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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 41

Terror Will Not Work

Wednesday 1 October 2008, by Namrata Goswami

On September 13, between 1807-1838 hours, five serial bombs shattered a peaceful weekend across several popular market complexes in New Delhi. More than 20 innocent civilians lost their lives in the process and nearly 80 were injured. As was the case in the Jaipur, Bangalore and Ahmedabad bombings of May 13, July 25 and July 26, respectively, an elusive outfit calling itself “Indian Mujahideen” claimed responsibility for the Delhi bombings via an e-mail stating that the atrocities against innocent Muslims by the state authorities after the Ahmedabad bombings, the Amarnath land dispute in Kashmir, killings of Christians in Orissa, demolition of the Babri Masjid and the Gujarat riots were the main reasons for the recent blasts. This appears to be well-rehearsed posturing. Behind this text, the sub-text based on empirical evidence, however, reveals that the main objective of the Indian Mujahideen masterminds was perhaps to create social panic by using low intensity bombs across the geographical spread of Delhi: the M-Block Market, Greater Kailash-I in South Delhi; Ghaffar Market, Karol Bagh in West Delhi; and Connaught Place (CP) in Central Delhi. Interestingly, this is an act of “costly signalling” in order to showcase to Indian society and the outfit’s own recruits its prowess at social control. The bombings were also meant to indicate the inability of the Indian security agencies at thwarting their terror activities. Their e-mail titled “The Message of Death” sent to media networks just 10 minutes after the first bombing at Karol Bagh is revealing in this regard. It stated “In the name of Allah, Indian Mujahideen strikes back once more… Do whatever you can. Stop us if you can.” Such militant vocabulary is not surprising coming from a terror outfit but the larger question that lurks here is: has the Indian Mujahideen succeeded in its goal of social control through terror means?

Certain insights could be drawn from existing terror studies in regard to this vital question. The dominant view amongst security analysts across the globe is that terrorist groups achieve their political goals by coercing governments and societies into making policy concessions based on their deadly strategic logic of attacking civilians. The worrisome lacuna in these terrorism studies, however, is that most of them have focused on the “form” and “causes” of terrorism to arrive at their rather policy implicative conclusions while completely ignoring the outcome of terror attacks. Hence, such assertions have rarely been substantiated by empirical data sets. In an interesting work titled “Why Terrorism Does Not Work” in 2006, Mark Abrahms attempted to fill this lacuna by carrying out a rigorous empirical study of 28 terrorists groups across the world. These groups included the Abu Sayyaf Group, Al-Qaeda, Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Harakat-ul-Mujahidin (Kashmir), Hezbollah (Lebanon), Islamic Jihad, Real Irish Republican Army, Revolutionary Nuclei in Greece, and Tamil Tigers amongst others. The two most startling findings of his study are that out of 42 policy objectives these 28 terrorist groups aspired for, only seven were achieved amounting to just seven per cent of total success. And if coercion is indeed the strategy of terror outfits, this count is extremely low in terms of successful outcome. Second, terrorists, who target civilians, rarely achieve their political goals. Strategic effectiveness of terrorism is measured along a four-tiered rating system: total success, no success, partial success and limited success. “Total success” means that the terrorist outfit had fully achieved its policy goals. “No success” indicates a lack of discernible progress in achieving stated policy objectives. “Partial or limited success” falls under the ambit of mid-level achievements. Since most terror outfits seek political change, a co-relative study of their stated objectives with outcomes is a good indicator of success or failure. Significantly, the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and the Lashkar-e-Taiba in Kashmir fall under the “no success” column since no discernible progress in their policy of integrating Kashmir with Pakistan is observable. As a result, the Indian Mujahideen’s connection with the Harkat or LeT is not going to bear fruit for its objectives as such.

