Blog: Prof. Richard English - Does terrorism work?

Published 22 May 2019


“Since terrorism rarely achieves strategic success, we should not over-react to it. In order to undermine and limit this bloodstained form of politics, we should instead emphasise and use the things that it often does achieve, such as publicity, or revenge against the defenceless", argues Prof. Richard English in his book “Does terrorism work?”


English, professor of Politics at Queen's University Belfast and author of renowned books on terrorism, is one of the top speakers at the ICCT Advanced summer programme on terrorism, counter-terrorism and the rule of law, which will bring you the latest trends in legal aspects of terrorism and counter-terrorism.

Across the world, terrorist attacks have triggered a steep increase in security-related laws and measures. To prevent terrorism as early as possible, states have introduced limitations on freedom of speech, curbs on financial and other support and have resorted to revoking nationalities. But, according to Prof. English, in our response to terrorism we should focus on one of the most central issues in the study of terrorism, the root question: Does terrorism work?

Prof. English: “This question is of profound practical importance, since the extent to which terrorism works, and the contexts within which it does or does not work, will affect how we all respond to it. From an analytical point of view, the question is also crucial, since terrorism is a method used to bring about political change. And we cannot claim to understand the phenomenon unless we know the ways in which it does and/or does not succeed.”

Different levels
According to Prof. English, terrorism can work at different levels. Prof English: “These levels are for instance:
Strategic victory (historically very rare); partial strategic victory (with diluted versions of primary goals being achieved, or secondary goals like revenge or the sustenance of resistance - more common); tactical success (publicity, operational successes, undermining opponents - common too); and inherent rewards (fame, money, excitement, purpose). I argue that, since terrorism rarely achieves strategic success, we should not over-react to it, but should instead emphasise and use the things that it does often achieve (publicity, revenge against the defenceless) in order to undermine and limit this bloodstained form of politics.”

Asked about the recent New Zealand mosque attack, in which 51 people were killed, Prof English says: “It achieved huge publicity. So how can we best use that publicity in order to limit future violence? The New Zealand attacker intended to bring about a set of political changes. How realistic are the chances of achieving that, in practice? Our response to these very questions will affect how we respond to terrorism as societies and as individuals.”

From 26 – 30 August 2019, ICCT and T.M.C. Asser Instituut in The Hague will host the ninth Advanced summer programme on terrorism, counter-terrorism and the rule of law. We are delighted to welcome Prof. English as one of our speakers as part of the programme. During an intensive week, experts, academics and practitioners will explore international and domestic legal aspects of counter-terrorism. For more information, the programme and registration click here.

Biography Richard English  
Professor English's research focuses on the politics and history of nationalism, political violence, and terrorism, with a particular focus on Ireland and Britain. His books include Does Terrorism Work? A History (2016), Modern War: A Very Short Introduction (2013), Terrorism: How to Respond (2009), Irish Freedom: The History of Nationalism in Ireland (2006), Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA (2003), Ernie O'Malley: IRA Intellectual (1998), and Radicals and the Republic: Socialist Republicanism in the Irish Free State 1925-1937 (1994).
He is a Fellow of the British Academy, a Member of the Royal Irish Academy, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, an Honorary Fellow of Keble College Oxford, and an Honorary Professor at the University of St Andrews.
In 2018 he was awarded a CBE for services to the understanding of modern day terrorism and political history. 

Richard English, Does Terrorism Work? A History (Oxford University Press, 2016) 
‘English is a brilliant political historian, with a reputation for measured yet hard-hitting analyses. He possesses a formidable range and depth of knowledge about modern terrorism. … Unlike many commentators, his prose is calm; his conclusions sensible’  Joanna Bourke, Prospect