Preemptive Military Strikes:  A Viable Option
Against International Terrorism?
CSC 1990
Author: Major Dirk R. Ahle
                    EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
THESIS:  The United States must be prepared to use military
power, including preemptive strikes, in its national
strategy against terrorist targets in countries that
support international terrorism.
ISSUE:   As terrorism increased during the 1980's there was
an increasing frustration among western countries in
dealing with the threat.  Most increased diplomatic
pressures on states that sponsored terrorists.  They also
increased their police activities and terrorism prevention
measures.  Unfortunately these efforts did not yield
significant results.  There has been an increased emphasis
on hostage rescue forces that can be utilized once a
hostage situation occurs.  A few countries, most notably
Israel, have resorted to retaliatory strikes in an effort
to control terrorism.  While all of these measures have
contributed in varying degrees in diminishing the threat,
they have not ended the threat.  There is a provision under
Article 51 of the United Nations Charter that permits the
use of preemptive strikes as a matter of self-defense when
a nation is threatened.  A preemptive strike that is
conducted as an interposition vice an intervention can be
legally justifiable in a self-defense situation.
CONCLUSION:  It is important to understand that the
terrorist threat will not be easily resolved.  The use of
military force is not a unique solution.  It must be used
in concert with other instruments of national power in a
coordinated national strategy to influence terrorists and
states that support terrorists to cease their threat to
world order.  If we are to achieve security from this
threat and preserve world order, the United States must be
prepared to use all means at its disposal.
THESIS STATEMENT.  The United States must be prepared to
use military power, including preemptive strikes, in its
national strategy against terrorist targets in countries
that support international terrorism.
I.    Terrorist threat and American response
      A.  Terrorism:  a definition
      B.  President Reagan's policy on terrorism
      C.  President Reagan's response to terrorism
II.   Three instruments of national power
      A.  Effect of diplomatic and economic instruments on
          terrorist organizations
      B.  Effect of diplomatic and economic instruments on
          nations that support terrorists
      C.  Military power as an alternative
III.  Terrorism:  a police or military problem?
      A.  United Nations' position on terrorism
      B.  Diplomatic failure of western countries
      C.  International terrorism:  a criminal activity or
IV.   Countries search for solutions
      A.  USSR and Israeli response
      B.  The use of appeasement
      C.  Opinion of some experts:  terrorism is a police
V.    Self-protection and the U.N. charter
      A.  Article 51 of the U.N. charter
      B.  Right to self-protection
      C.  Retaliatory versus preemptive strikes
VI.   Requirements for successful preemptive strike policy
      A.  Clear, recognizable target
      B.  Accurate intelligence and burden of proof
      C.  Trained counterterrorist forces
      D.  Will of the people
    On 31 July, 1989 the evening news networks displayed on
national television the hanging corpse of Marine Lieutenant
Colonel William R. Higgins.  This video tape was released by
one of the warring factions in Lebanon.  Thus ended the
eighteen month ordeal of Colonel Higgins and another bloody
chapter in America's futile struggle against international
    This atrocity and the countless other hostage takings,
bombings, and high-jackings have kept the United States and
other free world nations political hostages.  Most free
people feel powerless against this threat and frustrated that
there is little that can be done utilizing our existing
laws.  There is, however, one option that few countries have
exercised and appear reluctant to utilize, the selective
application of military force against international
terrorism.  The United States must be prepared to use
military power, including preemptive strikes, in its national
strategy against terrorist targets in countries that support
international terrorism.
    Americans became aware of the sense of frustration and
powerlessness after the seizure of the embassy in Teheran.
"'There was a feeling in this country until the 444th day
that it was not just the 52 but ... our very government that
had been taken captive and held hostage....'" (1:16)  It is
this sense of frustration and powerlessness that terrorists
attempt to capitalize on in order to change another country's
policies.  At a recent symposium on terrorism George Schultz
stated "...they (terrorists) are attempting to impose their
will by force, a special kind of force to create an
atmosphere of fear. " (11:17).
    To combat terrorism, we must understand what it is, and
what terrorists are attempting to achieve.  The United
Nations, the United States, and other world governments have
not reached an agreement for a definition of terrorism.  In
the United States alone, there is a difference of opinion
over the definition.   Within the Executive Branch there are
at least three definitions of terrorism.
