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Terrorism works, but only when governments allow it to


April 29, 2014
Brain & Behavior

Terrorism can be a successful strategy for rebel groups during civil war, but only when governments allow it to work, finds a new study by a Michigan State University political scientist.

Responding to acts of terrorism with violence is more likely to prolong the conflict. However, if governments negotiate or use sound counterterrorism efforts, they stand a better chance of bringing about a peaceful resolution, said Jakana Thomas, assistant professor of political science.

Her study appears online in the American Journal of Political Science.

“Terrorism can work, but only if a government allows it to,” Thomas said. “When governments attempt to quash the terrorists and kill civilians in the process – as so often happens – their response backfires and feeds into the terrorists’ strategy.”

Thomas analyzed civil conflict from 1989 to 2010 in Africa, which has seen a drastic rise in terrorism. Some 45 of the 106 African rebel groups in the study carried out terrorist attacks. Rebels practicing terrorism in Somalia, Kenya, Libya and other African countries have threatened regional stability and posed security threats globally.

“That Western nations, including the United States and France, have begun devoting resources to support counterterrorism in Africa underscores its significance,” Thomas said.

The findings are relevant globally. When Thomas compared terrorism in Africa with the rest of the world she found the types of attacks (such as bombings, armed assaults and assassinations) and the targets of the attacks (such as governments, businesses and civilians) were nearly identical.

Her study is one of the first to examine terrorism in the context of civil war. Previous research on the effectiveness of terrorism has been inconclusive.

Thomas refutes the popular adage that governments do not negotiate with terrorists. According to the study, rebel groups employing a greater number of terror attacks were much more likely to participate in negotiations and gain more concessions from the ruling party in the months following the conflict.

“Governments should consider negotiating with disaffected people in the country. That doesn’t necessarily have to be the groups using terrorism; it can be other groups, such as civil groups operating on behalf of these armed rebels,” Thomas said.

“I’m not suggesting we should negotiate with Al-Qaeda,” she added. “This is in the context of civil war with routine violence, when negotiating with these domestic rebel groups may be the only way forward.”

Another way governments might deal with the problem is by finding ways of ending civil wars once they start. As much as terrorism is a problem, Thomas said, a government refusing to seek peaceful settlements is also a problem.


11 Responses to Terrorism works, but only when governments allow it to

  1. Nosipho Ngubane 14296960 May 2, 2014 at 7:15 am #

    People should be careful of the word “terrorist” because that word is usually used by the government to sway peoples’ perspectives. For example, Al-Qaeda is seen by the USA as terrorists yet in Al-Qaeda’s homelands they are seen as freedom fighters and the US is seen as terrorists, hence the word “terrorist” is quite subjective. If the government is corrupted and the country needs a coup then I believe that violence should be used if the government is not willing to cooperate. And if rebel groups are merely using violence to further themselves then once again violence should be used. But if the government and the rebel groups can find a solution that benefits both parties then there is absolutely no need for violence, it’s just common sense.

  2. u14033438 L Hassim May 2, 2014 at 3:07 am #

    Look at what terrorists are actually doing, these people are activists fighting for true justice primarily, they are accused, however, of being groups of the greatest criminals of all time- has anyone considered Al-Qaeda’s reason for doing what they’re doing? Probably not, the government though does know this reason. This ‘true’ reason, which I myself do not know is amongst the government’s best kept secrets. With this statement I wish to add that the criminals in jail, are not all ‘true’ criminals, the people arrested in Guantanamo Bay are not ‘true’ criminals, but those oppressing the people in places of power (such as presidents and ministers)- those are the people who are amongst the ‘true’ criminals, hence the oppressors.

  3. 14031231 May 1, 2014 at 10:23 am #

    Saying that terrorism works when governments allow it to, doesn’t hold much water. While there may be positive results gained from non-violence with terrorists, the author still mentions “I’m not suggesting we should negotiate with Al-Qaeda”. This basically presents the very obvious point that there is a time and a place for violence, and there is a time and a place for negotiation.

    It is mentioned in the article that violence used by governments against terrorists, often leads to fueling of the terrorist movement and the killing of civilians. This is completely true but, in certain situations a war is required, and there will be obvious consequences such as civilians dying and people defecting to the side of terrorists. In certain situations however, violence is the only solution e.g. if the terrorists are making demands such as the implementation of Sharia Law and vow to not stop killing people until it is implemented.

    If the terrorists make a demand which is feasible however, it only makes rational sense to negotiate. Why go through an expensive war when a solution can be brought about that will not worsen the quality of life of a country’s citizens. A perfect example of this is that of South Africa whereby a civil war was averted thanks to the efforts of Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk.

    This article had many open ends to it. One must take into account however, that rational thinking and the minimization of the loss of human life should always take precedence over an ideology.

  4. JG Tredoux(14009383) May 1, 2014 at 7:54 am #

    Unfortunately terrorism is a reality in most places in the world, being a first world country or not there will be terrorism. There is no objective way to create an environment where there is no chance of terrorism ever occurring, so I do think the best thing to spend time on is creating a realistic way to handle the threats. That is just the sad reality. But researchers should, I believe, try to expand the information so that it can reach the far ends of the world as we know it. Most of the people in Africa isn’t on there computers being educated on these things. People and in the most part governments should be made aware of these facts. Spreading the information is just as important as finding it. In that way the fight against terrorism will expand and groups might realize that violence is not the only answer. In effect there will be more peace across nations.

