Power, Legitimacy, and the Self-Limiting Logic of Terrorism

Terrorism is a coercive strategy used by groups seeking to compel stronger enemies to accept their demands. To better understand the logic of terrorism and its inherent limitations, we should look beyond terrorists’ offensive capabilities and examine how terrorist groups undermine their enemies’ legitimacy. State legitimacy depends in part on a state’s ability to provide security to its population, while adhering to a set of rules and norms regarding domestic and international behavior. Terrorist groups aim to show that states are unable to provide security to their citizens, pushing governments to take extraordinary security measures that erode the rule of law and the social contract between a state and its society. Although terrorists can disrupt a state, attaining their strategic goals, such as independence or regime change, is much harder. This is in part because the politics of legitimacy is a double-edged sword: success often requires adopting norms to gain international acceptance—the very same norms that terrorists flout as part of their campaigns of terror.

Terrorist groups exploit states’ traditional defense paradigms using asymmetrical tactics. In their quest for security, states are accustomed to assuming that rival states are the only threat to their survival. But, when every crowded street and shopping mall is a potential target, traditional defense becomes obsolete. States are often left to choose between unappealing options when confronting terrorism, appearing incompetent in the face of a small force or pursuing solutions that violate rules for legitimate use of state power.

The challenge is greatest for Western states. Citizens’ expectations determine terrorists’ ability to erode public trust in the competence of a government. Western populations expect their governments to provide a high level of personal security, while adhering to international laws and norms. However, such expectations are incompatible in light of an individuals’ or groups’ ability to inflict widespread harm by employing simple measures and weapons—such as motor vehicles. The result? A greater pressure on Western states to provide an unrealistic level of security, which in turn leads to disproportionate responses. The 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and subsequent lockdown, demonstrates how a state response increases the impact of even a small-scale terrorist attack.

Kidnapping for ransom is only one example of the West’s dilemmas. When states pay millions of dollars for the release of their citizens, they inadvertently finance the same terrorism they are battling. Moreover, paying out ransoms undermines their own legal obligations to comply with United Nations Security Council Resolutions on combating terrorist financing. However, if states refuse to pay ransom and ill befalls the hostages in question, states are then accused of abandoning their citizens. Different Western states have different policies regarding ransom payments: the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom refuse to pay ransom, whereas most European countries do. This discrepancy in policies among friendly nations often also leads to increased friction among allies.

Terrorists also exploit the international norm against killing civilians to advance their cause. This norm is intended to limit the scope of legitimate violence, but inadvertently gives terrorists an effective tool to shape public opinion and capitalize on shock value. Terrorists enact gruesome violence, capture it on camera, and distribute it widely to multiply the psychological impact on perceived enemies and empower their sympathizers. This, in turn, leads to state responses that exacerbate terrorist threats. Indeed, the United States’ reaction to the beheading of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff in 2015 was to increase its commitment to fighting the Islamic State.

In facing an enemy that violates international norms, states may adopt extraordinary measures reserved for times of emergency. But responding to terrorism by violating rule of law or norms comes at a stiff price. Extreme power flexing only weakens a states’ impact and raises questions about both its competence and legitimacy. A state can easily lose the moral high ground in its fight against terrorism and still fail to prevent further attacks. Drone strikes, for example, undermines states’ moral standings and gives terrorist groups the opportunity to liken drone strikes to extrajudicial killings. At times—such as in the case of the Times Square bomber—drone strikes can even radicalize individuals. At its essence, drones represent the limited utility of force. Drones can effectively eliminate hard power, but cannot eliminate terrorists’ soft power. The collateral damage from drone strikes strengthens terrorists’ soft power and leads local populations to identify with the terrorists. Worse, it emboldens terrorist groups’ recruiting campaigns, as was seen after America overreached in its response to 9/11.

State legitimacy is further challenged by limited legal protections for and torture of detainees in U.S.-run black sites, Guantanamo Bay, and Abu Ghraib prison. Not only is torture ineffective, its violates international law and undermines the moral authority of the United States. The rule-based international order is weakened when any actor claiming to lead the international community bends the rules. Thus, the reaction to terrorism could ultimately be more harmful than the attacks that provoked it.

Terrorist groups often capitalize on states’ responses to terrorism by making moral equivalencies between it and its state enemies. A top al-Qaeda spokesperson, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, determined that under the principle of reciprocity, Muslims are allowed to kill four million Americans, half of them children, as well as use chemical and biological weapons. In the same vein, a prominent member of the Islamic State responded to accusations that the group is using chemical weapons by noting the unpunished use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.

States inadvertently further terrorist groups’ efforts to blur the lines between terrorism and authorized state violence. Self-interested state leaders, particularly in non-democratic countries, exploit the illegitimacy associated with the term terrorists to label their political opponents as such. This effectively allows the state to persecute them under often draconian anti-terrorism laws. When leaders freely throw around accusations of terrorism, those accusations become less credible and may even normalize terrorism.

