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Has Terrorism Ever Achieved its Aims?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 5042 words Published: 18th Oct 2021

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The overarching thesis of this essay argues that terrorism, both past and present, has not achieved its long-term aim of legitimate political dominance; never has a terrorist organisation succeeded in governing a country and enforcing its ideas and values upon the population. Yet, terrorism still exists, suggesting there is a degree of efficacy in the strategy. Arguably, this can be attributed the ability of terrorist organisations to achieve their short-term goals, which are important in order to maintain motivation and credibility for the continuation of terrorism. This essay will focus of the successes and failures of terrorism using David Rapoport’s ‘wave theory’ as a neat framework with which to focus on prominent terrorist groups throughout history.[1]

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In order to discuss whether terrorism has ever achieved its aims, it is first important to define terrorism. The debate surrounding the definition of terrorism is rife, in part due to the changing nature of terrorism throughout the past two-hundred years, and due to modern media coverage of terrorism[2] [3]. This essay will use the definition of terrorism offered by distinguished academic Bruce Hoffman, who neatly described terrorism as “violence—or equally important, the threat of violence—used and directed in pursuit of, or in service of, a political aim.”[4] 

It is also necessary to outline what terrorist organisations aim to achieve. Ultimately, the long-term aim of terrorism can be summarised as achieving legitimate political dominance. This mainly encompasses territorial change, regime change and social control, as outlined by Kydd and Walter to have endured throughout the history of terrorism[5].

In addition, several short-term aims can be identified, namely, the attraction of attention, and policy change. Hoffman explains that, “through dramatic, attention-riveting acts of violence, terror organisations seek to focus attention on themselves and their causes through the publicity they receive, most often from news media coverage.”[6] In addition, policy change refers to the desire of a terrorist organisation for a foreign government to alter their political policies, for example, al-Qaeda aim to force the United States of America to change their policy of supporting Israel and corrupt Arab governments. Both short-term aims work in tandem in order to help a terrorist organisation achieve political dominance.

Anarchism: The case of Narodnaya Volya

Rapoport argues that the era of modern terrorism began with the ‘Anarchist Wave’ in the 1880s and spanned 40 years[7]. Anarchism took hold largely as a result of harsh socio-economic conditions across Europe and the United States. For example, the Great Depression throughout Europe in the 1870s caused a decline in agricultural prices and heightened international manufacturing competition[8]. Thus, anarchist terrorism represented a means of social protest and revenge with political aims; the destabilisation of government followed by a replacement of that order with an anti-authoritarian form of government in which there is no ruler or sovereign. The methods adopted by anarchists during this time involved the assassinations of key political figures and aristocrats, a tactic known as ‘propaganda of the deed’. Coined by the Neapolitan Carlo Piscane (1818-57), and later transformed into an inherently violent strategy by Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin (1842-1921).

The first to adopt such a strategy was a group of Russian revolutionaries called Narodnaya Volya (“People’s Will”). The group did not envision itself forming the foundations of a ruling party, however, nor were they committed to laying down arms until, and only until, political concessions were made[9]. Thus, in the short-term, the group aimed to use the power of violence in order to attract attention with the long-term aim of establishing the “self-governing village commune as the basis of a new socialist society”[10]. Principally, Narodnaya Volya did not achieve their long-term aim; the regime did not change in their favour. As is common with terrorist organisations, the group committed suicide when it killed the Tsar. This view is propagated by both Peter Neumann and Audrey Cronin who claim that while killing the tsar was the group’s chief success, it simultaneously killed itself by provoking the Tsarist regime into obliterating the group until one year later, Narodnaya Volya did not exist[11],[12].

Nevertheless, Narodnaya Volya did see success in the short-term, the use of the power of violence to attract attention from both the public and the regime, which it did so effectively. Not only did the group attract thousands of supporters through assassinations and bombings of key political figures and buildings, it also turned heads all over the world, of which the group was acutely aware. “To attract the attention of the entire world, is that not in itself a victory?” asked key antagonist of the narodnovoltsy[13]. This has led some scholars to view Narodnaya Volya as an overall success, rather than a failure. For example, Astrid Von Borcke argued that the group were in a sense “eminently successful” for having initiated the active confrontation between the state and Russian society and consequently augmented the instability of the old regime.[14] On the other hand, others maintain the scant achievements of the Narodnaya Volya. Peter Neumann argues of the anarchist wave ‘no other movement has had so much success in carrying out terrorist attacks and yet achieved so little’[15]. Indeed, both viewpoints are convincing. Narodnaya Volya’s use of terrorism as a strategy did not achieve its long-term aims as it failed to create political and social change in its favour. It did, however, succeed in rocking the boat of Russian politics and attracting the attention of the world; it’s techniques would be replicated in future generations.

