Countering the Terrorist Threat.

by Tim Foley

The Puzzle

Why are freelance (independently financed) terrorists willing to engage in terrorist acts against nation states whom posses overwhelming capability and have demonstrated resolve in the past? If the freelance terrorist desires to bring about some type of change why attach the stigma of terrorism to his cause? Why not try political activity? Why does the terrorist believe that his point of view is so righteous that he is willing to engage in bombing, hostage taking and murder to bring this view about? Once the freelance terrorist has been identified what can be done to bring him to justice? How can acts of terrorism be countered? How can future freelance terrorists be deterred?

The United States spends 267.2 billion dollars annually1 on national defense to maintain carrier groups, air wings, infantry divisions, armored divisions, and numerous high tech weapon systems. It is the most technologically advanced, best trained, most well equipped fighting force on the earth today. Despite these facts individuals finance their own war against the U. S. with financial assets and military capabilities that pale in comparison. How can these individuals hope to believe their actions will have any affect on the policies of the United States?

Prospect Theory

Prospect theory helps explain this paradox. Prospect theory states that an individuals reference point for what they perceive as the status quo shapes their behavior. If the individual believes their state of the world is in a domain of loss, then they are more willing to engage in risky behavior to bring the necessary changes about in order to achieve a correction in the status quo. This risky behavior is an attempt by the actor to avoid any more loss in the future.2 No matter how futile the effort or impossible the goal, all that matters in the actors mind is the cause. Once the actor has invested time and effort into the cause, then the cause becomes even more valuable because of the endowment effect and effort justification. The endowment effect is a process where "Forgone gains are less then perceived losses" in the actor's mind.3 This means that once time is invested into a cause, an actor demands results before he is willing to give up that cause up. This blinds the actor to other possible ways of resolving the conflict, other than his own solutions. The threats of other actors are misperceived, in this case a nation states threat to retaliate against terrorism, and deterrence fails. The terrorist could misperceive the nations capabilities, resolve or the risk involved in carrying out an attack and will go ahead with the attack despite the threat made against him. Furthermore heuristics such as anchoring- insensitivity to new information; representativeness- stereotyping; and certainty make changing the actors opinion that much more difficult3. Therefore the actor (terrorist) is not frightened or discouraged by their minimal capabilities compared to that of their adversary (nation state).

Terrorist acts are acts of violence against innocent people. The terrorist, however, doesn’t recognize his acts as terrorism. Instead he feels he is at war with an enemy and he is using the only means available to bring about victory. The terrorist's limited funds limits his options. Without the resources of a nation state he can not field an army, navy or air force, so his war must be conducted against available targets with the available weapons. In place of maneuvering divisions the terrorist uses bombs, in place of aerial raids he uses hostage taking and extortion, and in place of a naval blockade he uses murder. Terrorist acts can be conducted to gain a concession from the other side or just to inflict pain on ones adversary as a mode of revenge4. The terrorist believes that with every act he is striking the enemy, hurting the enemy and wearing down the enemies resolve to fight.

The terrorist sees his actions as the only way to resolve the situation; any audience that he may alienate or turn against him is the enemy. A nations refusal to negotiate with terrorists because this may cause more acts of violence, as well as the stigma attached to terrorism, are not recognized due to his bounded rationality. Refusal to comply with the terrorists demands are signs of aggression by the enemy, and the terrorist must do what he can to avoid further loses. A domestic or international political movement to bring about change takes time, because the terrorist is in a domain of loss time is not an option open to him. The situation needs to be resolved immediately before any more loses are incurred. So even though political action is perceived by those outside of the terrorists mind set as a preferable negotiating method, the way the terrorist misperceives the situation doesn’t allow him to pursue the political option.

An Example

A recent case that illustrates these points is Osama Bin Laden. He is believed to be behind the embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya5, as well as other past terrorist activities such as the bombings of American military personal in Saudi Arabia6. While his personal fortune of three hundred million dollars7 is no small amount to an individual, compared to the 7.61 trillion dollars the United States produces a year and the 1.351 trillion dollars in tax revenue the government collects1, it is a drop in the bucket. The resources he may be able to acquire in a lifetime can’t even compare to what is available to the United States in a day. But he persists in a campaign of violence against America in an effort to remove U. S. troops from Saudi soil. The overwhelming capabilities of the United States doesn’t deter him, neither does it's commitment to not bargaining with terrorists. He will continue his jihad until the American forces are removed or he is no longer capable to act8. To bring the status quo to his reference point Bin Laden is willing to engage in extremely risky behavior. Another day of U. S. troops on Saudi soil increases his loss, and being financially independent (freelance) shields him from any pressure the U. S. is able to apply on other nation states. The only way to halt his activities then is to withdraw the troops from Saudi Arabia or to strike at Bin Laden himself.

