In the last decade, research has emerged to suggest that an attritional approach by militaries to the threats of terrorism has had significant adverse consequences. These consequences have included an escalation in the frequency and intensity of terrorism at a domestic and transnational level and a growing sympathy towards terrorist ideologies amongst civilian populations. This essay will use the example of the conflict in Northern Ireland (1969-2007) to illustrate the negative effects of a military response at a domestic level; the United States (US) led invasion of Iraq (2003) will be used to outline the transnational repercussions.
Using these conflicts will highlight how the response of conventional military force alone is ineffective in combating the threats posed by terrorism, particularly in the medium to long term. The employment of military power encompasses a broad spectrum of military operations and the application of military force, when employed within a wider framework utilising social, political and economic measures can be effective as a means to an end. However, when military force is applied as a panacea without considering a longer term strategical framework, governments and their militaries risk inadvertently nurturing the very terrorism which they seek to eradicate.
The British Army in Northern Ireland (1969-2007) highlights how the use of the military can have unintended consequences when employed as the primary tool to combating terrorism. Over nearly four decades the Irish Republican Army (IRA) conducted a terrorist campaign against the UK Government that has been recorded as one of the most lethal and complicated terrorist campaigns in history”. Although originally deployed to bring an end to sectarian violence on the island, the British Army became a part of the problem. Through a series of unintentional blunders and political miscalculations, the British Army directly contributed to a significant escalation of the conflict, particularly in their first few years of deployment.
Events such as The Falls Road Curfew,’ Internment’ and Bloody Sunday,’ over the course of just a few years had led to shooting incidents rising from 1,756 in 1971 to 10,631 in 1972, bombing incidents rising by 20% compared with 1971 (1853) and the number of deaths including civilians and security forces rising from 174 in 1971 to 470 in 1972”. The tide of terrorist activity began to ebb only in 1977, when the police were given the primary role in combating terrorism.
Despite the British Army’s good intentions, as the above statistics demonstrate, their involvement led to a dramatic increase in recruitment, mobilisation and terrorist activity. On the one hand, events such as the Falls Road Curfew’ and Internment’ managed to alienate and generate wide-spread sympathy amongst moderates in the Catholic population towards the IRA. Simultaneously, these events served as important propaganda and recruitment vehicles for the radicalization of existing IRA members. In-depth analysis of the psychology of what drives a terrorist to action is beyond the scope of this essay, but the literature outlines that one of the most significant repercussions of military involvement in counterterrorism is the increase in group cohesion.
Research shows that when terrorists are faced with lethal state repression, as was the case with Bloody Sunday’, terrorists are forced underground, which disconnects them from everyday society. This removal from society forces terrorists to become more dependent upon terrorist and other criminal organizations, galvanizing bonds between them. This withdrawal from society as a consequence of lethal military force, often coupled with the terrorist’s desire for revenge, compels the individual to acts of terrorism. As highlighted by Crenshaw if a single common emotion drives the individual or group to terrorism, it is vengeance. The events of the early 1970’s in Northern Ireland illustrate how a military’s response can inflict unintended suffering on local populations and can lead to fostering the very terrorism which they are attempting to eliminate.
Using the military to combat terrorism can also result in negative transnational repercussions, as has been demonstrated in Iraq. In response to the events of 9/11, President Bush announced his Global War on Terror’, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to eliminate the threats posed by terrorism. Intelligence documents released in 2015 detail that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and later Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS ) had been organising resistance against the expected invasion. The US-led invasion in 2003 served as a rallying cry, attracting Salafist-jihadist fighters globally, who were keen to defend Muslim territory against what groups like al- Qaeda (AQ) saw as a modern day crusade by President Bush. Prior to 2003, AQ had been relatively inactive, but the invasion of Iraq significantly increased the group’s global recruitment and operational capacity.
The anticipated invasion by Zarqawi and AQ is supported by research that argues terrorist organisations deliberately provoke governments into a disproportionate response, radicalize moderates, and build support for its ambitious goals. The evidence suggests AQ and its associates were relying on the excessive use of the military by the US government in order to mobilize and recruit the masses for their cause. The invasion of Iraq serves as a good example of how the use of the military in countering the threats of terrorism has become a self-fulfilling prophecy” and, to some extent, how counter-terrorism has become terrorism’s best ally.”
