Fighting Terrorism with Force

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Fighting Terrorism with Force

The Conflict

The "standard" anti-terror response, honed during the era of aircraft hijacking, and hostage taking, was to calm the situation and negotiate for hostage releases or to use commando forces to raid terrorists holed up in aircraft, buildings, or outposts. This had questionable relevance, however, to the new terrorist strategies of the 1990s, in which anonymous acts of violence were staged without efforts to negotiate grievances or offer hostage releases. Military remedies in fighting terrorism are problematic for a number of reasons, including definitional and legal uncertainties about what one is fighting against, as well as tactical problems.


  • There is no standard definition of terrorism. The United Nations, however, has upheld notions that targeting civilians with indiscriminate violence are unacceptable and that terrorists should be apprehended, extradited, or prosecuted.
  • It is difficult to gather consensus on conditions under which certain types of actions should be taken, as developing countries have generally objected to language that outlaws or condemns legitimate popular struggles.


  • New technologies have afforded greater potential killing power to both authorities and terrorists alike.
  • Terrorists can now operate on a more global scale, using modern technology, including the media, the Internet, and cell phones, as well as transcontinental travel.


  • Combating terrorism requires the cooperation or acquiescence of states and individuals actually supporting or harboring terrorist groups.
  • Due to the difficulties in defining terrorism, it is inherently difficult to build and maintain an anti-terrorism coalition among cooperating states especially when relying on military force to target "terrorists."

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, commercial airliner attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon near Washington, DC, which killed more than three thousand people, the U.S. government articulated plans for a global "war on terrorism." Immediately blaming the al-Qaeda network sponsored by the notorious Osama bin Laden and purportedly based in Afghanistan, President George W. Bush (2001-) indicated that such a war would be neither brief nor easy, and would entail military, diplomatic, intelligence, and economic components. The immediate visible preparations were in the military sphere, along with beefed up domestic security measures ranging from interrogations and deportation of certain illegal aliens and other suspected groups. These groups were comprised almost exclusively with Muslim and Arab men. Other preparations involved heightened airport security and controversial new Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) surveillance authority.

The U.S. response was basically supported by many governments around the world, and was legitimized by United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions 1373 and 1377 in late 2001, recognized terrorism as a threat to international peace and security to be combated by any and all means consistent with the UN Charter. The resolution also called on states to prevent and suppress terrorism and cooperate in preventing the financial or political support of terrorists. Few if any states would condone terrorist groups commandeering airliners and flying them into public buildings. Though controversial, international law also allows states that have been attacked from the territory of another state to pursue the attackers if the government of that other state does not cooperate in stopping the attacks and apprehending those responsible. Nevertheless, some groups, individuals, and even governments abroad, while condemning the massive loss of lives involved on September 11, sympathized with grievances against the United States espoused by bin Laden and others.

Styling the international community as an anti-terror coalition, President Bush authorized a major military campaign against the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan and the al-Qaeda group with which it collaborated. This took the form of massive air and missile bombardments of active or inactive training bases, military concentrations, and suspected hiding places and government facilities, conducted jointly by U.S. and British air and naval forces. In addition, U.S. and British special forces were landed in the country to link up with Afghan opposition militia, the Northern Alliance, many of which had previously participated in anti-Soviet struggles in the 1980s, a subsequent civil war, and in repressive governments ultimately overthrown by the Taliban. Faced with renewed offensives supplied by U.S. arms and logistics, Taliban forces retreated en masse and the opposition factions took control of Afghan cities and most of the countryside.

The ground military campaign along with the intensive U.S. bombing and intelligence efforts, however, failed to turn up either bin Laden or Mullah Mohammad Omar the Taliban leader. It was speculated that much of the top al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership disappeared over the border, perhaps into neighboring Pakistan. Hundreds of suspected terrorists were interrogated and brought to the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base in Cuba for incarceration, and a heated national and international controversy arose about whether they should be deemed "prisoners of war" and accorded rights and protection under the Geneva Conventions.

Therefore, while the military campaign in Afghanistan was pronounced a rousing success, despite reportedly significant civilian casualties (at least three thousand by some estimates), and while it indeed toppled Taliban leaders and offset some of their militantly religious policies (such as severely curtailing women's educational and work opportunities), it is difficult to know whether lasting progress was made in dismantling terror networks throughout the world. In addition, the military response had to pass the pragmatic test of whether it helped or hindered the campaign against terrorism. Indeed, President Bush remained cautious in noting the continued presence of terrorists in some 60 or more countries, with "tens of thousands" of trained personnel. Whether such figures are accurate, or politically self-serving in justifying an ongoing and spreading U.S. global involvement (in countries as diverse as Colombia and the Philippines) and domestic mobilization, and whether it is indeed possible to win "a war against terrorism" relying mainly on military means remains to be seen.

