The title of this book sets out one of the fundamental questions in Terrorism Studies. As with other key issues in the social sciences, there are several possible answers—sometimes contradictory—and each of them is full of nuances. Diego Muro, professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews, has published an excellent academic work that attempts to shed some light on a complex debate that has profound consequences in the prevention and fight against terrorist violence.
The book details the different theoretical perspectives on the effectiveness of terrorism, which can be grouped schematically into two large groups: Those who think that terrorism works, and those who do not.
Those who argue that terrorism works point to the mere persistence of terrorism over time as being in itself the definitive proof that it is a useful strategy. No actor would continue to resort to a methodology destined to fail, so the argument goes. Indeed, datasets on terrorist activity across the world indicate that the use of terrorism to further a political cause has increased in the last fifty years.
By contrast, the second group—which tends to rely on empirical studies—argues that if we pay attention to how many of these groups have achieved their ultimate goals, we will find that only a small percentage of all terrorist groups that have existed throughout history can be considered successful. Therefore, although terrorism can occasionally achieve tactical successes, it is an option that is mostly associated with political failure. Large-scale insurgency and even non-violent civil resistance are held to have a greater success rate than terrorism by such scholars.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this debate is that the forceful ideas behind both positions can be equally convincing, which is a reminder of the importance of details. In this book we find a solid policy of decisively defining the concepts we use to interpret reality. For example, our conclusions about the usefulness of terrorism can radically change, depending on how we define terms such as “effectiveness” and “success”.
Political violence is both messy and multifaceted and it is not always possible to code the reality in black-and-white terms. Our results can also be altered according to how we define the objectives that different terrorist groups seek to achieve. It is not enough just to differentiate between tactical and strategic objectives, but other categories that give meaning to the behaviour of these individuals are essential: goals of the individual vs. those of the organisation, the leader vs. rank-and-file, etc.
This edited volume evaluates the pros and cons of choosing terrorist violence to gain policy concessions from both a theoretical perspective and a case study approach. With this objective in mind, this book has brought together an outstanding group of researchers who address some of the main theoretical aspects of this debate, as well as relevant case studies: Algeria, France, El Salvador, Spain, the United Kingdom, Uruguay, and Western Sahara.
The book culminates with a valuable chapter of conclusions that synthesises the main ideas of the work. Overall, the book suggests that the partial solution to this debate lies in the perspective of the terrorist. The practitioners of violence believe that the benefits outweigh the costs and estimate this tactic to be superior to the other available alternatives. This subjective perspective helps us to understand why terrorism is so attractive to actors interested in popularizing a grievance, communicating with relevant audiences, and provoking a counterreaction from their opponents that furthers their narratives, which is how terrorism can be used as an instrument to help organisations survive.
The intention of this work is to make a relevant contribution to a theoretical debate that is far from being closed. One of its most valuable contributions is to concisely point to the obstacles that have prevented agreement. According to Professor Muro: “The lack of agreement is partly due to a series of obstacles of a methodological nature: 1) the definition of terrorism 2) the measurement of effectiveness; and 3) the representativeness of the samples used”.
This book rightly reminds us that the majority of terrorism studies suffer from some sort of selection bias.
One example of selection bias is studies using terrorist groups about which there is abundant empirical evidence—notably the Irish Republican Army (IRA), ETA (the Basque separatists), Al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State (ISIS)—and thus these groups are over-represented in the academic literature. This risks exaggerating their relevance and extrapolating to generalizations from the results of a few familiar cases that have hardly any similarities to other groups under consideration.
Ethnocentrism is another selection bias issue that profoundly affects research on terrorist violence. Beyond cultural biases, scholars tend to pay more attention to cases close to home due to language issues and ease of access to data. This problem affects even the most quantitative research, which is usually based on databases that tend to over-represent incidents in advanced democracies and underreport attacks in other parts of the planet because they mostly rely on reported incidents by the Western media. This problem is reinforced by the incentives for academic research. Academics generally focus on active terrorist groups, and have paid much less attention to those that are disbanded or otherwise inactive, possibly as a way of demonstrating the policy relevance of their work.
Although the book does not deal monographically with jihadist terrorism, it is clear that its conclusions help us to reflect on how this threat is being analysed. The lack of concreteness about key concepts has led to the coexistence of totally contrasting views about whether groups such as ISIS or Al-Qaeda are succeeding. Ethnocentrism has meant that the criterion we use to measure the strength and danger of these organisations is the number and magnitude of the attacks taking place in the West, which misreads what these organizations are actually trying to do and neglects most of the areas where they actually operate.
Our way of understanding the discourse and priorities of these organizations has been further distorted by idiomatic factors. The most obvious example is the over-attention received by Dabiq/Rumiyah, ISIS’s English-language magazine. While this propaganda publication has been dissected from every possible angle in dozens of academic articles, the same cannot be said of the group’s Arabic output, which is not only the bulk of the communicative activity of this organisation but also the most important source for interpreting this actor.
In short, When Does Terrorism Work? is not only a valuable contribution to academic literature. It is to be recommended to any interested reader. The book does not pretend that complex questions can be solved with simple and categorical statements, and throughout its pages the reader will be able to assess the various different ideas prevailing about one of the key issues of our time.