  5. u14049890 May 1, 2014 at 6:10 am #

    The above article shines new light on the issue of terrorism and how governments should preferably react to terrorism for the benefit of the countries under attack.
    I agree with the analysis done by Jakana Thomas and the idea that the government should try to negotiate with civil groups in the prevention of terrorist attacks.
    By responding violently, governments unintentionally promote more violence and civilians are placed in greater danger. Governments should have the best interests of the civilians in mind and with violent responses to terrorist attacks, innocent civilians are killed and this “feeds into the terrorists strategy” as Thomas stated.
    Peaceful settlements would aid in the prevention of civil wars.
    Countries at disagreement should find common ground for the sake of civilians and for the prevention of war.
    However, this eventually boils down to governments not listening to the demands of the civilians and war between countries eventually becomes a battle of trying to prove superiority rather than trying to solve the root problem of the conflict.
    Reasonable arguments presented by civilians should be listened to by figures of authority and there should be compromising to a limit with mutual benefits.
    I am interested by the fact that new strategies for approaching terrorism and civil wars are being discussed and I see these strategies working quite well in the near future.
    I look forward to reading about more research in this line in the future.

  6. Lesedi radebe- 14133131 May 1, 2014 at 2:55 am #

    I agree with Jakana Thomas because most of the time, terrorist gangs are formed as a result of dissatisfied citizens these citizen then form these gangs as a form of them demanding to be heard by the government. fighting fire with fire and sending an army of soldiers to fight these gangs as Jordynn Fouche’ suggests will only make the matter worse because in the process a lot of innocent lives are lost which then will create an even bigger social problem. what that government should do initially, is to listen to the cries of its citizens to prevent such things as terrorism from happening.

  7. u14037832 May 1, 2014 at 1:12 am #

    This blog is very well structured as it tackles terrorism with a non-violent approach. I believe that the point that Ms Thomas made that you cannot fight fire with fire is a valid suggestion. It is unfortunate to learn that terrorism has such a drastic rate of increase in Africa. Although as she points out most fights with terrorists end with civilian deaths. Government should pay attention to this non-violent approach as it could save lives and result in quicker conflict resolution.

  8. Camilla. M, u14137594 April 30, 2014 at 3:02 am #

    Governments should put measures in place to prevent terrorists from carrying out their violent attacks, what is the country’s military force for anyway? I believe the president as the head of a nation should make sure all of the branches of the military are always operational and vigilant. However I do not dispute the fact that terrorists can make their way into a country and cause havoc and when they do, if civilians get caught up in their chaos it is best to give in to their demands. After all life is worth more than a few hundred dollars right?

  9. u14215790 April 30, 2014 at 12:42 am #

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article as it tackles alternative solutions to resolving
    prevalent issues that are smouldering the peace within our society. I respect researchers such as Jakana Thomas who use their intellect to shed light on how unrest can be combated worldwide.

    I agree with the general concise that has been reached in the article which is: governments should negotiate with terrorists (in the context of civil war). I do not see this as a sign of weakness on the governments’ part but actually recognize this action as noble as it is the government’s responsibility to protect it’s citizens. Civil wars have been known to span over many years and rob countries of their once promising futures. If allowed to carry on, these wars lead to an enormous number of deaths and causalities, consumption of significant resources and fatal economic collapse (as has been seen with countries such as Somalia, Uganda, Angola etc.). However, if governments use sound counterterrorism efforts, as mentioned in the article, they will most likely bring about peaceful resolution thus minimizing the often crippling effects of civil war.

    In addition, terrorists may be seen as a freedom fighters by their supporters and instigators of violence by their opponents (such an example would be Nelson Mandela). South Africa is proof of how negotiations between government and “terrorists” in the face of civil unrest has led to a peaceful resolution and a better country for all. If the government had reacted with violence and killed revolutionists such as Nelson Mandela, Desomand Tutu and the list is endless, political, social and economic progress would have been drastically delayed within South Africa and suffering by innocent civilians would have been unnecessarily prolonged. Therefore, it is far more beneficial to fight darkness with light; for darkness cannot drive out darkness.

  10. Jordynn Fouche' u14369878 April 29, 2014 at 11:20 pm #

    I for one believe that the president should have a backbone when it comes to handling terrorists. these terrorists are violent and the will not stop until the get everything that they want.

    if you want to stop this terrorist nonsense, then the president should take on the problem by the root, sending in some of his best soldiers and eliminate the terrorists one for one.

    This could be the only way to stop this violence and madness, it may seem a little harsh, but when it comes to terrorists action needs to be taken!!!!!!

  11. NKULULEKO NGUBANE April 29, 2014 at 6:48 am #

    In this case fighting fire with fire is not a solution,neither is helping the terrorists get what they want going to help the people of that particular country.A president is a person who is willing to stand,fight and die for the people of his/her country,so he/she will not mind dying for his or her country.I for one am against giving in to terrorists demands,because this is something that will happen again and again.So since all they understand is violence,i think they sholud be killed in the act.

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