Anti-colonialism: the FLN, PLO, IRA and EOKA

The anti-colonial wave, which spanned the mid 1900s, was sparked by the signing of the Versailles Peace Treaty which concluded World War I. Under the treaty, new states emerged, such as Ireland, Israel, Cyprus, Yemen and Algeria. The long-term aim of anti-colonialist terrorists was to expel foreign occupiers and gain back territory, by creating a situation where the occupying power felt the costs of occupation were greater than the benefits. Only in the case of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) in Algeria did terrorism succeed. Peter Neumann suggests that this may in part be since anti-colonialists did not necessarily need to attract the attention of the world, only that of the oppressor and the native community[16]. The FLN used terrorism in order to obtain complete independence from French colonialism by creating conditions in which the French did not benefit from the occupation of Algeria. In 1962, the FLN achieved full independence from France[17]. However, the FLN are the exception.

Inspired by Algerian success, other terrorist groups within this wave attempted to replicate the achievement in their own countries, for their own causes. However, they were largely unsuccessful. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) for example, established in 1964 in Jerusalem, was founded with the purpose of the liberation of Palestine from Israel through armed struggle, with violence aimed principally at Jewish Israeli civilians. While the PLO and its various factions used violent terror tactics consistently, they also gained significant international recognition. For example, over 100 states recognised the PLO as the “sole representative of the Palestinian people” and held diplomatic relations with those states[18]. The PLO was also granted observer status at the United Nations in 1974[19]. Therefore, the PLO has undoubtedly celebrated significant political gains through the use of terrorism. It could be argued that they indeed achieved a long-term aim of legitimate political dominance, at least partially, evidenced by the current Present of Palestine belonging to the political wing of the PLO. However, despite their long struggle, the PLO has not achieved the liberation of Palestine and the destruction of the State of Israel, and therefore has not achieved complete legitimate political dominance. Charles Townshend points out that the status of the Palestinian Arabs is “dramatically worse” than it was in 1969 when the terrorist campaign began[20]. With respect to short-term gains, Townshend also recognises that the PLO’s use of terrorism undoubtedly brought the Palestinian case to the world’s attention,[21] however its impact on Israeli policy is less clear[22].

Similarly, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston (EOKA) both used terrorism as a strategy in order to expel British rule from Ireland and Cyprus respectively. Both groups had self-determination as central to their cause, with the IRA striving to unite Ireland and the EOKA determined to unite Greece and Cyprus. However, in both cases, their long-term aims were not achieved. The IRA did gain an Irish state, perhaps earlier than it would have without the use of terrorism but failed in unifying the island. Similarly, the EOKA failed in unifying Greece and Cyprus, instead settling for the state of Cyprus[23]. Nevertheless, both groups were successful attracting attention to their cause. Andreas Vanavas highlights the readiness and willingness of the Cypriot people to respond to the EOKA’s rallying call to help to unify Greece and Cyprus[24]. Equally, Gearóid Ó Faoleán argues that “hundreds, if not thousands” of men and women joined to volunteer for the IRA from 1969-1998, and this extensive support and sympathy was instrumental to the continued struggle of organisation throughout the Troubles in Ireland[25]. Thus, as is evident, despite short-term success in terms of support for the cause, and partial achievement of their long-term stated goal, neither the EOKA nor the IRA were able to achieve the unification of Greece and Cyprus, and the unification of Ireland respectively using terrorism. 

The New Left: The Weathermen and the RAF

The radical youth of the 1960s arose with great optimism and energy to attack ideologies, governments and their institutions, militaries and challenged the conventional ways of thinking, feeling and acting. In creating an international culture of protest, they used texts such as those of Karl Marx and Mai-Tse-tung and revolutionary icons such as Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh in order to embark on a revolution to topple western imperialism led by the U.S and the rigid communism of the East bureaucratic[26]. In the U.S and West Germany, the Weathermen and the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) respectively were chief among the groups who adopted terrorism as their strategy to overthrow their governments and thus will be analysed in this essay as examples of New Left terrorism.

