Apocalyptic Terrorism: The Case for Preventive Action

By McMillan, Joseph | Strategic Forum, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Apocalyptic Terrorism: The Case for Preventive Action


McMillan, Joseph, Strategic Forum


Key Points

The judicious use of decisive force against terrorists and their support structures is a vital component of the U.S. strategy to defeat global terrorism. Another component is the development of a consensus that terrorism is contrary to international norms of behavior. Achieving such a consensus will be possible only if the United States can convince the world community that the counterterrorist struggle is being conducted in accordance with these norms.

The United States, therefore, needs to articulate a strong case for the right of antiterrorist intervention based on three concepts adapted from international law:

* the classification of terrorists as the common enemy of humankind

* a renewed emphasis on sovereign responsibility as the corollary of sovereign rights

* application of the logic of the inherent right of self-defense to the realities of 21st-century terrorism.

Achieving global consensus on a doctrine based upon these points will not be easy. But by articulating these principles and building on such steps as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Organization of American States characterizations of the 9/11 strikes as "armed attacks," the United States and its allies can create a body of customary international law around which global consensus in support of a right of antiterrorist intervention can coalesce.

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The nature and capabilities of 21st-century terrorists, especially those such as al Qaeda and its allies who pursue an apocalyptic agenda, make it essential that governments can take decisive preventive action, including the use of force, rather than waiting to respond to attacks after the fact. In certain circumstances, this means being able to conduct military operations on the territory of foreign countries without their consent.

Immediately after 9/11, there was little need to ponder the legitimacy of such action; global opinion expected--indeed, demanded--a robust response to the attacks that took place. Three years later, however, a worldwide consensus can no longer be taken for granted. Increasingly, voices are heard arguing that the United States lacks a sound legal basis for resorting to force in its global campaign against terrorism.

Maintaining international support for the war on terrorism demands that the United States confront head-on the complex issues raised by critics by articulating and generating support for an unassailable, legitimate basis for current and future action. In fact, the United States has a strong case that operations against terrorists on foreign soil are justified under international law and consistent with the United Nations (UN) Charter.

A Different Threat

Today's terrorist threat is decidedly different from that of the late 20th century. The radical Islamist terrorists who constitute the gravest danger operate from different motivations than their predecessors of 20 to 30 years ago, or even more territorially motivated jihadists of today such as Hamas and Hezbollah. As Bruce Hoffman observed several years before the attacks of September 11, terrorism motivated by extreme interpretations of religious doctrine "assumes a transcendental dimension, and its perpetrators are consequently unconstrained by the political, moral or practical constraints that may affect other terrorists." (1) No longer can we take for granted, as Brian Jenkins put it, that "terrorists want a lot of people watching and a lot of people listening and not a lot of people dead." (2) Some terrorists, at least, want thousands of people dead, and the fruits of globalization have afforded them such extraordinary reach and lethality that they can now make that wish come true.

A different threat implies a different strategy for combating it. It is not enough to plan defensive measures premised on raising the risks to would-be attackers if they are bent on killing themselves as an integral part of the terrorist act. …

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