Does Terrorism Work?: A History

By Richard English

Rating: 3 stars

For what is a fairly short book (only about 260 pages, without endnotes etc), this took me a very long time to get through. I heard Prof English give a talk themed around this book at a literary festival and bought this book off the back of that. Unfortunately, I felt that the tone was very dry and difficult, especially in the introduction. English appears to be the sort of academic who’s lost the full stop key on his keyboard (I’m sure I found sentences that went on for about 15 lines!) but has an overflowing thesaurus. Someone who doesn’t like to use just one word when he can get away with ten.

In terms of the actual content, to answer the question “does terrorism work?”, he lays out his framework in the introduction, where he introduces four different categories: strategic victories, partial strategic victories, tactical successes, and the inherent rewards of struggle. He also discusses the different categories of people we could be talking about when we ask for whom it works. From the introduction, we then go into four chapter-length case studies of different terrorisms before the conclusion.

Of the four case studies, the one most interesting to me was the IRA chapter, as this is something that I grew up with and the ceasefires and end of violence happened as I was coming of age. With this, as with the other case studies (al-Qaida, Hamas and ETA) he looks at the historical context and then tries to place this into his strategic framework as developed in the introduction. There was a lot of interest here, especially in the chapter about ETA. That’s not something that I know much about, and it turns out that Spain is a much more complex country than I had realised.

The first part of the conclusion is spent doing thumbnail analyses over other terrorist organisations around the world, fitting them into his framework, but without the depth of the main case studies, and then he tries to come up with wider conclusions at the end. Unfortunately, a lot of this just comes down to “it’s complicated”, and I didn’t need 260 pages to tell me that!

However, there is value in the framework and the historical contexts. Especially in the modern rolling news agenda where especially Islamic terrorism is met with such hysteria, it was nice to see a more considered, academic approach that sets it into historical context and reminds us that whatever the media and politicians say, this isn’t unprecedented and there are ways to deal with it.

I liked that English was very clear from early on that although he was only considering non-state terrorism, he very much accepted that states can also indulge in terrorism, and that some of the responses to terrorist actions can be regarded as causing terror in their own right.

I would have liked to see chapters look at terrorism outside Europe and the Middle East, with more in-depth looks at terrorism in South America or South East Asia as I’d like to know if those differed in any great extent than the four case studies used. But within that context, I do think that the book is interesting and worth reading. I just wish someone would give the author a lesson in writing for people outside academia (or a better editor).

Book details

ISBN: 9780199607853
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Year of publication: 2016

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