Responses to International Terrorism

There is no universally accepted definition of international terrorism. One definition widely used in government circles, and incorporated into law, defines international terrorism as terrorism involving the citizens or property of more than one country. Terrorism is broadly defined as politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub national groups or clandestine agents. One shortfall of this traditional definition is its focus on groups and its exclusion of individual (“lone wolf”) terrorist activity — philosophically but not organizationally aligned with any group — which has recently risen in frequency and visibility (Martin).

Current definitions of terrorism mostly share one common element: politically motivated behaviour, although religious motivation is increasingly being recognized as an important motivating factor, as high-profile activities of such groups as Al Qaeda underscore the significance of radical religious ideologies in driving terrorist violence, or at least providing a pretext. Moreover, the growth of international and transnational criminal organizations, plus the growing range and scale of such operations, have resulted in a potential for widespread criminal violence with financial profit as the driving motivation. Notwithstanding, current definitions of terrorism do not include using violence for financial profit, even in cases where mass casualties might result with entire populations “terrorized (Rubenstein).” Complicating matters is that internationally, nations and organizations historically have been unable to agree on a definition of terrorism, since one person’s terrorist is often another person’s freedom fighter.

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Past Administrations have employed a range of measures to combat international terrorism, from diplomacy, international cooperation, and constructive engagement to protective security measures, economic sanctions, covert action, and military force. The application of sanctions is one of the most frequently used anti- terrorist tools of policymakers (Hoffman).

Governments supporting international terrorism are often prohibited from receiving economic and military assistance. Exports of munitions to such countries are foreclosed, and restrictions are imposed on exports of “dual use” equipment. The presence of a country on the “terrorism list,” though, may also reflect considerations — such as its pursuit of WMD, a poor human rights record or simply U.S. domestic political considerations — that are largely unrelated to support for international terrorism (Laqueur).

In their desire to combat terrorism in a modern political context, democratic countries often face conflicting goals and courses of action: (1) providing security from terrorist acts, that is, limiting the freedom of individual terrorists, terrorist groups, and support networks to operate unimpeded in a relatively unregulated environment; versus (2) maintaining individual freedoms, democracy, and human rights. Efforts to combat terrorism are complicated by a global trend towards deregulation, open borders, and expanded commerce. The constitutional limits within which policy must operate are viewed by some to conflict directly with a desire to secure the lives of citizens more effectively against terrorist activity. A majority, however, strongly holds that no compromise of constitutional rights is acceptable (Pillar).

Another challenge for policymakers is the need to identify the perpetrators of particular terrorist acts as well as those who train, fund, or otherwise support or sponsors them. As the international community increasingly demonstrates its ability to unite and apply sanctions against “rogue” states, states will become less likely to overtly support terrorist groups or engage in state-sponsored terrorism. The possibility of covert provisioning of weapons, financing, and logistical support remains open, and detecting such transfers would require significantly increased deployment of intelligence and law enforcement assets in countries and zones where terrorists operate. Particularly challenging is identification of those “dual use” items which might creatively be adapted for military-type applications and therefore should be subject to U.S. export restrictions. Today, the U.S. policy focus is on terrorist organizations, such as Al Qaeda and affiliated networks, and state supporters (Pillar). But in the future, the recent phenomenon of new types of terrorists appears likely to continue: individuals who are not affiliated with any established terrorist organization and who are apparently not agents of any state sponsor. The terrorist Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who is believed to have masterminded the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, apparently did not belong to any larger, established, and previously identified group, although he may have had some ties to Al Qaeda operatives (Stern). Also, should organizational infrastructure of groups such as Al Qaeda continue to be disrupted the threat of individual or “boutique” terrorism, or that of “spontaneous” terrorist activity, such as the bombing of bookstores in the United States after Ayatollah Khomeini’s death edict against British author Salman Rushdie, may well increase? Thus, one profile for the terrorist of the 21st century may be that of a private individual(s) not affiliated with any established group, but drawing on other similarly-minded individuals for support. As the central focus of U.S. international counterterrorism policy is currently on state sponsors and terrorist groups, some adjustments in policies and approaches may warrant consideration.

Another problem surfacing in the wake of a number of incidents associated with Islamist fundamentalist groups is how to condemn and combat such terrorist activity, as well as the extreme and violent ideology of specific radical groups, without appearing to be anti-Islamic in general. Also, the desire to punish a state for supporting international terrorism may conflict with other foreign policy objectives involving that nation, which might require a more positive engagement.

Use of diplomacy to help create a global anti-terror coalition is a central component of the Bush Administration response to September 11 events (Pillar). For example, diplomacy was a key factor leading to the composition of the U.S.-led coalition against the Taliban. Notwithstanding, some suggest that the Administration far-too-long undervalued diplomacy and that its ability to conduct effective diplomacy has been weakened by its non-multilateral positions on a host of international issues. Moreover, diplomacy may not always be effective against determined terrorists or the countries that support them; however, in most cases, diplomatic measures are considered least likely to widen conflicts and therefore are often tried first by the United States when crises arise.

Some are concerned that diplomacy may not be sufficiently pro-active, possibly as a result of resource or funding limitations. They contend that more extensive, multi-faceted, ongoing diplomatic relations, including expanded public diplomacy initiatives, might contribute to improved international anti-terror cooperation, and argue that pro-active diplomacy is much less expensive than subsequent military or security operations which might be required if these diplomatic efforts are absent, insufficient, or unsuccessful. Moreover, they suggest that in a region(s) of the world where personal relationships are culturally important, it may be desirable to consider more funding for face-to-face diplomacy at all levels as a long-term investment in future diplomatic relations. Some contend that embassies abroad, particularly in hardship locations in the Middle East where diplomats or their families may hesitate to go, are often understaffed or underfunded, or have significant numbers of junior officers with limited diplomatic experience or language skills.  Others disagree. They contend that diplomacy is but one of many tools in the nation’s portfolio for combating terrorism, and that the current mix of policy emphasis and resources is a sound one, as evidenced by ongoing success against Al Qaeda’s operatives, network, infrastructure, and financial sources of support.

