The definition of terrorism, as used in the criminal code, actually provides a good framework for understanding success or failure within the terrorist paradigm. The FBI notes:
There is no single, universally accepted, definition of terrorism. Terrorism is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85).In other words, terrorism is the use of force to influence public policy, except where that force or violence is exercised by the State (i.e., the whole lawful/unlawful dichotomy). The definition gives both the strategy (to influence public policy) and the means (force and violence).
History and experience shows that the most successful method to influence policy, at least in a republic, is to target and influence particular individuals. For example, the lobbyists of K-Street map out the paths of power and learn who are the key officials. They understand that changing the direction of policy is a long road, requiring a favorable opinion or finding from one official, providing pre-written legislation or rules, helping one politician with a re-election campaign, but perhaps helping the opponent of another. They understand that it can be more important to influence staff and advisors than the actual decision makers. The public, at large, is not important except for the purposes of elections.
I would propose that terrorist organizations that act like lobbyists--except using threats and force rather than money--would be more successful than terrorists who believe that their goals can be accomplished simply by blowing up targets based on either their visibility or ease of access.
The September 11, 2001, Attacks
We all know the general facts of the 9/11 attacks--a team of 20 terrorists (one of which was unable to participate) used U.S. airline security against us to hijack 4 airliners. I say that they used our security against us because security at the time prevented passengers from bringing anything aboard that could reasonably be used as a weapon, while at the same time indoctrinated passengers to be passive in the event of a hijacking. Armed with box cutters (i.e., a razor blade in a small plastic or metal handle), they took control of four aircraft. Two were used to crash into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, one crashed into the Pentagon, and one was nearly retaken by passengers, forcing the terrorists to crash it into a field. Although nearly 60,000 people worked in the Trade Center, the total killed was less than 3,000. While the government's knee-jerk reaction certainly had a negative impact on the economy and our civil liberties, the actual attack--even if we had ignored it--would have had little impact to the United States as a whole (yes, believe it or not, New York City is not as important as New Yorkers believe).
There is a certain amount of confusion about Osama Bin Laden's goals for the 9/11 attacks because his stated goals became a moving target in the years following the attacks. For instance, this Forbes article, relying on a 2004 statement from Bin Laden, claims that Al Qaeda's goals were to drag the U.S. into a war that would bankrupt the United States. (See also here). Other long after the fact statements similarly indicated that the purpose of the attacks was to draw the United States "out of its hole" making it easier to attack U.S. forces and unite Muslims against the United States. (See also here). However, this is inconsistent with Bin Laden's statements prior to the attacks about his goals. Obama's earlier statements show that his initial criticism of the United States was its prolonged presence of military bases in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries, and its support of Israel. Also, he believed that the United States was morally weak, and that a strong attack would prompt the U.S. to withdraw from the Middle East. This Vanity Fair article lays it out pretty clearly:
The first thing to recognize is that, despite the carnage and the shock, the 9/11 attacks represented a strategic blunder by al-Qaeda. When news of the first plane’s hitting the World Trade Center reached them, bin Laden’s followers exploded with joy. But shrewder members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan realized that the attacks might not be the stunning victory that bin Laden, and many in the West, took them to be. Vahid Mojdeh, a Taliban foreign-ministry official, immediately understood that the game was up: “As soon as I heard the news,” he recalled, “I realized that the Taliban were going to be terminated.” Abu al-Walid al-Masri, an Egyptian who was an early bin Laden associate, explained that, in the years before 9/11, bin Laden had come increasingly to the view that America was weak: “As evidence he referred to what happened to the United States in Beirut when the bombing of the Marines headquarters led them to flee from Lebanon.” Bin Laden also cited the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia, following the “Black Hawk Down” incident, and the pullout from Vietnam in the 1970s. When I traveled with Peter Arnett to meet with bin Laden in Afghanistan, in 1997, he stated as if it were a self-evident fact that “the U.S. still thinks and brags that it still has this kind of power even after all these successive defeats.” Bin Laden had come to the delusional conclusion that the United States was as weak as the Soviet Union had once been.
Several of those in al-Qaeda’s inner circle had argued that large-scale attacks on American targets would be unwise. Saif al-Adel, a former Egyptian army officer, and Abu Hafs, a Mauritanian religious adviser, opposed the attacks either because they feared the American response or because they were worried that such operations would alienate the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, whose sanctuary al-Qaeda enjoyed. Noman Benotman, a leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, traveled from London in the summer of 2000 to meet with bin Laden in Kandahar. He stated bluntly that attacking America would be disastrous. “But they laughed,” he recalls, “when I told them that America would attack the whole region if they launched another attack against it.”
