Is Terrorism an Existential Threat?

Terrorists’ aim isn’t complete destruction, but rather to gain influence

by Scott Stewart, ‘MarketWatch, The Wall Street Journal,’ February 5, 2015

President Barack Obama has said terrorism can’t upset the world order, and he is mostly correct.

In an interview aired on CNN on Feb. 1, Fareed Zakaria asked U.S. President Barack Obama to respond to charges that he is downplaying the threat of terrorism to the United States.

Obama responded by saying that he believes the threat of terrorism must be kept in the proper perspective and that it is important not to overinflate the importance of terrorist networks. He also said he believes that terrorist groups do not pose an existential threat to the United States or the world order.

As with almost any statement made by a U.S. president, Obama’s belief that terrorism does not pose an existential threat to the United States became grist for many pundits. Leaving the politics of this statement aside, however, there are some significant facets to Obama’s claim that are worth unpacking and examining in detail.

The nature of terrorism

In the interest of full disclosure, I must begin by admitting that I agree with the president’s statement that terrorism does not pose an existential threat to the United States. Indeed, Stratfor has long argued this point, even when the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate disagreed with our assessment in July 2007. We stood by our conclusions and continue to note that terrorism must be kept in proper perspective.

The reason we can boldly proclaim that terrorism does not pose an existential threat to the United States has far more to do with the nature of terrorism — what terrorism is — than it does with the intent and capability of the actors who employ terrorism.

An examination of terrorist theory shows us that terrorism is a tactic or a tool used by militant groups unable to wage an insurgency or fight a conventional war. In fact, it is often used as a way to conduct asymmetrical armed conflict against an enemy with a stronger military. This fact is why Marxist, Maoist and Focoist revolutionary theories all consider terrorism — that is, small-scale, politically motivated attacks against vulnerable targets — as the first step in an armed struggle that is to be built upon to form an insurgency.

The only way a terrorist attack could pose a true existential threat to a country is if an actor were to obtain and use weapons of mass destruction.

In many ways al Qaeda and other jihadist groups have also followed a type of Focoist vanguard strategy by using terrorism to shape public opinion through the propaganda of the deed , the concept that a group can better spread its messages through action than through social media posts or YouTube videos. Terrorist attacks raise popular support for their causes while raising doubts about the target government’s legitimacy and ability to maintain order.

Aside from being a potential first step of revolutionary violence, terrorism can also be used to supplement insurgency or conventional warfare when employed to keep the enemy off balance and distracted, principally by conducting strikes against vulnerable targets behind the enemy’s front lines. The Afghan Taliban employs terrorism in this manner. Defending against such attacks on “soft” targets requires a disproportionate allocation of material and manpower, but such an allocation is absolutely necessary for the security forces to prevent the targeted population from feeling terrorized.

Weaker opponents in a struggle can also use terrorism as a tool of vengeance and retribution. For example, after the United States humiliated Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi’s military forces in a series of naval and air confrontations in the Gulf of Sidra during the early 1980s, Gadhafi responded with terrorism and ordered the April 1986 bombing of the La Belle Disco in Berlin — a site frequented by U.S. servicemen. After it became clear that Libya was behind the La Belle bombing, the United States conducted airstrikes against Tripoli and Benghazi. Gadhafi responded with additional terrorist attacks — although they were conducted more carefully and in a manner intended to provide a bit more plausible deniability.

In the 1980s, Hezbollah effectively used terrorism to push U.S. forces out of Lebanon. This example later inspired jihadist groups such as al Qaeda. These groups have employed terrorism in efforts to drive U.S. forces out of the Muslim world so they could weaken and overthrow the governments supported by the United States.

While a diverse range of groups practice terrorism, it is important to understand that terrorism for the sake of terror is not their end goal. Instead, it is merely one step toward their greater purpose, whether that objective is launching a revolution that will bring about “workers’ paradise,” providing animals the same rights as humans or establishing a global caliphate.

