Victory is a concept that rarely applies to modern terrorism. Terrorism is the realm of partial victories and, more often than not, of elongated stalemates. A terrorist group may well shed blood in the name of pushing forward its purported agenda, only to find itself hemmed in and perhaps eliminated by state security forces. But the germ of the terrorists' cause might live on, perhaps in the form of political movements it inspires or changes into. As for the state, while it may defiantly declare not to have given in to the terrorists, this rings hollow if it made big concessions along the way or adopted such repressive measures as to have justified their grievances. In other words, it is hard for any side to declare victory. What can be construed as success in a terrorist campaign is a worthy subject for scholarly attention. Richard English's book asks a straightforward question: does terrorism work? The answer is anything but simple. At its heart, English's undertaking is to study causation and outcomes. He unpicks the agendas and operations of different terrorist campaigns so as to fathom how far their causes were advanced, and in what conditions this occurred. This book adopts a historical approach, and herein is the central conundrum of the undertaking: just how much is there to learn today from terrorist campaigns rooted in the twentieth century? While casting the matter as one of ‘old versus new terrorism’ is too simplistic, the yawning gap between the mechanics of terrorism in different eras becomes strikingly apparent when one works through the four terrorist campaigns English selected to study in detail. Each is unique, but to adapt George Orwell's phrase, one seems rather more unique than the others. Three of the case-studies examine non-state armed groups seeking some form of secession from an existing state—the Provisional Irish Republican Army's (PIRA) campaign against the United Kingdom, Hamas's against Israel, and the Basque Homeland and Liberty's (ETA) against Spain. The other case is Al-Qaeda and it seems like the odd one out—given its far more expansive, and arguably less focused or defined, campaign goals which are being executed by a franchise of groups operating under its name. Moreover, Does terrorism work? advances no grand theories, aside from a useful taxonomy for distinguishing between degrees of success. Ultimate goals clearly differ from more immediate ambitions, and the notion of ‘partial strategic victory’ (as explored here) is an intellectually healthy way of thinking about outcomes—especially if terrorist campaigns are being waged with generational timescales in mind. Tactical successes and the existential rewards of simply participating in a violent struggle add further nuance to understanding success in the context of terrorism. Al-Qaeda, for example, has not expelled the United States, and its apostate presence, from the Middle East, but it has advanced and sustained a resistance movement that links different parts of the world in which Islam is practised. Unfortunately, and to the detriment of this case-study, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) receives only a cursory mention. Perhaps the author felt that an explicitly historical analysis of a terrorist campaign that is still in motion was unwise. Stylistically, the book is very much written in the academic mould. Footnotes litter, and sometimes interrupt, sentences, thus providing a paper trail of sourcing which occasionally disrupts the flow. On the rare occasion the language becomes more casual, a rather questionable aside is delivered (is describing the Bible as ‘the most important of all books’ [p. 220] really appropriate in a work of this nature?). None of this ought to undermine the usefulness of the book. Context is the crucial ingredient when it comes to analysing what amounts to success for a terrorist campaign and, thankfully, this is a book awash with historical detail. This detail will force the reader to think more precisely about the circumstances in which terrorists of many types have been able to proclaim successes. Finally, perhaps the most crucial insight is delivered early on: ‘It is worth remembering that state responses to terrorism almost certainly do more to shape the world and its politics than do non-state terrorist acts themselves’ (p. 3). Bringing about decisive political change is rarely within the purview of the terrorists—rather, terrorism works by provoking overreaction and by latching onto or exacerbating existing global trends. Taken in this light, English usefully draws attention to the vexed question of victory or what amounts to success in terrorist and counterterrorist campaigns. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com.
International Affairs – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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