Does Terrorism Work? — Richard English

Does Terrorism Work? — Richard English

Book Review

A Review by Wajahat Qazi

A scholarly engagement with the troubling but very important question of terrorism’s efficacy is an inherently fraught , difficult and bold endeavor. This is precisely what Professor Richard English has attempted with a historian’s detachment and fidelity to the discipline but perhaps more importantly the humility that addressing this all important question warrants in his paradigm shattering ouvre, ‘ Does Terrorism Work?”. The beguiling ‘simple” title cannot obscure the profundity, significance and the effort that has gone into producing this work of great perspicacity and originality with a Popperian ingress. The good Professor, true to the discipline and domain of history and the historian’s method, disavowing certainty and inevitability in human affairs, and emphasizing upon ‘contingency’, at the same time drawing upon and synthesizing cross disciplinary insights, focuses  upon context and multi-causality in human affairs, vigorously analyses the nature, import and efficacy of terrorism. Departing from rather hackneyed and sterile definitions of terrorism and terming the phenomenon ‘rational’ and very much in the domain of the human sans pejorative connotations, Professor English defines terrorism as a phenomenon that: ‘involves heterogeneous violence uses or threatened with a political aim; it can involve a variety of acts, of targets and of actors; it possesses an important psychological dimension, producing terror or fear among a directly threatened group and also a wider implied audience in the hope of maximizing political communication and achievement; it embodies the exerting and implementing of power and the attempted redressing of power relations; it represents a sub species of warfare and as such it can form part of a wider campaign of violent and non violent attempts at political leverage’.
The beauty of Professor English’s thesis does not merely  lie in ‘reifying’ the complex phenomenon of terrorism through  historical reconstruction ,deep attention to context and unwillingness to engage with the subject merely on abstract theorizing, but, more importantly in reframing the question and addressing it  coherently by implanting the question and addressing it in a systematically organized framework. This conceptual peg is sought to be empirically assessed by prodigious and extensively multifaceted case studies to gauge the import of terrorism’s efficacy and address the central question ,’ Does Terrorism Work’? The framework or peg comprises of four major components sub divided into relevant criteria:

(1) ‘Strategic Victory with the achievement of a central primary goal or goals- such as freedom for a national or a communal group;
(2) Partial Strategic Victory in which one partially achieved one’s primary or secondary goals or determined the agenda such as revenge, retaliation or hitting back at enemies and /or preventing the opponent from securing victory
(3) Tactical success in terms of operational successes, publicity, interim concessions, undermining opponents, gaining control over populations and organizational strengthening
(4) The inherent rewards of struggle as such, independent of central goals such as prestige and status, augmented sense of identity, pride, celebrity renown, intense friendship and meaningful belonging to a group’.