Beyond terrorism

However, terrorist attacks still pose a threat. Attacks result in death and destruction; and their psychological impact is even wider-felt than the physical damage they cause. To the people involved, this threat is existential, but on their own, terrorist attacks do not pose an existential threat to the governments they are aimed at — even the extremely destructive ones conducted by highly capable, state-sponsored groups. For example, the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s 1996 Canary Wharf bombing, the Italian Red Brigade’s kidnapping and murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro and Hezbollah’s 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut posed no real threat to the U.K., Italian and U.S. governments. While the March 2004 Madrid train bombings did have an impact on the country’s parliamentary elections just three days later and doomed the re-election hopes of then-Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, the attack did not topple the Spanish system.

The only way a terrorist attack could pose a true existential threat to a country is if an actor were to obtain and use weapons of mass destruction, namely, nuclear devices . However, non-state actors have not yet developed such capabilities, and the consequences of such a strike for a nuclear-capable state actor supplying the weapon would be massive and catastrophic. In this sense, a nuclear weapon would present as much of an existential threat for the supplier as it would for the target.

Indeed, terrorist attacks are not the true threat to governments. Instead, what is most dangerous is what militant groups can accomplish after carrying out terrorist attacks. For example, Viet Cong terrorist attacks in Hanoi did not topple the South Vietnamese government, but the battlefield successes of large-scale Viet Cong insurgent and regular army units and the North Vietnamese Army did. The Mujahideen-e-Khalq’s terrorist attacks against the Shah of Iran’s government and its foreign backers did not result in the overthrow of his government, but the massive popular uprising that followed spelled its doom. Terrorism can help create the environment for revolution, but terrorist attacks alone cannot overthrow a government.

Events in recent years have also proven this truth. Terrorist attacks from groups such as al Shabaab, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb did not permit them to assume governance of large sections of Somalia, southern Yemen and northern Mali. Rather, the attacks enabled these groups to foment dissent and launch insurgencies. The same holds true for the Islamic State. Employing terrorism did not conquer large swaths of Syria and Iraq for the group, but sophisticated insurgent tactics and mobile maneuver warfare did.

This is where terminology becomes vitally important. Whether we realize it or not, it influences how we perceive things. Advertising executives have understood this truth for many years, taking advantage of it to benefit their clients. This same principle holds true for analyzing threats. The taxonomy used to describe actors impacts how we assess them. We must use the correct taxonomy if we hope to reach an accurate analysis.

Some have criticized Stratfor’s decision to refer to jihadists as “militants” rather than “terrorists” after perceiving our selection of the term to be some form of political correctness. However, we purposefully chose the term “militant” because jihadists are more than just terrorists, and they clearly aspire to do more than merely conduct terrorist attacks. They want to progress along the continuum of military force until they can pose a threat to existing governments and create jihadist polities as we have seen in Somalia, Yemen, Mali, Syria and Iraq, among other places. Because of this fact, thinking of such groups as merely terrorist organizations is dangerous. Anyone who does so is at great risk of underestimating the threat they pose. Perhaps this is why the large-scale offensive operation the Islamic State conducted last summer caught so many people by surprise. They thought of the Islamic Sate as mere terrorists rather than militants who employ terrorism as only one of the many forms of violence in their arsenal.

This mistake is also where I find fault with Obama’s comments to Zakaria: He repeatedly referred to the Islamic State as a terrorist group. I understand that Obama and the U.S government are trying to use rhetoric in an effort to discredit and insult the group. This attitude is also reflected by their continued use of the name ISIS, an acronym for Islamic State in Syria and al Sham, to refer to the organization rather than using the group’s preferred name, the Islamic State. But when one makes the decision to use such terms, one must be careful to ensure that the terms do not influence their analysis.

Certainly, terrorist attacks do not pose an existential threat to the United States or the world order. Terrorism is a fact of modern life and the threat of terrorism must be kept in the proper perspective. The response to terrorist attacks must also be logical and measured. However, large militant groups with thousands of capable fighters — or in the Islamic State’s case, tens of thousands of fighters — that not only employ terrorism, but also insurgent tactics and maneuver warfare to capture and then govern large chunks of territory, are another matter. Such organizations pose a threat to the governments in the countries where they operate and in the region around these areas. Ultimately, we must be extremely mindful of the difference between terrorism , insurgency and other forms of militancy.

This article was published by permission from Stratfor, the Austin, Texas-based geopolitical-intelligence firm. Scott Stewart supervises Stratfor’s analysis of terrorism and security issues. Before joining Stratfor, he was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations.

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