Thus it is important to look carefully into the question of when and under what circumstances military responses of various sorts are effective or ineffective in anti-terrorism struggles. An historical analysis can help inform such conclusions. Before we look back on the long and varied history of international terrorism and responses to it, though, we must first grapple with the definitional and conceptual problem related to anti-terrorism.

Dealing with Terrorism

The "standard" anti-terror response, honed during the era of aircraft hijacking, and hostage taking of the 1970s and 1980s was to calm the situation and negotiate for hostage releases, or to use commando forces to raid terrorists holed up in aircraft, buildings, or outposts. This had questionable relevance, however, to the new terrorist strategies of the 1990s, in which anonymous acts of violence were staged without efforts to negotiate grievances or offer hostage releases. September 11 and the preceding attempt to destroy the World Trade Center through a truck bomb in 1993 were instead meant as symbolic and integral blows against U.S. power, presumably as retribution for prior U.S. actions or policies that were considered offensive or provocative, such as stationing forces in the holy land of the Arabian Peninsula.

Other traditional anti-terror approaches, such as patiently hunting down terrorist networks through combined police and intelligence operations, although part of a prolonged global strategy, appeared too slow and indecisive to the new U.S. administration of George W. Bush in the wake of September 11. Thus, a military response was hastily prepared. It came against the backdrop of general global concerns about terrorism, reflected ultimately in similar major Israeli military attacks against the Palestinian Authority and its leader Yasser Arafat, as well as against towns, villages and refugee camps in retaliation for suicide bombings in Israel and attacks on Israeli military outposts and civilian settlements throughout the West Bank and Gaza territories.

In the Israeli-Palestinian case, as in the American case and in other countries' efforts to hunt down so-called terrorists with military force, the goals were to disrupt and "defeat terror" or eradicate "nests of terror," all rather vague notions that leave the observer uncertain of when the campaign is ultimately successful. The troops seek to confiscate weapons and arrest, interrogate, or kill suspected terrorists, and attempt to discourage popular support of their movements. This is combined with efforts to intercept arms shipments and freeze economic assets of groups suspected of supporting terrorist networks. Yet the question of the ultimate "defeat" of terrorism remains. Acts of terror might cease for a period but also might reemerge or even accelerate in response to the anti-terror methods.

Defining Terrorism

The vagueness surrounding the political goals of military campaigns against terrorism are compounded by the difficulty of arriving at a standard definition of the term itself. What we think of as terrorism generally consists of a set of outrageous and spectacular violent acts to achieve political, ideological, religious, or social goals through methods such as bombings, shootings. These acts spread terror and go beyond accepted limits by targeting unsuspecting victims or wreaking wanton destruction. The aim might be to convince the victims to leave an area or desist in their objectionable policies, or simply to inflict pain, suffering, and disruption on the victims who are often not the target but serve as a tool to promote the terrorist's platform. Terrorist goals might involve political recognition, gain of power, retribution, or simply annihilation (some terrorists down through history have reputedly been anarchists, for example, seeking to wipe out a governmental system without installing an alternate system). Yet while these may be the methods and motives of those employing terror, the philosophies behind terrorist causes, philosophies ranging from revolution to revenge, might or might not be defeated through military responses. In other words, since military strategy is normally devised to defeat organized military forces on the battlefield, its use to suppress or eliminate terrorism can be questionable.

In the wake of the September 11 events, the United Nations moved much closer to consensus on defining and dealing with terrorism. Resolutions and speeches generally upheld the notions that targeting civilians with indiscriminate violence was unacceptable, and that terrorists should be apprehended, extradited, or prosecuted. As noted by international law specialist Ved P. Nanda of the University of Denver, however, a strictly law enforcement model of arrest and trial might not be sufficient to deal with well-entrenched and globally organized terrorists. Camps and training grounds would have to be destroyed, along with the terrorists' command and control infrastructure. Military means would be necessary for such missions, although to be both legal and politically acceptable such operations should be multilateral rather than conducted by any single state alone, and the means used should be "proportional" to the task at hand and not excessively harsh.

Despite this new emerging consensus, however, the UN has had continued difficulty operationally defining terrorism and specifying the conditions under which certain types of actions should be taken. One reason for this difficulty is that developing states have generally objected to language that outlaws or condemns legitimate popular struggles against what are considered to be repressive or exploitative regimes and forces. While many states are sympathetic to fighting terrorism, since they struggle against violent opponents, many governments also hold out the possibility of supporting legitimate nationalist struggles. Palestinian leaders seek to distinguish their homeland struggle against Israeli territorial occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from the indiscriminate global violence of Osama bin Laden, for example. Much the same argument was heard during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s in defense of liberation movements, such as those against colonialism and by the African National Congress against the minority apartheid regime in South Africa, making it difficult for the UN to codify a definition of terrorism in law. Instead the organization has fallen back on outlawing specific acts of violence, such as air hijackings.