When responding to incidents of terrorism by sub national groups, reacting by constructive engagement is complicated by the lack of existing channels and mutually accepted rules of conduct between governmental entities and the groups in question. The United States has a longstanding policy of not negotiating with terrorists, or hostage takers. Some observers suggest, however, that in the changed circumstances of the 21st century, communications with terrorists in some cases may prove beneficial to U.S. interests. In this regard, practitioners who deal with the psychology of conflict may provide some useful insights.

Proponents argue that public diplomacy can play an important role in winning “hearts and minds.” The influence of public diplomacy through the media on public opinion may impact not only on the attitudes of populations and the actions of governments, but also on the actions of groups engaged in terrorist acts. Effective public diplomacy vis-à-vis the media may help mobilize public opinion in other countries to pressure governments to take action against terrorism.

Sanctions on regimes can be essentially unilateral — such as U.S. bans on trade and investment relations with Cuba and Iran — or multilateral, such as those endorsed by the United Nations in response to Libya’s involvement in the Pan Am 103 bombing. In the past, use of economic sanctions was usually predicated upon identification of a nation as an active supporter or sponsor of international terrorism. Sanctions also can be used to target assets of terrorist groups themselves. On September 23, 2001, President Bush signed Executive Order 13224, freezing the assets of 27 individuals and organizations known to be affiliated with bin Laden’s network, giving the Secretary of the Treasury broad powers to impose sanctions on
banks around the world that provide these entities access to the international financial system, and providing for designation of additional entities as terrorist organizations. By late October 2002, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, the freeze list had expanded to include designated terrorist groups, supporters, and financiers of terror. In addition, on September 28, 2001, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1373, which requires all states to “limit the ability of terrorists and terrorist organizations to operate internationally” by freezing their assets and denying them safe haven. The Security Council also set up a Counter Terrorism Committee to oversee implementation of Resolution 1373. U.N. Security Council Resolution
1390 of January 16, 2002, obligated member states to freeze funds of “individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities” associated with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. As of Intelligence gathering, infiltration of terrorist groups and military operations involve a variety of clandestine or “covert” activities. Much of this activity is of a passive monitoring nature aimed at determining the intentions, capabilities, and vulnerabilities of terrorist organization. An active form of covert activity occurs during events such as a hostage crisis or hijacking, when a foreign country may quietly request advice, equipment, technical or tactical support, with no public credit given to the providing country. Covert action may also seek to create or exploit vulnerabilities of terrorist organizations, for example, by spreading disinformation
about leaders, encouraging defections, promoting divisions between factions, or exploiting conflicts between organizations.

Some nations have periodically resorted to unconventional methods beyond their territory for the express purpose of neutralizing individual terrorists and/or thwarting pre-planned attacks. Examples of such methods might run the gamut from intercepting or sabotaging the delivery of funding or weapons to a terrorist group, to destroying a terrorist’s embryonic WMD production facilities, to seizing and transporting a wanted terrorist to stand trial for assassination or murder. Arguably, such activity might be justified as pre-emptive self-defence under Article 51 of the U.N. charter. On the other hand, it could be argued that such actions violate customary international law (Pillar).

Most agree that the evidence indicates that terrorists are both seeking to kill many people and concentrating on hitting economic targets such as support infrastructure and tourism. If correct, this might argue in favour of programs to combat terrorism which seek to safeguard nuclear materials; detect nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and conventional explosives; protect infrastructure critical to the functioning of the national and global economy; and enhance information and network security.  However, notwithstanding the best efforts of the nation and the international community, some terrorist acts likely will succeed. Since the timing, location, and nature of all future terrorist attacks are impossible to predict, much is to be said for programs which promote development of robust response capabilities in the area of disaster/crisis consequence management, including training of first responders. Due to the enormous cost of anti-terror efforts and the impossibility of omnipresent protection, difficult issues and trade-offs arise concerning cost-effectiveness, diminishing returns and levels of “acceptable losses.”

In recent years, the United Nations has strengthened its antiterrorist agenda. Its criminalizing of terrorist financing and its outreach work to member states in providing the resources needed for them to adopt and enforce antiterrorist legislation are the most significant recent UN initiatives. The world body’s list of Al Qaeda affiliated organizations that require asset freezing is a positive model for member states.

Nevertheless, the UN’s many weaknesses on the counterterrorist front impede its ability to become a more effective antiterrorist force in the international community. In general, the world body’s consistent failure to overcome anti-American and anti-Israel sentiment within its walls contributes to a legitimization of Palestinian terrorism against Israeli civilians. More specifically, the lack of an agreed upon universal definition of terrorism, and the UN’s restriction of its terrorist list to Al Qaeda affiliated organizations, serve to ignore and condone other terrorist groups and terrorist activities.


Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. . New York: Columbia University Press., 1998.

Laqueur, Walter. The New Terrorism: Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction. New York: Oxford University Press., 1999.

Martin, Elizabeth. Terrorism and Related Terms in Statute and Regulation: Selected Language. n.d.

Pillar, Paul R. Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy. . Washington, D.C: Brookings Institution Press, 2001.

Rubenstein, Richard E. Alchemists of Revolution: Terrorism in the Modern World. New York: Basic Books, n.d.

Schlagheck, Donna M. International Terrorism: An Introduction to Concepts and Actors. . Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1988.

Stern, Jessica. The Ultimate Terrorists. . Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press., 1999.


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