Why Terrorism Fails While Insurgencies Can Sometimes Succeed

Sunil Dasgupta
Sunil Dasgupta Former Brookings Expert, Director - University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Political Science Program at the Universities at Shady Grove

January 4, 2002

As the global war on terrorism moves to its second phase and the regional wars on terrorism—most prominently, in India and Israel, but also in the Philippines, London, and New Jersey—enter their bloodiest phase yet, it might be important to recall why terrorism has never succeeded, and why insurgencies can sometimes overcome failure.

We can make an analytical—though somewhat unrealistic—distinction between terrorism and insurgency. Terrorism is indiscriminate while insurgency is selective. There was nothing any of the victims of September 11 attacks could have personally done to have been spared their fate. Some of the victims were devout Muslims, few might even have sympathised with militant Islam, many were not American.

Insurgency, on the other hand, is based on the selective use of violence against people or groups who do not comply politically with the wishes of the rebels or the government. The first victims of rebel action in an insurgency are potential government collaborators, often the moderates in the community. While the government’s violence is also intended to be applied selectively against those who support the rebels, it is usually less discriminate because of the lack of local knowledge. The government’s initial actions are likely to appear more “terroristic” (hence, state terrorism), but usually with its investment in intelligence gathering and political mobilisation, the information battle becomes more even.

From the viewpoint of the population of whom political compliance is demanded by the state, indiscriminate or random violence means that political compliance is not a guarantee against death. The only action the people in the middle can take under the circumstances is to shift their loyalty to the other side in order to facilitate measures to guard against the random attack.

Because terrorism leaves no recourse to political compliance, it ends up having the opposite effect of counter-mobilising the target society. An example of this can be Algeria. Indeed, it has been suggested that the government chose to not actively prevent massacres by the rebels in the Mitidja region in order to counter-mobilise support for itself in the rest of the country. Thus, the greater the success of terrorism in a small region, the more solidified public opinion becomes in the rest of the country against the rebels.

Thus the benchmark can be set as: The bigger and bolder the act of terrorism, the greater the counter-mobilisation. The September 11 attacks drove the United States to launch a new global war against terrorism. The December 13 attack on the Indian Parliament led Prime Minister Vajpayee to promise: “This was an attack not just on Parliament house, but a warning to the entire country. We accept the challenge. We will foil every attempt of the terrorists.” The governments in both the United States and India have now sought unprecedented suspension of civil liberties. That both publics approve of these draconian measures is a sign of the counter-mobilisation effect of terrorism.

Moreover, terrorism, as it is practiced, tends to “import” fighters and weapons. This allows target societies to externalise the enemy and legitimises actions of war. Because rebels have a material disadvantage against the state, they seek to mobilise external resources on their behalf (other governments, diaspora populations and, failing all else, criminal networks). But the presence of external forces allows the target societies to treat rebellion as externally-generated, and therefore an act of war perpetrated by foreign powers. The Indian government has certainly been able to take advantage of Pakistani support for Kashmiri rebels in order to mobilise support for itself. The Israeli response to Palestinian “terrorism” in the last year has gained from the role of the Islamic Jihad, which is believed to be backed by Iran.

Once external forces begin to dominate, a rebel movement may even lose the one advantage insurgents enjoy vis-à-vis the government: local knowledge. Ordinarily, rebels are rooted in the local community and have greater knowledge (than the government) of who is doing what. Based on that information, they can target government collaborators. The very existence of a rebel movement, on the other hand, implies that the government does not have as much access to local information—or else, the rebels would be arrested as soon as they became active. Thus, government action is initially scattershot; the lack of discrimination has the effect of increasing support for the rebels. But if foreign elements take the leading role in a rebel movement, as happened in the September 11 attacks, and is now the situation in Kashmir, the rebel movement loses its one relative advantage.

We see a similar effect when rebels carry out operations outside the area of their community because they do not have the same access to local information and face the danger of being identified and turned over to the government. Attacks in New Delhi by Sikh and now Kashmiri militants can only be sporadic and small, even if they are symbolically powerful, such as attacking the Indian parliament. These attacks then are doubly counterproductive because their symbolic impact magnifies the need for counter-mobilisation without doing serious damage to the government. The impression Kargil left on the Indians is an example of how external aid to rebel movement, even though it seems to win battles, ultimately loses the war.

The counterproductive role of foreign militants is best illustrated by communist warrior-theorist Che Guevara’s efforts to overthrow “capitalist” governments in Bolivia, where he was in fact hunted down and killed in 1967. The foco theory, Guevara espoused, held that it was possible for a small number of committed fighters to bring down the government with bold and daring attacks against the symbols of power. This belief itself was based on the presumption that the existence of capitalism was reason enough—he called it an objective condition—for a society and its people to be ripe for communist revolution.

This theory and its assumptions have found their most potent manifestation in the fedayeen phenomenon in the Islamic world. The leaders of radical Islam, who propagate terrorism, have come to believe that small bands of mujahids can topple governments. This view has been reinforced by the incredible increase in the resources, weapons, and technology now available to the rebels. More importantly, there is a belief among radical Islamic leaders that the existence of non-Islamic rule in the 20,000 sq. km. of Israel or in the singular Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir makes them ripe for Islamic revolution. Like Guevara, these leaders do not feel the need to mobilise the people, which after all was the intent of political insurgency as advocated by its modern originator, Mao Tse-Tung.

According to Mao, insurgency was supposed to create public support for the rebel movement and thus enable the formation of a real army that would ultimately defeat the government. Mao offered a three-stage model: political preparation, limited attacks, and eventually conventional war. Those who have taken the foco-terrorism-fedayeen view of insurgency seem to have skipped both the political mobilisation and the post-guerrilla war phase. Where insurgency has succeeded, such as in China and Vietnam, the rebels followed Mao’s three-stage model. Without extensive political mobilisation and the ability to give conventional battle, terrorism and insurgencies that use terrorism only end up rousing the tiger.