Does terrorism work?

Erica Chenoweth David Ackers Maria Stephan
23 May 2007

In their study, "Challenging Goliath: Comparing the Relative Strategic Effectiveness of Violent and Nonviolent Asymmetric Warfare", Dr. Maria Stephan, Director of Educational Initiatives at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, and Dr. Erica Chenoweth seek to examine the successes and failures of different asymmetric means of warfare - in which a weaker non-state actor challenges the state. In doing so, Stephan explains, they aim to assess "the relative strategic effectiveness of different asymmetric warfare types (i.e. guerrilla warfare, terrorism, and non-violent conflict), and look at the extent to which these groups have achieved their stated objectives".

Using a custom-built dataset, their study considers a wide-range of questions including whether the relative success of violent and non-violent groups differs depending on the adversarial regime (i.e. democratic or non-democratic), wealth and strength of the host state; whether the duration of a conflict affects the chance of success; and whether external assistance is pivotal to the success of non-violent resistance.

Stephan and Chenoweth's initial research suggests that campaigns driven by civilians wielding non-violent "weapons" (i.e. boycotts, strikes, protests, civil disobedience, creation of parallel structures, etc.) have a higher rate of success than those using guerrilla warfare or terrorist attacks, the former achieving "partial to full success" in almost 90% of cases, versus 50% in the case of the latter. Terrorist and guerrilla campaigns furthermore incur greater levels of suppression. While states are typically less inclined to negotiate or bargain with violent actors, the use of non-violent strategic action tends to increase the political cost of suppressing internal dissent. At the same time, it more effectively applies pressure on the adversary.

In an interview with t.oD Managing Editor Kanishk Tharoor, Dr. Stephan elaborates on her and Dr. Chenoweth's research. - David Ackers

What are some objectives that non-violent movements have achieved in the past?

Classic examples of successful non-violent movements include the Indian independence movement led by Gandhi; the 1986 "people power" movement that ended the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines; the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa; the 1989 popular anti-communist popular uprisings in Central and Eastern Europe, such as the Polish Solidarity Movement; more recently the so-called "colour revolutions" in Serbia, Georgia and the Ukraine; and the independence intifada in Lebanon during 2005.

It is our central assessment that the reason why we are seeing such a high rate of success with non-violent movements is because non-violent resistance is more apt to achieve legitimacy while imposing significant economic and political costs on the opponent. This type of resistance is also tougher to defend against. After all, when you are confronting a regime with traditional police and military security forces, the regime is in a much better position to combat violent elements and violent resistance - this is what they're trained to do. Unified, strategic non-violent movements, on the other hand, are able to raise the political cost when the state uses such repression, thus gaining greater strategic advantage.

Yet, non-violent struggles obviously fail as well, and so that is why we will be looking at all cases - successes and failures - in this study. It is notable that this is the first study that has been done which compares, side-by-side, violent and non-violent resistance types, and looks at the extent to which groups achieve their goals, using these different sets of tactics and strategies.

To what extent is it always possible to separate non-violent movements from violent movements in this way? Do they not often exist in collaboration or in the same system?

As analysts and scholars, I think it is imperative to be able to differentiate analytically between different resistance types. You can, for instance, examine behaviours, methods and tactics in violent movements (i.e. hit-and-run tactics, guerrilla tactics that target military forces, and terrorist tactics which target civilians) as compared to non-violent movements (i.e. boycotts, mass civic protests, strikes, civil disobedience and non-cooperation), and assess the relative extent to which these aspects feature in both. This then enables one to discern and disaggregate what methods are leading to which affects. This is obviously not a precise science, however.

Still, it is crucial to do this analytically. After all, even though in a number of cases you do have mixed sanctions (i.e. a violent wing of a movement, or the mixing of violent and non-violent actions), this does not necessarily mean that it is the mixing which is bringing about the desired result, or even that the application of violent force is decisive in these cases. The fact that you have armed resistance concurrent with unarmed resistance does not imply that the former is necessarily the cause of political change.

So what we are trying to do is to look at where non-violent actions are used systematically in these different cases, and trying to assess not only the correlation between the type of resistance and the outcome, but also the how question: how do these various resistance types produce the desired outcomes.

If non-violent movements are indeed more effective in achieving their goals than violent movements, what provides the motivation behind the numerous violent recourses to asymmetrical warfare around the world?

I think there is a prevailing assumption that violence can be most effectively met with counter-violence, and that the violent application of force or violent asymmetric warfare is the most effective way to resist various forms of repression, be it authoritarian regimes, foreign occupations, institutionalized discrimination, suppression of minority rights.

Certainly there is an intellectual history which supports this model. There is a whole tradition of violent revolutionaries, for example, who have popularised the notion that violence is the most effective force in liberating a people from repression, and the most effective way to fight back. When you think about revolutionary fighters or freedom fighters, after all, the image that comes to mind for most people is a Mao Zedong or Che Guevara figure carrying an AK-47.

Yet, the rhetoric of violence is often more powerful than the reality of violence's strategic effectiveness. Ideology and perception of effectiveness thus have a lot to do with it. Also, there is a steady stream of media coverage of violent forms of resistance. "If it bleeds, it leads" is the mantra that leaves us with the false impression that that which captures headlines, necessarily captures power. Our study is challenging this notion by looking at results.

In the last century, are there not many examples of successful violent movements?

If you look at guerrilla warfare, you can certainly consider that of the Vietcong a success, to the extent that it forced the withdrawal of U.S. forces and eventually led to an invasion of South Vietnam by North Vietnamese forces. You could also call Algeria a successful violent insurrection in that it forced the French to leave.

But I think in all these cases, even if you look at the "successful" ones, you also have to consider what the costs were of taking up violent means. You may have forced the withdrawal of an occupation force or got rid of a colonial regime, but I think you also have to consider what you lost in the process - how many lives, how much destruction occurred, and then look at what comes after. Resistance devoid of a cost-benefit analysis can be suicidal.

What is the desired outcome of the report, and with whom do you wish to share the results?

With scholars, certainly, but with policy makers and local activists as well. It important to recognise, from a theoretical and practical perspective, that civilian-based movements have demonstrated that they are pretty powerful in history, and are un-ignorable. Their demonstrated success in effecting major political transformations alone makes non-violent asymmetrical warfare worthy of study.

There is already great appreciation amongst scholars of international relations (IR) that non-state actors are significant agents of change - so it is important to study the trajectories and outcomes of civilian-based movements.

From a security studies perspective, thinking about non-violent resistance as a form of asymmetric conflict, where groups employ unconventional tactics (boycotts, strikes, civil disobedience) as a means of exerting pressure on the adversary, is crucial. We are calling for both a conceptual and theoretical shift in academia. The study of strategic nonviolent conflict is slowly being integrated in undergrad and graduate IR and security studies programs.

But there are also policy implications to this study. There is an option besides relying exclusively on elite-to-elite negotiations and/or sending in the military when it comes to dealing with authoritarian and rights-repressing regimes. It may be more effective to assist those engaged in non-violent resistance.

However, and this is crucial - to be effective, nonviolent movements must be indigenously planned and executed. External assistance cannot create civic coalitions nor disciplined nonviolent action. To assume otherwise (as some analysts do) is to fundamentally misunderstand the dynamics underlying this form of resistance.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData