The Basics: Combatting Terrorism

There is much confusion over what terrorism is and is not. The following is an essay from the US Army’s Command & General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The essay does an excellent job of explaining not only the basics of terrorism, but also details the US policy towards this phenomenon.

U.S. Army, Field Manual 100-20, Stability and Support Opperations, (Final Draft), “Chapter 8: Combatting Terrorism.”


Terrorism is a special type of violence. It is a tactic used in peace, conflict, and war. The threat of terrorism is ever present, and an attack is likely to occur when least expected. A terrorist attack may be the event that marks the transition from peace to conflict or war. Combatting terrorism is a factor to consider in all military plans and operations. Combatting terrorism requires a continuous state of awareness; it is a necessary practice rather than a type of military operation. Detailed guidance for establishing an organizational program to combat terrorism, including preventive and protective measures and incident response planning, can be found in Joint Publication 3-07.2 (1993). Terrorism is a criminal offense under nearly every national or international legal code. With few exceptions, acts of terrorism are forbidden in war as they are in times of peace. See, for example, the Hague Regulation of 1907 and the Geneva Conventions of 1949.


The DOD definition of terrorism is “the calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.”

This definition was carefully crafted to distinguish between terrorism and other kinds of violence. The act of terrorism is defined independent of the cause that motivates it. People employ terrorist violence in the name of many causes. The tendency to label as terrorism any violent act of which we do not approve is erroneous. Terrorism is a specific kind of violence.

The official definition says that terrorism is calculated. Terrorists generally know what they are doing. Their selection of a target is planned and rational. They know the effect they seek. Terrorist violence is neither spontaneous nor random. Terrorism is intended to produce fear; by implication, that fear is engendered in someone other than the victim. In other words, terrorism is a psychological act conducted for its impact on an audience.

Finally, the definition addresses goals. Terrorism may be motivated by political, religious, or ideological objectives. In a sense, terrorist goals are always political, as extremists driven by religious or ideological beliefs usually seek political power to compel society to conform to their views. The objectives of terrorism distinguish it from other violent acts aimed at personal gain, such as criminal violence. However, the definition permits including violence by organized crime when it seeks to influence government policy. Some drug cartels and other international criminal organizations engage in political action when their activities influence governmental functioning. The essence of terrorism is the intent to induce fear in someone other than its victims to make a government or other audience change its political behavior.

Terrorism is common practice in insurgencies, but insurgents are not necessarily terrorists if they comply with the rules of war and do not engage in those forms of violence identified as terrorist acts. While the legal distinction is clear, it rarely inhibits terrorists who convince themselves that their actions are justified by a higher law. Their single-minded dedication to a goal, however poorly it may be articulated, renders legal sanctions relatively ineffective. In contrast, war is subject to rules of international law. Terrorists recognize no rules. No person, place, or object of value is immune from terrorist attack. There are no innocents.

This situation did not always prevail. Throughout history, extremists have practiced terrorism to generate fear and compel a change in behavior. Frequently, terrorism was incidental to other forms of violence, such as war or insurgency. Before the nineteenth century, terrorists usually granted certain categories of people immunity from attack. Like other warriors, terrorists recognized innocents– people not involved in conflict. Terrorists usually excluded women, children, and the elderly from target lists. For example, in late nineteenth-century Russia, radicals planning the assassination of Tsar Alexander II aborted several planned attacks because they risked harming innocent people. Old-school terrorism was direct; it intended to produce a political effect through the injury or death of the victim.

The development of bureaucratic states led to a profound change in terrorism. Modern governments have a continuity that older, personalistic governments did not. Terrorists found that the death of a single individual, even a monarch, did not necessarily produce the policy changes they sought. Terrorists reacted by turning to an indirect method of attack. By the early twentieth century, terrorists began to attack people previously considered innocents to generate political pressure. These indirect attacks create a public atmosphere of anxiety and undermine confidence in government. Their unpredictability and apparent randomness make it virtually impossible for governments to protect all potential victims. The public demands protection that the state cannot give. Frustrated and fearful, the people then demand that the government make concessions to stop the attacks.

Modern terrorism offers its practitioners many advantages. First, by not recognizing innocents, terrorists have an infinite number of targets. They select their target and determine when, where, and how to attack. The range of choices gives terrorists a high probability of success with minimum risk. If the attack goes wrong or fails to produce the intended results, the terrorists can deny responsibility.

Ironically, as democratic governments become more common it may be easier for terrorists to operate. The terrorist bombings of the New York City World Trade Center and the Oklahoma City Federal Building prove how easy it is for terrorists to operate in a free and democratic society. Authoritarian governments whose populace may have a better reason to revolt may also be less constrained by requirements for due process and impartial justice when combatting terrorists.

As commanders and staffs address terrorism, they must consider several relevant characteristics. First is that anyone can be a victim. (Some terrorists may still operate under cultural restraints, such as a desire to avoid harming women, but the planner cannot count on that. Essentially, there are no innocents.) Second, attacks that may appear to be senseless and random are not. To the perpetrators, their attacks make perfect sense. Acts such as bombing public places of assembly and shooting into crowded restaurants heighten public anxiety. This is the terrorists’ immediate objective. Third, the terrorist needs to publicize his attack. If no one knows about it, it will not produce fear. The need for publicity often drives target selection; the greater the symbolic value of the target, the more publicity the attack brings to the terrorists and the more fear it generates. Finally, a leader planning for combatting terrorism must understand that he cannot protect every possible target all the time. He must also understand that terrorists will likely shift from more protected targets to less protected ones. This is the key to defensive measures.


Terrorists are inspired by many different motives. Students of terrorism classify them into three categories: rational, psychological, and cultural. A terrorist may be shaped by combinations of these.

Rational Motivation

The rational terrorist thinks through his goals and options, making a cost-benefit analysis. He seeks to determine whether there are less costly and more effective ways to achieve his objective than terrorism. To assess the risk, he weighs the target’s defensive capabilities against his own capabilities to attack. He measures his group’s capabilities to sustain the effort. The essential question is whether terrorism will work for the desired purpose, given societal conditions at the time. The terrorist’s rational analysis is similar to that of a military commander or a business entrepreneur considering available courses of action.

Groups considering terrorism as an option ask a crucial question: Can terrorism induce enough anxiety to attain its goals without causing a backlash that will destroy the cause and perhaps the terrorists themselves? To misjudge the answer is to risk disaster. Recent history offers examples of several groups that had apparently good prospects for success which paid the price of misjudging reaction to terrorism. In the early 1970s, the Tupamaros in Uruguay and the ERP (People’s Revolutionary Army) and Montoneros in Argentina misjudged a hostile popular reaction to terrorism. They pushed the societies beyond their threshold of tolerance and were destroyed as a result. The same is true of several groups operating in Turkey in the late 1970s and, possibly, several Mafiosi families in Italy in the 1990s.

Psychological Motivation

Psychological motivation for terrorism derives from the terrorist’s personal dissatisfaction with his life and accomplishments. He finds his raison d’etre in dedicated terrorist action. Although no clear psychopathy is found among terrorists, there is a nearly universal element in them that can be described as the “true believer.”2 Terrorists do not even consider that they may be wrong and that others’ views may have some merit. Terrorists tend to project their own antisocial motivations onto others, creating a polarized “we versus they” outlook. They attribute only evil motives to anyone outside their own group. This enables the terrorists to dehumanize their victims and removes any sense of ambiguity from their minds. The resulting clarity of purpose appeals to those who crave violence to relieve their constant anger. The other common characteristic of the psychologically motivated terrorist is the pronounced need to belong to a group. With some terrorists, group acceptance is a stronger motivator than the stated political objectives of the organization. Such individuals define their social status by group acceptance.

Terrorist groups with strong internal motivations find it necessary to justify the group’s existence continuously. A terrorist group must terrorize. As a minimum, it must commit violent acts to maintain group self-esteem and legitimacy. Thus, terrorists sometimes carry out attacks that are objectively nonproductive or even counterproductive to their announced goal.

