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August 29, 2006




It is correct that terrorism is theatre, but it is more subtle than that. The goal of the terrorist is not to "cause terror". He simply uses terror because of its PR effects - theatre - in reaching his target audience.

It is the audience that is key. And the audience is not the terrorised, but the home audience of his supporters. The terrorist could not care less what the terrorised think, he is only interested in how his own people perceive the message.

The message of the terrorist is simply this: he is an effective attacker of the common enemy, and therefore deserves the support of the homeland in a common cause of ousting the common enemy.

When the support of the homeland is obtained, and is reliable, the terrorist then moves away from terror attacks to guerilla style attacks. One tool is discarded in favour of another simply because the old tool is no longer necessary, and the wider goal calls for a different approach.

Notwithstanding the quote by Bruce Schneier above being ultimately wrong, there is a side-benefit to be gained from the direct victims becoming terrorised. That is if their over-reaction causes the acceleration of the terrorists' objectives by taking the fight more quickly from (small scale) terrorism to (medium scale) guerilla war. E.g., 9/11 => Iraq was a benefit for AlQaeda (to be viewed in sum with other losses and benefits).

However, because of the difficulty in predicting and controlling such processes, no smart terrorist would dream of planning on the gift of over-reaction from the enemy.


Sure, the terrorists want to influence and expand their home audience, and for sure it's hard for them to predict what kind of overreaction they might also produce.

However, if they were going solely for home audience impression, they'd probably stick with military targets.

I think John Robb has a point about terrorists watching what each other does and what effects are produced in order to better choose which acts are more likely to produce the desired effects. No, they probably don't depend on the gift of overreaction. But I think it's safe to say increasing the possibility of that gift probably figures into their choice of what to do.

Regardless of that, I suspeect you'll agree that the gift of overreaction is a gift that multiples the home audience effect. So why should we give it to them?

Furthermore, they've probably read Mao and Ho and Boyd and they know that overreaction has the further benefit of undermining the moral authority of their opponents. If they can get sufficient overreaction, they can win that way.



Over-reaction is more than a just a side benefit, it's more akin to a strategic victory. The basis for this is in the ultimate goals and phasing of guerilla warfare.

The end-goal of the terrorist is to become the guerilla - which is the organised but underground force that is supported by a small but significant part of the population (Al Qaeda in Afghanistan). Likewise the end-goal of the guerilla is to become the revolutionary soldier - which is part of an army that is supported by a critical mass within the population (think Iraq). Then, the goal of the revolutionary army is to defeat the enemy on his terms -- in open classical warfare (think Lebanon).

In each case, the goals lead to greater credibility, greater support and more ability to survive and conduct operations. Therefore, the goal of the enemy of the terrorist is to deny all these: deny credibility, deny support, and deny the capability to conduct operations.

Over-reaction then is the complete opposite of everything required. By invading countries, taking classical war to the terrorist, dressing him up in the media, and encouraging the enmity of his home population, it is handing to the terrorist a complete and undeniable strategic victory.

(This view is sometimes cast as the "terrorism is crime, it's a police issue" view. But the why of it is rarely understood, probably because people have a lot of trouble coping with the notion that a terrorist operates to goals and theories.)


Yes, and this is why casting terrorists as crazy or maniacs, as so many government officials and news commentators and bloggers do, is counterproductive. Fanatics, many of them. Wild-eyed madmen frothing at the mouth and shouting slogans at passersby? Not so much.

The kind of plots successful terrorists get up to require methodical attention to detail over long periods of time, with specific goals intended to contribute to a larger plan. Despicable? Horrible? Yes. Crazy? Doesn't fit the description.

Osama bin Laden went to the most elite high school in Riyadh, and has two college degrees. This, with his ability to lead, makes him the worst kind of terrorist: smart, educated, and effective. Nobody's going to catch him by assuming he's crazy, when he's actually working for longterm goals in the context of a theory that he's spelled out more than once.

And, as you point out, in Lebanon we see a group that's further along in lifting its own credibility. That one was even smart enough to initiate rebuilding itself, after the shooting was over, and while the UN, etc., was just talking about helping. This is not an opponent that will be defeated by force alone.

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