Counterterrorism and Military Force

The terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon on April 15 has helped revive many debates in the United States concerning how the American people and their government can best respond to the threat of terror. Before the attack begins to fade from people’s memories, two important questions in particular need to be answered. First, is the fight against terrorists first and foremost a military operation? Second, how can Americans break the cycle of fear and cynicism that often follows an act of terror? This post will respond to the first question, while an upcoming post will address the second.


Five days after the bombing, four members of the U.S. Congress publicly argued that the surviving suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was “a good candidate for enemy combatant status,” and that he should be tried in a military court. But this argument confuses two different things: the need to punish terrorists and the need (in some cases) to use military force to punish them. These needs are related, but to say that they are the same thing is to say that the U.S. (or any other country threatened by terrorism) should automatically react to terrorist threats with military force. The truth is far more complicated and nuanced.


After September 11, 2001, it was certainly necessary for the U.S. and NATO to invade Afghanistan. Only by overthrowing the Taliban could the West make a serious attempt to punish al Qaeda for its actions. Unfortunately, once the Bush administration shifted its focus toward an unwise war in Iraq, the goal of the mission in Afghanistan was lost: Were the allies trying to fully stabilize and democratize the country, or merely trying to eliminate al Qaeda there? That question was never truly answered by George W. Bush, and even as Barack Obama has begun to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan, he has failed to solve this dilemma.


If Bush and his national security team had remained focused on al Qaeda and its continued ability to launch attacks in a wide range of countries, they would have strengthened America’s ability to conduct quick, stealthy strikes against terrorist groups, making greater use of special operations forces and unmanned aircraft (as the Obama administration has done) than conventional military forces. Instead, the Bush administration saw terrorism as a problem that could largely be solved by overthrowing hostile governments (even governments, like Saddam Hussein’s, that were not actively connected to anti-American terrorism). This led the U.S. to place too much emphasis on the military aspect of counterterrorism.


Military force can and should play a part in counterterrorism. As controversial as the use of drones is, both in the U.S. and around the world, they are a key part of modern counterterrorism (although governments must remember not to rely too heavily on them). Al Qaeda may never be destroyed entirely by force of arms, but the U.S. and its allies should still make a priority of fighting the organization wherever and whenever they can, and drones have been very effective in this effort.


But while military force is a necessary component of a general strategy to fight the kind of terrorism facing the world today, it is only one of many parts. When Islamist terrorists strike the territory of a country that has been fighting Islamist terrorism on the other side of the world, military force does not make sense unless events in another country have helped lead to the attack. The Boston bombers were largely self-radicalized; they were not agents or allies of a foreign government, the way the September 11 hijackers were members of a group allied with the Afghan Taliban. They were never soldiers, and they should not be labeled enemy combatants.


As for proposals for a military tribunal in the Boston case, Tsarnaev was arrested by domestic law enforcement, and has been charged with a crime committed on American soil. A trial in a civilian court is thus the right choice.


The hysteria of those who see counterterrorism as strictly a military matter is evidence of an unfortunate cycle in American views of terrorism: panic, distrust and cynicism. This cycle will be discussed in greater detail in my next post.

Submitted by Michael D. Purzycki


The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not represent the opinions of Rutgers University or the Division of Global Affairs.

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