Now in looking at Narodnaya Volia, the classic response is to say that it was a monumental failure, as are almost all terrorist campaigns. The terrorists are too detached from the society at large; their actions are not rational. The reaction they bring about inevitably crushes them. They create some drama but in the end it all leads nowhere. It is not an effective, long-term strategy. To me, however, these are Hohenlohe-like clichés that completely misread the situation and the strategy as a whole. And when you do not understand an enemy's strategy, you end up attacking something that is not there.
In the years of repression and after Narodnaya Volia was broken up, discontent spread throughout the country. Men like Lenin himself had their ideas forged in this period, during which the communist movement began to grow in power. The government, that had been trying to reform itself prior to the campaign, was knocked off course. Without the terror campaign, Russian history might very well have taken a much different path. The terror campaign was able to break up an extremely static situation and sow the seeds for something much larger, this taking some thirty years to play itself out. But terrorists, in general, have plenty of time to wait.
In the Western perspective on warfare, two antagonists face a battle over territory and power. The battle can be fought in many ways, even asymmetrically, but inevitably it is a fight over space and power. That is the endgame of any war. But what if one side were not to have such a goal? What if their objectives were more minimal--merely to create chaos, and the space for some kind of change? Their goals are rather easy to achieve--create mayhem. Or, as Lenin himself put it, "the worse, the better."
In essence, terrorism is a strategy that aims for maximum chaos and disorder. I compare it to a kick of a rock on a hilltop, with the hope of starting an avalanche. The terrorists can hope for some residual benefits--an insurrection, a change in government, the gaining of some territorial foothold--but this is a collateral effect. By nature, they face a frozen dynamic, an oversized power that has all the force on its side. By initiating a terror campaign, they create the seeds of chaos that can spin out of control and lead to some real change. A terror campaign is often a part of something larger, a guerrilla or insurgent force, but each act of terror has the same goal: to set off this chain reaction effect.
By the nature of its violence and drama, for terrorism is nothing more than an organized spectacle of violence, it is certain to stir emotions. Understanding the logic of terror, it is best to keep the attacks unpredictable, seemingly random. The first seed is sown by unbalancing the mind of the opposing commander. The terrorist act seems to warrant a strong response. In this case, strong replaces intelligent. To find this small group of radicals requires an oversized police force. The chain reaction effect is inevitably set in motion by the harsh reprisal. By entering their space with police or military presence, there are now more targets to hit, more waves of publicity to garner, making them seem larger, feeding their capacity to create the spectacle. Everything becomes imbalanced--society is polarized, disproportionate fear is stirred, more impatience and need for reprisals is manufactured. The desired avalanche is set off....
...Let us return to the spirit of von Clausewitz for a moment. The proper response to terrorism depends on first understanding its dynamic, how it ticks. The various traps it sets--the overreaction, the impatience and desire for immediate reprisals, the polarization it tempts you into--can only be avoided if first understood. We must aim at their center of gravity and weaknesses, not at the illusion they create. This center is their ability to communicate, to fund themselves, to recruit sympathizers, to hold this far-flung movement together. We needed to carefully aim at these points of vulnerability. If during these years we had degraded their ability to fund themselves, to communicate, to gain recruits by working to gain more political goodwill in the region, the enemy would have begun to reveal more weaknesses. When you attack a center of gravity, the other side leans on other legs to keep itself up and gives you more targets to hit.
The key to this counterstrategy is the leadership of the country under attack and its ability to show strength, to unify the population behind it (avoiding the polarization trap), while resisting the temptation for the overreaction. In this vein, in my book I mention Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle as two leaders who are exemplary in this way. It is not a question of politics, but leadership and intelligence. Terroristic fear is purely psychological and it is up to the leadership to paint the threat in realistic colors. When you overreact with a large attack, you only show the enemy your own impatience and weakness; they succeeded. When you respond with a carefully calibrated campaign aimed at their vulnerabilities, you show you really mean business and cannot be seduced by the terror spectacle.