Can terrorists pose a threat to a state’s security?

Posted on April 1, 2014



It can’t be denied that terrorists have the potential to threaten a state’s security, however it is debatable whether terrorist groups can potentially threaten the very existence of a state. With 9/11 suddenly shifting the attention of US foreign policy onto a “cross-border, non-state, network-based phenomenon” which drove the US to declare a ‘global war on terrorism’ and invade a foreign state guilty of harbouring a terrorist organisation, one may believe that the terrorist threat that the US faced after 2001 was existential. Kenneth Waltz, who was arguably the father of neorealist theory, recognised that terrorism may generate quantifiable reactions within the international system, and yet he was very sceptical on its long term legacy. To be sure, the notion that non-states can be a threat to international security goes against the conviction -in realist theory- that only states can threaten each other’s’ security (Cerny, 2005). Nevertheless, the amounts of human, economic, political, and military resources spent by the US and other states to fight terrorism make the claim that ‘terrorism can neither affect international security nor pose a serious threat to state security’ very much open to debate. With this paper, I explain how I, unlike Waltz, believe that terrorists can indeed become a serious threat to state security.

In 2002 he wrote that the effects of 9/11 “were felt in the policies and politics of the United States” prompting the Bush administration to “[turn] from strident unilateralism to urgent multilateralism” (Waltz, 2002: 256). While Waltz does not deny that terrorism has defined US post-9/11 foreign policy, he believes that this new agenda was on the cards before al-Qaeda’s rise to fame and all that the 2001 attacks had done was to allow the administration to do things it had already wanted to do, like the abrogation of the ABM Treaty and increased spending on the military (ibid: 247). Waltz’s cynicism seems to be well founded in arguing that the American government took advantage of a sudden turn of events to press through old issues. However, even in admitting that terrorism has shaped US foreign policy after 2001, Waltz (2002: 247) is adamant that “although terrorists can be terribly bothersome, they hardly pose threats to the fabric of a society or the security of the state”.

Terrorism has proven to be a strikingly hard concept to define by scholars and practitioners alike. Whittaker (2004) pointed out how different definitions, in the vast array of definitions that have been proposed in the years, often reflect varying contexts in which they are formed. Moreover, they can be separated into two main groups: the first composed of those which imply moral wrongdoing and the second of those which don’t (ibid: 3). Indeed, the word itself carries negative connotations and is most often used as a pejorative term and it is has been told by a myriad of observers that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” to show how it has also been misused in many occasions (Hoffman, 2006: 23; Whittaker, 2004: 4). To be sure, even the word ‘guerrilla’ has been occasionally used to describe what others might have described terrorism.

Arguably, the element that shifts the balance towards one, or another, word when describing a nonstate actor employing terrorism as a tactic, is legitimacy. According to Primoratz (2004: 114), states attract legitimacy. In fact, it could be added to Primoratz’s argument that states also create legitimacy and use it as an instrument to pursue their interests in foreign contexts by granting it to a certain non-state combatant rather than another. This is because states are bound to the state-centric realist discourse by necessity and strive to maintain their constructed monopoly of violence. Since states took centre stage in international politics, they made sure that only armed conflicts originated by leaders of states would be considered legitimate (Fotion, 2005: 30). As a consequence, they will grant legitimacy only to those non-state combatants that work towards their own interest as states.

Terrorism, however, is merely a tactic. Boaz Ganor, director of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, points to the importance of discourse when defining terrorism: ‘freedom fighter’ and ‘terrorist’ are not mutually contradictory terms in that “they only differ essentially in the fact that terrorists deliberately involve citizens or non-combatants in their attacks” (Smit, 2005: 127). In other words, when a group is labelled ‘terrorist’ there is no implication on what such group’s motives for employing terrorism are. As a tactic, terrorism can be used by freedom-fighters, criminal organisations, governments, and guerrillas alike. For this reason, when we discuss whether terrorists can be a threat to state security we are in fact talking about non-state actors who employ terrorism as a tactic to accomplish their aims.

In addition to the confusion that comes from the difficulties in finding a universal definition of terrorism, the idea has gained support in the last two decades that a new kind of terrorism had developed, which poses a greater threat to state security than the old type. While Waltz said in 2002 that terrorism could pose no serious threat to state security, the  proposers of the ‘new terrorism’ thesis believe that -because of the availability of weapons of mass destruction- terrorism went from being a mere nuisance to “one of the gravest dangers facing mankind” (Laqueur, 1999: 4; Rapoport, 2004: 75). What Laqueur (1999: 4-5) considers a revolution has also been propped by the shrinking size of the average terrorist organisation, which can now be as small as a dozen members and yet be very effective and harder to fight. Moreover, small size is also likely to allow terrorist groups to be more radical, as their ideas wouldn’t have to be diluted to attract large numbers of people into their sphere (Ibid: 5). Finally, Laqueur (1999: 45) claims that “the only effective weapon against terrorism in the modern era has been the infiltration of their ranks and the use of informers”; this method is rendered substantially harder to successfully employ as terrorist groups get smaller.

