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How Effective Is a Military Response to the Threats Posed by Terrorism?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Military
Wordcount: 2959 words Published: 18th May 2020

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After the catastrophic events that took place on September 11, 2001, the United States of (US) Government used conventional military force against the threats posed by the Al-Qaeda organisation. The use of military force in counterterrorism is controversial because it can result in adverse political, strategic, and ethical consequences. However, this difficult decision was taken by the US Government with the aim of deterring future terrorist action. Other counterterrorism strategies have been tested, including diplomacy, target killing, reconnaissance and military aid to civil authorities.[1] For a military response to the threats of terrorism to be considered effective it has to be successful in delivering the desired outcome. Counterterrorism and counter insurgency warfare is difficult as it varies between different conflicts. Counterterrorism strategies have shown that there are no simple or complete solutions to the threats posed by terrorism. This essay will discuss the effectiveness of different counterterrorism strategies, focusing on the military, along with their tactical side effects. It will further examine how effective conventional land forces, reconnaissance, and air force strategies are in counterterrorism. As well as showing the importance of balancing between military and diplomatic approaches. It will also give examples of military responses to terrorist organizations in Afghanistan and Northern Ireland. In addition, this essay will explore how different counterterrorism approaches have different results either positively or negatively. It will argue that a military response is effective when merged with other approaches depending on the objectives and incentives of the terrorist group.

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Terrorism can be defined as ‘not a self-evident, exceptional category of political violence. On the other hand, it is a social construction a linguistic term or label that is applied to certain acts through a range of specific political, legal and academic processes’.[2] How we conceive a terrorist group determines in a substantial way how we go about deterring its actions.[3] This highlights the difficulty in deciding whether an incident is a terrorist act or a criminal act. The use of force to respond to terrorist attacks occurs after it is conceived as an act of war or if it is threatening the state’s entity.

Military interventions in the war against terrorism can differ. For example, Air Power, which is one of the most important contributors of military as it brings kinetic effects, logistics, ISR and increased persistence to the area required.[4] Logistical aid proved to have a massive effect on the success of an operation, like as was the case in Operation Enduring freedom in 2001, were airlift accounted for ’97 percent of the cargo carried’.[5] Another type of Air Power strategy that rose after the attacks of 9/11 is target killing, which has received great attention in the recent years and is usually executed by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). Attacks executed by UAV mostly achieve a very high degree of accuracy. Using drones in target killing operations has been used extensively in the war against terrorism either in Afghanistan against Al-Qaeda or in Iraq against ISIS. This reduced the amount of lives risked since minimum force, one of the counterinsurgency principles, is being exploited. Moreover, eliminating a terrorist group’s leader destabilizes the group’s effectiveness. Because nearly all terrorist groups organize in cells, killing the head of the group can hamper both hierarchical and lateral communications.[6] Elimination of the leader breaks the whole organization apart as the followers do not know whose orders to follow or what to do next. The first US citizen to be targeted and killed by a US UAV strike is Al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American imam. President Barack Obama ordered a strike on 30th of September 2011, when he was successfully killed. President Obama said ‘his death was a major blow to Al-Qaeda’.[7] However, sometimes it is more difficult with the occasional targeting error of the intended targets causing civilian casualties as there is no such thing as an accurate strike.[8] An example of this is the US military interventions in Pakistan which came in the form of extensive use of Drone strikes which led to an estimated ‘4023 people killed of which over 969 were civilians’.[9] This can act counterproductively in the terrorist groups’ favour by ruining the civilians’ image of the military’s objective and by making the public demand that the attacks stop to prevent more losses. This shows that the military response was effective in countering terrorism in eliminating the leader hence deterring the terrorist group’s threats and actions since it affects the group as a whole; however, it can have an unfavourable outcome as it led to civilian casualties and affected the public opinion massively.