Another result of psychological motivation is the intensity of group dynamics among terrorists. They tend to demand unanimity and be intolerant of dissent. With the enemy clearly identified and unequivocally evil, pressure to escalate the frequency and intensity of operations is ever present. The need to belong to the group discourages resignations, and the fear of compromise disallows their acceptance. Compromise is rejected, and terrorist groups lean toward maximalist positions. Having placed themselves beyond the pale, forever unacceptable to ordinary society, they cannot accept compromise. They consider negotiation dishonorable, if not treasonous. This may explain why terrorist groups are prone to fracturing and why the splinters are frequently more violent than their parent group.

The Jewish experience in Palestine is a classic example of splintering. In 1931, Haganah B broke from Haganah; in 1936, Irgun Svai Leumi split from Haganah B; and in 1940, Lochamei Herut Israel, or the Stern Gang, broke from Irgun. Each successive group was more rigid and violence-prone than its parent.

The psychodynamics also make the announced group goal nearly impossible to achieve. A group that achieves its stated purpose is no longer needed; thus, success threatens the psychological well-being of its members. When a terrorist group approaches its stated goal, it is inclined to redefine it. The group may reject the achievement as false or inadequate or the result of the duplicity of “them.” Nicaragua’s Recontras, The Basque ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, “Basque Fatherland and Liberty”), and many Palestinian radical groups apparently suffer from fear of success. One effective psychological defense against success is to define goals so broadly that they are impossible to achieve. Even if the world proclaims the success of a political movement, the terrorists can deny it and fight on.

Cultural Motivation

Cultures shape values and motivate people to actions that seem unreasonable to foreign observers. Americans are reluctant to appreciate the intense effect of culture on behavior. We accept the myth that rational behavior guides all human actions. Even though irrational behavior occurs in our own tradition, we seek to explain it by other means. We reject as unbelievable such things as vendettas, martyrdom, and self-destructive group behavior when we observe them in others. We view with disbelief such things as the dissolution of a viable state for the sake of ethnic purity when the resulting ministates are economically anemic.

The treatment of life in general and individual life in particular is a cultural characteristic that has a tremendous impact on terrorism. In societies in which people identify themselves in terms of group membership (family, clan, tribe), there may be a willingness to self-sacrifice seldom seen elsewhere. (Note, however, that American soldiers are less surprised at heroic sacrifice for one’s military unit; the difference among cultures is in the group with which one identifies.) At times, terrorists seem to be eager to give their lives for their organization and cause. The lives of “others,” being wholly evil in the terrorists’ value system, can be destroyed with little or no remorse.

Other factors include the manner in which aggression is channeled and the concepts of social organization. For example, the ambient level of violence is shaped by the political structure and its provisions for power transfer. Some political systems have no effective nonviolent means for the succession to power. A culture may have a high tolerance for nonpolitical violence, such as banditry or ethnic “turf” battles, and remain relatively free of political violence. The United States, for example, is one of the most violent societies in the world. Yet, political violence remains an aberration. By contrast, France and Germany, with low tolerance for violent crime, have a history of political violence.

A major cultural determinate of terrorism is the perception of “outsiders” and anticipation of a threat to ethnic group survival. Fear of cultural extermination leads to violence which, to someone who does not experience it, seems irrational. All human beings are sensitive to threats to the values by which they identify themselves. These include language, religion, group membership, and homeland or native territory. The possibility of losing any of these can trigger defensive, even xenophobic, reactions.

Religion may be the most volatile of cultural identifiers because it encompasses values deeply held. A threat to one’s religion puts not only the present at risk but also one’s cultural past and the future. Many religions, including Christianity and Islam, are so confident they are right that they have used force to obtain converts. Terrorism in the name of religion can be especially violent. Like all terrorists, those who are religiously motivated view their acts with moral certainty and even divine sanctions. What would otherwise be extraordinary acts of desperation become a religious duty in the mind of the religiously motivated terrorist. This helps explain the high level of commitment and willingness to risk death among religious extremist groups.


