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Thoughts about Political Terrorism



Dr. Radwan R. Abdullah


Dr. Abdullah is a former Professor & Chairman at the University of Jordan

Political Science Department, 1980 - 1998.

An Expert in International Relations & International Economics.

A Syndicated Analyst & Consultant for major newspapers.

Dr. Abdullah is MECRA's Special Senior Middle East Regional Consultant.


The recent bombings of American embassies in two African capitals have once again focused the attention of officials, scholars, as well as the general public, on this frightening and difficult to grasp phenomenon.

The killing of innocent civilians is morally repugnant and gives rise to feelings of extreme outrage in all societies- not only Western society. Perhaps this is why such an extremely important phenomenon has been subjected to such little rational thinking as a passing survey of analyses and comments, serious ones included, would quickly reveal. But is the assertion that terrorism, as a political technique, is more morally repugnant than other methods of violence. The assertion Presumably rests on the belief that terrorism target innocent civilians while other violent techniques, such as war, cause civilian casualties only collaterally. This despite the fact that terrorism has caused infinitely less civilian casualties and human suffering than did other violent methods of political influence, as a quick glance at the modern historical record would clearly show.

According to the current conventional wisdom, terrorism is being single out as the most morally repugnant method not because of a high incidence of civilian casualties but rather because of the intentions of those who commit terror attacks, whose aim is to cause harm to innocent people beforehand. But does the strategic bombing widely carried out by all sides during the second world war and by the U.S. during the Korean and the Vietnam wars, resolve the moral dilemma simply by replacing the word civilian with the word strategic. And is the killing of unarmed civilian demonstrators not immoral enough to be classified as an act of terror just because it is being committed by uniformed soldiers or policemen. But if intentions, rather than the actual casualties, are accepted as the variable upon which the distinction is based, then such methods as nuclear deterrence based on targeting hundreds of millions of innocent civilians should surely be far more immoral. Even such less violent and universally accepted methods as economic boycotts, embargoes, sieges and related techniques all see to weaken the enemy by causing direct harm to its innocent civilian population.

Clearly, evaluating the concept in strictly moral terms would lead to a great deal of ambiguity, and would not further our understanding of it, nor would it enable the world community to combat it more effectively.

Terrorism is a political phenomenon that is morally repugnant, just like all other techniques of influence that inevitably lead to the death and suffering of innocent people."

But, just like other coercive political techniques, it should be understood, analyzed, and explained on political terms rather than moral ones. I will argue, in what follows, that terrorism in our modern world, threatens to flourish very rapidly because it is a potentially effective method of political influence, and because an increasing number of disgruntled states and political groups find themselves deprived of any means to influence their political environment, making it more likely that some will succumb to the temptation of resorting to this universally dreaded and abhorred political technique. It must be recognized that terrorism is a symptom of an international system based on great disparities in the distribution of power, broadly defined as the ability to influence outcomes, where the great majority of states have become increasingly marginalized, with little capacity to advance or defend their vital interests. This is the result of the existing in economic power and technology that defines the system, as well as the distribution of power and pattern of relations between the major powers standing at the helm, which leaves very little room for the weak to protect themselves through alliances.

In such a system, the strong has very little incentive to accommodate the weak. Those who have major grievances have a little chance to get themselves heard and an even smaller chance of having them adequately addressed. But since they are not part of the system of economic interdependence, they have little incentive to moderate their own behavior. Their clear interest in avoiding the direct use of conventional force in their dealings with strong states, or those who enjoy the protection of a strong state(s), is an argument for, not against, the increasing resort to terrorism. The use of any other instrument, which is by definition, hardly available, that can potentially damage the interests of the powerful, which is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for its use in either a deterrence or a compellence mode, would risk retaliation by the use of overwhelming counter force or crippling sanctions to which they are totally exposed.

The resort to terror attacks, on the other hand, is not that costly and is readily available, highly effective (in terms of the degree of pain inflicted on the enemy), easy to deny, and difficult to pin down, since it can be projected through a proxy. 

It also has the additional advantage of penetrating the otherwise impenetrable conventional defenses of the strong states.

Moral considerations aside, terrorism is, therefore, an extremely efficient (in terms of cost and benefit) technique of state behavior when compared with other coercive instruments. This is a fact that has to be recognized if an adequate understanding of this political phenomenon and its future role in the international system to be attained.

Secondly, terrorism can be used in a rational political manner, just like war, or other coercive instruments. This determination is of paramount importance. An irrational political instrument will not produce results, and will soon perish through disuse. A rational instrument, on the other hand, is more likely to persist and flourish.

Governments place a great value on their ability to provide protection for their societies against external sources of harm. The greater the power of the state the greater the obligation. The logic of power dictates that if such states are subjected to sustained terror attacks, the fact that they have no adequate means to defend themselves against such attacks, regardless of the extent of their conventional power, will eventually reach the conclusion that the best way to tackle the problem is by addressing the grievances of the likely initiator. Not by pursuing and punishing the proxy, because it can be replaced easily, nor by punishing the likely initiator, since, in this case he will have more, not less, incentive to follow the terror route.

