The Limits of Terrorism :: Daniel Pipes

Does terrorism work, meaning, does it achieve its perpetrators’ objectives?

With terror attacks having become a routine and nearly daily occurrence, especially in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the conventional wisdom holds that terrorism works very well. For example, the late Ehud Sprinzak of the Hebrew University ascribed the prevalence of suicide terrorism to its “gruesome effectiveness.” Robert Pape of the University of Chicago argues that suicide terrorism is growing “because terrorists have learned that it pays.” Harvard law professor Alan M. Dershowitz titled one of his books Why Terrorism Works.

But Max Abrahms, a fellow at Stanford University, disputes this conclusion, noting that they focus narrowly on the well-known but rare terrorist victories – while ignoring the much broader, if more obscure, pattern of terrorism’s failures. To remedy this deficiency, Abrahms took a close look at each of the 28 terrorist groups so designated by the U.S. Department of State since 2001 and tallied how many of them achieved its objectives.

His study, “Why Terrorism Does Not Work,” finds that those 28 groups had 42 different political goals and that they achieved only 3 of those goals, for a measly 7 percent success rate.