Terrorists organize to function in the environments where they carry out their acts. Organizational details are situation-specific. There are, however, a few general organizational principles. Because terrorists must operate in a hostile environment, security is their primary concern. Security is best served by a cellular structure in which members do not know and cannot identify more than a few of their colleagues in the event of capture or defection. Defection is rare in most groups; defectors or even dissenters are frequently killed or maimed. Yet, terrorists are not immune to human weaknesses. Unless they are united by a charismatic leader, terrorists are affected by group dynamics that produce both problems and opportunities for security forces. Opportunities arise because internal dissension causes security leaks; problems arise because operational patterns may change as different factions prevail.

Terrorist groups that are not supported by a government usually create a support structure of sympathizers and people who have been coerced into helping them. The support structure may comprise active and passive members. It furnishes the active terrorists with logistic support, intelligence, dissemination of propaganda, recruiting, and money.

Terrorist recruitment and training are, predictably, security-sensitive. Among groups that are not ethnic-based, the usual sources of recruits are high school and college students who show commitment to the cause. Ethnically based terrorist groups recruit new members personally known to them, people whose backgrounds are known and who often have family ties to the organization. Intelligence penetration of organizations recruited in this way is extremely difficult.

Terrorist training varies considerably. Those with military experience or who have received prolonged training at sophisticated facilities are the equals of most state security forces. At the other end of the spectrum are “throw away” operatives who get little more than inspirational talks before being activated. Typical training includes instruction in the use of small arms and explosives along with intelligence collection and indoctrination in the group’s cause.

Contemporary terrorist actions include the traditional assassinations, bombings, arson, hostage-taking, hijacking, kidnapping, seizure and occupation of a building, attacks on a facility, sabotage, and perpetration of hoaxes. Newer categories of operations include ecological terrorism and the still largely potential “high-tech” terrorism using nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) weapons and materials. Target selection considerations are equally diverse but include the target’s value in terms of its contribution to group goals, its accessibility given group capabilities, and the purpose of the attack, such as to gain attention, collect resources, eliminate a threat, or demonstrate a capability. All these factors are reflected in the group’s organization and training.


Combatting terrorism involves two sets of actions to oppose terrorism: antiterrorism (defensive measures) and counterterrorism (offensive measures). Antiterrorism is defined as “defensive measures used to reduce the vulnerability of individuals and property to terrorist acts, to include limited response and containment by local military forces.” Counterterrorism involves those offensive measures taken to prevent, deter, and respond to terrorism. Counterterrorism programs, which will not be addressed here, are classified and addressed in various national security decision directives, national security directives, and contingency plans. This publication addresses only antiterrorism.

Combatting Terrorism and the Principles of Stability and Support Operations

The principles of stability and support operations offer guidance about the range of combat and noncombat operations in peace and conflict. In the following paragraphs, these requirements for success are applied to various aspects of combatting terrorism.


The general objective of combatting terrorism programs is neutralizing terrorist groups. As in most stability and support operations, neutralization in this context means rendering the source of threat benign, not necessarily killing the terrorists. In antiterrorism, the objective can be further refined as preventing attacks and minimizing the effects if one should occur. It includes any action to weaken the terrorist organization and its political power and to make potential targets more difficult to attack. Counterterrorism includes spoiling action, deterrence, and response.

Unity of Effort

As in all stability and support operations, interagency action is required to combat terrorism. Unity of effort requires ways to integrate the actions of various responsible agencies of the US and foreign governments. Intelligence is particularly important and sensitive. International cooperation in combatting terrorism has advanced to the point at which it is not unusual for a deployed US Army unit to interact with several US government intelligence agencies which, in turn, are interacting with multiple international systems. An Army unit is also likely to have close intelligence relations with host country military and civilian agencies.

