Terrorism as a tactic for successful warfare in the 21st century

Term Paper 2012 13 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Topic: Peace and Conflict Studies, Security



1. Introduction

2. Terrorism as a warfare tactic

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

It is a fact that the face of conflicts changed within the last decades, from what was formerly the conventional type, the so called traditional type of conflict, where regular and identifiable armed forces of nations have been fighting on battlefields against each other. Nowadays appearance of conflicts shows, that most conflicts within the last two decades have been intrastate conflicts1. A few of them produced more violence and more victims in shorter period than most of the conflicts before. Very often they are fought between irregular armed groups, individuals, religious extremists or so called terrorists against opposing groups, individuals or regular governmental forces. The proposed aims and objectives of these irregular groups are often freedom, territories, independence, self-administration or religious ideas. Their weapons are in the majority small arms, RPG’s, IED’s and similar weapons, which are easy to buy, handle and carry. Their tactics are described as asymmetric. Under the idea of asymmetric threats or warfare are these actions of combat summarized which deal with the unknown and surprise in terms of timings, ends, ways and means. The party in a conflict using asymmetric strategies and tactics is in comparison to their opponent usually poorly equipped and trained but very elusive and violent in their actions.

In the same context they are often called by their enemies, usually regular forces, as terrorists. They call themselves frequently freedom fighters. Therefore one of the intellectual starting points for this essay is the often used citation, that “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”2. The more or less clear distinction between guerilla’s and terrorist’s used in the mid twenties century is becoming more and more blurred and obsolete3. The key difference between both, the guerilla warfare and terrorism, was defined by the aims, the means and the targeted group4. Guerilla is a warfare tactic, which is generally used by groups, who lack in conventional military force. They try to hit conventional forces and the government with unconventional means in order to support their political or military agenda.

On the other hand, terrorism was a tactic used by more or less unorganized and less structured groups, aiming as well on governmental as on civilian targets5. Tactics of terrorism are designed to install fear and to de-motivate the enemy. This line which distinguishes both concepts became blurred and obsolete within the last two decades.

Therefore terms like “old” and “new” terrorism are describing paradigmatic the change in the perception of terrorism in our times6. Was terrorism once a mean to address and influence the public opinion for the purpose of predominantly political aims, it is now a tool to conduct significant strike against self declared enemies on behalf or by the instrumentalization of religion or politics. Along that line the change in the nature of conflicts, as mentioned before, from interstate conflicts - states against states - towards intrastate conflicts has been closely linked with the phenomena of asymmetric threats and warfare.

The distinction between guerilla and terrorism is almost not more existing. So called terrorist groups are getting organized in transnational networks, are able to gain increasing strike power, are backed by huge financial support and are using state of the art advanced technologies. Terrorism is nowadays a method to use violence against enemies, who have a huge advantage in military power, in order to achieve desired aims by taking the advantage of psychological effects of physical violence7. For this reason, one of the assumptions for this essay is that terrorist tactics might influence modern warfare by installing a new modus operandi, a modified type of warfare. Therefore the central research question guiding this essay is: Are terrorist tactics shaping the modern type of warfare?

On that basis the essay tries to focus closer into this change by using the common assumptions about the terrorist tactics and comparing these observations with the key features of conflicts in the recent years. Afterwards these key features will be set against the features and tactics of regular warfare, in order to draw up areas where they overlap and to assume how the development might be.

The underlying hypothesis for this essay is for that reason focused on the assumption of a fundamental change in modern warfare: Tactic’s related to terrorist posture are increasingly used by small and comparative less armed actors in conflicts, but just a minor part of these actors really constitute terrorist activities. Nevertheless modern warfare is facing these tactics and regular forces struggle to come up with tactics to counteract this development. As a result, terrorist tactics seem to be the most difficult and challenging one’s traditional states have to deal with in the conflicts of our time.

Within the conclusion part of this essay, the attempt should be made to reflect on the hypothesis and to provide assumptions towards future developments.

2. Terrorism as a warfare tactic

Conflicts are normal in human behavior and have always been there in history. Violent and armed conflicts as well. Since the Westphalia Peace nations have been the only actors in the international relations and therefore war - the most violent expression of a conflict - became an act between nations in the meaning of Clausewitz, that the war “is the continuation of politics by other means”8. This understanding of war and peace, marked by the development of a Jus ad Bellum and a Jus in Bello, defining the setting of violent disputes, continued to be the main, if not the only, constellation for war within the international relations until the end of the 20th century. At least by the mid 80’s of the 20th century a major change in conflicts took place, replacing the predominant type of conflicts, the interstate conflicts, with the so called intrastate conflict9.

Whilst the intrastate conflicts increased rapidly, the interstate conflicts almost vanished in the international theatre. The most significant increase in intrastate conflicts took place between the mid 80s until the mid 90s. Afterwards the number decreased slightly, but remains still on a very high level10.


1 HIICR, Conflict Barometer 2010, http://hiik.de/de/konfliktbarometer/index.html.

2 Cited from Seymour, Gerald, Harry’s Game, 1999.

3 Winkler, Theodor H., The Shifting Face of Violence, in World Policy Journal, Fall 2008, pp. 29-35, 2008.

4 Münkler, Herfried, Die Strategie des Terrorismus und die Abwehrmöglichkeiten des demokratischen Rechtsstaates, S. 2, 2006.

5 The author of this essay does not want to engage into the ongoing discussion about the definition of terrorism. Not considered for this work is the special case of homegrown terrorism within western democratic societies. Therefore the basic definition used for this essay is the one proposed by the UN High Level Panel on Terrorism: An act “…intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.” The amendments the author has done go in line with the amendments proposed and discussed by the panel, to explain the paradigmatic change in terrorist approaches within the last years and recent conflicts. See for more information: http://www.un.org/terrorism/highlevelpanel.shtml.

6 Tucker, David, What’s New About the New Terrorism and How Dangerous Is It?, Terrorism and Political Violence 13, pp. 1-14, 2001.

7 Münkler, Herfried, Die Strategie des Terrorismus und die Abwehrmöglichkeiten des demokratischen Rechtsstaates, S. 1, 2006.

8 Clausewitz, Carl von, On War, Chapter 1, Para. 24, in: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1946/1946-h/1946- h.htm

9 HSR Group, Human Security Report 2010http://www.hsrgroup.org/human-security-reports/20092010/graphs- and-tables.aspx, last time reviewed: 26.01.2012.

10 HIICR, Conflict Barometer 2010, http://hiik.de/de/konfliktbarometer/index.html. Last time reviewed: 10.01.2012.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
595 KB
Catalog Number



Title: Terrorism as a tactic for successful warfare in the 21st century