The Weathermen, co-founded by Bill Ayers, were primarily concerned with increasing brutality of the Vietnam War and the discrimination faced by Black Americans.[27] In addition, they were dismayed by the assassinations of progressive leaders such as Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.[28] Ayers admits in his 2001 memoir to his radical vision to save the world, with the long-term aim being to take over the U.S government and achieve political dominance[29]. Ayers truly believed in the movement and committed his first attack in 1972 in which an explosion damaged several offices at the Department of Defences at the Pentagon. However, subsequent attacks failed to dismantle the U.S government. Thus, the Weathermen failed in achieving their long-term aim. In addition, unlike terrorist groups in previous waves, the Weathermen failed to inspire the masses, with only a few hundred protestors willing to use violence for the cause[30]. Nevertheless, the group still attracted attention and thus had an impact. In 1969, the Director of the FBI declared that the Weathermen were the largest threat to the domestic security of the U.S.[31] This led to a dramatic state reaction, which saw the FBI conduct an illegal surveillance programme to watch the group, including non-violent members[32].

The RAF in West Germany fought to depose the democratic government. The RAF managed to survive generations of arrests of its senior leadership with bombings in major German cities, kidnappings and murders. H J Horchem believes the longevity of the RAF is attributable to the wide attraction of attention and support they gained[33]. For example, the campaigns of RAF supporters, Horchem argues, often generated awareness and sympathy for the cause in Germany and bordering countries, particularly among Marxist groups.[34] Despite their support, the RAF did not achieve their long-term aims and eventually came to an end. This could be in part due to the changing attitude of the German students, who in 1985 had a more pragmatic attitude and were more job oriented, thus the appeal of the RAF diminished[35].

Religious Terrorism: Al-Qaeda and IS

The fourth wave has been termed ‘religious terrorism’ as many of the terrorist groups of this wave hold ideology steeped heavily in religion. Arguably, the two most notorious groups of this era are Islamist terror organisations Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) and thus will be analysed in this essay.

Al-Qaeda arose out of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan during the 1980s and is known as the vanguard of a movement which aims to achieve legitimate political dominance by establishing an Islamic state stretching from Morocco to the Philippines. The organisation uses the Salafi jihadi ideology to promote violent jihad as a strategy to primarily defeat the ‘far enemy’ of the United States and its allies[36]. Similarly, IS also strive to establish an Islamic State governed by strict Islamic law, however they instead focus on the ‘near enemy’ which comprise of ‘apostate’ regimes such as Syria’s Assad regime.

To build an Islamic state, Al-Qaeda used terrorism to try to alter US foreign policy and force US forces to leave the Middle East. This can be considered a short-term aim and is a tactic comparable to that used in anti-colonial terrorism; create a situation where the costs outweigh the benefits. In addition, the group also aimed to attract attention to the cause in order to gain recognition and thus to incite local resistance to Western occupying forces. In the latter case, the group has been undeniably successful.  The shocking 9/11 bombings orchestrated by al-Qaeda’s former leader Osama Bin Laden, as intended, dominated public attention[37]. In addition, Leah Farrall argues that the presence of so many al-Qaeda affiliate groups across the world is a clear demonstration of al-Qaeda’s success in expanding power and influence[38]. The discourse for IS is similar. IS has used attracted attention through brutal acts of terrorism. It has been estimated more than 40,000 foreign fighters have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join the group, a significant display of support[39].

With respect to policy change, Abrahms argues that al-Qaeda’s short-term aim to change to policy of the US failed. Rather than withdraw, the US increased its occupation of the Persian Gulf and support for pro-American Muslim governments[40]. It could be argued that this has now been at least partially achieved considering US President Donald Trump’s policy to withdraw US troops from the Middle East. However, how much of Trump’s policy is a direct result of al-Qaeda’s actions, or other factors remains undetermined.

Furthermore, al-Qaeda and IS both occupied significant territory for a period, which at the time was unsurprisingly heralded a success. For example, IS declared a self-proclaimed caliphate in 2014 and provided services for those who resided within the state. However, the state was never recognised internationally as legitimate and by March 2019 IS had lost all its territory[41]. Thus, despite short-term successes, both IS and al-Qaeda have been unable to achieve their long-term aims.


This essay has demonstrated, using examples of terrorist organisations throughout history, that terrorist organisations seldom achieve their long-term aims. The FLN are demonstrative of the potential success of terrorism under a certain set of circumstances, however no other terrorist organisation has been able to replicate and maintain such success. For example, Narodnaya Volya were unable to create a new socialist state in Russia, nor has the PLO been able to take territory from Israel and establish itself there as the legitimate governing party in the region. Moreover, while al-Qaeda and IS have demonstrated that terrorist organisations have succeeded in gaining territory and governing that territory, both groups have also proven the ineffectiveness of terrorism to maintain their victories. Thus, it is rational that terrorism be perceived as a pointless endeavour. However, this has not been the case.

As demonstrated in this essay, terrorism has existed for hundreds of years, for which there must be a reason. This essay has revealed that many, if not most, terrorist organisations have been successful in fulfilling at least one of their short-term aims of the attraction of attention and policy change. Throughout each wave, terrorist organisations have been able to capture the attention of the masses to varying degrees. The continual presence of terrorism is therefore arguably a result of these successes; indeed, as Dershowitz argues “success breeds repetition”[42]. However, these successes mask the reality that terrorism is not a successful strategy for realising long-term aims.


  • Abrahms, Max. "Al Qaeda's Scorecard: A Progress Report on Al Qaeda's Objectives." Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 29, no. 5 (2006): 509-529
  • Ayers, Bill. Fugitive Days: A Memoir. Beacon Press, 2001.
  • Cook, Joanna, and Gina Vale. "From Daesh To ‘Diaspora’II: The Challenges Posed By Women And Minors After The Fall Of The Caliphate". Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel 12, no. 6 (2019): 30-45.
  • Cronin, Audrey Kurth. How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns. Princeton University Press, 2009.
  • Dershowitz, Alan M. Why terrorism works: Understanding the threat, responding to the challenge. Yale University Press, 2002
  • Faoleán, Gearóid Ó. A Broad Church: The Provisional IRA in the Republic of Ireland, 1969–1980. Merrion Press, 2019.
  • Farrall, Leah. "How Al Qaeda Works-What the Organization's Subsidiaries Say about Its Strength." Foreign Aff. 90 (2011): 128-140
  • Geldenhuys, Deon. Isolated States: A Comparative Analysis. Vol. 15. Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  • Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. Columbia University Press, 2006.
  • Horchem, H. J. "Terrorism in Germany: 1985." In Contemporary Research on Terrorism edited by Paul Wilkinson and A M Stewart, 141-163. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1989
  • Kellner, Douglas. "9/11, spectacles of terror, and media manipulation: A critique of Jihadist and Bush media politics." Critical Discourse Studies 1, no. 1 (2004): 41-64
  • Kydd, Andrew H, and Barbara F Walter. ‘The Strategies of Terrorism’. International Security 31, no. 1 (2006): 49–80.
  • Townshend, Charles. Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Rapoport, David C. "The Four Waves of Rebel Terror and September." Anthropoetics 8, no. 1 (2002).
  • Roberts, Adam. "Terrorism research: Past, present, and future." Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 38, no. 1 (2015): 62-74.
  • Sageman, Marc, Understanding Terror Networks. University of Philadelphia Press, 2004
  • Stern, Susan, and Laura Browder. With the Weathermen: The Personal Journal of a Revolutionary Woman. Rutgers University Press, 2007.
  • United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3237 (1974)
  • Varnavas, Andreas. A history of the liberation struggle of Eoka 1955-1959. C Epiphaniou Publications, 2004.
  • Varon, Jeremy Peter. Bringing the war home: the Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and revolutionary violence in the sixties and seventies. Univ of California Press, 2004.
  • Von Borcke, Astrid. “Violence and Terror in Russian Revolutionary Populism: The Narodnaya Volya, 1879–83.” In Social Protest, Violence and Terror in Nineteenth-and Twentieth-Century Europe, 48–62. Springer, 1982.
  • "Fall Of Islamic State 'Caliphate' Announced". BBC News, 2019. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-47678157.

[1] David C Rapoport, ‘The Four Waves of Rebel Terror and September’, Anthropoetics, 8, no. 1 (2002)

[2] Adam Roberts, “Terrorism research: Past, present and future.”, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 38, no. 1 (2015): 65

[3] Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (Columbia University Press, 2006).