    The Vice President's Task Force on Combatting Terrorism
used the following definition when studying the problem.
    The unlawful use or threat of violence against
    persons or property to further political or social
    objectives.  It is generally intended to intimidate
    or coerce a government, individuals, or groups to
    modify their behavior or policies.(4:27)
    The Department of Defense (DOD) definition of terrorism
is essentially the same as the definition used by the Vice
President's Task Force.  The DOD definition also includes the
phrase "violence against persons or property. "(4:27)
    The Department of State's definition states that
terrorism is the "Premeditated, politically motivated
violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by
subnational groups or clandestine state agents, usually
intended to influence an audience."(4:27)  This definition
leaves out any mention of the word  "unlawful".  Therefore,
according to this definition, acts of terrorism could be
considered lawful.
    A combination of these definitions will be used as the
basis for this study on counterterrorism.  Terrorism is  "The
premeditated, unlawful use or threat of violence against
noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine
state agents.  It is intended to intimidate a government or
groups to modify their behavior or policies."
    While terrorism may be imprecisely defined by the
Executive Branch, President Reagan recognized the threat to
world order posed by state sponsored terrorism.  One of his
major security objectives as set forth in National Security
Strategy of the United States was to "deter hostile attack on
the United States, its citizens, military forces and
allies. .." and "... deal effectively with threats to the
security of the United States and its citizens short of armed
conflict, including the threat of international
terrorism. "(15:4)  While President Reagan did not state
specifically how he would achieve these objectives, he did
not rule out the use of military force.
    After the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon,
President Reagan stated that terrorists and those countries
that aided and abetted them would be held accountable.
During the years between 1983 and 1986 there were more
terrorist actions:  the high-jacking of the TWA aircraft in
Lebanon, the high-jacking of the Achille Lauro, and the
bombing of a West Berlin disco.  In each incident American
citizens were killed.  During this time the American
government was attempting to determine the best combination
of instruments of policy to utilize to neutralize terrorism.
    The United States has three instruments of policy that
can be utilized in our national strategy to achieve our
national objectives.  These instruments are diplomatic,
economic, and military.(3:36)  In the normal course of
events, the United States utilizes diplomatic and economic
instruments to pursue national interests.  On occasion,
however, the national strategy requires the use of military
    International terrorists are not easily influenced by
diplomatic and/or economic instruments.  Normally their goals
call for the complete overthrow of the government or upheaval
of the society that they are fighting.  Terrorists
organizations do not have diplomats that can be contacted in
order to conduct diplomatic negotiations.  Economically,
terrorists are difficult to influence.  Normally they are
ideologically motivated and supported by outside sources
(i.e. nations that support their cause).  Terrorists use
military style tactics against targets that are incapable of
defending themselves.
    The countries that harbor and support international
terrorists generally ignore diplomatic overtures and economic
persuasion to cease their support of terrorists.  While the
United States has taken some unilateral economic and
diplomatic actions against Libya in the wake of terrorist
activities that have been linked to it, few of our allies
have joined in.  Former Secretary of State, George Shultz
stated that "too often (friends) are inhibited by fear of
losing commercial opportunities or fear of provoking a
bully. "(2:59)  The sad fact is that for various reasons many
western countries feel that it is not in their best interests
to place economic or diplomatic sanctions on countries that
sponsor terrorism if the acts are not committed in their
country.  Where then does this leave the United States in
dealing with states that sponsor terrorism?
    Clearly the U. S. must continue to offer diplomatic
channels for negotiation of our political differences.
Furthermore, while economic incentives/ retaliation do not
appear to have an impact on states that sponsor terrorist
organizations, these means need to be continually reviewed
for possible opportunities.  The U. S. has attempted to
utilize these two means over the last ten years but they do
not appear to be providing the solution.  It is becoming
clear that there will be no painless resolution to the
conflicts with terrorists, primarily because the nations
that sponsor them do not want a solution.  What options are
    Some terrorism experts argue that international terrorism
is a police problem.   They argue that the use of the military
could encourage vigilantism .  One of the four elements in
the Department of State's diplomatic strategy is a
program of action... designed to bring terrorists to
justice... to identify, track, apprehend, prosecute, and
punish terrorists by using the rule of law. "(16:iv)  This
policy will work effectively if countries are able to
negotiate and honor the extradition treaties needed to return
terrorists to stand trial.
