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When Does Terrorism Have a Strategic Effect?

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War On The Rocks

When Does Terrorism Have a Strategic Effect?

Daniel Byman

One of the worst terrorist attacks in the post-9/11 era killed no one. When Al Qaeda in Iraq bombed the Askari shrine in Samarra in 2006, only the mosque itself was damaged. However, by striking at one of the most important Shiite shrines in the world, it enraged Iraq’s Shiite majority, inflaming sectarian tension and exacerbating that country’s civil war. Tens of thousands of Iraqis would die in the resulting violence. In contrast, a far bloodier jihadist attack a decade later, and one closer to home for most Americans, had little long-term impact beyond the deaths of innocent people. In 2016, Omar Mateen shot 49 people at the Pulse night club in Orlando in the name of the Islamic State. This attack soon faded from the headlines, and U.S. foreign policy did not change.

Not all terrorism is created equal. Some attacks are merely blips on the terrorism radar screen, grabbing headlines for a few days before life resumes as before. Other attacks, however, shake the world. The strategic effects of such an attack go far beyond whether it helps a terrorist group win, and they can be divided into two areas. First, terrorism can affect conflict and international politics, shaping foreign policy, sparking international and civil wars, and preventing peace negotiations. Second, terrorism can undermine democracy by decreasing faith in public institutions. The strategic success of terrorism often depends as much on the government response as it does the terrorist attack itself: too little or too much counterterrorism can do the terrorists’ jobs for them.

Conflict and International Politics

Understandably, after an attack, observers quickly focus on the death toll to determine how serious it was. Body count matters, but it is not everything. The 9/11 strikes, of course, were off the chart in terms of lethality and thus impossible to ignore.

Read more: https://warontherocks.com/2019/11/when-does-terrorism-have-a-strategic-effect/