Thirdly, the cost inflicted on the victim is much greater than other conventional uses of force when measured in relation to the amount of force used. Civilian casualties resulting from terror attacks produce a much greater political effect than those resulting from direct military action. The latter only occurs in a situation of war when the attention is focused on the overall conflict and the military operations.

Anything else would be viewed as incidental and secondary. Civilian casualties are even accepted as unavoidable collateral damage. Such casualties resulting from terror attacks can neither be accepted by the population as collateral damage nor justified as such by governments.

Finally, Terrorism carries with it a great deal of unpredictability and uncertainty with potentially devastating psychological effects. In the case of direct military conflict, civilian casualties can be measured in terms of extent, space, and time. They are necessarily limited to theduration of hostilities, more likely to occur in areas of close proximity to command centers, military bases, power stations and the like, while their extent can be measured by the relative military balance between the two sides. No such certainty exists in the case of terrorism. Geographical limits do not exist, while it is very difficult to predict the probability of attack or its timing, the likely target, and the weapon used, since none of which is tied to a known quantity.

The frequency of terror attacks is a function of the potential effectiveness of such attacks as a political instrument, as well as the strength of the incentive to use it. Since the instrument can be used very effectively, as was shown at length above, and since counter terror measures, though necessary and may have some impact, still remain extremely limited in their effectiveness, efforts of the international community should therefore, focus on weakening the incentive of states or disgruntled groups to resort to it.

The political reality is that states or groups that are dissatisfied with the status quo would do their utmost to change it. It would not defy political logic to expect the frequency of terror attacks to increase as the level of dissatisfaction increases and as the availability of other effective means to address grievance decreases. The extreme aversion and repugnance loudly expressed by the target state and the international community, only serves to make it potentially more effective, and hence politically a more attractive tool, since the level of pain felt and conveyed is related to the amount of damage incurred, as estimated by the target state. It is clear that a great deal can be done by the powerful states, individually and collectively, to combat terrorism in a rational political manner. The aim should be to substantially reduce the incentive for its use. This demands that a concerted effort be made to include periphery states in international decision making, at least with regard to security and economic issues that affect them directly more effective mechanisms for conflict resolution have to be devised. Great powers should play a more neutral and objective role in resolving regional conflicts. It is clear that most incidents of political terror emanate from, or occur in, states that have been involved in unresolved and long-standing regional conflicts.

Whether radical political groups operate independently or act as proxies to states, their presence in the international scene remains a frightening and greatly destabilizing development. The rise of political radicalism in the third world is principally related to the general failure of the postcolonial secular state in accomplishing any meaningful economic development.

Another reason lies in the undemocratic and oppressive nature of many third world regimes. Being mostly illegitimate, they rely heavily on external support for their continued survival. to obtain this support, they orient their foreign policy in a direction that would be pleasing to the major power whose support is needed.

The interest of the state becomes subservient to the interest of the regime. Internal opposition groups might target the foreign power as well as their own government or might even see the external power's policy as being the root cause of their predicament. The foreign power, furthermore, may be seen as the easier target. The home government is often ruthless and in full control of its domestic domain, while most major powers of the day have liberal and open societies, making them easier to penetrate. Also, the fact that major powers have global presence and interests makes it possible to inflict on them substantial damage outside their own territories. The fight against terrorism, therefore, entails that great powers should pay more attention to the domestic performance of their allies, in addition to their foreign policy orientations.


MECRA - Amman, Jordan



"...For many years the threat of terrorism has not been defined as an existential threat. The existence of Israel is not in question. That can only come about as a result of a major Arab attack, including non-conventional weapons of mass destruction on the part of Arab states.

At the same time, it was the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin who defined terrorism as a kind of strategic threat. What he meant was not that it creates any kind of threat to the existence of Israel which is not the case, but since it can undermine the whole peace process and this is a strategic matter for Israel, so it does create a strategic threat in this sense.

.....whenever Israeli security services gave a list of individual of gave a specific early warning regarding the upcoming terrorist operations, Palestinian services would do something. They might arrest those involved. Or whenever they got their won early warning on terrorist operations, they would act. The problem is that they have not made a major consistent effort that is not based on early intelligence and warnings.

Specifically what the Israeli government wants Arafat to do is to act not whenever there is some pressure put on him, but to act constantly against the infrastructure of these organizations. He (Arafat) lacks the motivation. If the Americans and we put pressure on him, he might act against Hamas against his will, and although he is hesitant to do so.

I donít know whether he (Arafat) can close them down altogether. ... Arafat did not want any blood spilt between the Palestinians and such a constant effort against terrorism could bring about some bloodshed among Palestinians, and some fighting between Hamas and the Palestinians Authority. There is more or less a consensus among Israeli security services that he can do much more than he has done so far. I cannot say close them down, but much more than he has done so far." 

Colonel Ephrain Kan Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv

Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv