well, the history of politically motivated violence has very long historical roots and a wide geographical range.

From Belfast to Bogota, from the 19th-century anarchists to the Left-wing terrorism of the Baader-Meinhof Group, or the Red Brigades, from al-Qaida to the current attacks in Iraq and Syria and Western Europe, non-state terrorism has been with us for many decades and - as a form of resistance - it will outlive any of us.

Of course, each group and each conflict is ultimately unique. The goals of the Provisional IRA were profoundly different from those of al-Qaida, just as many of the methods used by Hamas, or the Tamil Tigers, differed greatly from those deployed by Jewish terrorists of the Irgun, or the Stern Gang.

So, we should not casually lump all such non-state actors together. Instead, in the end, we have to respect each particular context.

But uniqueness does not mean that there is no room for comparison, or even for echoes across cases. Every human being is unique. But to ignore the things that we all share as humans would be absurd.

So, too, with terrorism.

In that case, are there suggestive patterns across time and place which might allow us to put the current wave of attacks in perspective?

One of these might involve the crucial question of how far terrorism actually works.

Again and again, when we read the memoirs, or manifestos, or political arguments, of violent non-state actors, we find the claim that other methods had been tried and that only violence would offer the prospect of success. Basque activist and ETA member Yoyes put it crisply when she claimed that: "The only possibility we have of gaining our liberty is through violence."

But are such arguments justified by the actual historical record?

In terms of the highest level of terrorist success - namely, strategic victory - the record is not an encouraging one for non-state actors. The vast majority of terrorist organisations end their campaigns without having secured their primary, central goal.

There are exceptions. A case could be made, for example, that Jewish terrorism of the mid-20th century played a decisive role in generating the establishment of the state of Israel in the 1940s. But such outcomes are historically rather rare.

A second level at which terrorism might be said to work would be through partial strategic success and I think here that the record of achievement has been greater.

Emblematic would be the Cypriot organization EOKA, whose 1950s' campaign helped to bring about British withdrawal from Cyprus, but not their interwoven goal of unifying the island with Greece.

Closer to home, the IRA of the Irish War of Independence could claim to have helped push Britain towards granting a greater degree of independence to nationalist Ireland than would otherwise have been the case; but only part of the island gained separation from Britain in the 1920s and initially even that state was autonomous, rather than fully independent.

Partial strategic success could, however, also involve the achievement of secondary objectives. Sustaining your resistance into future generations, for example, might be considered a secondary goal for some groups, as would the gaining of revenge against opponents.

You might not gain your central political goal; but you might manage to impose violent revenge upon those against whom you fight.

From Israel-Palestine to the Northern Ireland Troubles and beyond to the current Isis crisis, such vengeful success has repeatedly been brought about - with the most cruel results for its victims.

Beyond strategic, or partial strategic, success, there exists a third layer of terrorist effectiveness which seems to me often to explain its ongoing appeal: for there could be tactical successes.

You might not achieve an independent Basque nation state (the goal which ETA long pursued), but you might have the capacity to bring off striking tactical operational successes, such as the killing in 1973 of the Spanish Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco.

Again, tactical success could involve the generation of publicity for your cause. The 1972 Munich Olympics attack did not bring about the destruction of Israel, or anything close to it. But it - and other operations - did have the tactical success of securing international publicity for the Palestinian cause.

So, too, tactical success could be evidenced in terms of interim concessions. You might gain ransom payments, or prisoner release in exchange for hostages whom you have taken prisoner; or you might get concessions in a peace process, which brings a conflict to an end.

And the final level of success historically involves what I would call the inherent rewards of terrorist violence.

This is not to suggest that people engage in such activity purely, or primarily, because it offers inherent goods. No serious organisation could properly be explained that way.

But the history of terrorism (from anarchists to the Baader-Meinhof Group to al-Qaida to Isis) does offer repeated examples of people experiencing the rewards of intense comradeship, the excitement and adventure of resistance, the sense of pride and defiance inherent in campaigns of violence, or the attractions of devoting oneself to a cherished cause in the ultimate manner.

For some, there have been financial rewards, too, as well as the appeal of fame, or prestige, or power within one's community.

Reflecting on these patterns of terrorist success can be an uncomfortable experience. If most terrorist campaigns end without achieving their central goals, then the violence suffered on all sides can seem even more futile and painful to consider.

And if some people (not most, I think, but certainly some) are motivated by the goals of revenge, or renown, then this brutal form of politics can seem a degraded one indeed.

Much of the understandable horror people have felt at Isis violence has, I think, derived from this fact: that some of those who carried out the killings have enjoyed a kind of fame, or - in their own eyes - redemption achieved through merciless brutality against the defenceless.

And in all of this we should above all think of the people on the receiving end of violence, whether it is the violence of states, or their non-state enemies.

The history of terrorism suggests that it is far more certain to generate human suffering than to bring about its central political objectives. And one repeated reason for terrorist organisations losing support and failing to achieve their main goals has, indeed, been that violence against civilians has tended to be counter-productive for them and to turn people away from their actual cause.

Dr Richard English is Wardlaw Professor of Politics and director of the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews. His book, Does Terrorism Work? A History, is published by Oxford University Press

Belfast Telegraph

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