Governments hard pressed by insurgency movements regularly refer to their opponents as "terrorists," whether or not the label really fits. It is a way of criminalizing or de-legitimizing the political movements for which the insurgents fight. This has applied to racist regimes such as South Africa's apartheid government, as well as nationalistic regimes such as Turkey and Iraq in struggles against their ethnic minorities, Israel's conflict with the Palestinians, Spain's dispute with the Basques, Russia's battles with Chechens, and Britain's century long struggle against the Irish Republican Army. Indeed, soon after the September 11 attacks and the demonstration of Washington's new resolve to fight terrorism, a number of governments called for U.S. aid in struggles against their own "terrorist" opponents, including the governments of Malaysia, Colombia, and the Philippines.

No matter how precise we aim to be about terrorism as a concept, then, there is always going to be some ambiguity about such an emotionally charged term. It can be politically useful to use such phrases as "war against terror," but it may not be very meaningful to the combatants and their beliefs. Dutch political scientist Alex Schmid and Robert J. Beck, in the 1993 book on International Law and the Use of Force co-authored by Anthony C. Arend, found that some 109 different definitions of terrorism appeared between 1936 and 1981 alone. In his book Serenade of Suffering (1999) Richard Chasdi has noted controversies about whether to include among "non-combatants" subject to terror attacks military personnel in non-combatant or peacekeeping roles as well as governmental officials not violating fundamental human rights. As peacekeeping becomes more prevalent as a military assignment, attacks on peacekeepers might increasingly become a problem of "terrorism" depending upon how one defines the concept and how one treats troops assigned to peacekeeping missions. Thus the targeted British authorities in the King David Hotel, blown up by Jewish extremists in Jerusalem during Israel's independence struggles against the British in 1947, could have been victims of terror under some definitions.

With definitional complexities such as these, it is inherently difficult to build and maintain an anti-terrorism coalition among cooperating states especially when relying on military force to target "terrorists." Some states will care about the identity of the accused terrorists for a variety of reasons, which may be political, economic, ethnic, or religious.

Despite the difficulties and complex political motives involved in defining and identifying terrorists, analysts generally distinguish terrorism from other forms of violence and from war in noting that although terrorism, like war, can involve political, ideological, religious, or social goals, terrorists target civilian populations or "non-combatants" engaged in unconventional violence such as bombings, assassinations, or the spread of toxic substances. As the author has pointed out elsewhere (Pearson and Rochester, International Relations, 1998, p. 448), unconventional violence is a concept implying that the acts are spectacular and violate accepted social norms while inflicting shock, fear, and severe pain on the victims and their group. Terrorists do not observe what are thought of as rules of combat. The specific targets of attack might or might not be important to the terrorist, for example in a kidnapping or assassination incident versus a random bombing in a crowded market place. In all these cases the impact of the violence is meant to go beyond the immediate target to raise fear, insecurity, and disruption among a larger "enemy" group and population.

It has been said that terrorism tends to be a tactic of the relatively weak, i.e., those groups and individuals with political causes (though they might be marginalized groups on the fringe of politics) but lacking in standard fighting resources and weapons as compared to their opponents, or without the size of forces that would allow a conventional war campaign. Osama bin Laden, while inflicting massive civilian casualties on his "enemy," criticized the United States for supporting Israel and stationing forces in the Arabian Gulf region, as well as for past "terroristic" deeds such as the Hiroshima nuclear bombing of Japan. The terrorists who commandeered U.S. jetliners in September 2001 essentially turned the aircraft into cruise missiles to attack their targets. Presumably if the terrorists had had actual cruise missiles with the capability to reach the United States, they would have used them instead; presumably if home grown American terrorist Timothy McVeigh, the man who bombed the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, had had a conventional weapon, or a weapon of mass destruction, at his disposal, he might have used it instead of a Ryder Truck filled with fertilizer and fuel oil. In symbolically acting out a "weak attacking strong" role, terrorists often cultivate the Robin Hood or David against Goliath image. In so doing they can gain public support, admirers, and followers, but they also pick up enemies both within their movements and from those they attack.

Historical Background

Terrorism, and therefore anti-terrorism, have been around as tactics for centuries, indeed probably going back in one form or another to the earliest days of organized human conflict. During the Middle Ages (from about the fifth century to the fifteenth century) armies reportedly sometimes launched diseased corpses into enemy towns to spread havoc and fear. Political acts of terror were seen in the so-called Reign of Terror during the French Revolution (1789-93). Acts of terror have even sparked major wars, as in World War I (1914-18) with the assassination of Austria's Arch-duke Franz Ferdinand by rebellious Bosnian nationalists instigated by Serbia in 1914. Nationalists, revolutionaries, "freedom fighters," zealots, heroes and scoundrels, ranging from the Irish Republican Army and their Ulster Unionist opponents in Northern Ireland, to American colonists at the Boston Tea Party, have used disruptive unorthodox violence or destruction of property to advance their causes or retaliate against their enemies.