Abrahms’ work also negates earlier famous works like that of Robert Pape on “Suicide Terrorism”; Pape asserted that suicide terrorism is an effective method of coercion. However, Pape arrived at his general conclusions by concentrating on a limited three-country sample size, namely, Israel, Sri Lanka and Turkey with terror attacks on Israel by the First and Second Intifada mostly informing his general inferences. This can be deemed empirically weak as Pape does not analyse whether the suicide bombings on civilians achieved their policy objectives of evicting Israel from the West Bank and Gaza. Incidentally, during this period, Israel actually increased its settler population in Gaza and West Bank by over 100 per cent.

THE most insightful finding of this study is that a terror or insurgent outfit like the Hezbollah with minimalist goals like removal of occupation forces from a particular territory succeeded in evicting the US troops in 1984 and the Israeli Defence Forces in 2000 from South Lebanon as its target selection was not civilians but the occupying military. Counter-factually, the Hezbollah might have failed to achieve its objective had it targeted civilians. More informative is the fact that the Hezbollah espoused minimalist objectives like demands over a particular territory. Out of the 28 terrorist outfits selected by Abrahms in his study, 22 of them failed to achieve their objectives as they espoused maximalist goals of destroying a target state’s society, values or beliefs via civilian targeting. By this measure, the Indian Mujahideen appears to be espousing maximalist political objectives like demands over changes in values, belief systems, and ideology within India and as empirical research on terrorism indicates, it will largely fail in its objectives since its target selection is civilians and its objectives far too maximalist.

The key variable in explaining terror outcomes is therefore target selection. Civilian targeting by terrorists fails to achieve its objectives as it leads to miscommunication between outfits, say, for instance the Indian Mujahideen, and the target population and recruits. This leads to goal diffusion and loss of population support. As a result, the target society views the terrorist bombings as: an attempt to create mass panic, deliberate ploy to discredit the government’s ability to provide security, destabilize a country’s political system and its economy. The outfit’s own political objectives are lost in the violent communication. Hence, compromises with such outfits are unthinkable by either the government or the society. The recent bombings in the major cities of India have invoked anger and protests from all sections of society consequently resulting in a situation where all the targeted cities have bounced back to normalcy pretty quickly. However, though this bouncing back aspect along with inability of terror outfits to achieve their policy goals through civilian targeting is the good news, there is some bad news. Our security agencies seemed to have faltered badly in preventing recurring acts of terror. This reflects a lack of concerted effort by various state agencies that are responsible for providing security to the population. We desperately require an early warning system based on clear intelligence inputs of terrorist activities. This can be done by establishing Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) networks in crowded places backed by effective HUMINT analysed by well trained and motivated intelligence officers. Our law enforcement mechanism also needs to be strengthened by enabling better implementation of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act instead of enacting more and more anti-terror legislations. Our anti-terror squads need to be provided with better salaries, housing and welfare schemes and police stations per district increased. For instance, in Delhi, there are 13 police stations for a population of 1.5 crore whereas in reality there should have been one police station for a population of 50,000. It is also important to think in terms of setting up motivated anti-terror squads in line with the National Security Guard with fixed posting periods and better incentives. All this requires sound coordination. For achieving this, the idea of a federal agency to deal with terrorism is perhaps a step in the right direction. Our internal security situation has to be strengthened if we are to truly enjoy our status as a rising power.


“Serial blasts in Delhi”, Outlook, September 13, 2008 at 20080913&fname=blasts (Accessed on September 14, 2008).
“Delhi police grapple with huge shortage of staff”, The Hindu, September 19, 2008, p. 3.
“Stop the heart of India from beating”, Outlook, September 13, 2008, at fodname=20080913&fname=blasts&sid=4&pn=2 (Accessed on September 14, 2008).
Abrahms, Max, “Why Terrorism Does Not Work”, International Security, vol. 31, no.2, (Fall 2006), pp. 42-78.
Pape, Robert A., Dying to Win The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Random House, 2005), pp. 61, 75-76.

Dr Namrata Goswami is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. She can be contacted at e-mail: namygoswami@

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