[4] Ibid, 2

[5] Andrew H Kydd and Barbara F Walter, ‘The Strategies of Terrorism’, International Security 31, no. 1 (2006): 49–80.

[6] Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 268

[7] Ibid, 2

[8] Jensen, Richard. “Daggers, Rifles and Dynamite: Anarchist Terrorism in Nineteenth Century Europe.” Terrorism and Political Violence 16, no. 1 (2004): 127.

[9] Derek Offord, The Russian Revolutionary Movement in the 1880s (Cambridge University Press, 2004), 29.

[10] Ibid, 33.

[11] Peter Neumann, Radicalised: New Jihadists and the Threat to the West (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016): 12

[12] Audrey Cronin, How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns (Princeton University Press, 2009), 124

[13] Astrid Von Borcke, “Violence and Terror in Russian Revolutionary Populism: The Narodnaya Volya, 1879-83,” in Social Protest, Violence and Terror in the Nineteenth-and Twentieth-Century Europe, (Springer, 1982),48

[14] Ibid, 49

[15] Peter Neumann, Radicalised: New Jihadists and the Threat to the West (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016):10

[16] Peter Neumann, Radicalised: New Jihadists and the Threat to the West (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016): 22

[17]  Martha Crenshaw Hutchinson, Revolutionary Terrorism: the FLN in Algeria, 1954-1962, (University of Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1978): 7

[18] Deon Geldenhuys, Isolated States: A Comparative Analysis, vol. 15 (Cambridge University Press, 1990): 155

[19] United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3237

[20] Charles Townshend, Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2018): 92

[21]Ibid, 93

[22] Ibid, 93

[23]David C Rapoport, ‘The Four Waves of Rebel Terror and September’, Anthropoetics, 8, no. 1 (2002), 4

[24] Andreas Varnavas, A History of the Liberation Struggle of EOKA (1955-1959) (Nicosia: C. Epiphaniou Publications, 2004): 45

[25] Gearóid Ó Faoleán, A Broad Church: The Provisional IRA in the Republic of Ireland, 1969–1980. (Merrion Press, 2019): 4

[26] Jeremy Peter Varon, Bringing the war home: the Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and the revolutionary violence in the sixties and seventies. (University of California Press, 2004): 12

[27] Susan Stern and Laura Browder, With the Weathermen: ThePersonal Journal of a Revolutionary Woman. (Rutgers University Press, 2007): 13

[28] Ibid, 13

[29] Bill Ayers, Fugitive Days: A Memoir (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001): 121

[30]  Susan Stern and Laura Browder, With the Weathermen: The Personal Journal of a Revolutionary Woman. (Rutgers University Press, 2007): 16

[31] Jeremy Peter Varon, Bringing the war home: the Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and the revolutionary violence in the sixties and seventies. (University of California Press, 2004): 133

[32] Peter Neumann, Radicalised: New Jihadists and the Threat to the West (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016): 43

[33] H J Horchem “Terrorism in Germany: 1985” in Contemporary Research on Terrorism, ed. Paul Wilkinson and A M Stewart(Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1989): 144

[34] Ibid, 144

[35] Ibid, 144

[36] Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks, (Philadelphia, University of Philadelphia Press, 2004): 1

[37] Douglas Kellner, "9/11, Spectacles Of Terror, And Media Manipulation", Critical Discourse Studies 1, no. 1 (2004): 41-64, doi:10.1080/17405900410001674515. 41

[38] Leah Farrall, "How Al Qaeda Works-What The Organization's Subsidiaries Say About Its Strength.", Foreign Affairs 90 (2011): 128

[39] Joanna Cook and Gina Vale, "From Daesh To ‘Diaspora’II: The Challenges Posed By Women And Minors After The Fall Of The Caliphate", Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel 12, no. 6 (2019): 4

[40]  Max Abrahms, "Al Qaeda's Scorecard: A Progress Report On Al Qaeda's Objectives", Studies In Conflict & Terrorism 29, no. 5 (2006): 517

[41]  "Fall Of Islamic State 'Caliphate' Announced", BBC News, 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-47678157.

[42] Alan, M. Dershowitz, Alan M. Why terrorism works: Understanding the threat, responding to the challenge. (Yale University Press, 2002): 26


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