Terrorism is often thought of as a plan to kill as many people as possible, lashing out in blind fury against anyone who does not share the extremist beliefs of the terrorist organization. But it isn’t. It’s a strategy of carefully-deployed violence that seeks to advance the goals of the terrorist organizations which choose that path.
Here are four reasons why terrorism has become the tactic of choice for Islamist groups which choose violence.
Defeating America Militarily is Almost Impossible
“I lead the strongest military that the world has ever known. And I will never hesitate to protect my country or our allies, unilaterally and by force where necessary” – Former US President Barack Obama, 2015
America’s military budget is larger than that of the next seven countries combined. In 2015, America spent $598 billion on defense spending, compared to $567 billion for China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, France and Japan (the next seven countries in descending order of expenditure) combined. This is not including discretionary spending, veterans’ benefits and a host of other costs. Out of those countries, five are allies.
On the battlefield itself, American soldiers go to war equipped like no other army. They have reconnaissance in the air, support teams that can call in airstrikes or artillery support, body armor, night vision, sophisticated communications systems etc. They can use as much ammunition as they want. Their training enables set-piece maneuvers to carry out a variety of operations with minimal casualties and maximum efficiency in defeating the enemy. In the most recent raid in Yemen, US soldiers killed 14 Al-Qaeda fighters for the loss of one man. This is not even counting America’s very large nuclear arsenal.
Faced with this enemy, terrorist groups can never hope to win knockout victories on the battlefield. Even in the far-fetched scenario of total conventional war between all the Muslim countries together against the United States and its allies, they would most likely lose and lose hard.
Terrorism provides a way to strike back without having to take on that military might directly.
Terrorism Is Much, Much Cheaper Than Waging War
In 2016, the Department of Defense estimated the cost of operations in Iraq at $11 million per day. A single hellfire missile costs $110,000, while the Predator drones which fire them cost just over $4 million each. For America, going to war is extremely expensive.
Comparatively, a terrorist attack can be extremely cheap. Larger-scale operations such as the 9/11 attack cost a lot more, of course, but terrorist groups have largely abandoned those in favor of small-scale attacks that anyone can carry out.
For example, the Nice truck attack, which killed 84 people in an attack against a crowd gathered on the promenade for Bastille Day, costs very little. The terrorist just had an ammunition magazine, a fake pistol, a dummy grenade, a replica Kalashnikov rifle, and a replica M16 rifle. The total combined cost of that attack pales in comparison to even one airstrike.
ISIS openly brags about this in its propaganda. It talks about how America and its allies are being bled economically by having to pay eye-watering sums to fight cheap terrorist attacks. Western countries are almost universally suffering sovereign debt crises at the same time. America alone is over $19 trillion in debt, and taxpayers are feeling the pinch. Combined with an economy that is recovering from the 2008 recession slower than expected, the middle classes are increasingly opposed to expensive anti-terrorism measures as they see the cost to their own pockets.
Terrorism is a way of waging economic warfare against the West.
Modern Media Magnifies the Impact
With the ubiquity of camera-phones, live-streamed footage, recordings and images from the scenes of terrorist attacks are a feature of every major attack. To take just one example, the Berlin truck attack was recorded by a dashcam mounted on a nearby car, to provide footage of the truck speeding into the Christmas market. This amplifies the trauma experienced by the target population.
Research conducted by the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), concluded that “Those who watch more media coverage are also at higher risk for PTSD and associated problems.” Terror groups have multiple goals in stressing the target population. Firstly, they wish to inflict a sense of helplessness that governments are powerless to stop the attacks, unless they give in to the demands of the terrorists. Terrorists also aim to divide societies, as different factions compete to come up with solutions. We see in Europe and America increased division and hatred between different political groups, with different solutions to the problem of terrorism.
They also have the goal of gaining media attention for their cause. After every attack, news about the terrorists and their goals dominates the headlines, bringing the focus of the world onto who the terrorists are and what they want. This allows them airtime to spread their views. If people are not able to see clearly that the ideology driving the terrorism must be uprooted at the source, they may be inclined to listen to the terrorists’ propaganda.
Terror attacks dominate the headlines allowing the group to get its message out, and magnify differences within the target population creating discord, fear and tension, thus furthering the group’s goals.
An Anti-Muslim Backlash Could Force Muslims to Choose Extremism
ISIS regularly speaks in its propaganda about “eliminating the gray zone” and forcing everyone in the world to choose a side.
Attacks against Muslims, such as the one which just took place in Quebec in which six worshippers were gunned down, are welcomed by ISIS. They aim to isolate Muslims from their broader communities and thus turn to more extreme groups for protection. This is what terrorist groups like ISIS want to happen, and it is to the credit of the Muslim communities of America and Europe that so far no such thing has occurred.
Terrorism seeks to polarize and cause fear, so that in their panic people run to groups that promise only security, because that kind of tribalism and conflict empowers Islamists to achieve their goals further.