International Organization

Do Terrorists Win? Rebels' Use of Terrorism and Civil War Outcomes

Virginia Page Fortna


How effective is terrorism? This question has generated lively scholarly debate and is of obvious importance to policy-makers. However, most existing studies of terrorism are not well equipped to answer this question because they lack an appropriate comparison. This article compares the outcomes of civil wars to assess whether rebel groups that use terrorism fare better than those who eschew this tactic. I evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of terrorism relative to other tactics used in civil war. Because terrorism is not a tactic employed at random, I first briefly explore empirically which groups use terrorism. Controlling for factors that may affect both the use of terrorism and war outcomes, I find that although civil wars involving terrorism last longer than other wars, terrorist rebel groups are generally less likely to achieve their larger political objectives than are nonterrorist groups. Terrorism may be less ineffective against democracies, but even in this context, terrorists do not win.

Virginia Page Fortna is Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, New York. She can be reached at


  Work on this project has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Institute for Social Economic Research and Policy at Columbia University. I thank David Cunningham and Jessica Stanton for sharing data, Adriana Lins de Albuquerque for research assistance, and numerous discussants and reviewers, as well as Max Abrahms, Daniel Altman, Martha Crenshaw, Audrey Kurth Cronin, Nisha Fazal, Mike Findley, Jeff Goodwin, Lise Howard, Stathis Kalyvas, David Laitin, Todd Sechser, Jake Shapiro, Abbey Steele, Paul Staniland, Pablo Yanguas, and Joe Young, for comments. Thanks especially to Martha Crenshaw, who was the inspiration for this project, for comments on early thoughts on the project, and for her continuing mentorship and friendship.