There is not a shred of evidence that, in the weeks before 9/11, al-Qaeda’s leaders anticipated or made any plans for an American invasion of Afghanistan. They prepared instead only for possible U.S. cruise-missile attacks and bombing sorties. A letter written by an al-Qaeda insider in 2002 gives a sense of just how demoralized the group was following the American overthrow of their Taliban allies: “Today we are experiencing one setback after another and have gone from misfortune to disaster.”
Members of al-Qaeda were right to be dispirited: Before 9/11, the group had acted freely in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda conducted its own foreign policy independent from the Taliban, taking the form, beginning in 1998, of multiple strikes on American government, military, and civilian targets. Before 9/11, al-Qaeda was an organization of global reach. The 9/11 attack itself played out around the world, with planning meetings in Malaysia, operatives taking flight lessons in the United States, coordination by plot leaders based in Hamburg, and money transfers from Dubai—activities overseen by al-Qaeda’s senior command from secure bases in Afghanistan. Almost all of this infrastructure was smashed after 9/11.The basic strategic blunder made by Bin Laden is that he misunderstood the nature of his enemy. In fact, I would suggest that the world-views between most Americans and a fundamentalist Muslim like Bin Laden were so great that Bin Laden was incapable of understanding his enemy. Bin Laden mistook American's general attitude of "live and let live" as a sign of weakness. It was, and is, incomprehensible to a fanatic like Bin Laden that someone could actually not care what his neighbor did or believed as long as the neighbor left him alone. In Bin Laden's world, a Muslim with the ability to force his neighbor to believe or act a certain way would do so--it was inconceivable that someone with power would choose not exercise it. (I suspect this is why Muslims in the Middle-East so readily believe conspiracy theories about Israel and the United States). Obama believed Americans were cowards, and that he could influence them by striking at them directly--and he learned that what he thought was a paper tiger was actually a sleeping tiger.
You don't poke sleeping tigers..... That is why other groups or nations wanting to act against the United States' interests are careful about not arousing the general public. Putin, for instance, may not understand "live and let live," but he at least understands that one does not want to rile the American public to any great degree. Thus, he knows that he can get away with small aggressions here and there until he reaches his goal. Terrorist activities aimed against the United States similarly must be gauged so as to never cause significant fear or hatred among the public at large. I would express this more broadly as a principle of not alienating the populous.
Another equally grievous mistake by Bin Laden is that he didn't understand who he needed to influence. He apparently thought that the American public had influence and control over foreign deployments. The American public may care where wars are being conducted, but the U.S. has had foreign military bases for much of its history. Consequently, Americans are blase about foreign deployments and extra-territorials military installations. Who Bin Laden needed to influence were the bureaucrats and officials that made decisions on the location of bases and troop deployments. He needed to map out who made decisions, who those decision makers relied on for advice and opinions, and then work on influencing the decision makers or those on which they relied.
Finally, I believe Bin Laden erred by selecting targets for their symbolic value to his compatriots over any actual value in advancing the organization's goals. I understand the need for boosting morale, but Bin Laden chose targets whose destruction did nothing to impair the United States, but assured the destruction of Bin Laden's organization. ("Al Qaeda" currently is not one organization, but a brand name used by many different organizations with only the most loose affiliations).
The 2004 Madrid Train Bombings
Wikipedia has a summary of the events, which I won't repeat here. What is important is that the bombings killed a relatively large number of people (191) and was three days before a general election. Although the bombings were believed to be the work of Al Qaeda, the link was never established. The popular perception is that the bombings contributed to a surprise victory by the Socialist Party in Spain, which promptly withdrew Spain's troops from the Middle-East. (See here and here). Professional Security Magazine gives a good background and further notes the impact of the bombing:
Many Spaniards blamed Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s staunch support of the US-led war in Iraq for making Spain an Al-Qaeda target. Others were angered by what they saw as the government’s politically motivated insistence that ETA was to blame for the attacks at the same time that links to Al-Qaeda were emerging.
Legislative elections were held in Spain three days after the 11-M bombings, on March 14, 2004. At stake were all 350 seats in the lower house of the Cortes Generales (Congress of Deputies), and 208 seats in the upper house, the Senate. The governing People’s Party (PP) was led into the campaign by Mariano Rajoy, successor to outgoing Prime Minister José María Aznar.
In a result which defied most predictions, the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, won a plurality of seats in Congress of Deputies, and was able to form a government with the support of minor parties. The People’s Party (PP) support for the war in Iraq, and its handling of the Madrid bombings, undoubtably combined to cause its election downfall.
Immediately after his election, Mr Zapatero vowed to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq unless they came under UN command by June 30, 2004 when their mandate expired. On April 19, 2004 Zapatero announced the withdrawal of all 1,300 Spanish troops in Iraq. The withdrawal began on April 20th 2004 and was completed within just six weeks.It is not clear whether the terrorist attacks were intended to influence the election, or if it was an unintended consequence. However, it is an example of an attack that was successful because of its timing--it to an unpopular issue and raised it to the forefront of the minds of voters--but was not so devastating that it created a public mood for revenge.