    Gayle Rivers, a New Zealand counterterrorism expert,
takes exception to the judicial method of trying and
punishing terrorists.  "A terrorist who is allowed to live
and goes to prison quickly becomes the direct cause of
another terrorist act to free him. "(16:33)  The Irish
Republican Army terrorists in British jails serve as a symbol
for the rest of the movement.  One of the demands most often
surfaced in a hostage situation is the release of jailed
terrorists.  While seeking due process for international
terrorists may be the noble thing to do, it may actually
exacerbate the problem.
    Since international terrorism is an "international"
problem, it would seem reasonable that the United Nations
should enact a resolution to outlaw terrorism and provide a
mechanism to try and punish terrorists.  Resolutions have
been proposed by the United States and Israel to outlaw
terrorism but they have failed to pass the General Assembly.
"Essentially, the inability to reach agreement is based on
the adage that `one man's terrorist is another's freedom
fighter. `"(1:170)
    Even among the western nations there has been an
inability to develop tough diplomatic treaties concerning
international terrorism.  Most extradition treaties have an
"escape clause", which gives the requested nation the right
to deny extradition in the case of a political act.(4:68)
Italy, France, Egypt, and Greece have all released or blocked
attempts to extradite suspected terrorists wanted by the
United States.  All of these countries have their reasons and
fears, but until nations can decide to help one another we
will all live with the fear of terrorism.  Is terrorism a
criminal activity that only requires increased international
cooperation or a new type of warfare that requires some type
of military solution?
    Premeditated criminal activities are normally motivated
by an individual's desire for money or revenge.  They do not
normally seek to disrupt the status quo of the society in
which the criminal lives nor to overthrow the government.
These problems can be handled by an efficient police force
and judicial system.  Even when the criminal has fled to
another country the police, extradition, and judicial systems
function to bring the criminal to justice.  International
terrorism, on the other hand, has more than a desire for
money or revenge as its motive.  Terrorism has a long range
goal, "it is intended to intimidate a government or groups to
modify their behaviors or policies."  If a sovereign nation
were to use violence against the United States with the
apparent intent of intimidating our government to modify its
policies, it would probably be viewed as an act of aggression
or war.  The bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon was an
act that curtailed the deployment of the U.S. Marines in
Lebanon and undermined the U.S. policy in the Middle
East.(6:2)  Had this act been committed by a sovereign state
it could have been considered an act of war.  Some western
countries have been attempting to limit terrorism through
effective cooperation of police agencies, but there has been
little promise of a breakthrough in this area.  Once economic
and diplomatic measures have been tried and have failed, and
no breakthrough in international police cooperation is
imminent, what options are left?
    The failure of these measures has forced some countries
to pursue other alternatives.  One approach some countries
have taken is appeasement of terrorist factions.  In 1985
terrorist attacks were at an all time high throughout the
world and  the United States proposed a multinational treaty
to fight international terrorism.  The proposal was accepted
by several countries, but France was reluctant because she
feared that "any concerted effort against Libya, for
instance, would produce... `an Arab front' unfriendly to the
West."(12:166)  Later that same year the U.S. intelligence
sources learned that Imad Mughniyah, the alleged mastermind
to the 1985 TWA high-jacking, was planning to go to France.
The U.S. informed the French, who apprehended Mughniyah and
then released him.  It was a thinly veiled attempt by the
French to appease the terrorists in the hope that French
hostages in Lebanon would be released.(12:167)
    In 1985 the United States was tracking down Mohammed Abul
Abbas, the alleged leader of the Achille Lauro high-jacking.
Information was received that Abbas was to leave Egypt on an
Egyptair aircraft.  The U.S. attempted to gain custody of
Abbas through the Egyptian government, but the Egyptians
attempted to deceive and mislead the U.S. that Abbas was no
longer in Egypt.  The aircraft was tracked and forced down
onto an airbase in Sicily.  American and Italian troops held
a perilous standoff for several hours, and the Italian
authorities took possession of Abbas and his cohorts.   The
U.S. tried in vain to extradite Abbas and his fellow
terrorists.  A few days later Abbas was released and allowed
to leave the country.
