Confronting Terrorism: New War Form or Mission Impossible?

By Gotowicki, Stephen H. | Military Review, May/June 1997 | Go to article overview

Confronting Terrorism: New War Form or Mission Impossible?


Gotowicki, Stephen H., Military Review


Terrorism is not fundamentally a military problem; it is a political, social and economic problem. The military. by its nature, is not suitably structured, trained or equipped to defeat terrorism Unfortunately, in many cases, the US military and American citizens are primary terrorist targets around the world. The military may be able to contribute to the fight against terrorism, but it should not lead the fight. The military's primary focus should be force protection.

THE MIDDLE EAST has long been the most dangerous source of terrorism in the world. Over the past 18 months, several painful events have raised the specter of terrorism against the United States and its interests. In November 1995, five Americans and two Indian nationals died when the offices of the Project Manager-Saudi Arabian National Guard (PM-SANG) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, were bombed. On 25 February 1996, back-to-back bomb explosions aboard city buses in Jerusalem killed 44 Israeli citizens. The following week, bombs exploded in Askelon and in the crowded business district of downtown Tel Aviv, killing an additional 33 Israelis. The United States viewed the bombings in Israel as attacks against an ally and against US interests in a comprehensive Middle East peace. Then, in June 1996, US Air Force housing at Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, was bombed, resulting in 19 Americans killed and 260 wounded.

These events have heightened US concern about terrorism and again raised calls to vigorously fight this modern plague. Although some senior officials have referred to terrorism as a new war form, it is not new. The United States has a fairly long history of facing terrorism: the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, the World Trade Center in New York and the federal building in Oklahoma City; the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland; and the 1985 hijacking of TWA flight 857 that resulted in a US Navy SEAL's death. In addition, TWA flight 800, which exploded en route to Paris from New York, may have been hit by terrorists.

This article argues that attempting to combat terrorism through military means alone is a "mission impossible." Terrorism is not fundamentally a military problem; it is a political, social and economic problem. The military, by its nature, is not suitably structured, trained or equipped to defeat terrorism. Unfortunately, in many cases, the US military and American citizens are primary terrorist targets around the world. The military may be able to contribute to the fight against terrorism, but it should not lead the fight. The military's primary focus should be force protection.

The first sentence in US Army Field Manual (FM) 100-37, Terrorism Counteraction, is: "Army doctrine and US government policy do not indicate that there is a purely military solution to the threat of terrorism." This statement is endorsed by many historical precedents, which include:

* The demonstrated failure of Israel Defense Forces (IDF)the Middle East's most powerful military force-to prevent Hamas-the Islamic Resistance Movement-from bombing Israeli citizens within Israel; to prevent or terminate the Palestinian uprising-the Intifada; or to prevent Hizb'allah Katyusha attacks against northern Israel during Operation Grapes of Wrath, Israel's abortive attack on Hizb'allah and Lebanon in 1996.

* The inability of the British army to deter Irish Republican Army terrorist actions in Northern Ireland or within Britain.

* The inability of the United States to prevent or punish those involved in the bombing of the Marine Corps barracks at Beirut airport, the PM-SANG office in Riyadh and Khobar Towers in Dhahran.1

The Department of Defense defines terrorism as: "The calculated use of violence or 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. …

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