The Mexican Cartels--Success and Failure
Although the drug cartels in Mexico are not considered terrorists in the public's minds, they do, in fact, engage in a significant amount of terrorism. The difference between the drug cartels and a typical terrorist organization is that the cartels do not see the world through an ideological lens--that is, they are more likely to see the world as it is rather than as they think it should be (e.g., under a delusion that the masses are just waiting to rise up and support a particular movement). The amount of money that comes via the drug trade also enable the cartels to act without resort to violence, such as through bribery.
In fact, the cartels are able to deliver a "one-two-punch" in influencing officials because they can reward an official with money if the official cooperates, but also hold out the promise of physical violence if the official does not cooperate. This is a powerful technique because it makes it easier for a targeted official to internally justify his actions.
The drug cartels have a limited agenda--moving drugs. They target key officials, police officers, administrators and so on. Some are assassinated. Some are threatened. Some are bribed. But all with the purpose of advancing their criminal enterprise. Where they have limited the targets of violence to these officials, they have been largely successful. That is, they have altered the political and law enforcement landscape to the extent that they are largely unhindered in their transportation and distribution of drugs. For instance, as this article at Homeland Security News relates:
Rafael Cardenas testified that it cost him almost $1 million a month between payroll, rent, vehicles, and bribes when he ran the Rio Bravo territory. He also had to recruit, train, and equip his own gunmen. When his men were killed in action, their salaries were paid to their families.
Cardenas also paid off law enforcement, the press, members of the military, and corrupted U.S. officials. “In order to have your plaza well, all organized, you have to pay all the police agencies,” Cardenas told jurors. Cardenas also told jurors that paying off the local police in Rio Bravo cost $20,000 per week.This NPR article from 2010 noted the increase in assassinations of mayors and policy by the cartels, concluding that the purpose of such attacks was to weaken local government. An In Sight Crime article from 2012 notes the growing involvement of cartels in elections:
In a recent piece for Nexos, security analyst Eduardo Guerrero Gutierrez pointed out that while criminal groups have long had an interest in building links with the different levels of government, recent developments have made them focus on elections all the more. One is that gangs today earn more money from extortion and from retail drug trafficking, which is known in Mexico as "narcomenudeo." Unlike international drug trafficking, which can be carried out without much involvement from the authorities, the police are far more likely to be aware of extortion and retail drug sales. Government tolerance -- or better still, collusion -- is needed.
Another issue is the democratic opening in Mexico: unlike 20 years ago, when the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had ruled Mexico for six unbroken decades, today criminal groups have to deal with the three major parties contending for political posts. That means that profitable and long-standing relationships between a group and a political party in a given area can be rendered useless with a single election, which is a grave setback to a gang's interests.
In this sense, meddling in elections is a logical policy for gangs, not unlike private-sector campaign donations to candidates promising a lower corporate tax rate. And, just as large companies sometimes make contributions to more than one candidate in the same race, criminal groups also hedge their bets by donating cash or performing services for a variety of different candidates. That way, they have a measure of protection regardless of the outcome of the election.The article goes on to observe:
Organized crime interferes in elections for various reasons. First off, there are cases in which criminals intimidate candidates to support their own interests -- generally with the purpose of having passive authorities that allow them to go about their business -- or work against the candidate or candidates whose profiles aren’t favorable. In other cases, the criminal organizations intervene in these processes as “electoral machinery,” selling their support to one candidate (whether with money, the mobilization of votes, or through attacks against the other candidates or their supporters). This second case -- which brings a deeper involvement of criminals in public life -- is a type of activity characteristic of mafias: protection against competition, which is offered to businesses and unions just as it is to candidates and political parties.This Washington Times article also relates:
Los Zetas has used beheadings and dismemberments to punish rivals or betrayers, establish turf, terrorize citizens against testifying and press political leaders to collaborate. But random killings also have become the gang’s trademark — a demonstration that no one is beyond their reach, that they can kidnap, torture and kill anyone they choose.
Many of the gang’s targets have been Mexican military and police personnel, but U.S. law enforcement authorities also have come under attack.
As early as 2008, the FBI warned U.S. authorities that Los Zetas was attempting to gain control of drug routes into America and had ordered its members to use violence against U.S. law enforcement officers to protect their operations.Where we see failures on the part of the cartels is where they lack intelligence to identify key officials or personnel; or have become indiscriminate in their violence, thereby creating a public backlash. The first failure shows up most significantly with the cartels inability to influence key military personnel in Mexico and in the United States simply from a lack of knowledge of the identity of these persons. They don't know who is operating the drone that is patrolling the border, or the radar operator on an AWACs, or the person who sets the patrol routes. The second failure is evident in the rise of self-defense forces that are successfully pushing the cartels out of whole regions because the people have been the subject of too many deprivations.