    Countries that appease terrorists may buy a little good
faith with terrorist organizations, but these countries have
failed to produce a long lasting solution in their campaigns
against terrorism.  These nations continue to suffer from
terrorist attacks and have lost face with other countries
that are fighting terrorism.  Neville Chamberlain was unable
to buy peace through appeasement with Hitler in 1939.  He may
have bought Britain some precious time by trading away the
Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia, but the end result was war.
If there is a lesson history can teach, it should be that
appeasement will not sway a determined foe.  If appeasement
is not a solution, what can be done?
    Israel has been living with the terrorist threat for many
years.  In 1988, over 29 percent of all terrorist acts were
committed against Israeli targets in Israel or the occupied
territories.(16:7)  Since its inception as a nation, Israel
has had to cope with a growing terrorist threat.  They have
found that the one thing the terrorists in the Middle East
respect is force.  They do not negotiate with terrorists and
will use deadly force whenever possible to free hostages,
even if hostages' lives will be forfeited.  When they are
unable to use deadly force, they will carry out a policy of
reprisals immediately after the terrorist act.(1:140)  The
Israelis have been criticized by many for this policy, but
their experience has been that it is the only policy that
will deter terrorist attacks.  They would prefer to receive
the criticism and possibly suffer some civilian casualties
than have the government and the people held as emotional
hostages out of fear of terrorist attacks.
    The Soviet Union is another country whose policies should
be examined.  It is generally recognized throughout the world
that the USSR will exact "harsh retribution" for any attacks
on its foreign missions or diplomatic personnel.(8:245)
After the Soviet embassy in Teheran was taken over in 1980,
the Soviets sent two strongly worded protests to the Iranians
that Moscow would not permit a recurrence of the
incident.(8:245)  When four Soviet nationals were taken
hostage in Lebanon in 1985, the Soviets quickly applied
pressure on the Syrians to get them released from the Syrian
backed factions.(12:142)  There has been some speculation
that the Soviets conducted a covert military action to
collect a hostage of their own, one important enough to force
the involved factions to rethink their position.  In a couple
of days the three living Soviets were returned, unharmed.
Are nations permitted to use military power to halt terrorist
    Under Article 51 of the United Nations charter nations
have the right to individual and collective protection
against armed aggression.  Additionally, Article 2 of the
charter clearly defines what is unlawful intervention and
lawful interposition.  Essentially, intervention is the
intrusion into another sovereign nation with the intent of
changing the existing government, employing occupation forces
for an extended period, or otherwise altering the ability of
the government to exercise self-rule.  Interposition, on the
other hand, is for a "limited purpose" and "limited
objective". (4:111)
    Interposition is a response to a country's intentional
attacks or inability to prevent attacks on the interposing
country by persons in the jurisdiction of that government.
Once the mission is accomplished the interposing country
leaves the country as it found it or changed only as much as
internal forces, over which the interposing country has no
control, may have altered it.  Interposition is lawful only
if a real and immediate threat exists to the national
self-defense of the interposing country or on the grounds of
humanity.(4:111)  The important elements are: a response to
intentional or unintentional aggression; short-duration, only
long enough to stop the threat; no changes to government; and
done only on grounds of self-defense or humanitarian reasons.
    The conditions under which acts of self-defense may be
conducted are established by international law.  They are
preventive, not a retributive response; breach of legal duty;
protection of essential rights; actual or imminent armed
attack; timely response; last resort; necessity of response;
proportion of response; and reasonable response.
Additionally states must report to U.N. their intention to
conduct self-defense action, and response must cease if
security council acts effectively.(4:131-149)  While a
detailed discussion of these elements is beyond the scope of
this paper, it is important to note that a nation has the
right to interpose in another sovereign nation in order to
provide for its own self-defense.  This right is provided for
by the U.N. charter and international law.
