In the London Review of Books, eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel reviews Does Terrorism Work? A History by Richard English, which meticulously examines the history of four major militant groups from around the world—al-Qaida, the Provisional IRA, Hamas, and the Basque separatist group ETA—to determine if their means have achieved their desired ends. English's finding is: almost never. But as Nagel points out, that doesn't mean never never. He cites two historical examples in which terrorism, as one arm of broad-based independence movements, worked. Read an excerpt from the review below or the full text here.
The pattern that emerges in these examples – and in many of those English cites in his final chapter, such as the Tupamaros, the Baader-Meinhof Group, Shining Path in Peru and the Weathermen in the US – is of groups employing violence in a hopeless cause. They perceive correctly that their aims cannot be achieved by non-violent means, but fail to see that that is because they cannot be achieved by any means, given the existing circumstances of power and public opinion. Hatred and the desire for revenge probably provide essential motivational support, but justification by expected political results is completely delusional.
It is instructive to compare the rare cases in which terrorism achieves its ends. English mentions a few, but two stand out: the establishment of Israel and the independence of Algeria. In Mandate Palestine after the Second World War, the Irgun carried out terrorist attacks against the British, and this probably sped up Britain’s withdrawal. But as English points out, it was not in Britain’s interest to maintain a presence there: there were plenty of other problems to deal with in the country’s straitened postwar condition – India, for example. The explosive problem of Palestine would have been handed over to the UN sooner or later: the Irgun was pushing at an open door.
The other example, Algeria, is particularly instructive. The FLN’s campaign for independence included terrorism as well as more conventional military operations, and provoked a brutal response from the French military that the French public eventually could not support, even though there was no possibility of the FLN defeating the French army. French withdrawal depended on the decision to abandon the French settlers in Algeria, the pieds-noirs, and as De Gaulle realised, the French in the home country were simply unwilling to continue to fight for them. Here again it was the balance of motivation, more than the balance of forces, that allowed terrorism to work; but it is doubtful that Algeria’s independence, unlike Israel’s, could have been achieved in the near term without violence.
Image: Isis leader Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, recently killed in Syria by a US drone strike.