When Does Terrorism Have a Strategic Effect?


One of the worst terrorist attacks in the post-9/11 era killed no one. When Al Qaeda in Iraq bombed the Askari shrine in Samarra in 2006, only the mosque itself was damaged. However, by striking at one of the most important Shiite shrines in the world, it enraged Iraq’s Shiite majority, inflaming sectarian tension and exacerbating that country’s civil war. Tens of thousands of Iraqis would die in the resulting violence. In contrast, a far bloodier jihadist attack a decade later, and one closer to home for most Americans, had little long-term impact beyond the deaths of innocent people. In 2016, Omar Mateen shot 49 people at the Pulse night club in Orlando in the name of the Islamic State. This attack soon faded from the headlines, and U.S. foreign policy did not change.

Not all terrorism is created equal. Some attacks are merely blips on the terrorism radar screen, grabbing headlines for a few days before life resumes as before. Other attacks, however, shake the world. The strategic effects of such an attack go far beyond whether it helps a terrorist group win, and they can be divided into two areas. First, terrorism can affect conflict and international politics, shaping foreign policy, sparking international and civil wars, and preventing peace negotiations. Second, terrorism can undermine democracy by decreasing faith in public institutions. The strategic success of terrorism often depends as much on the government response as it does the terrorist attack itself: too little or too much counterterrorism can do the terrorists’ jobs for them.

Conflict and International Politics

Understandably, after an attack, observers quickly focus on the death toll to determine how serious it was. Body count matters, but it is not everything. The 9/11 strikes, of course, were off the chart in terms of lethality and thus impossible to ignore. The vast majority of attacks, however, are far less noticeable. The University of Maryland reports that last year saw almost 10,000 terrorist attacks, but few of these killed more than a handful of people and fewer still made the headlines. Even some high-body-count attacks fail to lead to dramatic changes. When Libyan agents bombed Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, they killed 270 people. This stiffened anti-Libyan sentiment in the West, but this feeling was already strong. In fact, the United States had already bombed Libya for its involvement in terrorism in 1986. Similarly, Al Qaeda’s 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed 224 people (most of whom were not U.S. citizens) and led to new counterterrorism plans, resource shifts, and other changes within the U.S. government. With post-9/11 hindsight, the 1998 changes seemed half-hearted. When the Islamic State bombed Paris in November 2015 and killed 130 people, France and other European nations stepped up their military efforts in Syria, but they were already part of the anti-Islamic State coalition. Even France’s efforts at home were simply an increase in an already-robust counterterrorism campaign. France emerged from the bombing more determined, but its policy did not shift in a fundamental way.

The 9/11 attacks are a rare but painful example of how terrorism can truly reshape foreign policy, creating new allies and new enemies. The United States not only went to war in Afghanistan to roust Al Qaeda and its Taliban sponsor — a war that continues to this day — but it also deployed military forces around the world to root out Al Qaeda affiliates and like-minded groups. In addition to such obvious efforts, the United States also focused far more attention on allies like Egypt and Yemen as well as frenemies like Pakistan, which previously had been neglected. The rise of China and other important changes in the world order received far less attention as a result. Critics claim that beyond this neglect, counterterrorism has distorted U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and infringed on civil rights at home.

Terrorism can even spark wars among the great powers and, in so doing, destroy entire political orders. Serbia sponsored the Black Hand, a pan-Serb group that sought to unify, and in their eyes liberate, Bosnia and other areas with large Serb populations under Austro-Hungarian control. In 1914, the Black Hand assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, plunging Europe into war. Ferdinand, ironically, was a strong advocate for peace and federalism proposals that enhanced the status of Slavs in the empire, and his assassination not only proved a pretext for Austria to invade, but also eliminated the leader of the peace camp. Serbia itself lost almost half of its army in the war to death, injury, or capture, while the war in total led to over eight million military and hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. In the ensuing conflagration, the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed, Russia fell to revolution, and nations like Poland were reborn.

