Retaliating Against Terrorists

John A. Nevin


This article asks whether retaliation reduces or increases terrorism. It attempts to answer the question by examining seven cases in which various terrorist attacks were conducted to achieve political goals, and governmental authorities responded in various ways to reduce or eliminate the terrorist threat. Data sets were constructed from public sources to summarize terrorist actions in Palestine, 1945-48; Morocco, 1953-56; Algeria, 1954-56; Northern Ireland, 1971-73; Spain, 1973-1983; Sri Lanka, 1983-87; and Peru, 1991-93. Molar analyses found no reliable evidence that retaliation either increased or decreased the average intensity of terrorist attacks. Analysis of successive incidents showed that the intensity of terrorist attacks immediately after retaliation increased with the intensity of retaliation in six of the seven cases. A review of international Al Qaeda attacks before and after retaliatory action by the USA against Afghanistan and Iraq suggests that the war on terrorism has not reduced the incidence of its conventional attacks. In the absence of evidence that retaliation decreases terrorism, authorities should refrain from violent retaliation after an attack and seek alternative approaches to reduce terrorist activity.

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