In the modern age, new technologies have afforded greater potential killing power both to authorities and to terrorists alike, and have made our societies in a sense more vulnerable to attacks that might disrupt communication networks, contaminate water supplies, spread disease and destruction more rapidly, and gain immediate notoriety. Terrorists themselves now can operate on a more global scale, linking up in inter-group networks through the use of modern communication media such as the Internet and cell phones and through transcontinental travel. If history is any guide, however, terrorist groups are likely to be rather small and to depend on an inner core leadership network that might or might not reach out to local and international recruits.

Likewise, a number of means have been used historically to combat terrorism, including military counter-moves, police and intelligence activities, and efforts to reform or eliminate the conditions that make terrorists popular. The Cuban revolutionary Ché Guevara was hunted down captured and killed in an ambush in 1967 by Bolivian military units and U.S. advisors. The notorious international terrorist "Carlos the Jackal," leader of an international network that once kidnapped the main representatives of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), finally was himself captured in 1994 by French intelligence agents through negotiations with the Sudanese and operating on tips from Carlos' former friends, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and others. (See sidebar.) Suspects in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 were finally released for trial by Scottish judges in the Netherlands through a decade long campaign of political and economic pressure brought to bear on Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi. Crucial in these captures was the diplomatic cooperation of major powers as well as heavy economic forces such as the European Union, and the eventual willingness of those in the terror networks to betray their comrades.

The Use of Force

In a very important sense, then, combating terrorism requires the cooperation or the acquiescence of states and individuals actually supporting or harboring terrorist groups. States support such groups because they are often considered politically useful, for example to weaken an opposing state or a rival regime. Terrorist groups also receive help in the form of arms, recruits, or money, from kin or sponsors living abroad, such as those supporting Kurdishr, Albanian, or Tamil nationalists in their rebellions in Iraq/Turkey, Kosovo, and Sri Lanka respectively. Effective anti-terror approaches also require gaining the cooperation of states within which terrorists might hide or organize, as well as states that are mere bystanders. Standard exhaustive police investigative work can be just as important as military strikes in apprehending terrorists, if indeed the goal is to bring them to justice.

There are those who argue vehemently that military responses are not only appropriate to defeating the age-old terror problem, they are the most reliable means of doing so. Writing in American Heritage magazine in March 2002, Victor Davis-Hanson notes that Osama bin Laden comes from a long historical line of disaffected messianic zealots, including those who struggled in ancient Judea against Roman legions and ended up committing mass suicide on the heights of Masada. "Similarly, Muhammad Ahmad, the Mahdi, the 'expected Guide,' wreaked havoc in Egypt and the Sudan between 1881 and 1885" (p. 39) in a vain anti-British anti-Western struggle that ended with an estimated 27,000 of his followers killed as compared to only 48 British dead at the Battle of Omdurman. Mystical Native American Ghost Dancers "promised their followers divine invulnerability from enemy bullets and even immortality" in vainly attempting to reclaim ancestral lands in the Great Plains during the 1890s. Again vastly superior military force crushed them, as Davis-Hanson claims it has done repeatedly to fanatical insurrectionists regardless of the legitimacy of their causes.

While he might confuse rebels, military diehards such as World War II Japanese kamakazi pilots, and terrorists as defined above, Davis-Hanson clearly feels that superior technology and force, most notably in the hands of "consensual" western democracies, can reliably roust such movements even if terrorists score temporary and dramatic successes. The added dimension of newly advanced military technologies such as global positioning satellites, precision munitions and guided bombs supposedly add to the ability to hit such renegades where they hide. Indeed, prior to the World Trade Center/Pentagon casualty toll and the introduction of new anti-terror military technology, most acts of terror killed relatively few people. Terrorists have seldom achieved their goals apart from gaining notoriety and avoiding apprehension.

Problems of Force as a Response

For a variety of reasons, however, the simple deduction that force trumps terror is questionable, and those who believe it might be termed just as naïve as those who believe that force is futile. The war analogy and military remedies in fighting terrorism are problematic for a number of reasons. As noted this is partly due to definitional and legal uncertainties about what one is fighting against, but history also indicates that it is due to tactical problems in fighting a set of ideas using military means.

Contrary to the relatively clear criteria set for victory against Japan in World War II (1939-45), the last time U.S. territory was successfully attacked by another country, how does one know when victory against terrorism is won? When there is no act of terror for one week (as Israelis were demanding in 2002 during their struggles against the Palestinians), for one month, one year, one decade, ever? When an act does recur, does that mean the "war" is lost? Who exactly are the opponents? They do not wear uniforms and are not arrayed at front lines, or even in guerrilla formations ready to launch combat from hidden locations. Do they include all the states that might assist or harbor any sort of terrorists, or only states harboring the particular terrorists that have offended the states conducting the war? Terrorists can be either members of known groups or anonymous; they generally strike unexpectedly from hiding or posing as civilians. They usually use implements such as homemade bombs, small arms, or engage in hijackings or hostage takings. It is therefore easier to proceed against the terrorist enemy once he/she has been revealed through actions than in advance. Indeed, the reference to "terror" itself comes from not knowing who might be among the next victims or where the next strikes will occur.

