The Military Response to Terrorism

By Kosnik, Mark E. | Naval War College Review, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

The Military Response to Terrorism


Kosnik, Mark E., Naval War College Review


OVER THE PAST THIRTY YEARS, INTERNATIONAL state-sponsored terrorism has emerged as a concern for the United States. Although the number of terrorist acts varies from year to year, even during periods of minimal activity terrorism remains a frequent topic in the media and an issue for policy makers. The 1998 bombings of two embassies in Africa, resulting in over two hundred deaths, reminded the American leadership and public that terrorism remains a danger in an increasingly unstable world.

Of all the tools used by the United States to contain terrorism, none has been more controversial than military force. Skeptics argue that military force does not deter terrorism and in fact only results in more violence, when the terrorist retaliates. Certainly, collateral damage, casualties to innocent civilians and U.S. servicemen, damage to international alliances, and other undesirable outcomes can result from any military operation. Nonetheless, the record supports the view that military force can be a valuable part of the U.S. strategy to contain terrorism: under certain conditions, the political and strategic gains justify employment of military force against terrorism, as a complement to efforts in the political, economic, and law enforcement arenas.

This article presents three historical cases: the U.S. air strikes in Libya in 1986, the cruise missile attacks on Iraq in 1993, and the cruise missile strikes against Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998. We will examine the military, political, and strategic outcomes from each of these incidents, asking in each case exactly what the use of military force accomplished.

Why were these particular cases selected? There are few from which to choose; the United States has seldom used military force to counter terrorism. The Iraqi case is somewhat problematic, because although the U.S. military action was specifically a response to a terrorist threat, it is more properly viewed as part of the larger confrontation between the United States and Iraq, unrelated to terrorism; the Sudan and Afghanistan strikes are very recent, and their long-term results are yet to unfold. Nonetheless, these uses of military force were responses to three of the most significant terrorist acts committed against U.S. interests in the past thirty years, and they are among the clearest examples available.

Case One: Libya, 1986

Colonel Muammar Qaddafi rose to power in Libya by a coup, overthrowing King Idris I in September 1969. Almost from the beginning, Qaddafi extended support to terrorist or guerrilla groups across the globe that were anti-Western or anti-American. Throughout the 1970s, Qaddafi sponsored terrorists as diverse as the infamous "Carlos," the Red Brigades of Italy, the Red Army in Germany, Direct Action in France, FP-25 in Portugal, neo-Nazi activists in Spain, and right-wing terrorists in Italy and Germany.1 He also built a highly effective terrorist organization within Libya, responsible for the 1973 attack on the Information Service installation at the American consulate in Morocco and for the seizure (in which two Americans were killed) of the U.S. embassy in Khartoum, Sudan.2 Qaddafi developed ties with the most extreme and violent terrorist groups of the day, including Abu Nidal, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and state-terrorist organizations in Syria and Iran.3

Ronald Reagan's administration saw Libya as the primary terrorist threat. Qaddafi was contributing to a new and increasingly more violent wave of terrorism, and he was openly calling for attacks on the West, and praising even the most brutal actions. Qaddafi had become both the personification and symbolic leader of an emerging international terrorist threat.

For the Reagan administration, the increasingly frequent and violent terrorist acts of Middle Eastern groups took center stage. There was clear evidence that three countries-Libya, Syria, and Iran-were responsible for this wave of violence. …

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