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Published on 11th September 2019

Are Military Responses an Effective Solution to the Threat Posed by Terrorism?

Terrorism is a threat to countries and is becoming a regular occurrence which governments and military forces have to find solutions too. Terrorism can be defined as violent acts intended to change political, ideological or religious elements in societies. One way to eliminate the threat of terrorism is through different military tactics. However, there are also other solutions which are just as useful and effective in eradicating the threat of terrorism to a country.

The origin of the word terrorism, according to Isaac Taylor “… is associated with the spreading of fear”. This means that for any terrorist act to be effective or powerful, it must get a reaction from the intended audience. Randall Law says that “the weapons, methods and goals of terrorists are constantly changing, but core features have remained since the earlier times”. This claim highlights why it can be so difficult to defeat terrorism, because the groups are constantly changing how and what they will be attacking. The core characteristics Law mentions are referring to the goals of terrorists, which are always to bring around a political, ideological or religious change through violent acts. Law’s statement about terrorism is supported by Nihat Ali Ozcan, who claims that the objective or terrorism is to “change the policies of decision-makers and behaviours of the wider society by instigating fear through violent acts”. Terrorism naturally hinges on the ability to spread fear and panic around the world. This means that if terrorist groups are not able to cause fear through their violent acts, then they have not achieved their goal.

Ozcan goes on to describe the most common acts terrorists employ, which are usually bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, or shootings. Acts like these are guaranteed to kill and injure people, meaning that they will help spread global panic. Other methods terrorists may use could be arson, chemical attacks, knives, suicide, etc. These terrorist acts are effective in achieving the terrorist’s goals because they are dangerous and directly impact on people’s lives. Terrorists choose their targets extremely carefully, making sure they are somewhere big and crowded. The terrorist attacks which come suddenly and surprisingly are the most effective, and this is why terrorist groups choose different public places and change up their weapons of choice, so to ensure their assault is unexpected and cannot be stopped by the government or military. This guarantees mass death and injury and means the terrorist group can make demands of the government if they do desire. A good example of terrorism is that of the attack on New York’s International Trade Centre by suicide bombers on 11 September 2001. According to David Whittaker, this attack “was a new method in that using jet aircraft and all their passengers as suicide bombers had never been tried before …”. This supports the above statement, that terrorist groups are constantly changing their targets, weapons and methods of doing things. The government and the military were unable to prevent the attack because they had no notion that it was even going to happen. This example helps to clarify the changing nature of terrorist groups and their attacks. By looking at this example, it becomes clear as to why it is often so difficult for countries to stop terrorist attacks, as they generally do not know they are going to happen.

However, while it is not always easy to fight against terrorism, there are effective means of dealing with it. Military responses to terrorism can vary and can be tactics such as a quick and efficient plans to protect the people, having methods to track down and capture terrorists, or having defences at public places where terrorist are likely to strike. One key military tactic is called ‘Just War Theory’, which is a set of rules created to control the manner in which war takes place. Taylor describes the principles of the theory, which are called jus ad bellum, jus in bello, and jus post bellum:

  1. Jus ad bellum involves guidelines which state the requirements that will justify starting a war. 
  2. Jus in bello involves principles which put boundaries on the people who are instigating war. 
  3. Finally, jus post bellum involves procedures which the losers of the war must abide by.

Taylor says that “… many now think that to reduce the terrorist threats that we currently face to an acceptable level, the use of military force will need to form a part of our overall strategy”. This means that military forces should be able to employ any means necessary to defend their country if they are facing an attack, and if this means waging a war against terrorism, then they must employ the ‘Just War Theory’ methods to do so. It also means that people are trusting and depending on their countries military forces to protect them from terrorists and their attacks. From the claims about, it is obvious that the use of ‘Just War Theory’ could be an effective military solution to the threat of terrorism. Countries can wage a war against terrorism and its groups, ensure they abide by proper guidelines and rules to guarantee they do not hurt citizens or innocent countries in the process, and have a plan at the end for when they capture and defeat the terrorists.

