The semantic distinction is not just academic: With the carnage piquing emotions in the Middle East and beyond, new questions about century-old arguments are focusing attention on what assaults on civilians achieve for militant groups.
“There’s no consensus over whether terrorism works,” said Max Abrahms, a political scientist at Northeastern University who conducted one of the largest studies to date on the impact of terror tactics. His research concluded that such attacks rarely achieve the group’s policy goals. “But it depends on what ‘works’ means,” Abrahms said. “If you’re talking about the promotion of terror and fear, by that definition, it has a 100 percent success rate. But on coercing a government to make policy concessions? Far less so.”
It’s also not clear how best to push back against extremist groups’ use of terror. Targeting civilians is clearly illegal under the rules of war, but those rules are set by countries to govern themselves. Hamas is, at best, a hybrid — a militant group that governs a territory that is not a nation-state. Although it won parliamentary elections in Gaza in 2006, it seized power from the Palestinian Authority in 2007 and has not permitted a vote since then.
Yet when the United Nations under secretary general for humanitarian affairs urged Hamas on Tuesday to release hostages and called on Israel to lift its blockade of aid to Gaza, he addressed Hamas as if it were subject to international law. “My message to all sides is unequivocal: The laws of war must be upheld,” Martin Griffiths said in a statement.
But militant groups aren’t bound by the norms of international law, both because they’re outmatched in resources and because their goals are not traditional military objectives, according to scholars who study the roots and impacts of terrorism.
“An organization like Hamas that has been fighting for decades and has run elections is not just expressing rage,” said Peter Krause, a political scientist at Boston College who studies the efficacy of terrorism. “They’ve tried boycotts, strikes, terrorism, military objectives. They have strategic goals, and Hamas has been very strategic in its use of violence through the years, including times when they refrained from launching rockets for some strategic goal.”
Hamas’s shock troops — 1,500 of which the Israeli government claims to have killed — did not go after military targets on Saturday, such as Tel Aviv’s international airport, internet infrastructure, power plants or key government and military installations. Rather, Krause said, the goal appeared to be to invoke fear and outrage in Israel, to force the government into a disproportionate military reaction, and skewer ongoing efforts to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
“In no way will this rampage increase the odds of achieving a Palestinian state,” Abrahms said. “On the other hand, it will provoke Israel into trying to crush Hamas, which could end up strengthening Hamas and deepening the Palestinians’ impulse toward revenge.”
The decision to attack civilians and take hostages, as callous as it was, was likely designed to drive Israel to retaliate with such force that the world turns against the Israelis, Krause said. Hamas also wants to be seen as the standard-bearer of Palestinian resistance across the Arab world.
Although some leaders have called on Israel to show restraint in its response to the attacks, there is little precedent for turning the other cheek in the face of an assault on civilians. The Biden administration has all but given Israel a green light to retaliate against Hamas, vowing its public unconditional support for Netanyahu’s war.
“One wouldn’t be a human being if you didn’t see a terrorist attack like this one as something that provokes a strong response,” Krause said.
That response may play into Hamas’s hands. As Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz concluded in his 2002 book, “Why Terrorism Works,” terror tactics usually resulted in gains in publicity, freedom for imprisoned comrades, and legitimacy for terrorists’ causes.
The international community has long responded to terrorism “by consistently rewarding and legitimizing it, rather than punishing and condemning it,” Dershowitz wrote.
In Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, some sympathetic voices on the left argued that answering terror with violence would only feed the radicals’ belief that bloodletting works. But public opinion often swayed those governments to hit back hard, whether against Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Gang or Northern Ireland’s Irish Republican Army.
Other countries have a record of responding to terrorism with harsh reprisals, such as Russia’s long history of brutally putting down separatist movements and Sri Lanka’s crackdown on the Tamil Tigers, whose decades-long fight for an independent state pioneered suicide bombings and the use of women and children in combat.
The 9/11 attacks were designed to provoke the United States into an overwhelming retaliation, which al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden predicted would turn the world’s sympathies to the Islamist cause. Washington responded with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which ultimately proved highly unpopular and undermined American standing in much of the world, yet bin Laden’s movement did not gain significant support.
“Emotions are important to consider,” Krause said, “but a cool-eyed calculation would say that just because the other side wants you to attack back doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.”
Almost never does a terrorist group succeed in changing policy by attacking civilians, Abrahms said. “Often, aggrieved groups are under the misperception that the more radically they act, the greater leverage they will have over the government they’re fighting against,” he said.
Abrahms’s study of global terrorism suggests that when assaults are mounted against military targets, the targeted country does sometimes make policy concessions.
“In this case, Israel and Hamas had rules of the game: Each side was prepared to tolerate a certain amount of violence. But now, Hamas has completely violated any rules,” Abrahms said. “This has changed the game. The destruction of Hamas was not previously Israel’s goal. Now it may be.”
Hamas may be able to win some of their objectives, terror experts said, using the attacks to deepen support among Palestinians both in Gaza and the West Bank. The invasion may also have the effect of deterring Arab states from proceeding with diplomatic normalization with Israel.
Israel, meanwhile, will now have to weigh how much progress it can make toward its goal of weakening Hamas, while freeing the hostages and rebuilding a shattered sense of deterrence and security.
“I don’t know if they can achieve all of those goals,” Krause said.