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Fighting Terrorism
Jan 1, 1994

The principal players involved in terrorism and counter-terrorism are the state, the terrorists and the public. By the ‘state’ is meant the whole political establishment, power and authority of government, exercised through its various civil and military organs. By ‘terrorists’ is meant those (typically small) conspiratorial groups organized in crude paramilitary structures which pursue some political goal through the use or threat of violence against the state or the public. By ‘the public’ is meant the general body of opinion which the terrorists seek to win over, and the state seeks to keep on its side. Public opinion together with domestic and international law, are the constraints within which the state must evolve and carry out its counter-terrorist strategy.

Terrorists aim to get a lot of people to pay attention to their cause; they don’t necessarily want a lot of people dead. Since they have neither large armies nor economic power, the terrorists’ political hopes lie in the success or failure of their propaganda (Livingstone, 1988, p.120). However, to get attention terrorists must terrorize, must escalate violence in order to capture or recapture headlines (Jenkins, 1985).

The state’s response to terrorism can be categorised as ‘legitimate’ ‘suppressive’ or ‘concessionary’. ‘Legitimate’ measures include the whole range of legal procedures and punishments, special but ‘irregular’ counter-terrorist forces assisted by special courts, special rights of surveillance and arrest, very specific media restrictions, visa controls, etc. ‘Suppressive’ measures can include punitive military strikes against the terrorists (if they can be located) or military or economic or diplomatic sanctions against foreign powers alleged to be supporting the terrorists, intensive propaganda campaigns, extensive media restrictions, etc. ‘Concession’, obviously, involves negotiating some sort of deal with the terrorists.

The state’s counter-terrorist strategy has four major aspects: deterrence; intelligence (early warning); defence; retaliation. Deterrence works on the assumption that the terrorists can be persuaded that the costs of their policy exceed the benefits. Typically, however, terrorists do not have identifiable assets against which the state can take or threaten action. Deterrent action is therefore usually directed against foreign powers allegedly involved in assisting or supporting the terrorists. Apart from the diplomatic and legal complications which may result from such deterrence, the state must also calculate how far action against the foreign power really would affect the terrorists themselves.

lntelligence aims primarily at early warning of what are by their very nature surprise military attacks. ‘Humint’ or covert human intelligence depends on infiltrating terrorist cells, a more hazardous and difficult task than against other types of enemy organizations. Also, information collected about terrorist activity is usually limited in quantity and quality.

Active defence, pre-emptive arrests or military strikes, depends on identification and early warning. Passive defence consists mostly of so-called ‘target hardening’, that is, making potential targets harder to reach and harder to damage. The financial costs of protecting embassies, airports, individual official or private buildings, are very high. Also, protective measures can seriously interfere with the operations of such institutions. Finally, target hardening can encourage terrorists to move to ‘softer’ targets, terrorists can attack anything, anywhere, at any time, whereas the state cannot secure everything, everywhere all the time. The terrorists, in short, retain an edge over state security forces and security measures (Kegley and Wittkopf, 1989, pp.417-18).

The political cost of retaliation against foreign powers allegedly supporting terrorists can be very high unless there is strong proof of such support (Ofri, 1984). Also, as above noted, retaliatory action of this kind may not always impinge upon the terrorists themselves and may, conceivably, exaggerate the importance of their cause and enhance support for it. It is worth noting, in this context, that the international law surrounding counter-terrorist action is problematic. First of all, it is vague. Secondly, three principles of international law have often worked in favour of terrorist groups and their supporters: the right of self- determination, the right of asylum, and the rule of non-interference in the affairs of other states.

The role of the mass media is a crucial one. The terrorists need publicity since their goal is to win support for their cause. The media generally see their role as checking or criticizing the state: in theory, not being on the side of the state can mean being on the terrorists’ side. State imposed media blackouts certainly do not work. Experts on terrorism have pointed out that this policy only forces terrorists to escalate violence until they do get the media attention. The state, therefore, aims to get the media on its side–to encourage media to focus on the horrors of terrorist acts, and to deny exposure to the terrorists’ cause. Extensive anti-terrorist media-coverage can be of great benefit to the state in providing the background which allows it to plan and carry out retaliatory or other measures, in particular to obtain special legal powers which the public might otherwise resist (Clawson, 1987).

‘The state sponsorship of terrorism’ is an accusation that has been exchanged between various states. For example, the US has accused the former Soviet Union, Cuba, Libya, Iran, North Korea and Syria among others, of the practice and has itself been accused of sponsoring terrorist activities in Vietnam, Chile, and Nicaragua, and, as an ally of Israel in many other places (Kegley and Witkopf, 1989, pp.418-19). The historical fact is that ‘terrorists’, according to the definition of one ideological or political purpose are, according to another, ‘freedom fighters’. There is no coherent or generally accepted set of criteria by which the terrorists can be defined as such. However, acts of terrorism can be identified, and it is generally accepted that such acts should be prevented and/or punished. The difficulty lies in how to do so.

