representatives or symbols of a larger group in order to influence the behavior of a third party, usually a government. What sets terrorism apart from other forms of political violence, even the most proximate forms like guerrilla warfare, is the deliberate targeting of civilians, not as an unintended consequence of warfare, but as deliberate strategy.
The operational code of the current generation of transnational terrorists is to use the strengths of Western democracies against us. For example, they exploit a free press to amplify their actions and spread the fear their operations inspire. And they exploit the openness of society to operate covertly. Although basic training and recruitment may occur in the open (much as Al Qaeda operated in Afghanistan), operational planning and training are often undertaken in an undercover manner. That is, the individuals, the organizations, and their leadership attempt to keep their identities, communications, plans, and locations from being known to the targeted nation even when the terrorists are within the borders of the nation being targeted.
In addition, terrorists are prepared often to give up their lives, take the lives of innocent bystanders, and disavow other conventional forms of value in pursuit of their goals. This ferocity of commitment makes deterrence more complicated than it might be for nation-to-nation confrontation. In stark terms, what might serve to deter a suicide bomber? Whatever the answer is to this question, death is not it.
Lastly, for most practical purposes, terrorists do not appear to place many limits on the violence that they are willing to perpetrate,2 and so the specter of terrorists with weapons of mass destruction looms large in counterterrorist efforts. Likewise, the highly interdependent nature of modern society leaves the United States (and other developed nations)
A memo found on an Al Qaeda computer in late 2001 appeared to indicate that even Al Qaeda recognized some limits on the extent of violence they were willing to perpetrate. The memo said that:
Because of Saddam and the Baath Party, America punished a whole population. Thus its bombs and its embargo killed millions of Iraqi Muslims. And because of Osama bin Laden, America surrounded Afghans and bombed them, causing the death of tens of thousands of Muslims … God said to assault whoever assaults you, in a like manner … In killing Americans who are ordinarily off limits, Muslims should not exceed four million non-combatants, or render more than ten million of them homeless. We should avoid this, to make sure the penalty [that we are inflicting] is no more than reciprocal. God knows what is best.
Cited in A. Cullison, “Inside Al Qaeda’s Hard Drive,” The Atlantic Monthly, pp. 55-70, September 2004.