Terrorist organizations generally find communication problematic as most terrorist groups rely on messengers to communicate. This is a major risk to the group as capturing one of the courier network messengers might eventually lead to the leader’s hideout. Similarly in the situation with Osama Bin Laden; after the capture of Abu Faraj Al-Libbi the official messenger of Bin Laden the CIA interrogated him leading to Bin Laden’s courier networks which eventually led to his hideout and death.[10] This highlight how effective reconnaissance as an ISR contributor was in gathering information to break down AL-Qaeda.

  The elimination of recruiters and mentors breaks down the group’s effectiveness as well as creating a craving for revenge. That can lead to terrorists rushing attacks, making their exposure easier.[11] The majority of terrorist recruits are brainwashed to think that the group’s purpose is their own life purpose and that will make them blindly seek revenge when their political and religious mentor is killed. For example after Israel launched targeted assassinations, Israeli bus drivers and security guards detected terrorists who revealed themselves by sweating and stumbling with wiring, that showed how they lacked psychological preparation which lead to them denied access to the target.[12] This is an outcome of utilizing target killing as a strategy in countering the threats of terrorism since it had a huge impact psychologically and mentally on the terrorist group.

When a state resorts to military force in countering terrorism sometimes it can lead to long term wars that can have a significant effect on the country itself. Simply because at most times the state is excessively military dependant; and the political view is neglected. One of the longest wars against terrorism is the war against AL-Qaeda in Afghanistan. On the 7th of October, the US invasion of Afghanistan started with the British contribution using air assault and cruise missiles in retaliation to the attacks of 9/11 as Bin Laden took credit to the attacks. They mostly struck areas that were suspected terrorist training camps but still hit other targets such as the Kabul presidential palace and Kandahar’s airport aiming to assassinate Bin Laden.[13] Finally when the US navy seals succeeded in the assassination of Bin Laden there was a sense of closure of the war that lasted for about ten years. “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while”.[14] When they invaded Afghanistan in the hope of countering terrorism, ending its acts, and making the world safe they were not expecting the war to last to around 18 years fighting the Taliban regime. That led to a large number of losses on both sides and a lot of financial aid wasted in favour of the war against terrorism. However eventually, the US military achieved its objectives which were killing Bin Laden and ultimately crippling Al-Qaeda and the threats posed on the US and its allies.

In a similar case in spring 2006, the British forces were deployed to Helmand province which was a stronghold for the Taliban insurgency. The British faced a number of issues concerning the purpose of the mission such as deficiencies in the number of troops, and several tactical errors. British counterinsurgency principles were also not effectively conducted as they were kinetically focused. They are defined as political primacy, close civil-military cooperation, minimum force, and flexibility.[15] The British strategy was more military dependant than political; hence they did not balance civil and military responses. Mainly because the unity of command was not practical, since the US and the United Kingdom (UK) had separate national chains of command. This demonstrates that a military response can be effective in countering the threats posed by terrorism, but requires other political and diplomatic strategies in order to win the hearts of the public and increase the added pressure on the terrorist group. Likewise, in the case of Northern Ireland, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) used terrorism as a strategy in their political war to separate Northern Ireland from the UK. Clausewitz states “war is a continuation of politics by other means “.[16]The conflict in Northern Ireland started with the authorities trying to suppress protest campaigns, which lead to violence and the emergence of armed paramilitary organizations. The conflict required a political approach more than a military one. A military action can fit into an overall political conflict effectively; but it is more a tactical response if separated from a strategic approach. The UK government got the balance right between military interventions and political settlement as they launched numerous military operations such as Operation Banner, Operation Motorman, and Operation Demetrius, however eventually ending with the Good Friday Agreement, a peace agreement between the British and the Irish governments, struck on the 10th April 1998 creating a power-sharing government including political forces aligned with armed forces, and agreeing how Northern Ireland should be governed.

