Does terrorism ever work? 9/11 was an enormous tactical success for al Qaeda, partly because it involved attacks that took place in the media capital of the world and the actual capital of the United States, thereby ensuring the widest possible coverage of the event.
If terrorism is a form of theater where you want a lot of people watching, no event in human history was likely ever seen by a larger global audience than the 9/11 attacks.
At the time, there was much discussion about how 9/11 was like the attack on Pearl Harbor. They were indeed similar since they were both surprise attacks that drew America into significant wars.
But they were also similar in another sense. Pearl Harbor was a great tactical success for Imperial Japan, but it led to great strategic failure: Within four years of Pearl Harbor the Japanese empire lay in ruins, utterly defeated.
Similarly, 9/11 was a great tactical success for al Qaeda, but it also turned out be a great strategic failure for Osama bin Laden.
On 9/11 bin Laden’s main strategic goal was to overthrow regimes across the Middle East and to replace them with Taliban-style rule. He believed that the best way to accomplish this was to attack the “far enemy” (the United States) and then watch as the U.S.-backed Arab regimes he termed the “near enemy” toppled.
This might have worked if the United States really was the paper tiger that bin Laden believed it to be, but not only did bin Laden not achieve his war aims, the 9/11 attacks resulted in the direct opposite of his goal of forcing a U.S. withdrawal from Muslim lands.
After 9/11, American soldiers occupied both Afghanistan and Iraq, and al Qaeda — “the base” in Arabic — lost the best base it ever had: Afghanistan as it had existed before the overthrow of the Taliban by U.S. forces in late 2001.
In short, bin Laden’s violent tactics did not serve his strategic goals, and al Qaeda’s violence became only an end in itself.
That is where ISIS is today. Its strategy is incoherent because only a tiny minority of Muslims want to live in the Taliban-style utopia that ISIS wants to bring to the Muslim world, while at the same time ISIS’ principal victims are fellow Muslims who don’t share their views to the letter.
This is a decidedly mixed message for a group that presents itself as the defender of Muslims. Indeed, the burning to death of the Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh is an indelible image that will long serve to undercut any ISIS claim to be the defender of Islam.
That said, could ISIS’ campaign of brutal terrorism work to bring its goal of a Taliban-style caliphate across the Middle East?
If one examines other significant campaigns of terrorism in the modern era, the historical record suggests that this is quite unlikely.
Anarchists in the early 20th century carried out a number of high-profile assassinations and bombings. In 1901, for instance, an anarchist killed U.S. President William McKinley. And in 1920 an anarchist blew up a bomb-laden wagon on Wall Street, killing more than 30, which was the deadliest act of terrorism in New York until 9/11.
Anarchists termed these kinds of high-profile attacks “the propaganda of the deed.” Yet they achieved nothing with these attacks, and their ideology has withered and largely died out.
The Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany was a group of Marxist-inspired terrorists who during the 1970s and 1980s killed more than 30 people, a number of whom were prominent German government officials and businessmen as well as U.S. military personnel, yet this campaign also achieved absolutely nothing.
One could also make the same observation for other Western leftist terrorist groups of the same era, such as the Weather Underground.
Indeed, there are few campaigns of terrorism that have succeeded in bringing about their political objectives, but in some cases terrorism can actually work. This is the big, uncomfortable takeaway of an important new book, “Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel 1917-1947,” about the era that led up to the creation of Israel, written by the leading American terrorism expert, Bruce Hoffman.
Hoffman demonstrates that Jewish terrorism helped to push the British occupiers out of Palestine after World War II. Indeed, Menachem Begin, the leader of the Irgun group that played an instrumental role in the Jewish terrorist campaign against British and Arab targets, went on to become the Prime Minister of Israel and shared in a Nobel Peace Prize.
Some 300 miles from where the Jordanian pilot was believed to have been burned alive by ISIS, almost seven decades ago two soldiers were hanged from a tree in the land that is now called Israel.
The soldiers were British and the executioners were Jewish militants whose overall commander was Begin.
The burning to death of the Jordanian pilot was, of course, particularly abhorrent, but the hanging deaths of the two British soldiers in 1947 were greeted with as much outrage in the United Kingdom as the pilot’s death has had in Jordan.
But after the killings of the British soldiers an unexpected thing happened. The British, who had endured a campaign of terrorist attacks in Palestine, including the attack on Jerusalem’s iconic King David Hotel that killed 91 soldiers and civilians, didn’t double down on their occupation of Palestine. Instead, they washed their hands of it and packed up their bags and left, leading to the formation of the state of Israel in 1948.
The emerging scholarly consensus is that campaigns of terrorism can sometimes work to achieve the goal of forcing the withdrawal of a colonial power as happened with the British in Palestine, but more often than not terrorism doesn’t succeed as a tactic to achieve the strategic goals of terrorist groups, whether they are Marxist in orientation, or ultra-fundamentalist jihadists.
Instead, all too often violence becomes an end in itself for the terrorist organization, which then loses any legitimacy that it might have once had and is eventually wiped out by military or police action. That is the position that ISIS now finds itself in with its killing of the Jordanian pilot.
Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at the New America Foundation and the author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden — From 9/11 to Abbottabad.