The Terrorist Theory of Victory


The Terrorist Theory of Victory

Jul 20th, 2005 3 min read
James Jay Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute

James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.

Terrorists win by just being there. It's the kind of sound-bite interviewers love. Short. Pithy. Seemingly profound. And, best of all, arresting: It paints terrorism as a frightening, irresistible force.

There's no shortage of freshly minted "terrorism experts" spouting lines like this on the talk shows, but there's a problem. This view of terrorism is rubbish.

Fact is, terrorists rarely win. True, they succeed at killing people -- murdering innocents, destroying property and creating misery -- but that's not their intended goal. Terrorism by definition is violence with a political purpose. And terrorists are terrorists not by choice, but by desperation. They kill men, women and children indiscriminately because they think there's no other way to advance their cause. Propaganda and politics have failed them. They lack armies or economic power.

There have been many terrorist campaigns throughout history. But most have failed to achieve their goals. Slaughtering civilians rarely advances political causes.

Iraq is a case in point. The Associated Press reports that since April 28, insurgents have killed more than 1,100 people in Iraq. In all likelihood, the toll will continue to mount for the foreseeable future. But the notion that rising civilian casualties will lead inevitably to the collapse of Iraq's fledgling democracy is utterly wrongheaded.

As a rule, terrorism fails in the long run. It fails because, as a strategy, it lacks a theory of victory, a means to convert the desire to change the political order into reality. The only terrorist campaigns in history that ultimately succeeded first had to transform into something else -- something more than a terrorist movement. History indicates that movements launched by political violence can achieve victory only by switching to one of four alternative tracks. None of these redirections appears likely to occur in Iraq.

  1. Become an army and conquer territory. That's how the Communists overthrew the government in China. The mujahadeen prevailed against the Russians in Afghanistan only after they were able to field a credible military force. It was armies, not the Viet Cong, that successfully invaded South Vietnam. A British-Portuguese-Spanish force, not guerrillas, threw Napoleon's army out of Spain. It was an American army helped by the French navy, not irregulars, that won the American Revolution.

    The prospects for the Iraqi insurgents getting anything close to an army that can overthrow the government forces, particularly while those forces are backed by U.S. air, naval and artillery fire, are pretty bleak. Every time terrorists have coalesced in force, in places like Fallujah, they have become little more than an attractive target.

  2. Become a mass political movement. This happened in Algeria, where the French, under popular pressure, gave up their colony.

    The likelihood of terrorists in Iraq sparking a mass movement is virtually nil. The terrorists want either a return to Baathist dictatorship or the creation of a Taliban-style dictatorship. Or they're just in it for a buck. None of these seems likely to inspire a mass uprising.

    The terrorists can't even spark a civil war. Iraqis aren't stupid. They know what the terrorists are trying to do. If civil war flares, it will be because the factions don't trust each other, not because the terrorists are manipulating them. And so far, no major Iraqi faction has indicated that it thinks civil war is a good idea.

  3. Kill everyone in charge and take over. This worked during the French Revolution, but don't bet on it happening in Iraq. The terrorists have been trying this for months, and it's not working. When officials fall, others step in and take their place.

  4. Turn to politics. A few terrorist groups have renounced violence and become legitimate political movements. Some Iraqi insurgents may opt for this route, but in doing so they stop being terrorists, and since the terrorist cause has little political attraction, such conversions aren't likely to hinder the spread of democracy.

Lacking a certain means to victory, the terrorists likely will continue doing what they're doing: killing innocents and lacing their Web sites with the usual propaganda about being in the eternal struggle, with victory bound to come eventually.

Most Iraqis know better. Eventually, even the terrorist supporters will wake up and realize they're wasting money and recruits only to incite Muslims to kill Muslims.

Meanwhile, the best thing the Iraqis can do is to continue to nurse their fledgling democracy and make it as inclusive as possible, keep on increasing the ranks and quality of its security forces, expand the rule of law, and grow the economy. Sooner or later, the terrorists will wind-up like most of their predecessors -- dead or defeated.

James Carafano, co-author of "Winning the Long War: Lessons from the Cold War for Defeating Terrorism and Preserving Freedom," is a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation (

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire