Why are most terrorists kind of .... ineffective?


In Spain, a terror cell of 12 people managed to kill only 14 people. That's 1.16 victims per terrorist.

This is a pattern one notices elsewhere in Europe as well, that is, terrorist attacks that consist of people going on a minor rampage with knives, pistols, or cars, and only managing to kill a relatively small amount of people. For example, take Islamic terrorism in Europe since 2014: there's been 43 distinct attacks, and of all those, only 6 resulted in the deaths of more than 15 people. Of the remaining 37 attacks, the average number of victims per attack was only 1.8 deaths. Source:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_terrorism_in_Europe_(2014%E2%80%93present)#List_of_attacks

Of course I am ignoring non-lethal injuries, but what is the reason for these very ineffective attacks?

Some possible reasons perhaps:

  • Terrorists don't actually want to kill many people, and often realize this during the actual act, so the attack is essentially "halted" by themselves.
  • Terrorists are mostly idiots (hence why they are terrorists), and therefore incompetent at performing a job properly.
  • People are largely well-prepared against terror attacks by now.


Posted 2017-08-22T18:48:32.933

Reputation: 1

Question was closed 2017-08-25T13:28:25.400


Very related: Why does ISIS continue to do things to make their “enemy” even more determined to go after them? (point being that deaths/damage isn't the primary goal of terrorism, but attention for advertisement and/or recruiting is).

– None – 2017-08-22T19:19:56.453

3Reconsider your metrics of what is effective, with the inclusion of the stated and implied goals of terrorism. – Drunk Cynic – 2017-08-22T19:21:11.997

1Take note of the media coverage which comes hand-in-hand with these attacks. Particularly when attacks take place in large European cities - there is a lot! Admittedly, I haven't researched into this, but I would expect they revel in the attention they receive from the media - perhaps this would explain why they always claim responsibility for their attacks? – Cthulhu – 2017-08-22T19:21:54.473

5I sincerely don't understand why on earth this question became this badly downvoted. There are many good papers about the common goals and tactics of modern terrorist groups, and this question, IMO, deserves pointing to one of these, accompanied with some explanation that their goal is not measured in number of victims, but in ignition of unrest, fear, and disrupting the normal operation of society. – bytebuster – 2017-08-23T01:16:03.240

1The problem with this question is that this site is for "questions about governments, policies and political processes". – James K – 2017-08-23T06:31:51.390

Note that there is a very high variance in these attacks. In the case of untrained people attacking soldiers alone with either nothing or a knife, you might want to ask on psychology.SE. Those definitely lower the deaths/attackers ratio. – user5751924 – 2017-08-23T12:50:33.367

A much better example of incompetence: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/22/paris-student-planned-attack-church-france

– user5751924 – 2017-08-23T12:53:33.543

1@bytebuster I voted down because the very premise of the question is flawed, it isn't asking about politics, governments, or the political process, and isn't requires the premise that non-lethal injuries be ignored. While it is possible to infer an on topic question, for which a decent answer could be assembled, there is an apparent reticence to recognize criticisms provided. – Drunk Cynic – 2017-08-23T14:13:54.060

2@DrunkCynic - Questions about political processes are on topic. Political violence (including terrorism) is an example of a political process. Why do you think that it isn't on topic? – indigochild – 2017-08-23T20:34:25.190

Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.

– yannis – 2017-08-25T07:39:23.587

Most Islamic terrorists actually have legitimate learning difficulties. It may be tabboo to say, but lots of Muslims are very inbred due to continued cousin marriage over generations. Some of them aren't the sharpest tools in the shed. – Charlie – 2017-08-25T09:21:03.347

@DinoSuro The goal of terrorism is not to cause damage, but to affect change. Terrorism is when you cause terror - i.e. a state of fear, insecurity and upset - for the goal of affecting change in society. If the goal was to merely cause physical damage for its own sake, it would by definition not be called "terrorism", but "war", "sabotage" and/or "(mass) murder". – MichaelK – 2017-08-25T12:27:09.283

@MichaelKarnerfors Lots of things are called terrorism nowadays. There seems to be a tendency in the USA if there is a serious crime to check if it was an act of terrorism or not. Man kills wife and four children but it was decided that this wasn't terrorism related - well, that's alright then. – gnasher729 – 2017-08-28T13:25:49.640

@gnasher729 Well just because some people play fast and loose with words and concepts, letting people assume they mean things they they were not intended to, nor that matches their original definition (like "Politically Correct", "Green", "Sustainable Development"), I am brazenly assuming that the poster means "terrorists" in the original sense of the word and not in the sloppy, lazy sense it is used in common parlance.

– MichaelK – 2017-08-28T13:34:12.417



Plausible Reasons:

Most terrorists are small, minimally trained groups or individuals

Those that commit terrorist acts may be determined but not fully have the capacity to properly plan or execute large scale assaults (which involve controlling big groups rather than individual victims).

Likewise, if you look at disciplines that involve potential injury (armed forces, martial arts, weapons manufacturing), these are often specialities in their own right. They are skills which certain people practice or refine for years and aren't easily picked up by "amateurs".

Deadly things are deadly

Items that are potentially lethal are generally well-regulated in many countries, including vehicles, fire arms, munitions and chemicals.

Homemade bombs often require specific skills to get "right", are generally dangerous to manufacture and/or require regulated materials.

Chemical weapons are typically inaccurate - - they are often as likely to affect those deploying them or not have any effect at all depending on conditions.

Uncontrollable vehicles are accounted for with things such as vehicle barriers.

People are difficult to injure

Both from a self-preservation standpoint and in terms of what people can physically survive, people are generally only easy to kill if a) they are unaware or incapacitated and/or b) you inflict very specific kinds of injuries (primarily organ trauma or blood loss). Add in increased awareness of terrorism and people are likely much less easy to kill with a terrorist assault.

People are not inherently killers

Co-operation is required for survival in most social species so even those that do kill tend to do so in limited quantities. I would posit there is a very large gap between thinking about killing and actually performing the act, especially on other people (those similar to you vs. other species of animal).

Terrorism isn't about widespread killing or injuring

Remember, though, that terrorists have the goal of creating fear for political ends. So while actual attacks may be ineffective at killing or injuring generally, they can be "effective enough" in achieving political aims or crafting political narratives.


Posted 2017-08-22T18:48:32.933

Reputation: 169


The very first question which comes to the mind before answering this question is: How do you define Terrorism?

If Terrorism is taken literally - an act of spreading terror among people with some political, religious or ideological claim. Then your question doesn't validate 100%.

There are many examples of terrorism in last couple of years resulting in lot of deaths, a couple of examples:

  1. Orlando Shooting (US) - 50+ Deaths
  2. Kunduz Hospital Airstrike by US (Afghanistan) - 42+ Deaths
  3. Car Bomb (Syria) - 50+ Deaths

Actually if we go by definition of Terrorism, then there is an act of terrorism in Syria (or Mosul, Iraq) every week if not every day by either Assad's forces, Russian air-force or American coalition forces.

I think your questions should be more like "Why Terrorist strikes by ISIS vs West/Non-Muslims are kind of Ineffective?"

Failed Scientist

Posted 2017-08-22T18:48:32.933

Reputation: 792

Neither #1 nor #2 should properly be called terrorism, since the critical factor is an intent to cause terror. By your definition, any industrial accident would be considered terrorism. Or indeed, natural phenomena such as earthquakes and hurricanes. – jamesqf – 2017-08-25T18:37:28.777

1@jamesqf the orlando shooting wasn't a terrorist attack? What are you smoking? People like that shouldn't even be in the country. – easymoden00b – 2017-08-25T21:35:20.390

@easymoden00b: How was the Orlando shooting a terrorist act? "Terrorist" implies that the intent is to frighten people into some social/political change, no? So killing people just because you hate that sort of people is hardly terrorism, any more than e.g. a serial killer targeting women is terrorism. – jamesqf – 2017-08-26T05:56:22.327

@jamesqf He was an Islamic Jihadist killing members of our society because he thought (just as all others in their ideology do) that we degenerate Kuffir. It was terrorism by the definition of the word. It wasn't because 'lol gays r icky' it was 'lol allah akbar death 2 the infidels'. – easymoden00b – 2017-08-28T13:15:09.973