Is terrorism an existential threat?

In a recent interview, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria asked US President Barak Obama to respond to charges that he is downplaying the threat of terrorism to the United States. Obama responded by saying that he believes the threat of terrorism must be kept in the proper perspective and that it is important not to overinflate the importance of terrorist networks. He also said he believes that terrorist groups do not pose an existential threat to the United States or the world order.
As with almost any statement made by a US president, this became grist for many pundits. Leaving the politics of it aside, however, there are some significant facets to Obama’s claim that are worth unpacking and examining in detail.

I must begin by admitting that I agree with the president’s statement that terrorism does not pose an existential threat to the United States. The reason for such a claim has far more to do with the nature of terrorism than it does with the intent and capability of the actors who employ terrorism.

An examination of terrorist theory shows us that terrorism is a tactic or a tool used by militant groups unable to wage an insurgency or fight a conventional war. In fact, it is often used as a way to conduct asymmetrical armed conflict against an enemy with a stronger military. This fact is why Marxist, Maoist and Focoist revolutionary theories all consider terrorism – that is, small-scale, politically motivated attacks against vulnerable targets – as the first step in an armed struggle that is to be built upon to form an insurgency.

In many ways al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups have also followed a type of Focoist vanguard strategy by using terrorism to shape public opinion through the propaganda of the deed, the concept that a group can better spread its messages through action than through social media posts or YouTube videos. Terrorist attacks raise popular support for their causes while raising doubts about the target government’s legitimacy and ability to maintain order.

Aside from being a potential first step of revolutionary violence, terrorism can also be used to supplement insurgency or conventional warfare when employed to keep the enemy off balance and distracted, principally by conducting strikes against vulnerable targets behind the enemy’s front lines. The Afghan Taliban employs terrorism in this manner. Defending against such attacks on ‘soft’ targets requires a disproportionate allocation of material and manpower, but such an allocation is absolutely necessary for the security forces to prevent the targeted population from feeling terrorized.

Weaker opponents in a struggle can also use terrorism as a tool of vengeance and retribution. For example, after the US humiliated Libyan President Moammar Gaddafi’s military forces in a series of naval and air confrontations in the Gulf of Sidra during the early 1980s, Gaddafi responded with terrorism and ordered the April 1986 bombing of the La Belle Disco in Berlin – a site frequented by US servicemen. After it became clear that Libya was behind the La Belle bombing, the US conducted airstrikes against Tripoli and Benghazi. Gaddafi responded with additional terrorist attacks, although they were conducted more carefully and in a manner intended to provide a bit more plausible deniability.

In the 1980s, Hezbollah effectively used terrorism to push US forces out of Lebanon. This example later inspired jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda. These groups have employed terrorism in efforts to drive US forces out of the Muslim world so they could weaken and overthrow the governments supported by the United States.

While a diverse range of groups practise terrorism, it is important to understand that terrorism for the sake of terror is not their end goal. Instead, it is merely one step toward their greater purpose, whether that objective is launching a revolution that will bring about a ‘workers’ paradise’, providing animals the same rights as humans or establishing a global caliphate.

However, terrorist attacks still pose a threat. Attacks result in death and destruction; and their psychological impact is even wider-felt than the physical damage they cause. To the people involved, this threat is existential, but on their own, terrorist attacks do not pose an existential threat to the governments they are aimed at – even the extremely destructive ones conducted by highly capable, state-sponsored groups. For example, the Provisional IRA’s 1996 Canary Wharf bombing, the Italian Red Brigade’s kidnapping and murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro and Hezbollah’s 1983 bombing of the US Marine Barracks in Beirut posed no real threat to the UK, Italian and US governments. While the March 2004 Madrid train bombings did have an impact on the country’s parliamentary elections just three days later and doomed the re-election hopes of then-Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, the attack did not topple the Spanish system.

The only way a terrorist attack could pose a true existential threat to a country is if an actor were to obtain and use weapons of mass destruction, namely, nuclear devices. However, non-state actors have not yet developed such capabilities, and the consequences of such a strike for a nuclear-capable state actor supplying the weapon would be massive and catastrophic. In this sense, a nuclear weapon would present as much of an existential threat for the supplier as it would for the target.

Indeed, terrorist attacks are not the true threat to governments. Instead, what is most dangerous is what militant groups can accomplish after carrying out terrorist attacks. For example, Viet Cong terrorist attacks in Hanoi did not topple the South Vietnamese government, but the battlefield successes of large-scale Viet Cong insurgent and regular army units and the North Vietnamese Army did. The Mujahideen-e-Khalq’s terrorist attacks against the Shah of Iran’s government and its foreign backers did not result in the overthrow of his government, but the massive popular uprising that followed spelled its doom. Terrorism can help create the environment for revolution, but terrorist attacks alone cannot overthrow a government.

Events in recent years have also proven this truth. Terrorist attacks from groups such as al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb did not permit them to assume governance of large sections of Somalia, southern