Less dramatically, but no less consequentially for those involved, terrorism can snowball into other forms of deadly violence, leading to broader insurgencies and rebellions. After the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, jihadists launched a series of terrorist attacks on UN, Shiite, and other targets in an attempt to exacerbate sectarian tension and isolate Iraq from international support. The death toll was not huge, but the violence, along with a general lack of governance, destroyed faith in the new Iraqi government and the U.S.-imposed system. Caught in the vacuum, the population turned to sectarian militias rather than the government for protection. By 2004, terrorism had snowballed into an insurgency, and a year later, the country was suffering from a full-blown civil war with continued terrorist attacks like the Askari shrine bombing exacerbating the violence.

Just as terrorism can foster war, so too can it inhibit peace. Terrorists can play the role of spoiler, using violence to disrupt negotiations. In 1995, a Jewish terrorist assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin because the terrorist opposed Rabin’s efforts to make peace with the Palestinians. In the months that followed, Palestinian terrorists launched a bloody campaign with attacks on Israeli buses and outside a major shopping center. The campaign led Israelis to distrust the good intentions of Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, seeing him as either complicit in the violence or powerless to stop it. In 1996, as terrorist attacks continued unabated, Israelis elected a new Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was far more skeptical of peace talks. Talks continued for the rest of the decade, but the damage to Arafat’s image lingered even after the violence ebbed.

Emphasizing such strategic effects differs from a more standard focus on whether terrorism is a successful set of tactics in the first place for the terrorist group. Scholars have pointed out that groups often fail to achieve their goals, in part because attacking civilians makes government concessions less likely, and that non-violent means are often more effective.  Counterterrorism, however, must counter the wide array of effects attacks can have beyond the chance of terrorist victory.

Effects on Democracy

The legacy of terrorist violence demonstrates yet another strategic effect: how terrorism can shape long-term public attitudes. In Israel, the violence of the Second Intifada, which began in 2000 and raged for several years before the violence fell dramatically after 2005, soured Israelis on peace negotiations, convincing them that the Palestinians never truly wanted peace. This skepticism has continued even though Israel has now enjoyed more than a decade of low terrorism levels.

For many countries, the biggest problem with terrorism is that it can erode faith in institutions. If a government cannot protect its people, it is no government at all. When terrorism is directed at particular communities and the government response is weak or even complicit, the consequences can be enduring. During Reconstruction and in the Jim Crow era, local law enforcement often tolerated or joined in KKK or other white-supremacist violence designed to subjugate African Americans, contributing to lasting suspicion of the police as an impartial force. Despite progress since then, African-Americans are more likely to see the police as biased. Police shootings of unarmed blacks and other perceived abuses also lead to greater mental health problems among the African-American community. Not surprisingly, when violence does occur, the community is less likely to work with the police or otherwise turn to the government to solve their problems. Governments must recognize that minority communities that have suffered discrimination deserve additional protections because of the risk of the government losing legitimacy is often greater.

The strategic impact of terrorism depends heavily on the skill and reactions of the government fighting the terrorists. Terrorists seek to change government policies, and they often do so by pushing the government to overreact or to display weakness, thereby discrediting it or increasing support for the terrorist cause. It is difficult for political leaders not to respond as politicians, and President Trump’s reactions, such as using the aftermath of an attack to criticize his political opponents, shows how responses to terrorism can exacerbate social divisions even more than attacks themselves.

History is not a tape to be rewound, but the failure to stop Jewish and Palestinian terrorists allowed peace to slip through the hands of negotiators just as the failure to police Iraq allowed small-scale violence to snowball into a disastrous civil war. Similarly, the U.S. government paid too little attention to white supremacists even after the threat became manifest.  Governments, however, must walk a careful line, as too tough a response is also often a mistake. Dramatic policy shifts, such as going to war or changing allies, must not be done lightly, but the political realities often push leaders to respond first and think through the tradeoffs later. Such rash actions often do the terrorists’ jobs for them, enabling them to gain sympathy for their cause and truly change the world when their actions would otherwise be consigned to oblivion.



Daniel Byman is a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. This essay draws on his new book, Road Warriors: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad. Follow @dbyman.

Image: Defense Department (Photo by Lisa Ferdinando)