November 12, 2014, 12:15 PM - 01:30 AM

12:15 PM

Sid Richardson Hall Room 3.122

Why Do Rebels Resort to Terrorism, and Does It Work?
November 12, 2014, 12:15 PM - 01:30 AM
Why Do Rebels Resort to Terrorism, and Does It Work?

On November 12, 2014, the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law welcomed Dr. Page Fortna, Professor of Political Science at Columbia University and a member of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace studies. Her presentation, "Why Do Rebels Resort to Terrorism, and Does It Work?" explored different variables that help to explain why certain groups use terrorism in the context of civil wars while other groups do not, filling a gap in existing literature about terrorism. Dr. Fortna's results are particularly relevant as they challenge commonly held notions about terrorism, such as the assertion that terrorism is a "weapon of the weak."

Fortna 1

Is terrorism—defined as the systematic use of deliberate indiscriminate violence against innocent civilian targets in order to influence a wider audience—an effective strategy to achieve the political goals of rebel groups? The prevailing view gives a positive answer to this question. In contrast, Dr. Fortna's analysis of a statistical survey of 104 rebel groups from 1984-2004 reveals that, in general, the efficacy of terrorism in achieving a rebel group's political objectives is low and has high legitimacy costs.

Fortna 2

Fortna finds that government type affects the relative efficacy of terrorism. For example, terrorism used against a democracy is more effective than terrorism used against an autocracy. Because democracies are accountable to civilian populations, they are more sensitive to civilian targeting and are therefore more effectively provoked by terrorists. At the same time, democratic governments are forced to limit the magnitude and brutality of their response to terrorists, since the legitimacy of the regime is partially founded on its protection of human rights.

Fortna 3

Another surprising finding is that terrorism is not necessarily a "weapon of the weak." Existing literature holds that when rebel groups have military strength relative to that of the government, popular support, sufficient territorial control, and/or are fighting in rough terrain, they will be less likely to resort to terrorism. But as Dr. Fortna's results demonstrate, the relative strength of rebel groups seems to have no effect on their use of terrorism. However her findings do show that terrorism does increase where there are differences between the religious beliefs of the rebel group and those of governmental authorities.

Fortna 4

In conclusion, Fortna states that terrorism is not effective for achieving political goals. While terrorist activities might help rebel groups survive in the short term—by extending the length of the conflict, for example—their long-term political goals are undermined by the mistrust, loss of popular support, and spoiled negotiations brought about by terrorism. In sum, terrorists do not win, says Fortna.

Page Fortna (Ph.D. Harvard University 1998) is Professor of Political Science and Department Chair, as well as a member of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, at Columbia University. Her research focuses on war termination and the durability of peace in the aftermath of both civil and interstate wars. She is the author of two books: Does Peacekeeping Work? Shaping Belligerents' Choices after Civil War (Princeteon University Press, 2008), and Peace Time: Cease-Fire Agreements and the Durability of Peace (Princeton University Press, 2004), as well as articles in World Politics, International Organization, International Studies Quarterly, International Studies Review, and the Annual Review of Political Science. She is currently working on projects on long-term historical trends in war termination; democratization after civil war; and the effects of terrorism on civil war duration, outcome, and post-war stability.
She has been a Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University (2004-2005) and a Visiting Fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, MA (2002-2003). Before coming to Columbia, Fortna was a pre-doctoral and then a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. Her graduate work was done in the Government Department at Harvard. Before graduate school, she worked at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington DC. She is a graduate of Wesleyan University.