This report addresses the question of what terrorists hold in value, a question asked in order to assess some means and strategies for deterring, deflecting, or preventing terrorist activities. We approach the question at several levels, moving from the use of short-term deterrent strategies to the modification of the broader contexts and conditions conducive to terrorist activities in the long run. We focus on contemporary Islamic terrorism but deal with generic dimensions in many instances.
The report does not address domestic, or homeland, aspects of terrorism, which are covered in detail in two National Academies reports, Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism (National Research Council, 2002) and Terrorism: Perspectives from the Behavioral and Social Sciences (National Research Council, in press). Nor does it recommend policy strategies based on the application of its conclusions.
Deterrence as a known strategy is demonstrated to have a positive role in contending with terrorists, though terrorism poses special problems that limit its effectiveness and call for modifications. Among those problems are (a) difficulties in getting unambiguous and credible threats across to terrorists, (b) the unwillingness of terrorists to communicate except indirectly and on their own terms, (c) exceptionally high levels of mutual distrust, (d) uncertainty about how to affect what terrorists value, and (e) uncertainty about the targets to which threats should be directed.
In light of these problems, the best policy may be one of deterrent threats combined with policies of working with and through third parties who may have the capacity to influence
terrorists. Among such parties are state regimes that harbor terrorists, moderate political and social groups in such states, neighboring regimes, and U.S. allies.
Terrorists carry out their activities before a number of different audiences— potential recruits, their own memberships, states and politically interested groupings (“sentiment pools”) in societies in which they operate, the media and its imagined readership, audiences in enemy societies, and the audience of “world public opinion.” These audiences are both sources of potential support and foci of vulnerability for terrorism.
Terrorist organizations are typically far-flung networks that rely on secrecy, invisibility, flexibility, extreme commitment on the part of members, and coordination of military-like activities as their trademarks. These features are sources of both strength and vulnerability.
Moving to broader contexts and conditions, we identify three factors that help explain the rise of terrorism as a form of activity: the great asymmetry of economic, political, and military power in the world; the availability of weapons of mass destruction; and the permeability of world society occasioned by processes of globalization.
With respect to political context, terrorism and its supporting audiences appear to be fostered by policies of extreme political repression and discouraged by policies of incorporating both dissident and moderate groups responsibly into civil society and the political process.
With respect to economic and social conditions, many societies that foster terrorism are characterized by high population growth and large numbers of disadvantaged youth and by extreme economic inequality and poverty. When these conditions combine with strong—sometimes religiously reinforced—anti-Western ideologies, a fertile field for supporting terrorism is generated.
The panel ventures the several specific recommendations about deterrence and prevention that follow from our analysis:
Deterrence, understood conventionally as the direct use
of threats, punishments, and inducements to prevent enemy action, has a viable place in dealing with terrorists (supporting text, pp. 8-14).
Many of the assumptions of conventional deterrence, however—availability of channels of communication, credibility among communicating parties, knowing what adversaries value—are not likely to be present in contemporary terrorist situations. As a result, reliance on direct deterrence can be only somewhat effective. In addition, direct threats and perceived overretaliation may have counterproductive effects with respect to generating support for terrorist groups and activities by previously uncommitted audiences (supporting text, pp. 10-14).
Direct efforts to deter should therefore be accompanied by working through all available third parties—societies hosting terrorist organizations, countries trusted by host societies, or the United States’s own allies—who may have more credibility with and influence on terrorist organizations than this country, as enemy, does (supporting text, pp. 14-16).
Whenever possible, policies should be directed toward distancing and alienating relevant audiences from terrorist organizations and activities. The incorporation of potentially extremist political groups into the civil society of actual and potential host societies is especially important (supporting text, pp. 16-22).
Intelligence, infiltration, and related activities should be directed at points of vulnerability of terrorist organizations— their reliance on audience, their ideological inflexibility, their problems of maintaining commitments, and their potential for organizational failure (supporting text, pp. 22-25).
The social conditions fostering the use of terrorism are complex and include demographic, economic, political, and educational factors. In the long run, preventive strategies should include improving these conditions in countries vulnerable to terrorist organizations and activities, as a means of diminishing the probabilities of their emergence and crystallization (supporting text, pp. 25-31).
The one sure conclusion emerging from this report about strategies for countering terrorism is that there are no silver bullets or quick fixes available. It is possible to specify more effective and less effective deterrent and preventive policies at various levels and under different conditions. However, the