Goals of Terror Tactics

Terrorism is different from other forms of conflict in that the violent tactics are not meant to lead to a military victory. Terrorist insurgent groups are fairly small with limited resources. Consequently they would have no chance against a national security force in a military confrontation. Instead terrorist acts are meant as catalysts to political change. The most common goal is to turn a nation's citizens against the government in order to facilitate a political change. This page will detail typical terrorist strategies and the media's integral role.

 Terrorist Strategies

The particular strategy a terrorist will use depends on the desired end outcome. For instance, in a colonial setting where the terrorist's goal is to expel a so called "occupying" or colonial force, the strategy will be to inflict unacceptable pain on the occupiers. The idea is to increase the costs and reduce the benefits of continued occupation of that territory. So, in theory, once the costs of continued occupation exceed the benefits, the colonial power will leave. This scenario relates to the activities of the PIRA in Northern Ireland and elements of the Viet Minh and Viet Cong in Vietnam during French and U.S. involvement. The terrorists hope their activities will lead to public pressure in the colonial nation to depart the colonized nation.

In a situation where the goal is to change government policies or the structure of a government, the terrorists seek to embarrass and undermine the leadership with their activities. By committing random attacks like shootings, bombings or kidnappings, the terrorists seek to erode the government's credibility and influence. They want to show citizens that their government is incapable of maintaining public safety and order, leading to public outcry for government officials to cede to the terrorist demands in order to stop the violence and restore stability.

A slightly more long-term strategy was pioneered by Latin American revolutionary Carlos Marighela. The strategy involved using terror tactics to force a government to become so repressive as to cause its citizens to turn against it in the form of popular revolt. Widespread bombings and killings would force the government to infringe on civil liberties in order to more effectively combat the terrorist threat. Eventually citizens would see the government as their enemy, an even greater threat than the terrorists. So with this strategy, terrorists attempt to foment popular opposition to the government and revolution. From the 1960's to the 1980's the Tupamaros successfully used this strategy to affect change in Uruguay. To a lesser degree, Peru's Shining Path and Ulster's PIRA are currently making use of this strategy with little appreciable results.

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 Terrorism and the Media

Terrorist attacks are useless if no one knows about them. A terrorist's goal is to spread fear, panic and instability through a populace. Without a media to inform the public about terrorist attacks, a government can simply suppress news of the incidents and negate the terrorist's strategy. A terrorist act in and of itself is often not nearly as significant as the public and government reaction to it.

The propagation of televisions and the television media, particularly international news services like CNN, have proved a boon to terrorism. The old saying "a picture is worth a thousand words" serves to illustrate this point very well. Images, especially video images, of bombed buildings, bloody corpses and frightened hostages are much more memorable than print or audio reports of those same incidents. In a nation where the government maintains tight control of the media, terrorist tactics are nearly useless.

Media coverage of terrorist incidents invariable draws world attention to the group which perpetrated the attack, along with its cause, demands and grievances. Committing a terrorist attack is one of the most effective ways to obtain free, global publicity for one's cause.

Democratic nations are the most fertile settings for terrorist insurgencies. A free media ensures widespread coverage of terrorist attacks and therefore ample publicity for the perpetrator. Secondly, democratic governments are constrained in their response to terrorism by having to respect individuals' civil guarantees of privacy and protection from illegal search and imprisonment. If security forces disregard these guarantees, the media will certainly publicize that fact leading to a public backlash against authorities. So democratic governments faced with terrorist insurgencies are forced to decide what is more importantócivil liberties and freedom of speech, or public safety.

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Please proceed to the next section - Government Responses to Terrorism; which details measures governments use to prevent or counter terrorism. Includes examples of how a number of governments are dealing with their respective terrorist insurgencies. You may also proceed to the index for this site's contents.