California State University, Long Beach
Inside CSULB Logo

Understanding Echoes Of Terror

Published: February 17, 2014

Political Science’s Charles Mahoney, CSULB’s new expert on terrorist organizations as well as private military and security companies, understands the echoes of terror such as the first bombing of the World Trade Center on Feb. 26, 1993.

The new assistant professor wrote his doctoral dissertation at UCLA titled “Hearts and Minds or Blood and Guts? Strategy, Terrorism and the Growth of Proto-Insurgencies.” In it, Mahoney arrived at three central conclusions. First, insurgent terror generally leads to rebel group growth when governments respond with a non-violent hearts-and-minds campaign. Second, non-violent strategies of insurgency leads to rebel group growth when governments respond with “state terrorism.” Third, regardless of the strategy selected by an insurgent group, the most effective government counter-insurgency plan is a targeted military campaign. His dissertation research was supported by a grant from the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation as well as by a University of California dissertation fellowship. Mahoney is also the recipient of a U.S. Department of Education Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship.

“Terrorism is a strategy,” he explained. “It is defined by target selection and it can be used by individuals, groups or governments. Different groups use terrorism for different reasons. Some use it to affect the behavior of civilians. Some use it to try to provoke the government into a harsh response. Sometimes terrorism is used to disrupt negotiations between more peaceful factions who want to negotiate with the government. Sometimes terrorism is used when two factions are trying to show a commitment to a particular cause. That is called ‘outbidding.’”

Government responses to insurgency have changed over time.

“The traditional response to insurgency all the way up to the 1950s was militaristic. There wasn’t an idea of making concessions to rebels and insurgents. The French in Algeria and the British in Malaysia are prime examples,” he said. But by the 1960s, there was different thinking about how counter-insurgency works.

“To be honest, sometimes repression works,” he added. “Sometimes a military strategy works and sometimes a more aid-intensive strategy works. Today, the U.S. looks for a more nuanced, culturally sensitive, aid-intensive approach that protects civilians from insurgents. As we have seen in Afghanistan, this approach is very costly. There is no guarantee that a hearts-and-minds approach will be effective.”

An effective counter-insurgency must mesh with the local population. “To win the support of civilians is to ultimately defeat the insurgents and governments can respond in one of three basic ways,” he said. “Repression means attacking the civilians to coerce them into withdrawing their support for insurgent groups. A targeted approach means only attacking insurgents or guerillas. Or there are public works programs that offer aid, developing infrastructure, clinics and improvements in governance. Democracies facing insurgencies today often use the latter approach.”

Latin America has served as Mahoney’s insurgency laboratory.

“There are three insurgency success stories in Latin America—Cuba, Nicaragua and El Salvador,” he explained. “At first, insurgencies were modeled on the Cuban example set by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. But when Guevara tried to export the Cuban strategy to Bolivia, it didn’t work. The way I like to think of success and failure is how long did the group last, how big was its membership, and what social effect did it have? Did some of the membership go on to become involved in politics? We see that today.”

PoliSci Prof Understands Echoes Of Terror
Charles Mahoney

Mahoney points to El Salvador’s Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) as an insurgency success story in its civil war that ran from the early 1980s to1992.

“The U.S. was able to build up the Salvadoran military to the point where the conflict reached a stalemate and a peace treaty was signed in 1992,” he recalled. “After the treaty was signed, the FMLN was allowed to participate in normal political processes and eventually they won elections and became the dominant party by 2006. This is an insurgent organization that started off using a guerrilla warfare strategy but transitioned into a normal political party and eventually became the most powerful political party in El Salvador.”

If Mahoney could design his own insurgency against Lower Slobbovia, he would do three things.

“First, I would use a non-violent strategy today,” he explained. “An attack on the government might wipe out my group as the result of the government’s harsh response. Next, I would link up with other pre-existing political organizations such as unions, universities and religious organizations. If the government did respond with violence, we would get it all on cell phones or cameras and put it online or upload it to YouTube. It would rally both domestic and international opposition to whatever repression is being carried out.

“Today, violence is not a tool insurgencies should be using,” he concluded. “Violence legitimizes the government’s response. It deters people from joining the group. Most people would be less willing to join a group if they knew it meant holding a gun or carrying out a terrorist attack.”