Professor English, after elaborating this organizational framework employs it as a benchmark for assessing the efficacy of terrorism in the four different case studies- that of Al-Qaeda and allied outfits use of terrorism, Ireland and the Provisional Irish Republican Army, Hamas and Palestinian Terrorism and Basque Terrorism. In each case, the good Professor, finds that none of the groups actually succeeded in their central or primary goals. While, for instance, 9/11 was an tactical or an operational success but it neither brought about the downfall of the United States nor displaced Western forces from Muslim lands. In fact, the attacks whilst they altered to some extent the internal dynamics of the United States and other Western societies, brought the Western military machine closer and into Muslim lands(Iraq, Afghanistan).  In the case of the Provisional Irish Republican Army(PIRA), whose violence spanned several decades and which besides seeking secession from Britain , straddled a communal, religious divide and fault line- Protestants and Catholics- and which sought a united Ireland based on its preferences ultimately generated a stalemate. While the journey to the stalemate, which led ultimately to the signing of the Good Friday Accord(GFA) with the Sinn Fein recognized as a legitimate interlocutor or negotiating partner only after it eschewed violence, it was other aspects like electoral politics which led to some kind of an agreement- however, interim or permanent it may be. In the Middle East, the HAMAS which supplanted the more secular PLO in what may be held to be the defining political struggle of the modern era with deep historical antecedents- the Israel Palestinian conflict- began as a ‘rejectionist’ group. The group fed on the First Palestinian Intifadah and then adopted the tactics of suicide bombing to instill fear and terror into Israel, all rendered poignant by the quotidian indignities of Israeli occupation, again could not succeed in wiping Israel off the map of the Middle East. While Hamas has gained prominence, displaced the PLO and inserted itself into any putative end game regarding resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its maximalism may stand diluted. However, the price exacted in the process has been tremendous both on human terms and in terms of association of the group with terrorism. The same holds true, in a different permutation and combination, for Basque terrorism.
The salient theme that emerges from the case studies, painstaking developed by Professor English, is that none of the groups succeeded in their central or primary goals of either expelling their enemies or opponents. Total success remained elusive in partial strategic victory; there was a degree of success in tactical success especially in terms of operational successes and, to some extent , agenda setting and publicity( which came at a price). The more pronounced  and thematic success , however was in revenge and retribution and the inherent rewards of struggle for some, which, Professor. English, points out stand autonomous from the central or primary objectives. An important insight that Professor English delineates is that, ‘  it is state responses to terrorism that  do more to shape the world than do non state terrorist acts themselves’. In terms of a response, the good Professor suggests that tates should focus less on non state terrorists’ central, strategic goals  as they stand less likely to be achieved and more on other issues instead(revenge) and that, ‘ the time to resolve terrorist crises is before they arise and before violence has polarized the relationships that are involved’. In terms of efficacy of a political goal, the Professor’s slant and inclination is towards peaceful and non violent pursuit of goals. Professor English, towards the conclusion, peppers his thesis with prominent examples from elsewhere , including Kashmir and then waxes eloquent about morality , political violence , religion and empathy or lack thereof which desensitizes people towards other people’s suffering, which, in the words of the eminent Professor, lies at the heart of the problem of terrorism.
Professor English’s thesis is impeccable. It is brilliantly argued and developed- so much so finding fault with the major axes of argument is almost well nigh impossible. A nit picking approach might lend itself to the criticism that the premise of the thesis is state centric. That is, it elevates the state and roots for it. But this critique would be presumptuous because the eminent Professor indicts and implicates state terrorism too. However, despite this, the charge might remain- however tenuously. What gives a state legitimacy over its non state opponents? This is perhaps the key question or issue. If it is the Westphalian system or even construct, then this construct itself is contingent and perhaps ephemeral. State formation- be it in the formation of nation states or state nations- has not historically been a just or even peaceful process\. Inhering in the processes of state formation and sovereign remit of states over nations have been force and violence which, at times, has usurped the rights of other peoples. While Westphalia recognizes this form , shape and denouement of most of these states , the legitimacy of groups or non state actors questions this legitimacy through methods or means that are held to be terroristic. (This is not to justify violence but to ground the phenomenon of violence in a larger perspective, at least, in many cases of political violence), Moreover, containment of violence by states- whether it be through thwarting central or primary rationales or strategies  or other means- is inherently fragile. Terrorist or militant groups might forego violence in the face of containment or frustration of their primary goals but this can , at times, mean a tactical retreat in the face of obstruction of their goals or it can mean temporary disarray. Recrudescence of violence articulated through terrorism can remain a lingering possibility. But the issue is not merely of terrorist or militant groups. The real issue is of underlying problems and issues. It is these that need to be addressed rather than symptoms or manifestations of political violence. This, or lack of attention to underlying issues, is a curious omission in Professor English’s thesis. But for this major omission, the thesis is exhaustive; it is wonderfully and incisively delineated. However, the analytical vigor and the depth and breadth of the scholarship are not the only features that render the thesis outstanding. What makes the thesis, well and truly remarkable-one that should be widely read and engaged with- is the humanity, humanism and humility of its author.