This Week’s UK Takeaway: Terrorism Kills But Never Actually Works

What really matters: Attention, assassinations or accomplishing something?

A police officer stands guard near Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament on March 22, 2017 in London, England. Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Yesterday, a leading IRA terrorist died. Today, the British Parliament was attacked. Both of these stories show that whether it’s on the British Isles, the European mainland, in America or elsewhere, terrorism just doesn’t work. Non-terror strategies work instead.

Moments ago, many of us just learned that the House of Commons at the United Kingdom’s Parliament was attacked by a terrorist. Reports are still sketchy about who it was or whether the person got into the Palace of Westminster. According to Fox, a policeman was stabbed and an assailant was shot. By tonight, we’ll know if it was ISIS, some al-Qaeda remnant, another Brexit attack on members of parliament, or just some disgruntled lone wolf.

It matters for the victims, and loved ones, of course. But it doesn’t matter what the issue is: terrorism by and large doesn’t actually work the way many in the media think it does. ISIS isn’t going to beat the UK, U.S. or anyone else with terrorism, any more than other would-be terrorists will change British or anyone else’s policy. That’s because terrorists have a poor track record of actually accomplishing their goals.

Yesterday, Martin McGuinness passed away. Once lauded in the terrorist community for his association with a series of spectacular attacks, McGuinness came to realize that despite his group’s successes at killing and garnering publicity, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was no closer to ousting the British from North Ireland, or even getting Ulster Protestants to cooperate with Catholics. He realized that the only way to get something done was to abandon terrorism, and choose peace. As Robert McFadden with The New York Times writes:

“In bombings and killings that raged from the 1960s to the ’90s between Protestant and Roman Catholic forces — the Troubles that left 3,700 dead — Mr. McGuinness was widely believed to have joined, and later directed, terrorist activities. He denied the allegations. His only convictions, in the early ’70s, were for possessing explosives and ammunition and for belonging to the outlawed I.R.A.

But in his 40s he evolved into a peacemaker and politician. He was chief negotiator for Sinn Fein, the political arm of the I.R.A., in a complex Good Friday Agreement in 1998, in which Britain, Ireland and the political parties of Northern Ireland created a framework for power-sharing in Belfast and for eventual resolution of issues like sovereignty, civil rights, disarmament, justice and policing.

“This is the side of his political life that McGuinness wants the Irish people to remember: the reformed man, the young, hotheaded idealist who learned the error of his ways and forged peace, an achievement that still wins him plaudits from around the world,” the British magazine New Statesman said in 2011.”

North Ireland is hardly alone. Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman writes about the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, which got a lot of attention for their attacks, and killed some Turks. But did they accomplish any of their goals? No. And what really matters: the attention, or assassinations, or accomplishing something?

Sometimes terrorists get lucky and influence an election—or appear to do so. But by and large, that’s a myth. Research of mine for The Homeland Security Affairs journal shows that Bush won the 2004 election in spite of the Bin-Laden video, with evidence from the polls.

In the same paper, I use survey evidence to show that the Spanish 2004 election wasn’t decided by al-Qaeda’s train-bombing on 3/11.  The ruling party would have easily won, had they not lied in falsely blaming the Basques.  And even when the Spanish Socialists withdrew the troops from Iraq, al-Qaeda still attacked Spain. Giving in to terrorism isn’t any more effective than terrorism itself.

And there’s the classic cases of the Irgun dislodging the British, which may not have happened without the British being so WWII weary and having many simultaneous colonial fights on their hands. And politicians from the Irgun couldn’t win elections against the more pacific parties for decades. Algerians won independence well after the FLN was defeated, using very different (non-terroristic) attacks. Even the Hezbollah bombing of the U.S. Marine Barracks led to a withdrawal of American forces—but Hezbollah doesn’t run Lebanon, or own Northern Israel.

Terrorists can scare people, get attention, and even kill. But it doesn’t necessarily help you achieve your goals. The sooner that terrorists learn this lesson from Martin McGuinness and the IRA, that peace and non-violence can do a better job of helping you get what you want, the sooner terrorism will go the way of slavery, cannibalism, formal dueling and other outmoded practices.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.  He can be reached at

This Week’s UK Takeaway: Terrorism Kills But Never Actually Works