Another military strategy which can be employed is written by Jonathan Black-Branch, called ‘The Global Counterterrorism Strategy”, which consists of four main elements. The first element is “addressing the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism”. The second component involves taking “…measures to prevent and combat terrorism”. Thirdly, there must be “…measures to build states’ capacity to prevent and combat terrorism and to strengthen the role of the UN system in that regard”. Fourth and finally, there must be “measures to ensure respect for human rights for all and the rule of law as the fundamental basis for the fight against terrorism”. Military forces should look into every element listed above when forming plans to fight terrorism. They need to address and be made aware of all the conditions which encourage terrorism to occur in their country. For example, if a known terrorist group wants to eliminate the religion Christianity, they are likely to attack countries where Christian’s live. The military then need to form effective and efficient plans to protect Churches and the people worshipping in them from terrorism, such as having patrols and weaponry around and near Churches. They then need to think of the country as a whole, and what they possess to help implement the plans formed against terrorism. For example, if there are Churches in every area of the country, it may be ineffective to split the military up and have them spread out. Instead, the military “may revert to cooperating with local forces” so that there are services protecting every Church and the people there. Finally, they need to ensure that their methods will not infringe on any person’s human rights, and that their methods will solve the issue of terrorism in their country. For example, the military needs to ensure they are not infringing on the Churches right to freedom of speech and religion, and they can do this by explaining the impending terrorist attacks and how they want to protect the Church by having local and military forces around. These areas all need to be addressed so governments and military forces can ensure their plans will work against the terrorists, and that at the end of it, they will be able to capture and imprison the terrorist group.

On the other hand, there are other tactics to fight against terrorism that are just as effective as using military strategies. At the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy meeting in 2006, it was “the first-time terrorism of all types was condemned at the highest international level”, meaning that it became the highest international priority to defeat. Now, according to Alexander Conley, because of technology, “terrorists have begun to use social media to communicate plans, discuss goals, and to spread propaganda”. This can be advantageous to the military, as it may be easier to track down terrorist organisations by tracing them through the internet. The downside is that terrorist groups can use the internet to recruit more members for their organisation and publicise their attacks. This makes it easier for news reporters to find information from terrorists and publish it. As Randall Law states, “the media … provides the oxygen without which terrorists cannot survive”. This is important to know, because when media sources publicise terrorist attacks around the world, they are helping to spread fear and panic to countries. If the media did not report attacks, the goal of terrorists would be diminished, as information about their attack would not be reaching a bigger audience. Law goes on to write about counterterrorism itself, saying that governments and militaries that engage in it are trying to not only destroy terrorists, but also terrorise societies where they believe terrorists may come from. However, if counterterrorism is not implemented correctly, then it allows terrorism to continue, because the plans put in place are not effective.

Ozcan writes that the effectiveness of terrorism is related to how powerful governments are, the response of the society, and how the government chooses to respond to terrorists. He says that if governments are strong, established, and quick to make decisions, then terrorism will not be as effective. This is because governments will have made plans to fight terrorists and get citizens to safety, by implementing measures to counter approaching terrorist attacks, or deal with surprise attacks. In terms of how society responds, “if the society as a whole … maintains a healthy, self-protective instinct and is sensible about the precautions and measures taken”, then it will once again be difficult for terrorism to be effective. This is because terrorists rely on societies panicked response to spread around the world, but if they choose not to react, then the terrorists have failed. Finally, in regard to governmental responses, they can handle it two ways, according to Ozcan. First, they can either “act as forceful as possible to portray its capability and willingness to protect the society”, or they can “pursue a winning public relations campaign”. Either response is effective, because if governments show their full strength, then terrorists may choose not to attack them again. Also, if governments employ a public relations campaign they can calm and reassure civilians that they have everything under control, which means that there will be no public response which again means the terrorist act has failed.

This article began by exploring definitions and characteristics of terrorism, before looking into their methods and weapons that they may use. It then provided an important example to show how terrorist attacks impact countries, and how government and militaries struggle to fight surprise terrorism. It then looked into the ‘Just War Theory’, which showed the correct procedure that militaries must go through to justify waging a war against terrorists. It then examined ‘The Global Counterterrorism Strategy’, with small examples, which was necessary to help understand different factors militaries and governments need to be aware of before they begin fighting back against terrorism. The piece then studied how media plays a part in the promotion of terrorism, and how vital it is that the media does not help spread stories about terrorist attacks, as it increases fear and enables terrorism to continue happening. Finally, it looked at how governments and societies should be responding to terrorist attacks, as their responses are key in helping defeat terrorism. Overall, the article showcased that there are effective military responses to counter terrorism, but there are also some nonviolent, and easier to implement plans, which can counter terrorism just as effectively.


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NOTE: This article was written based on an assignment I did for my university unit War, Terrorism, and the Humanitarian Response