Unfortunately, it is easier to prescribe unity of effort than to achieve it. In circumstances where multiple police and intelligence agencies have vague and overlapping charters and jurisdictions, friction is bound to occur. As in other aspects of stability and support operations, the solution lies in negotiation and consensus-building. Fortunately, experience has proved that cooperation at the local unit or installation level is relatively easy to obtain.


Legitimacy is not usually a problem in combatting terrorism since the right of self-defense is universally recognized and, as indicated above, terrorist acts are crimes in peace, conflict, or war. Security forces might bring their legitimacy into question by failing to distinguish between those perpetrating, aiding, or abetting terrorism and others who might sympathize with their cause but do not engage in violent acts. Failure to consider proportionality can also tarnish the American image of legitimacy. An overreaction that results in the avoidable deaths of hostages while security forces are attempting to neutralize terrorists, for example, raises questions of judgment as well as the legitimacy of the undertaking.

Patience and Perseverance

Patience and perseverance are the hallmarks of successful programs to combat terrorism. In any country or region, there are few terrorists relative to the population. Identifying and capturing them is difficult and entails tedious police and intelligence work. It is filled with frustration. Antiterrorism efforts are also low-key and inglorious, requiring patience and running contrary to American culture. Perhaps the most irritating aspect of defense against terrorism is that success is hard to identify. For example, if there is no incident, it may be because the defensive measures are effective. On the other hand, it is equally likely that the terrorists never intended to attack in the first place. Rarely will success be measurable, but defensive efforts must continue.


Restraint is necessary to both objective and legitimacy in the context of combatting terrorism. Premature action against individuals, for example, can be counterproductive if it interferes with developing intelligence in depth that might neutralize an entire terrorist group. Similarly, overreaction, such as imposing severe populace and resource control measures, can undermine legitimacy and unnecessarily irritate the civilian populace.


Security is the most obvious requirement in combatting terrorism. Terrorists rely on surprise and the victim’s confusion at the time of an incident. Antiterrorism involves physical security, operational security (OPSEC), and the practice of personal protective measures by all personnel. Commanders and staffs must plan their response to terrorist threats and incidents. Combatting terrorism is an aspect of force protection and is the responsibility of commanders at all echelons at all times. Properly planned and executed, the Army antiterrorism program will reduce the probability of surprise while discouraging attack by raising the risk to the attackers.

In combatting terrorism, intelligence is extraordinarily important. The essential elements of information (EEI) differ somewhat from those normally found in traditional combat situations. In addition to the terrorists’ strength, skills, equipment, logistic capabilities, leader profiles, source of supply, and tactics, more specific information is needed. This includes the groups’ goals, affiliations, indication of their willingness to kill or die for their cause, and significant events in their history, such as the death of martyrs or some symbolic event. The specific EEI are particularly important because most terrorist groups are interested in symbolically significant targets rather than in targets that would be operationally more damaging to US forces. For example, a communications center is operationally significant, but a terrorist interested in publicity to influence US policy might find a few off-duty personnel or a motor pool more appealing and probably less protected. Unless terrorists’ specific interests are known, predicting the likely target is pure chance.


Until the 1980s, the US government, like most other Western governments, considered terrorism to be primarily a police matter. The seizure of the US embassy in Teheran and subsequent car and truck bomb attacks on our facilities in Lebanon forced us to reevaluate that position. Current US policy regarding terrorism encompasses acts against Americans at home and abroad.

The United States considers all terrorist acts criminal and intolerable and condemns them without regard for their motivation. The United States will support all lawful measures to prevent terrorism and bring perpetrators to justice. We will not make any concessions to terrorist blackmail because to do so will merely invite more terrorist actions. (No concessions does not mean no negotiations.)

DOD has identified five threat levels to standardize reporting. They are based on terrorists’ existence, capability, intentions, history, targeting, and the security environment. The five levels are described below:

Critical, which means that a terrorist group has entered the country or is able to do so. It has the capability to attack and is engaged in target selection. Its history and intentions may or may not be known.

High indicates that a terrorist group exists which has the capability, history, and intention to attack.

Medium describes the same conditions as high except that intentions are unknown.

