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Explaining the United States' Decision to Strike Back at Terrorists

NCJ Number
Terrorism and Political Violence Volume: 13 Issue: 2 Dated: Summer 2001 Pages: 85-106
Michele L. Malvesti
Date Published
22 pages
This article examines factors that may explain the use of U.S. military force against terrorists.
Over a 16-year period, from 1983 to 1998, more than 2,400 incidents of international terrorism were directed against the citizens, facilities and interests of the United States throughout the world. Over 600 U.S. citizens lost their lives and nearly 1,900 others sustained injuries in these attacks. Among the 2,400 anti-U.S. incidents, the U.S. applied military force to only three: the 1986 Libyan bombing of a West German discotheque; the 1993 Iraqi attempt to assassinate former President Bush in Kuwait; and the two U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa by bin Laden operatives. Extrapolating from the publicly professed reasons why the United State resorted to overt military retaliation in response to the discotheque bombing, the Bush assassination plot and the East Africa bombing, four explanatory factors are common to all three incidents. First, the United States maintained it had compelling intelligence information regarding who perpetrated each of the incidents. Second, the respective U.S. president asserted that each of these positively identified perpetrators had conducted previous acts of terrorism against U.S. interests. The third factor is the direct targeting of U.S. interests. An attack with U.S. interests as the primary target contrasts with terrorist incidents during which U.S. citizens or facilities were injured or sustained damage but were not the ultimate target of attack. Fourth is U.S. citizen involvement. When both Presidents Reagan and Clinton described international terrorism incidents in response to which the U.S. retaliated, they referred to attacks not against U.S.-related facilities or property, but rather to attacks against U.S. citizens, against the people of the United States. This article argues that the justifications Presidents Reagan and Clinton publicly offered for their decisions to initiate counter-terrorist military action in 1986, 1993 and 1998 were not sufficient to explain why the United States conducted overt armed action in response to an anti-terrorist incident; their decisional reasoning failed to differentiate the three precipitating incidents from 61 other anti-U.S. terrorist events. If the resultant four-factor model were sufficient in its explanatory power, the U.S. would have executed armed action in response to the 61 additional anti-U.S. terrorist incidents that also met the four-factor model criteria. Accordingly, nine factors unique to the three terrorist incidents may actually explain the U.S. decision to use military force as a counter-terrorism response. These nine factors are combined and simplified into six explanatory factors: (1) relatively immediate positive perpetrator identification; (2) perpetrator repetition; (3) direct targeting of U.S. citizens working in an official U.S. government-related capacity; (4) the fait accompli of the incident; (5) flagrant anti-U.S. perpetrator behavior; and (6) the political and military vulnerability of the perpetrator. 64 notes