Military campaigns against such shadowy and covert enemies are fraught with uncertainies. They often take the form of massive attacks against suspected terrorist hideouts or training grounds in mainly civilian territories—amidst towns, villages, and cities as in the crowded West Bank and Gaza Palestinian territories. Attacks meant to root out the perpetrators can, therefore, create such bitterness and vengefulness among the civilian population that terror itself can increase in response. Barbara Tuchman, in her book The First Salute (1988), describes such a process when British naval forces pillaged New Haven and other Connecticut towns (an act of state terror) trying to squelch the American rebellion in 1779; similar results were seen when the French tried in vain to suppress the Algerian independence uprising in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Irish writer Conor Cruise O'Brien has noted that terrorists often persist for years because they gain tremendous personal power and acclaim, and even money from the violent profession they have chosen. Therefore, if they are devoted to political causes, for example, they might not necessarily give up even if political concessions are offered and their goals or demands are met, since they would stand to lose much power and influence in the bargain. By the same token, he argues that heavy-handed and unilateral military responses also are likely to be ineffective since they play into the terrorists' hand by giving them increased notoriety and gaining them sympathizers. In O'Brien's words from his 1986 article, "Thinking About Terrorism" in The Atlantic, "The combating of terrorism is not helped by bombastic speeches at high levels, stressing what a monstrous evil terrorism is and that its elimination is to be given the highest priority … A movement that is denounced by a President is in the big time." Rather it is patient hunting, through collaboration among states who themselves reduce their own backing of violent and terror-wielding clients, along with tips and betrayals among the terrorists that often lead authorities to them.

The Recurrence and Evolution of Terrorism

Certainly at times military attacks against terrorists have been stressed. The Russians conducted a campaign of unremitting military violence against the Chechen rebels after acts of terror reached Moscow in the late 1990s. Russian troops and air attacks destroyed most Chechen towns and villages in an attempt to destroy the rebel infrastructure. The Russians succeeded at great human cost in retaining Chechnya inside the Russian Federation. Additionally, in responding to suicide bombers from the territories of the West Bank and Gaza the Israelis enjoyed enough of a fire power advantage in 2002 to dominate on questions of forming a future Palestinian state. The overall settlement of the nationalist fervor that led to the terrorism in these and other cases, however, could not be achieved by military suppression alone. As noted, though terrorists might be out for personal power, terrorism stems from political, social, or ideological cause for which people are willing to die. This is demonstrated by the increasing prevalence of incidents of suicide terrorism. Military retaliation is likely to be needed in destroying the terrorist hideouts and training grounds, but it is unlikely to wipe out the ideas behind the movement or to apprehend or deter all terrorists. In addition the terrorists' recruitment base can be diminished if political reforms and policy changes eliminate some of the grievances that drive people, especially young people, to join terrorist causes. This would require seriously heeding and addressing those grievances.

As the Palestinian example shows, terrorism also is often more complicated than merely a "good vs. evil" fight between two sides. Indeed, Yasser Arafat's religiously dogmatic rivals, the HAMAS organization of Islamic militants, was founded in the 1980s as a counterweight to the increasing power of the secular PLO after the latter group survived Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982. HAMAS, the more militantly anti-Israeli group during the 1990s, actually was founded with Israeli support in the 1980s to become that PLO counterweight. Similarly, Osama bin Laden emerged as a political operative in Afghanistan with U.S. and other nations' support during the 1980s in the fight of the mujahideen ("freedom fighters") against the Soviet forces supporting the leftist secular Afghani government at that time. The mujahideen, including Saudi import bin Laden, were supplied and supported by the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and others in hopes that they would prevail against the Soviets. Indeed they did, but these same forces later both descended into a destructive Afghan civil war of their own—leaving that country essentially in ruins to be "uplifted" by the Taliban—and began to back militantly anti-Western and anti-Israeli Islamic movements in the Middle East as well.

Regional politics generally are complicated; straightforward struggles of terror and anti-terror are generally unrealistic. Iran, a country designated by George W. Bush in 2002 as part of an "axis of evil" (along with its own traditional enemy Iraq and distant North Korea) was at the very same time included among the leading regional powers with which Washington was consulting in summit meetings about the future of Afghanistan. Indeed, Iran, like the United States but for different and more ethnically related reasons, opposed the Taliban in Afghanistan. Thus to oversimplify the complexities of political conflict does little to help maintain the coalitions necessary to fight terror.

It has been glibly asserted that to fight terrorism one might have to "get in bed" with unsavory characters, who can provide the necessary information about terrorist group structure and planning to allow authorities to anticipate and counter terrorist moves. As the Carlos case showed this is true to an extent; one must maintain communication with and infiltrate terror networks, gaining information in order to eliminate the semi-independent "cell" structure that often characterizes them and allows them to continue if one cell is captured.

