Terrorism can be a successful strategy for rebel groups during civil war, according to a Michigan State University political science academic, because governments will believe responding with force extends the conflict 

Jakana Thomas, assistant professor of political science, writing in the American Journal of Political Science, believes that if governments negotiate or use sound counter-terrorism efforts, they stand a better chance of bringing about a peaceful resolution 

Thomas analyzed civil conflict from 1989 to 2010 in Africa, which has been a terrorism hotbed since many of the countries gained independence but has seen a drastic rise. Some 45 of the 106 African rebel groups in the study carried out terrorist attacks. Rebels practicing terrorism in Somalia, Kenya, Libya and other African countries have threatened regional stability and posed security threats globally.

Terrorism does work, but only when governments respond to it in a violent fashion and play into the terrorists' strategy, argues Michigan State University's Jakana Thomas. Credit: Michigan State University

"When governments attempt to quash the terrorists and kill civilians in the process – as so often happens – their response backfires and feeds into the terrorists' strategy," Thomas said. "That Western nations, including the United States and France, have begun devoting resources to support counterterrorism in Africa underscores its significance."  

Thomas believes the findings are relevant globally -  terrorism in Africa compared with the rest of the world (such as bombings, armed assaults and assassinations) and the targets of the attacks (such as governments, businesses and civilians) were nearly identical.

Thomas says her study is one of the first to examine terrorism in the context of civil war and she refutes the popular adage that governments do not negotiate with terrorists. According to the study, rebel groups employing a greater number of terror attacks were much more likely to participate in negotiations and gain more concessions from the ruling party in the months following the conflict. 

"Governments should consider negotiating with disaffected people in the country. That doesn't necessarily have to be the groups using terrorism; it can be other groups, such as civil groups operating on behalf of these armed rebels," Thomas said.

"I'm not suggesting we should negotiate with Al-Qaeda," she added. "This is in the context of civil war with routine violence, when negotiating with these domestic rebel groups may be the only way forward."

Another way governments might deal with the problem is by finding ways of ending civil wars once they start. As much as terrorism is a problem, Thomas said, a government refusing to seek peaceful settlements is also a problem.