Whilst the presence of militaries can inflame terrorist activity, the premature removal of a military footprint can also have negative effects. After the Surge’ in 2007, AQI numbers were reduced to a few hundred fighters and the Surge’ had significantly reduced terrorist sanctuaries.’ The decision by the US to then withdraw its troops allowed the space AQI needed to recover and paved the way to allow for its eventual transition into the greater threat of the so-called ISIS. In the resulting power vacuum, ISIS emerged and was able to fan the flames of sectarian violence, overcome a beleaguered Iraqi Army and control nearly a third of Iraq and half of Syria at its peak in 2014. According to many, ISIS had become the most powerful, wealthiest, best-equipped jihadi force ever seen and was exporting its new brand of extremism to the world via social media and the internet.
The Surge’ highlighted how short-term political gains could severely undermine long-term strategical commitments to a nation’s reconstruction and the responsibilities that come with military intervention.
The transnational repercussions of using militaries to combat terrorism are explored further by Neumann. Neumann describes the members of ISIS as the New Jihadis, radicalized young Europeans travelling from the west to join ISIS and re-emerging as hardened fighters with military training and a network of international contacts. The implications of the emergence of these foreign fighters are that many of these may return to their home countries in Europe or other conflict areas, where it is feared they will carry out further attacks. Exacerbating this transnational effect is the internet and its role in facilitating the emergence of remotely radicalised terrorism, making it easier than ever before for terrorist groups to inspire attacks on foreign soil. It is noteworthy that the increase in threat from terrorism to the UK has been directly linked to the invasion of Iraq and the unintended birth of ISIS.
Whilst this essay has highlighted the negative impact of using the military as a panacea to the threats posed by terrorism, it is important to acknowledge where the military has been effective. Between 2007-2008, US and Coalition forces implemented the aforementioned Surge’. According to an independent NGO, the campaign reduced violence by 90%, sectarian killings 95% cut down AQ numbers and activities 85% in a 6 month period bringing about dramatic change in the operating environment.
The success was largely due to more emphasis being placed on protection of the population rather than destroying the enemy and a more inclusive approach to local security forces. Similar results had been achieved in Northern Ireland with Operation Motorman’ when the police was given primacy in combating the IRA and closer relations could be made with the local population facilitating better intelligence links. Although controversial, in Iraq, Syria and Pakistan the use of drone strikes has had a significant impact upon terrorist groups by degrading network structures and disrupting their activities in the short term. However, neither the Surge’ or targeted drone-strikes have brought an end to the threats posed by terrorism and is not a panacea to the complexities of the political, economic and security problems faced by countries such as Iraq. Only when the military is employed responsibly as part of a broader, time-sensitive strategical framework can it be effective at reducing the threats posed by terrorist groups such as ISIS.
Conventional military responses to terrorism have not only been largely ineffective, but also had significant negative unintended consequences. In fact, cognizant of this pattern, many terrorist organizations rely upon the excessive responses of states militaries to their attacks as part of their strategies in achieving their goals. It is important to note that prior to the involvement of the British Army in Northern Ireland in 1969 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by US and Coalition Forces, both the IRA and AQ were relatively inactive, but within a few years had seen their organisations flourish as a result of military intervention. This evidence suggests that the military application of force is not only an inappropriate tool for combating the threats of terrorism, but, at times, may be inflammatory.
This is particularly pertinent given the release of the UK Governments recent CONTEST paper where it was restated that the UK will continue to be committed to the Global Coalition’s campaign against Daesh, to remove its control of territory, degrade further its media capabilities and disrupt key senior leaders and networks. Whilst military efforts have been successful, particularly at the tactical level in degrading terrorist infrastructure, research suggests that this alone will not bring a solution to the threats posed by groups such as ISIS and AQ. It is rightly asserted that military anti-terrorism measures alone are not sufficient and there should be social, political and economic measures to fight against terrorism.
Equally, the value of military action should not be diminished, but considered in equal merit alongside other tools such as economic power, diplomacy, intelligence and indigenous security forces. In the recent Government release of CONTEST the Home Secretary stated the threat (from terrorism) we face is multifaceted, diverse and evolving. Therefore, any effective approach to tackling terrorism needs to be similar in its outlook, utilising the military to facilitate a wider strategical framework that seeks to eradicate the causes of terrorism at its roots and within our societies.