The notion of collaborating with the unsavory, however, is also dangerous and can be self-defeating, since these are the very people who often end up becoming and abetting terrorists. American and Saudi intelligence services were "in bed" for years during the 1980s and 1990s with bin Laden and other anti-Soviet or anti-Iranian factions in the Middle East. Similarly the CIA closely cultivated relations for years with Manuel Noriega (the former Panamanian dictator eventually tried in Florida during the 1980s on drug smuggling charges) and other Central and South American dictators. The end result was increased, not decreased, violence and terrorism in those regions. "Death squads"—militia unleashed by governments to attack their political opponents—ended up kidnapping and killing thousands, the so-called "disappeared" of the 1970s and 1980s, in Latin countries where U.S. military and intelligence agencies had trained the military. Among the victims were both nationals of those countries and foreign aid workers, nuns, and priests, and other innocent civilians. These were clearly acts of terror, the tragic and ironic result of indiscriminant "counter-terrorism" and counter-revolutionary policies conducted and largely planned through military staffs.

Thus the political story behind most terrorist movements is complex, often involving alliances of convenience between major or minor powers and dissident groups, resulting in unexpected and unwelcome later conflict between those dominant powers and the groups they once supported. The lesson is that reliance on heavy-handed violence as a counter-terror tactic is rife with dangers and can spark increased rather than decreased terrorism. From the multi-national campaigns against Carlos the Jackal and the Bader-Meinhoff and Red Brigades revolutionary groups of Germany and Italy during the 1970s, it would appear that careful study of the terrorist network links, along with tailored police and intelligence investigations exposing the likely agendas and itineraries of known terrorists, are far more effective, if less politically spectacular, than massive military assaults against so-called terrorist strongholds.

Recent History and the Future

Actual anti-terrorist campaigns often go through cycles of fight and negotiation, as seen in the Chronology provided by Basques in Spain and France as they took part in negotiations with regional and national governments, formed political parties to compete in elections, but fell back on violence such as urban bombings when they could not gain the concessions they wanted. In such cases the fighting might be out in the open, or clandestine through intelligence and police agencies, and the negotiations likewise might be conducted either openly or through cloak and dagger meetings. The Basque case reflects the disillusionment with negotiations brought on by acts of violence, and then the disillusionment with violence that leads back to hesitant peace feelers and negotiations to apprehend the culprits or end their grievances.

In fact the political stories surrounding terrorism are further complicated by the motives of the anti-terrorist coalition. In its struggles against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, for example, the U.S. government maintained that it was not fighting Islam or Arabs , but rather fighting the terrorist phenomenon. Yet the targets of U.S. and British military response were almost exclusively Islamic. The U.S. quandary about how to treat specific groups was reflected in its dealings with the Kurds, an Islamic group spread out among at least four countries of West and Central Asia which had historically used terrorist tactics and had been victimized by terrifying counter-attacks as in Iraq's use of chemical weapons in the 1980s. As Saddam Hussein threatened their annihilation in the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. and British forces hastily conceived of a plan to provide them sanctuary in a "no-fly" zone in northern Iraq to protect Kurds against Iraqi strikes. The United States' Turkish allies in NATO, however, also considered the Kurdish nationalist group the PKK as terrorists, and hunted them relentlessly both in Turkey and across the border into Iraq. Washington did little to oppose this policy or the Turks' use of U.S. supplied equipment in carrying it out. Thus, not for the first time in history, the United States supported both sides in a war involving terrorism. An earlier example of this behavior is during the Greek civil war (1944-49), when the Harry Truman administration (1945-53) aided both the Greek right wing and the anti-Soviet Yugoslavs, even as Yugoslavia aided the Greek left wing.

Contradictions in Opposing Terrorism

In such struggles, attempting to deal with the inherent contradictions of opposing terrorism in real political circumstances where its own interests were mixed, Washington showed the cross pressures of an actual "war against terrorism" by picking and choosing which terrorists to oppose or object to. Often this amounts to a double standard, which is commonplace in politics, as nations oppose only the terrorism that seems to directly threaten one's own immediate interests or friends. It is important to identify key partners in anti-terrorism campaigns, but in doing so one might have to pay a price to each partner.

One way in which double standards are meant to be erased is in the enactment of international laws against terrorism. Effective action against terrorism requires the enforcement of laws and, where necessary, extradition to bring terrorists to justice for trial in appropriate civil, international, or military courts. As described by Pearson and Rochester, after outrageous acts of terror, such as the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, the international community responded by passing a series of measures designed to crack down on kidnapping, assassination, and hijacking. This included an international treaty on the Punishment of Crimes Against Internationally Protected Persons Including Diplomatic Agents, along with another convention Against the Taking of Hostages that called for the prosecution or extradition of all hostage-takers while recognizing the rights of national liberation movements. Additional measures were developed to provide for the safe release of hijacked aircraft, passengers, and crewmembers and the extradition of those suspected of terror acts against aircraft, airports, or airlines. Similar agreements were reached to cover naval vessels, stolen nuclear material, and misuse of the mails.