Since 9/11, states have tried to fit domestic and international law into their counterterrorism efforts. For example, states put in place a comprehensive legal framework for preventing terrorism financing and limiting access to material that could be used for building weapons of mass destruction. They also improved information sharing to strengthen border security and eased extraditions of terrorists. This process is slow and difficult. It also involves rethinking the nature of the social contract that delineates what states owe their people and, as in the case of surveillance, the limits of a state’s ability to decrease personal freedoms in the name of security.

And yet, terrorists are hardly the masterminds that the media portrays. Terrorists tend to exaggerate both states’ weakness and their own prowess. Moreover, there is always a chance that terrorist groups’ violence could backfire and undermine their own objectives. For example, rather than causing the interstate tensions al-Qaeda expected, the 9/11 attacks fostered greater cooperation among states and an accelerated reach into previously unregulated spheres of activity, such as cyberspace and the financial sector. This cooperation continued even as Western states argued about the wisdom and legality of the Iraq War.

Although terrorist groups can expose states’ weaknesses, their most common objectives—independence or capturing state power—constrain terrorist groups’ actions and force them to succumb to states’ structural strengths. State power does not stem merely from superior capabilities, but also from primacy in the international system. States define the international order as state-based and assume the role of gatekeepers for statehood.

States reserve the right to use coercive means while denying these same means to non-state actors, weakening terrorist groups’ abilities to confront states on equal footing. International law narrows legitimate non-state violence to resistance against occupation. States further delegitimize non-state violence by labeling armed non-state actors as terrorists—even though many groups, such as Syria’s Jabhat Fath al-Sham and al-Qaeda’s branches in Yemen and Somalia—are primarily insurgent groups, a term with fewer negative connotations.

At the same time, states largely exempt themselves from the term terrorism. Even when armed non-state actors manage to gain control over a territory and govern it (for example, the Taliban in Afghanistan 1996-2001), their viability depends on international acceptance and the groups’ willingness to adhere to international norms. Thus, terrorists’ victory is rarely complete without acquiring legitimacy from the same international community whose principles they violate. Many terrorists (excepting the Islamic State, whose radicalism manifests in part in rejecting political considerations) adopt self-imposed restrictions on the use of violence as they balance conflicting needs: while unmitigated violence can advance their coercion tactics, respecting norms is necessary to gain international legitimacy.

Whereas terrorism is a useful strategy for resisting the existing international order, it can also undermine terrorist groups’ efforts to establish their preferred alternative. As al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula admitted, the greater the trappings of a state that a terrorist group attains, the more vulnerable it becomes to its enemies’ power and the need for international acceptance. This partially explains why terrorists can wreak havoc, yet still fail to achieve their political objectives.

With this predicament in mind, Osama bin Laden rejected calls to establish Islamic emirates as a premature and costly enterprise. In contrast, the Islamic State believes that by conquering vast territory and gaining enough material power to threaten its enemies and defend itself, it would guarantee the viability of its “caliphate.” It is now finding that filling political and security vacuums created by the Arab Spring uprisings is not enough. By attempting to establish a state while vehemently rejecting the rules and norms that hold the international community together, the Islamic State made more enemies than it could handle. The loss of many of its territories in Iraq, Syria, and Libya is instructive. As long as terrorist groups look to achieve territorial objectives and governance, they are vulnerable to the same dynamics that benefitted them during their rise.

The policy implications are threefold. First, American leaders must be honest with the public as they confront terrorism. Terrorism is not a strategic threat unless we inadvertently make it so. Exaggerating the danger of terrorism only strengthens armed non-state actors’ reliance on terrorist tactics. Leaders would be wise to admit that ,while they are determined to protect the country from terrorist attacks, they cannot offer the public a full security blanket. The trend of mass shootings, for examples, can underscore the United States’ limitations. How can the United States be expected to prevent terrorist attacks when it cannot even prevent numerous non-terrorist-related mass shootings?

Second, decision-makers should be careful not to abuse counterterrorism laws or misuse the label of “terrorism” for political purposes. They must avoid the temptation of adopting populist policies that scapegoat whole communities and legitimize attacks on innocent American Muslims. Such opportunism only diminishes the ability of a state to fight terrorism and may catalyze grievances that bolster terrorist recruitment. President Trump’s recent executive orders on refugees and visas banning citizens from majority-Muslim countries are exactly the kind of populist policies that the United States must avoid.

Third, the United States must recognize that maintaining its moral authority is essential for the struggle against terrorism, not an obstacle to the implementation of counterterrorism policies. When it must take extreme measures, the United States should seek to form international consensus to legitimize its action and persuade the world that it is not exempting itself from rules it expects other countries to follow. Finally, given the self-limiting logic of terrorism, the U.S. should convey to its armed non-state foes terrorism’s ultimate futility in the face of states’ structural power.

Sadly, terrorism is not going away anytime soon. Terrorists will continue to seek producing outsize effects by provoking states’ overreaction and exposing tensions that are inherent to states’ operations. But by understanding the role of legitimacy in the interaction between states and terrorist groups and resisting the pressures to overreact, the international community could reduce terrorism’s impact and, concomitantly, its pervasiveness.