A state has generally  a distinct advantage when it comes to building up military power. This advantage is determined in four fields of observation: industry, demographics, economics, and legitimacy. The latter has already been examined, while the former give states the possibility to build up and maintain conventional military power. Laqueur (2003: 235) believes that terrorism is often the prima ratio (first choice) for small organisations that seek to “impose their views on a dissenting group”. However, calling it prima ratio would also entail that these groups make an irrational choice in making use of terrorism without trying non-violent options first. Instead, Law (2009: 3) believes that terrorism “is a part of a process of rational and conscious decision-making within particular contexts”. Indeed, terrorism looks like the only way a small non-state group can make the kind of impact a group such as Al Qaeda sought to make on the US. In the words of Waltz (2002: 247), “by cleverly picking their targets, terrorists have often been able to use slender resources to do disproportionate damage”.

However, the possibility of terrorist attacks carried out with weapons of mass destruction has if anything cracked the accuracy of the assumption that the potential damage inflicted by terrorists is determined by how cleverly they pick their targets. In september 1999, the US Commission on National Security for the 21st century warned that “the combination of unconventional weapons proliferation with the persistence of international terrorism will end the relative invulnerability of the US homeland to catastrophic attack” (Gouré, 2004: 261). After September 11 the Bush administration released the first National Strategy for Homeland Security, which proposed three main strategic objectives: the prevention of terrorist attacks within the US, the reduction of America’s vulnerability to terrorism and the minimisation of damage and recovery times in the case of terrorist attack (Ibid: 270). There seems to be, in the American government, the certainty that terrorism poses a serious threat to the state’s security.

The fact that non-state actors employing terrorism could pose a threat to the security of states was clear to many scholars and practitioners before 9/11 but it is evident that the US government now perceived it as a great threat. The sheer numbers that resulted from the attack cannot be considered a nuisance: 3000 people died in the attacks to the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon (Hoffman, 2002: 303). To add to the loss in human lives, the American economy was also severely hit: estimates suggest that financial damage to the US amounted to US$285 billion in 2002 (Leiser, 2004: 194).

Nevertheless, while the National Strategy for Homeland Security portrays a rational and straightforward approach to the terrorist threat, the stance the Bush administration took in public shows clearly the difficulty a state like America faces when opposed with a security threat posed by a non-state actor. In a speech, President Bush declared:

Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them. Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.

(Primoratz, 2004: 199).

There are three main problems with Bush’s ‘declaration of war’ on terrorism. Firstly, ‘war on terror’ is not a conflict against a tangible enemy, but a method. Secondly, what was meant by ‘global reach’ is unclear; arguably, all terrorist groups have global reach in the 21st century if by ‘global reach’ Bush implied the potential to operate outside of their own country. Thirdly, would America have to endure this war on terrorism “until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated” even if most groups will not probably seek to attack the United States? It is obvious that the US government found itself in an awkward position fighting against non-state groups. Rapaport too criticised Bush’s approach to terrorism: “wars are not fought against adversaries, not methods” and aiming to defeat all terrorist groups of global reach may be too ambitious a strategy since “measuring success may not be possible, especially if one considers the number and variety of factors that could practice terrorism (Rapaport, 2004: 90). There was definitely confusion on how exactly a war against non-state terrorists should be fought by a state.

Indeed, President Bush was not the first American president to declare war on terrorism. In september 1901, when an anarchist murdered US president William Mackinley, his successor Theodore Roosvelt called for a crusade to put an end to terrorism everywhere (Rapaport, 2004: 46). Rapaport (2004: 87) strikes at the core of the issue about war between states and non-state actors when, while describing al Qaeda’s strengths, he writes that it is “a non-state actor structured as a global network or conglomeration of franchise operations, with considerable local authority and flexibility [which] seemed able to reconstitute itself even after a physical defeat in a specific location”. Furthermore, al Qaeda appeared to be “independent of state-support; conceivably, the organisation could exist without a fixed territorial base, relying on multiple decentralised operation centres” (Ibid).

However, response to the terrorist threat has been state-centric. When the US launched their invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the aim was to overthrow the Taliban government which provided a safe haven for al Qaeda (Jones, 2009: 7). In 2009, Obama (Obama, 2009) outlined the three objectives that should be pursued in Afghanistan.

We must deny al Qaeda a safe haven. We must reverse the taliban’s momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government and we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government so that they can take lead and responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.

Contrary to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the reason for the invasion of Afghanistan is very clear. To US government eyes it constituted a threat to US security as a failed state which harbored al Qaeda’s leadership. However, as al Qaeda can easily relocate and spread out to other countries, the problem would only be solved in Afghanistan while it would present itself in other states. The US administration seems to be well aware of it; Obama mentioned repeatedly throughout his 2009 speech that the war on terror would not be centred on Afghanistan. Indeed, he claimed that “unlike the great power conflicts and clear lines of division that defined the 20th century, [US] effort will involve disorderly regions, failed states, diffuse enemies” (ibid).

