The Use of Force in Response to Terrorism
by Thomas Hunter
There is no question that terrorist incidents will continue to plague the international community well into the foreseeable future. One primary reason for this is the inherent difficulty involved in preventing a terrorist attack before it occurs. Another is the often fanatical nature of individuals who carry out the – often suicidal – assaults. These factors are often the primary reason that the only action that can be taken in response to terrorism is after-the fact. Herein, too, lies a significant and controversial problem; which responses are appropriate? Few disagree That economic sanctions against that nation determined to be responsible are acceptable. Nonetheless, while this action may dissuade some nations from hosting terrorist groups or providing refuge to individual perpetrators, it does little to punish those directly responsible. It is for this reason that it is important that nations are perceived as willing and able to make appropriate use of their armed forces to conduct retaliatory operations. A brief, illustrative examination of US practice and policy follows.
The policy of the United States in the use of the military in responding to terrorist incidents has remained fairly consistent in recent years. Following the bombing of the April 1986 La Belle discotheque in West Berlin (which resulted in the deaths of two US servicemen), President Ronald Reagan ordered an immediate and thorough investigation involving all major US intelligence and law enforcement services. Upon conclusive finding that the perpetrators of this incident had been trained in Libya, he ordered an airstrike on a number of targets, including terrorist training facilities. In the period of time following this attack, Libya noticeably reduced its previously active involvement in support of international terrorism. More recently, when Iraqi involvement in the plotted assassination of President Bush was verified in June 1993, President Clinton ordered a Tomahawk missile strike against the facility believed to have facilitated the planning of the operation, the headquarters complex of the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS). This attack (while later determined to be of questionable military effectiveness) provided a significant symbol of US resolve to punish those responsible involved in terrorism directed against its citizens. Following the attack, President Clinton issued this statement:
“The Government of Iraq acted unlawfully in attempting to carry out Saddam Hussein’s threats against former President Bush because of actions he took as President. The evidence of the Government of Iraq’s violence and terrorism demonstrates that Iraq poses a continuing threat to United States nationals and shows utter disregard for the will of the international community as expressed in Security Council Resolutions and the United Nations Charter. Based on the Government of Iraq’s pattern of disregard for international law, I concluded that there was no reasonable prospect that new diplomatic initiatives or economic measures could influence the current Government of Iraq to cease planning future attacks against the United States.”1.
In conclusion, it is important to note that military action should not be any nation’s automatic response to a terrorist incident. As long as the possibility exists that terrorism may be prevented or perpetrators brought to justice by means of law enforcement activity, economic sanction, or other legal means, these options should be examined and employed to the fullest reasonable extent. However, in those instances where terrorist groups or facilitating nations do not respond to these efforts, the military option must be considered. Military force, perceived or actual, is a viable tool in the war against terrorism and should be viewed as such.
1. THE WHITE HOUSE, Office of the Press Secretary June 28, 1993 TEXT OF A LETTER FROM THE PRESIDENT TO THE SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES AND THE PRESIDENT PRO TEMPORE OF THE SENATE June 28, 1993.