Deterring terrorists

Shmuel Bar, who is director of studies at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya, writes in the latest edition of Policy Review. The subject of his essay is what Israel has learned about deterring terrorists. It’s a good read, and he even manages to quote one Gerry Adams.

While it is true that the individual suicide bomber cannot be deterred, the main conclusion of this article is that deterrence towards terrorist organizations is possible. Israel has achieved temporary and fragile deterrence vis- à-vis Hezbollah and the Palestinians over the years. There is no doubt that some periods of relative quiet have derived from a desire not to provoke an Israeli reaction to a terrorist attack that would neutralize any benefit from such an attack. This occasional tactical deterrence has been achieved not by the threat of force or by an image of Israel ’s capability (after all, the terrorist organization is, by definition, struggling against a much stronger adversary), but by actual application of force and by inducing the fear that the force would be reapplied and even increased.

Deterrence of this type is difficult to distinguish from disruption or from operational considerations that dictate when and where to perform acts of terrorism — as opposed to deterrence that deals with whether or not to do it. Deterrence in such cases does not take effect immediately after force has been applied, but after a period of situation estimate, and after some time its effects begin to wear off. One may say that effective deterrence has an element of dramaturgy; a gun that fires in the first act is no longer relevant for dramatic purposes in the last act. The “audience” gets used to the shots and the deterrence is eroded. Hence, it is necessary from time to time to refresh the awareness of the terrorist leadership that the state will indeed employ force. To paraphrase a well-known expression of classic deterrence, the state that attempts to deter terrorism must “ speak loudly and periodically use a big stick.