Counter terrorism

How can terrorist acts be countered? What is the best way to deter terrorism in the future? What are the options available to the U.S.? Counter terrorism is reactive rather than proactive. While actions can be taken to lessen the impact or likelihood of terrorism- such as bomb detection, access control, terror-proof architecture, security measures and education to avoid becoming an easy terrorist target- these will not stop the most committed of terrorists, just make their job more difficult. Only once the bomb has exploded, the hostages taken or the person or people have been murdered can a government react. The investigation begins and if the nation is lucky it may obtain evidence and or information that will identify the assailants. Then what? If the group is state sponsored the U. S. government can use various political, economic and military pressure to induce the rouge nation to stop sponsoring terrorism and extradite the criminals. But if the terrorist is a freelancer political and financial pressure won’t work, the terrorist is independent of these pressures. The United States does not conduct diplomacy or negotiations with terrorists for fear it may breed further terrorism. Besides it has already been stated the terrorist has bounded rationality, so the only deal he will accept are on his terms (reference point, status quo). This leaves the military option, but what type?

The U.S. has an array of military options to punish those responsible for engaging in terrorist acts against its citizens. They range from cruise missile strikes and aerial bombardment- which shows the weakest resolve because they risk the least amount of potential loss- to commando insurgency and extraction of the freelance terrorist from his safe haven- which demonstrates strong resolve because of the greater potential for loss and failure9. Which is the better option?

The goal of the action taken by the U.S. in response to a terrorist act should be two fold- to punish those responsible for the previous act and to deter any future ones. Punishment can take many forms, the most extreme of which would be death to the terrorist responsible for the act, which could happen through launching cruise missiles at each of the terrorists known hideouts and or reported sighting. But this is not effective in building threat creditability because it shows the least resolve, and so it is not the best way to deter future terrorism. To deter the message must be clear , statements such as "We will take the fight to the terrorists" and "The most powerful weapon in our arsenal is our determination never to give up"10 must hold as much weight as possible. To stand the best chance at working, a deterrence threat must meet the four waves of deterrence theory. These are demonstrating capabilities and resolve, controllability and calculability of risks and avoidance of misperception of threat11. A commando insurgency meets all of these waves.

It is the best way to demonstrate resolve because of all the factors that can upset the mission and incur great loss therefore make it the most risky. A successful demonstration of capability will send a clear message that terrorists acts will be meet with punishment. The risks can be controlled and calculated, even though the terrorist can expect an attempt at being captured he won’t know where or when. With good intelligence and continual monitoring the commando team can wait until it is the best time for them to act, and under which circumstances. To avoid the terrorist from misperceiving the threat, a reputation must be built and the best reputation for this type of deterrence is tit for tat, as demonstrated in a game of iterated prisoners’ dilemma.

A Rational Choice

A prisoners’ dilemma "is a game of conflict in which the reward for unilateral noncooperation exceeds both benefit for mutual cooperation and cost of mutual conflict."12 In this game the player’s incentive to cooperate is out weighed by it’s incentive to defect. As previously demonstrated, both the freelance terrorist and the nation state choose to defect rather than cooperate. In iterated prisoners' dilemma, a prisoners' dilemma game that will be repeated numerous times in the future, Axlerod demonstrates that the best continual strategy to play for all scenarios is tit for tat13. Tit for tat is a strategy that a players first move is to cooperate and then respond to the other players corresponding move by mimicking it. Thus if the other player wishes to cooperate (act within accepted norms of behavior) than the first player will cooperate as well and both receive the reward for mutual cooperation, although the reward for one player to defect and the other to cooperate is higher for the player who defects, creating the suckers payoff. However, if the other player defects then the first player defects as well (terrorist act, counter terrorist act) and both player's are punished, which is a worse result for both players as compared to cooperating, and just as bad as being the sucker in the suckers payoff. What tit for tat does is send a clear message, it builds a reputation, and it is the best way for a player to ensure his message won’t be misperceived. It is the best strategy to avoid future losses if the players are acting from a domain of loss, it induces cooperation all by it’s self.

