Terrorism: Policies, Strategies, Countermeasures

Pre-9/11 lecture at the National War College

by Christopher C. Harmon  |  January 16, 2001  |  SPEECHES & LECTURES

This is the text of a lecture given January 16, 2001, at the Naval War College in Newport R.I. for the opening of a conference on the threat of chemical and biological weapons. Dr. Harmon, a former Naval War College professor, is the author of Terrorism Today (London: Frank Cass, 2000), and a professor at the Marines’ Command & Staff College in Virginia as well as the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. Dr. Harmon's address, delivered eight months before the 9/11 attacks, is published here for the first time.

My purposes in this address are three: (1) to define terrorism, survey some of the pressing global issues related to it, and sketch an approach—conceptual and practical—to counterterrorism; (2) to do this keeping in mind the Strategy and Policy approach used here at this eminent college; and (3) to do so in part using examples, and lines of analysis, relating to the current threat of chemical and biological terrorism.

“Terrorism is the deliberate and systematic murder, maiming, and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear for political ends.”That definition, borrowed many years ago from a think-tank called The Jonathan Institute, is still the one I prefer. Each word counts.

Two supplements to the definition are appropriate. First, “political ends” means politics in its widest sense—not just affecting elections, or advancing revolution, or furthering a state’s repressive purposes, but having to do with the social issues that spark violence, or the religious issues that spawn insurgencies or assassinations.

American right-wingers holding to the “Christian Identity” faith consider themselves servants of the true religion, but its tenets may require hating Jews and race-war, and that is political. Hamas bus bombers in Israel are definitely motivated by religion and its martyrdom, but they act for an organization with a definite political program as well—laid down in the late 1980s; their charter is lengthy, well-argued, and sometimes even elegant.

It is an important political document. Second, the definition does not readily solve a dilemma about whether men and women in uniform can be victims of terrorism. I would argue that they can, but this is a gray area and I put it to you as a problem. The definition speaks of “the innocent.” Military personnel may be very innocent, even in uniform, even aboard a warship called the USS Cole. Or even out of uniform and without weapons and sitting in some foreign cafe. The Defense Department’s definition is about “calculated use of unlawful violence” or threat thereof.

Outside a state of war, attacks on military personnel might very well be unlawful and thus “terrorism.” Our State Department uses a definition of terrorism that covers military personnel--that extends political “protection” –if that word fits--by defining attacks against them as terroristic if such personnel are unarmed or not on duty. Even armed military personnel–as at a base--are covered by State’s definition if they are not in a state of military hostilities.

The Department of State was not sure it should declare the Marine Corps barracks bombing in Lebanon a terrorist act; nor will I, because there was a low-level war going on in Lebanon in which the Marines were enmeshed. But State would define the attack on the USS Cole as terrorism. Clearly, not all violence is “terrorism”; that would be a fatuous position to hold. Consider for example guerrillas, organized armed forces which fight other armed forces in a state of war.Guerrilla activities, including conventional armi