By the time Obama made his speech, Pakistan had joined Afghanistan in the US list of countries where al Qaeda was based. Indeed, he claimed that Afghanistan and Pakistan constituted the “epicentre of violent extremism practised by al Qaeda” and that he was convinced that US security was at stake there. He also said that it was up to the US to “increase the stability and capacity of [its] partners in the region” (ibid). The diplomatic implications of this approach are obvious. Sheenan (2004:  97) argued that the transnational nature of modern terrorism means that “the role of foreign governments is more important now than ever” because “most of the future work of identifying and arresting terrorists will be done by foreign law enforcement agencies”. Therefore, a solid strategy to defeat a terrorist organisation must include sound relationships with other states.

However, Sheenan (Ibid), aptly observes that different states will have different perspectives on the magnitude of a certain terrorist threat and varying levels of domestic capabilities to deal with it. For this reason, the biggest challenge for American leadership is building and sustaining “an effective counterterrorism coalition -and effective diplomacy will be the foundation of the effort” (ibid).

While I disagree with Waltz’s assertion that “although a mile wide, the anti-terrorism coalition is only an inch deep” (Waltz, 2002: 250), I disagree on why it is so. Waltz (ibid) thought this was the case because of the inherent weakness of terrorists which prevents terrorism from “threatening the security of states”. However, Sheenan’s argument that different states have subjective perception on a certain terrorist threat and different capabilities to deal with it is a more reasonable explanation for fragile international partnerships and/or coalitions.

Pakistan, although it is officially in a partnership with the US to fight both the Taliban and al Qaeda, is an example on how difficult counter-terrorism partnerships can be. In september 2008 the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen said the two countries are “inextricably linked in a common insurgency” (Kronstadt, 2009: 11). Islamist-related violence has been on a steady rise during the last five years and many suicide bombings have been linked to al Qaeda directly. The country is living a deep economic and political crisis and doubts on the reliability of its security forces have been raised more than once by the American government (ibid). Indeed, the Pakistani government is often accused of not being in full control of its intelligence agency, the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate). As a result, in 2008, President Bush reportedly asked the Pakistani prime minister whether his government was really in control of the ISI (ibid: 16-17).

Krasner (2001) too concludes that the weakness of the USA-Pakistan partnership does not stem from the weakness of Pakistani’s military, intelligence, and political branches, but rather from convergent interests in the Afghanistan and terrorist problems. Indeed, his analysis points to Pakistani inefficiency at cooperating with the US not to weakness, but to a rational foreign policy agenda which is in line with the country’s foreign policy needs (ibid: 4). The partnership has sometimes been fruitful: a large share of NATO supplies into Afghanistan passed through Pakistani soil and many al Qaeda officials were captured by or with the help of the Pakistani military and intelligence services, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks (ibid: 3). On the other hand, the US had been providing Pakistan with substantial economic aid for both humanitarian and security development -US$20 billion between 9/11 and 2011 alone.

This atmosphere of mistrust reached a sudden climax when it was announced to the world that Bin Laden had been found and killed in a compound located on the outskirts of Abbottabad in 2011. Krasner (2011) points out that this controversial episode can be testament to two things: either some in the Pakistani military and security forces were complicit with al Qaeda, or just utterly incompetent. This relationship became even more complicated after a NATO strike by one attack helicopter left 25 Pakistani soldiers dead on Pakistani territory on November 2011 (The Telegraph: 2011). Islamabad’s retaliation involved the closure of Torkham border crossing (an important NATO supply line into Afghanistan) and the refusal of Pakistan to sit at the 2011 Bonn Conference on Afghanistan (Krasner: 2011, 1).

Mislead and misleading assertions and reactions to terrorism are due to the difficulty in defining it in the first place. However, it can be asserted that terrorism is a method and a tactic and not a goal or an ideology and yet some individuals and groups are seen as terrorists before they are seen as insurgents or criminals because of the state’s monopoly on legitimacy. Terrorism changed throughout history in its methods, aims, and victims. The ‘new terrorism’ described by Hoffman is a transnational phenomenon which targets large number of civilians rather than single targets, often driven by religious fanaticism. Globalisation and technology advances have made the potential threat of terrorism a much more serious and feared weapon to be wielded by non-state actors against states. Terrorist organisations can now be smaller, more radical, and spread out over the entire world. Crucially, they now can carry on transnational conflicts, taking advantage of the state’s impulse towards self-help which is an obstacle to cooperation among states even within partnerships and coalitions. State self-help and self-interest make the weakness of states and the strength of enemy non-state groups, including those that employ terrorist methods. Moreover, were a terrorist group to gain possession of weapons of mass destruction, the threat posed to states would not only be severe, but almost existential. When Waltz asserted that terrorism did not represent a real threat to state security he greatly underestimated the potential danger of terrorism. Terrorism is often chosen rationally by non-state groups as a way to compensate for the advantage states hold in a conventional war scenario. 9/11 showed that terrorists can hit a state, and they can hit it hard -even without the use of weapons of mass destruction.



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