The terrorists are hoping to provoke an over-reaction from the state so that it will appear repressive. But if the state is to counter terrorism effectively it may have to take strong and unpopular action, given that a weak response will give an impression of weak government. One way out of this dilemma is for the sate always to act through the normal processes of the courts and not be panicked into any hasty suspension of civil liberties.

One approach is vigorous police action against terrorists, short of a full military commitment but not altogether excluding military involvement–for example, commando-style raids to seize hijackers, relieve hostages, etc. Overt and full-scale military action against terrorists is more controversial–for very good reasons. The record of what might be termed cross-border, military, punitive responses to terrorist actions is not particularly encouraging. For one thing, the motives and consequences of such actions are liable to misinterpretation. Incursions into a foreign country by the forces of one power may provoke another power which has interests or ambitions in that country. Also, such incursions, however honourably motivated, may legitimize similar incursions by others which claim, falsely, the same motive of combatting or punishing terrorism. For example, only five weeks after the US raid on Libya of 14-15th April 1986, South African forces attacked a series of targets in Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana, arguing that they were terrorist centres. Then, there is the difficulty of choosing the targets of such military-punitive raids. It is not at all easy to select suitable targets since relatively few potential targets are indisputably associated with terrorism (Freedman, 1986. pp.l9-22).

Although there is considerable evidence that military retaliation does deter terrorism to some degree, military force is certainly not the answer to every terrorist challenge. Both politically and militarily, the army is a crude instrument. It, at least partly, legitimizes terrorist demands to be treated as political or military prisoners rather than as criminals. Army involvement heightens public tension and creates a feeling that the situation is getting out of hand. What can a state then do to combat terrorism?

One is never sure, where, when, how terrorists will attack. The state should use special intelligence and anti-terrorist units rather than the army. Such units must operate, and be seen to operate, within the law and under the control of legitimate authorities of the state. If not, these units may themselves be labelled terrorist and lose public support for the state’s policy. Given that such units must be ‘undereover’, public supervision of their work is bound to be a difficult and delicate task.

A ‘no concession to terrorists’ attitude, although painful in hostage situations, has been proven to be effective. Following the experience of Irish security forces in 1975, a policy of ‘no deals’ and ‘no assaults’ in a hostage situation was found to work. The tactic used is to wear down the resistance and the morale of the terrorists. Negotiating with or giving in to terrorist demands is generally perceived by the public as weak government and leads to anxiety about what the next concession is going to be (Wilkinson, l988, p.l3l).

Domestic or internal acts of terrorism can usually be traced to minority groups who perceive themselves to be excluded from the political or economic rights and privileges enjoyed by the majority. It is self-evident that the legitimacy of the power and authority of the state will be challenged by grieved parties if their grievances cannot be redressed through the normal political channels. Similarly, international terrorism can flourish where the international system fails to satisfy the aspirations of people whose national or ethnic or religious-cultural rights (or hopes) are denied and, often, denied brutally. Terrorism is, insofar as one can generalize, the weapon of the desperately weak: the despair and the weakness need to be addressed if the causes of the problem, as well as its symptoms, are to be eradicated. The sad reality is that, despite the existence of international law, that law is relatively ineffective in controlling the ‘competition for power’ between powerful states. Sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly, terrorism is used as an instrument of foreign policy. To the extent that a foreign policy may be shared by a number of states, these states may agree to poll information and resources in the fight against terrorism (Borg, 1988, pp.11-12). But international co-operation achieved in this way is limited to the states who support or share foreign policy objectives–once the objectives are not shared, the co-operation becomes a pretence, terrorism again finds an ideological space to inhabit and a cause for which to seek attention and support. 


  • Borg, P. W. (1988) ‘The evolution of US. anti-Terrorism policy’ in Livingstone and Arnold (1988).
  • Clawson, P. (1987) ‘We need more but better coverage of terrorism’, Orbis.
  • Freedman, L.(1986) Terrorism and International Order, Routledge, New York.
  • Jenkins, M. (1985) ‘Will terrorists go nuclear?’, Orbis.
  • Kegley, C. W. And E.R. Wittkopf (1989) World Politics, St Martin’s Press, New York.
  • Livingstone. C. Z. (1988) ‘New media strategies for addressing terrorism’ in Livingstone and Arnold (1988).
  • Livingstone, C. Z. and E.T. Arnold. (1988) (eds) Beyond the Iran-Contra Crisis, Lexington Books.
  • Ofri, A. (1984) ‘Intelligence and counter-terrorism’. Orbis.
  • Wilkinson, P.(1986). Terrorism and the Liberal State, Macmillan, London.