With the shifting of terrorist tactics and style in the 1990s to produce more destruction with less interest in negotiation or group recognition, mechanisms for international law again shifted. While no consensus could be reached on a precise definition of terrorism as a crime, Ved Nanda has pointed to agreement at the 2001 UN session to ban targeting of civilians as well as indiscriminant violence, and to apprehend, extradite, or prosecute those found responsible for such crimes.

Promoting the rule of law is crucial in combating terrorism. Commenting on future legal prospects, terrorism expert Paul Wilkinson, writing for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service ("Terrorism: Motivations and Causes," 1995), has given the following diagnosis and prescription of preparations in Europe:

…The true litmus test will be the Western states' consistency and courage in maintaining a firm and effective policy against terrorism in all its forms. They must abhor the idea that terrorism can be tolerated as long as it is only affecting someone else's democratic rights and rule of law. They must adopt the clear principle that one democracy's terrorist is another democracy's terrorist.

Wilkinson continued to note several general principles to reduce terrorism. Among them were principles to defeat terrorism democratically and "within the framework of the rule of law," a consistent policy of non-negotiation regardless of the circumstances, increased efforts to prosecute terrorists, penalizations for state sponsors who provide support to terrorist groups, and to continue "diplomatic efforts to resolve major political conflicts" without allowing terrorism to derail the process. He asserted that technology is such that, with combined and cooperative intelligence efforts, governments can establish a firm foundation for long-term success against terrorism.

Some of these strictures are, of course, controversial. There are pros and cons about whether and in what circumstances to negotiate with known terrorists, given possibilities that might produce the release of terror leaders or hostages or reduce the chances for future violence. The Basque and Palestinian conflicts illustrate clearly that violence, anti-terrorism struggles, and negotiations over issues such as cease-fires, security guarantees, and political solutions involving autonomy or independence can go on simultaneously, though the final outcome in the form of peace agreements might be uncertain at best. In all cases of violence, international and domestic, tradition has shown that there is a place for wise diplomacy to help defuse the worst situations, to get relief supplies through to endangered populations, and to create possible terms for settling the underlying political issues driving the conflict. Rewarding violent behavior is certainly to be avoided, but diplomats by definition are trained to negotiate among parties where truth and virtue might be in dispute. One can only hope that leaders come to prefer talking productively to shooting and bombing. Law and ultimate justice—for victims of all sorts of terror—are key issues in those talks.


Antokol, Norman and Mayer Nudell. No One a Neutral: Political Hostage Taking in the Modern World. Medina, OH: Alpha Publications, 1990.

Arend, Anthony Clark and Robert J. Beck. International Law and the Use of Force: Beyond the U.N. Charter Paradigm. London: Routledge, 1993.

Campbell, Kurt M. To Prevail: An American Strategy for the Campaign Against Terrorism. Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2001.

Chasdi, Richard J. Serenade of Suffering. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 1999.

Hanson, Victor Davis. "The Longest War," American Heritage, February/March 2002, pp. 36-46.

Laqueur, Walter. The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Lesser, Ian O., et. al. Countering the New Terrorism. Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 1999.

Martin, John R. Defeating Terrorism: Strategic Issue Analysis.Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, 2002.

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O'Brien, Conor Cruise. "Thinking About Terrorism," The Atlantic Monthly, June 1986.

Onwudiwe, Ihekwoaba D. The Globalization of Terrorism.Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2001.

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Reeve, Simon The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama binLaden and the Future of Terrorism. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press,1999.

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Frederic S. Pearson

Chronology—Attempts to Resolve the Basque Conflict

January 12, 1999 Spain's president José Maria Aznar states that the Basque nationalist group ETA refuses to talk with the government

February 1999 A Basque national assembly is established by the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and Eusko Alkartasuna (EA).

March 1999 Spain's paramilitary Civil Guard searches the headquarters of the left-wing Herri Batasuna (HB), a political group seeking Basque independence. Basque political prisoners in Spain call for a renewal of the peace process.

April 1999 Talks between President Aznar and Juan JoséIbarretxe, president of Baskongadak—the four provinces in Spain claimed by the Basques—toward multi-party negotiations stall after Aznar demands HB condemn ETA violence before participating.

May 1999 The ETA announces it is willing to talk with the Spanish government. A second series of meetings between Spain and Baskongadak ends without progress. At the end of the month, Basque political refugees reject Spain's offer to let them return to the country.

June 1999 President Aznar meets secretly with two ETA leaders.

August 1999 The ETA announces a suspension of talks with Spain.

October 1999 French police arrest ETA members linked to the theft of explosives and other activities. Days later, Basques in the French province of Baiona, which is claimed by the Basques, demand that France create a Basque administrative department. The ETA's proposal to the Spanish government for the renewal of talks is rejected.

November 28, 1999 One month after Spain rejected theETA's proposal for talks, the ETA announces an end to its cease-fire.