Is it Legal?

Therefore a commando strike against a known terrorist sends a clear message of resolve and capability, allowing the commandos to control the situation through good intelligence and surveillance. But is it legal? Will it stop future terrorist acts? Article 51 of the UN Charter says that a nation may use force for the purpose of self-defense. International precedent has stated that preemptive force can be used in anticipation to an armed attack through the Caroline incident in 1837, when the British sunk a U.S. ship helping Canadian insurgents14. Preemptive force (such as a raid into another countries territory) then may be used against an armed attack (an act of terrorism). Therefore, if U.S. intelligence discovers terrorists training and preparing to attack an U.S. target, the U.S. may then use force to prevent the attack. It can be argued that once a terrorist has committed an act, and if the situation is not then resolved in his favor, he will continue to act until his reference point is achieved or he is prevented from acting further. So the U.S. may legally use article 51 as retaliation for a past attack in order to prevent a future one. As for stopping all future terrorist attacks commando insurgency, preemptive strikes, cruise missiles or whatever else is unlikely. Israel has built a clear reputation for retaliating against terrorism and they are still targets for terrorists. It seems that once a disaffected person is convinced that there is no other way to achieve his ideal of the status quo, nothing will deter him, not even death. As seen in the most extreme cases of terrorism, the suicide bomber. Even though commando insurgency can’t prevent all acts of terrorism, it will send a clear message and deter all but the most committed. For those terrorists, they can be brought to justice for their crimes, poetic or otherwise.

Policy Option

To conclude, a terrorist is a fanatic. This does not mean he is insane or irrational just that he is willing to commit himself completely to a cause, for which he has no qualms performing violent acts on be half of. The freelance terrorist is immune to political and financial pressure governments can impose on one another, leaving the only way to effectively deal with him is through the military. The clearest military act that demonstrates the most resolve as well as capability is the commando insurgency. This builds a reputation favorable towards deterrence as well as assists in bringing the terrorist to justice. Presently this does not seem to be the U.S. policy, so changes must happen in order to allow this. To begin with, international counter terrorism is handled through the State Department where it is subject to being diluted through that agency’s bureaucracy14. It needs to be transferred to the Department of Defense, this will allow for quick action in response to terrorist incidents. Of course the DOD can’t send Seal Team Six or Delta Force, the U.S. militaries counter terrorist strike teams, on missions on a whim, there must be close cooperation with the U.S. intelligence agencies and approval of the President. Once the structure is in place to deploy a rapid response to acts of terrorism, it must be used. This requires leaders who insert meaning into their rhetoric on protecting American citizens. It will also require convincing the American public that in order to protect civilian lives; it may be necessary to risk some military ones. Our high-tech, low cost (in terms of risk) weapon systems aren’t the best way to resolve terrorism. If a terrorist act occurs in the future, the best policy is a clear, quick, committed response.



1 "United States" In CIA World Factbook. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, 1997. Available-

2 Lecture notes from Professor Tanter's PS472 Syllabus- www-personal.

3 Lecture notes from professor Tanter's PS472 Syllabus-

4 "The International Terrorist Threat to the US Interests" From speech given to world affairs council, San Antonio, Texas, available-

5 "Embassy Bombing's, Afghan Dilemma" Time. available-,2960,14458,00.html

6 Arnett, Peter "Wealthy Saudi may have had role in Khobar bombing"CNN. June 25, 1997. available-

7 "Saudi bomb suspect is anti-U.S. financier" Oct. 25, available-

8 Usamah bin Muhammad bin laden "Declaration of war" translation 8/ 25/ 96, available- msanews.mynet/MSANEWS/199610/19961014.2html

9 Notes from class lecture, Professor Tanter PS472, 9/ 23/ 98 (back to text)

10 Clinton, Bill. "August 8 Radio Address" 1998 Presidential Documents on line via GPO access. available- Walsdoc1d=9858911327+2+0+0&WAISaction=retrieve

11 Notes from class lecture, Professor Tanter PS472, 9/ 03/ 98(back to text)

12 Lecture Notes from Professor Tanter's PS472 Syllabus-

13 Axlerod, Robert. The Evolution of Cooperation. U.S.: Basic Books, 1984. (back to text)

14 Stoffa, Adam Paul "Special Forces, Counter terrorism, and the law of Armed Conflict" Studies in conflict and Terrorism. Volume 18, pp 47-65. (Go back to text.)