Does Terrorism Work? : A History

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  • Author:
    Richard English
    Terrorism – especially Jihadist terrorism - is probably the most significant security threat that we face in the twenty-first century. This book offers a reflective, insightful and well-informed historian's response to the vital question, “Does Terrorism Work?” It is also well-written; amateur historians as well as academics can read and enjoy this book.

    The author, Richard English, is well-placed to examine this question. Born in Belfast and having taught at the Queen's University there between 1989 and 2011, he is now Wardlaw Professor of Politics in the School of International Relations and Director of the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV) at the University of St Andrews. His publications include Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA and Irish Freedom: The History of Nationalism in Ireland. ARRSE members may have seen him on television or read his articles in The Times Literary Supplement, The Financial Times or Newsweek.

    “Does Terrorism Work?” is an extremely complicated and controversial question. Wisely, Professor English does not give a firm or categorical answer. “Maybe, under certain circumstances, up to a point”, seems to be his tentative response. More pertinently, he examines how terrorism functions and what factors lead people to become terrorists. He focuses on four famous terrorist groups: the Provisional IRA, Al Qa'ida, Hamas and ETA.

    The section on the PIRA is the best and most absorbing. The PIRA's strategy of high-profile terrorist acts was initially successful. It forced the UK Government, which had tried successfully, for years at a time, to keep Northern Ireland and its challenges at arm's length, to concentrate on Northern Irish issues and nationalist grievances. However the eventual outcome, the Good Friday Agreement, was not what the PIRA had in mind. In the words of one of them:

    “I genuinely believed that one day the IRA would be chasing the British Army down to the docks, firing at them, and that the last British officer would be backing up the gangway onto the boat with his pistol in his hand.”

    That did not happen. The PIRA came to the negotiating table thanks to due to its endemic corruption, successful penetration by British intelligence, lack of interest by the rising generation, and a deep desire for peace and normality on the part of most of the population. Northern Ireland still exists as a separate political entity. The Good Friday Agreement envisages reunification of Ireland only if it follows a favourable referendum result in both halves of Ireland. But a majority of Northern Irish still do not want to join the Republic, while citizens of the Republic have expressed the quite reasonable fear that incorporating the North might “bring the Troubles down here”. It follows that the question of reunification may have been placed in the in-tray of the next generation, or even the one after that. A disillusioned ex-PIRA volunteer is quoted as saying:

    “To what extent did the IRA achieve their strategic goals? I would say that they had failed miserably.”

    Not all the PIRA would agree with this analysis, of course. The PIRA agenda was never just about defence and a united Ireland. The insurgency also offered opportunities for hitting hereditary enemies, revenge, retaliation and a wide spectrum of potentially lucrative criminal activity. These were fully realised.

    Apart from his absorbing treatment of the PIRA, the author offers a scholarly introductory essay and fascinating insights into the historical background of Jihadist terrorism and the Basque ETA, about which I knew very little. This is essential reading: for everyone wishing to make sense of terrorism; diplomats, soldiers and politicians, as well as intelligent, ordinary citizens . Please buy or borrow and read this book.

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  1. Herrumph
    I'm not sure that Prof English would agree with the opening assertion that Jihadist terrorism or any other is the most significant threat to security in the 21st Century and his latest book goes to quite some length explain how Islamist or Jihadist violence has failed at virtually every strategic level.

    As always with his work, English spends a lot of time trying to define what we actually mean by the question. In this book he not only (re-) clarifies what we mean by terrorism but also looks carefully at what the terrorist might really want to achieve (what works?). His approach is insightful because it adds such clarity to what we mean and makes sure we can analyse terrorist behaviour in an appropriate context. Whether ISIS is rational in its actions and are they attempting to achieve some sort of political objective, for example, are what defines them as terrorists. If they are not rational or have no political agenda then by most academic definitions they are not a terrorist group. English argues persuasively that they are.

    English's examination of terrorists' measures of success or failure is valuable. Of course there is no definitive answer - what sort of academic study would that be?! Does terrorism work? Well, yes and no. The detailed examination of the cases and the levels at which success and failure can be measured is most useful in providing a sort of oblique explanation of why people really resort to terrorism. It doesn't excuse or justify terrorist actions just gives a better understanding of why both individually and collectively people become radicalised. Understanding the enemy is of course key to 'defeating' them.
  2. Herrumph
    He's one of the Tutors on a course I'm doing so I will have to buy it I suppose.

    Price for a hardback is about par for the course - some academic tones are far more expensive for what they are. Not out in paperback until October so he'll have to wait for his royalties until then.

    He does have some very good views on terrorism but is a little too sympathetic to some of PIRA, giving their grievances and excuses a bit too much credence for my liking.
  3. SausageDog
    Sounds like a good read, but like so many books I have my eye on these days, so horrendously expensive.