December 1999 The PNV invites Basque nationalist parties to submit proposals for a new framework, and the Basque nationalist commission Lizarra-Garazi requests that the ETA not end the cease-fire. Spanish police seize a truck carrying a bomb heading towards the capital of Madrid. The ETA is suspected to be responsible.

January 2000 An attempted car bomb linked to the ETA is stopped by Spanish police. A member of the Lizarra-Garazi commission quits in protest against other members who refuse to condemn ETA violence.

March 2000 The ETA claims responsibility for a February bomb blast that killed socialist leader Fernando Buesa.

April 2000 Iparretarrak (IK), an armed Basque organization in the three French provinces claimed by the Basques, ends its 18-month cease-fire, blaming the French government for not responding to Basque requests for an administrative department.

May 2000 Moderate Basque nationalist parties press for the ETA to enter into another cease-fire. The ETA accuses Spanish president Aznar of impairing the negotiating process, and it claims responsibility for March attacks.

July 2000 The ETA launches an offensive against Spain.

September 2000 The Spanish government approves new laws against the Basque independence movement. France arrests several people connected to the ETA.

December 2000 Spain enacts the Accord for Freedom and Against Terrorism, ruling out talks with the Basque regional government in Spain until it renounces ties with groups sharing the ETA's goals.

January 2001 ETA violence focuses on those who signed the Accord for Freedom and Against Terrorism.

February 2001 Spain's interior minister, who does not support the Basque movement, is confirmed by the government as the official Basque candidate in the Baskongadak regional elections.

March 2001 Municipal elections in France strengthen the Basque nationalist movement there.

April 2001 The ETA announces that it is optimistic in light of a plan established by left-wing Basque nationalists for Basque independence.

Carlos The Jackal: Trail of Terror

Ilich Ramírez Sanchez, also known as "Carlos the Jackal," was one of the most feared and, in some circles, revered of all terrorists in history. Originally from Venezuela, "Carlos," as he came to be known, was raised by a staunchly communist father and a fervently Catholic mother. He came to embrace communism, ultimately graduating from Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow. After graduation he was persuaded by the views of a Palestinian friend who told him of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. He became involved with members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which had communist leanings. Most of Carlos the Jackal's "work" was carried out against anticommunist groups and nations.

Carlos began terrorist training at a camp in Jordan in 1970 and participated in his first battles against the Jordanian army after a terrorist group with which he was associated bombed an airplane on Jordanian land, incurring the anger of the king of Jordan, who launched an attack on the terrorist group. Carlos soon became anxious to take on his own terrorist missions, including bombings and hijackings. His first few attempts at bombing airplanes, however, failed miserably.

Soon after, Carlos began drawing up an extensive list of names of Jews and Israeli sympathizers in Great Britain, where he spent much of his youth and where he hid his terrorist persona within the diplomatic community of London. He attempted to kill Joseph Sieff, a wealthy Jewish businessman who was the president of Marks and Spencer department stores and an honorary vice-president of the British Zionist Federation. Sieff survived the gunshot wounds, but it became clear that Carlos had a mission and intended to carry it out. He was responsible for several bombings in Paris in the 1980s, killing 13 and injuring 150. He has also been linked to Libyan president Muammar Qadhafi and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Carlos quickly became notorious. He had a reputation as a master of disguise with several different personas, complete with ID and credit cards. He was linked to several high profile terrorist attacks and assassinations, including the 1975 seizure of OPEC oil ministers and a 1976 Palestinian hijacking of an airliner that ended with an Israeli commando raid.

With the end of the Cold War, Carlos eventually "retired," due largely to the lessened importance of the threat of communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Additionally, with his notoriety and the scope of his activities there were increasingly fewer places safe enough to provide him refuge. He eventually went into hiding in Sudan.

The French government, however, was determined to bring Carlos to justice. It knew that he was hiding in Sudan and that the only way to apprehend him was to make a deal with the Sudanese government, which was unwilling to admit to harboring Carlos, to give him up for extradition. After much negotiation with the Sudanese government, which continuously refused to admit it harbored the terrorist, France presented irrefutable evidence of Carlos's presence.

A French intelligence officer, acting on a tip from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, photographed Carlos and tracked his movements in Sudan. Additionally, videotaped footage of Carlos drinking and consorting with woman at a party was shown to Sudan's negotiator Sheik Hassan al-Turabi. Al-Turabi, a devout Muslim, was disgusted by Carlos's behavior and finally acknowledged that Sudan harbored the terrorist. In exchange for loans from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank that would help erase Sudan's foreign debts, al-Turabi agreed in 1994 to release Carlos for ex-tradition to France.

Once in France, Carlos stood trial for the shooting deaths of two French secret agents and an informer. He insisted on representing himself, claiming that he was a revolutionary and a political combatant. "There is no law for me," he said during his eight-day trial. The French court, however, disagreed, and in 1997 Carlos, aged 48, was sentenced to life in prison.