Nevertheless, Resorting to soft power is also not always the right approach “it may be comforting to believe that diplomacy with state sponsors of terrorism and with terrorist groups themselves can alone alter their behaviour, but such wishful thinking is dangerous”.[17] It may be argued that using “soft power” diplomacy can change some terrorist groups’ intentions and reduce the violence. From a conventional point of view, the use of force or threatening to use it is vital in countering terrorism. History has shown that using hard power first would set the foundation and make it easier for the negotiations and diplomacy to have an effect. On November the 7th, 1998, President Andres Pastrana gave the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) a very large area as a way of showing goodwill and preventing hostilities. However, that motivated the FARC to increase the pressure.[18] After that the president used military measures against the FARC and by that the threat level diminished and slowed down the progress of the FARC. It can be argued that if the Colombian president would have used military force first or just threatened to use it could have averted the havoc. “Sometimes it is the willingness to use military force rather than simply engage that enables diplomacy to succeed”.[19]

The evidence provided leads to the conclusion that, using military force in the war against terrorism is definitely effective but other methods are required. It is also vital to consider the terrorist group’s tactics and strategies to further understand their motives and intentions; thereby taking the right approach in deterring their actions by planning a surgical attack, killing the leader of the group, and ending the problem at its core. Other strategies include forming an alliance between friendly forces, launching a war against terror and besiege the terrorist group with finding the right balance between hard force and soft force. Evidence within this essay clearly identifies that a military response is effective in deterring the threats posed by terrorism but if is utilized as part of a bigger intent or strategy. It might have an immediate effect or long term effect depending on the type of terrorism and the type of approaches taken against it.


         Bbc news (2011), Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki killed in Yemen, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-15121879.

         Bureau of Investigation Journalism,’DRONE WARS: THE FULL DATA’, https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/stories/2017-01-01/drone-wars-the-full-data, accessed 19 may 2019.

  • Corum, J.S. (2009), Air Power and Counter-insurgency: Back to the Basics. Air power, insurgency and the War on Terror.
  • Corum, J.S. & Johnson, W.R. (2003), Airpower in small wars: fighting insurgents and terrorists. Univ Pr of Kansas.
  • Egnell, R. (2011), Lessons from Helmand, Afghanistan: what now for British counterinsurgency?. International Affairs87(2), p.300.
  • Fawn, R. & Buckley, M. eds. (2003), Global Responses to Terrorism: 9/11, Afghanistan and Beyond. Routledge.
  • Finn, P. & Kornblut, A.E. (2011), Al-Qaeda couriers provided trail that led to bin Laden. The Washington Post2.
  • Gottlieb, S. (2010), Debating terrorism and counterterrorism: conflicting perspectives on causes, contexts, and responses. CQ Press.
  • Howard, M. & Paret, P. eds. (1984), Carl von Clausewitz on war. Princeton University Press.
  • Hughes, G. (2011), The Military’s Role in Counterterrorism: Examples and Implications for Liberal Democracies (No. 48). Strategic Studies Institute.
  • Jackson, R., Jarvis, L., Gunning, J. and Breen-Smyth, M. (2011), Terrorism: A critical introduction. Macmillan International Higher Education.
  • Roy, O. (2017), Jihad and death: The global appeal of Islamic State. Oxford University Press.
  • Suskind, R. (2004), Faith, certainty and the presidency of George W. Bush. New York Times17.
  • Weiss, M. & Hassan, H. (2016), ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (updated edition). Simon and Schuster.

[1] Hughes (2011).

[2] Jackson, Jarvis, Gunning & Smyth (2011), p.223.

[3] Id (2011), p.223.

[4] Corum (2009), p.220.

[5] Schwartz (2011) p.128.

[6] Rubin (2014), p.233.

[7] Bbc news (2011), https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-15121879.

[8] Corum & Johnson (2003), p.429.

[9] Bureau of Investigation Journalism,’DRONE WARS: THE FULL DATA’, 1 January 2017.

[10] Finn & Kornblut (2011), the Washington post .

[11] Rubin (2014), p.233.

[12] Id (2014), p.233.

[13] Fawn (2003), p.15.

[14] Suskind (2004), New York Times.

[15] Egnell (2011), p.300

[16] Howard & Paret (1984), p.87.

[17] Rubin (2014), p.238

[18] Ibid (2014), p.237

[19] Ibid(2014) p.239


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