Low is a situation in which terrorist groups exist and have a capability to attack. Their history may or may not be known.

Negligible describes a situation in which the existence or capability of terrorist groups may or may not be present.

Threat levels are not the same as threat conditions (THREATCON); the latter are a matter of command decision that implements countermeasures.

THREATCONs and actions to implement them are described in AR 525-13 (1992), Joint Pub 3-07.2 (1993), and DOD Directive 2000.12 (1990).


Political violence will characterize the last years of this century and the early decades of the twenty-first century. One prominent form will be the practice of terrorism. The universal availability of weapons, explosives, and technologically sophisticated timing and triggering devices, along with the global communication revolution, adds to the terrorists’ capabilities. Increased capabilities include coordinated, nearly simultaneous attacks in several countries, fax death threats, and comparison of target lists by computer. Concurrently, intrastate conflicts, political uncertainty, and growth of ethnic challenges to the administrative state are weakening the states’ security capabilities. Coupled with the increasing porosity of state borders, these trends are making it easier for the terrorist and his supporters to move anywhere in the world with little chance of being apprehended or even identified.

Future terrorism is likely to include higher than ever levels of violence. Hijackings, kidnappings, and drive-by shootings will continue, but their shock effect has decreased with familiarity. Since terrorists need publicity to inspire fear, familiarity causes them to seek more unusual events that capture and hold public attention.

The March 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City may be typical of future terrorist attacks. If the bombing had gone as planned by the perpetrators, there might have been thousands of deaths. There was also a conspiracy to attack symbolic landmarks, including the Holland Tunnel and the United Nations headquarters, in and around New York that would have affected thousands of people and caused millions in property damage. It is not difficult to imagine the psychological effect of these types of attacks on the U.S. public.

Although technology aids in the defense against terrorism, it also provides terrorists with increased opportunities. Terrorists can operate in cyber space to destroy or manipulate information for their own purposes. Skilled “hackers” with terrorist intent can access all but the most secure data banks, stealing or changing information, or destroying it. This gives them the potential, for example, of manipulating the stock market for their own profit or to precipitate inflation or depression. There is evidence of large-scale counterfeiting of American currency to purchase weapons. This could cause serious economic disruption. Access to police and other security files can keep terrorists one step ahead of their government opponents.

Terrorists can follow the example of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and create ecological disasters by starting fires and causing chemical spills. For example, the forests of the American Northwest are vulnerable to arson. Seeking more spectacular attacks, terrorists may poison water supplies or blow up dams and levees. Chemical weapons have become increasingly powerful and easy to produce. Triggering devices have become more sophisticated. The potential for using weapons of mass destruction, including biological and nuclear material, exists.

Parallel to these ominous developments favoring the terrorist is a disturbing trend to resort to violence for an ever-widening range of causes. Terrorism is practiced on a global scale in support of criminal business initiatives, various social issues (for example, environmental and antiabortion extremists), ethnic conflicts (ranging from US street gangs to conflicts in Central Africa and South Asia), religious interpretation, traditional political power struggles, and insurgencies. Combined, these factors bode ill for the future and demand the attention of military commanders.

US military personnel will continue to be targets for terrorists for the same reason they have in the past. Collectively and individually, they symbolize US power. While no one will challenge the United States on the conventional battlefield in the foreseeable future, terrorist acts are likely to be the preferred form for expressing hostility toward the remaining superpower. Relative to the other forms of political violence, terrorism remains cheap and successful regarding limited objectives and carries low risk to the perpetrator. The activities that are likely to engage US military personnel in the near future occur in situations favorable to terrorism. These include peace operations; humanitarian assistance; and foreign internal defense where governments have failed, ethnic conflict prevails, widespread banditry exists, and weapons are readily available.

Terrorism constitutes a threat in all stability and support operations. The deployed forces’ good intentions will not preclude terrorist actions to thwart US national objectives. An effective antiterrorism program will reduce the likelihood of successful terrorist attacks but only if it is so deeply instilled that it is habitual.

OODA Analyst

OODA Analyst

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