    There is another type of military action permitted by
Article 51 of the U.N. charter in peacetime, the reprisal.  A
reprisal is a lawful response to an illegal action of another
nation or "recognized international entity".(4:178)  With
reprisals, as with preemptive strikes, there is a set of
conditions that must be met for the reprisal to be legal
under Article 51.  The act must be preceded by a demand to
redress the wrong, taken as a last resort, and halted as soon
as objective is attained.  Additionally it must be
proportional to injury suffered, not taken in response to a
lawful reprisal, and taken with consideration of safety of
third states.(4:180).  It is readily apparent that a reprisal
is normally an act which would be taken against another
sovereign nation.  It would be difficult to conduct a
reprisal against a shadowy international terrorist
organization.  The Israelis have received much criticism
because their reprisals have not, in the eyes of some, met
all of the criteria required by the U.N. charter.  While a
reprisal could be a legal act against a nation that supports
international terrorist organizations, a direct link would
have to be proven and the above conditions would have to be
    Since reprisals are normally reserved for use against
sovereign nations and recognized international entities, then
preemptive military strikes would be the best use of military
force to strike terrorist organizations.  Preemptive strikes
do not have to be conducted against sovereign states, they
can be used against organizations operating inside the
borders of a nation.  Preemptive strikes are legal under
Article 51 provided that the preemptive operation is
conducted as an interposition and not an intervention, and
meet the criteria for self-defense.  The United States should
keep the use of preemptive strikes as a viable and legal
option against international terrorism.  If the United States
should decide to use preemptive strikes to control
international terrorism, what must be done to insure their
    First, and most importantly, a clear terrorist target
must be identified.  In order to do this the U.S. must have
first rate intelligence.  The United States has the best
photo reconnaissance satellites in the world.  The level of
sophistication of this asset is highly classified, but
unclassified sources have stated that types of missiles or
armored vehicles can be identified from satellite
photography.  Electronic intelligence (ELINT) is also
extremely important.  Electronic information was used to
determine that Abdul Abbas was in Egypt and preparing to
leave on an Egyptian commercial aircraft.  The United States
has led the world in technical means of gathering
intelligence, but has degraded its ability to gather human
    In the wake of the Watergate era abuses, President
Carter and congress established oversights on the
intelligence gathering organs, particularly the Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA).  With these oversights and
controls came a degradation of our capability to gather human
intelligence (HUMINT).  HUMINT is vital in counterterrorism
operations.  Satellite imagery and ELINT may be able to
provide intelligence that a particular location is being used
as a terrorist training camp or headquarters, but without
reliable HUMINT it will be extremely difficult to confirm or
refute the intelligence indications.  All sources of
information gathering will have to be exploited in order to
form the intelligence picture needed to conduct a legal
preemptive strike.
    Another prerequisite to conduct a successful preemptive
strike is the requirement to fulfill the conditions set down
in Article 51 of the U.N. Charter for offensive operations of
self-defense.  Probably the most difficult to resolve is the
requirement to notify the Security Council of the impending
attack.  As discussed earlier, this notification allows the
U.N. time to take some action to eradicate the problem.
Unfortunately, based on the prior record of U.N. successes in
resolving conflicts, this notification will only serve notice
to the offending country, and terrorist organization, that a
strike is imminent.  However, if our ambassador to the U.N.
could deliver a general notice to the U.N. that the United
States had information that Libya, for example, had terrorist
training camps located in her borders, we could argue that
notification had been given when we decide to conduct the
    Either in the notification process or in the aftermath,
the United States will have to prove to the international
community the necessity of the strike.  There are several
levels of proof based on criminal, administrative, and
international law.  A detailed discussion of these levels is
beyond the scope of this paper, however, the following quote
may help bring the nature of the problem of evidence into its
proper perspective. Former Secretary of State, George Schulz
said, "`We may never have the kind of evidence that can stand
up in an American court of law'".(4:104)  However, as one
prominent terrorism expert pointed out, "The purpose of the
evidence is not to prove a case in a domestic criminal court
but rather to justify the actions of an injured
state."(4:104)  The point of the evidence is to satisfy
ourselves, and attempt to satisfy the world community, that
the action was necessary.  Once it has been determined that
the preemptive strike is necessary, an appropriate force will
be necessary to conduct the strike.
    Much has been written on the ability of the United States
to effectively deal with terrorists with military force.  The
U.S. with its sophisticated military has considerable options
to use in a counterterrorism role.  The most striking that
comes to mind is airpower.  Since the 1986 raid on Libya most
would assume that this should be the favored response either
in a retaliatory or preemptive strike.  Airpower was chosen
for this particular strike because of the National Command
Authority's (NCA) concern to minimize collateral damage and
diminish the possibility of U.S. casualties or prisoners.
These are obviously going to be important factors in any
future counterterrorist strike.  Another option would be to
use cruise missiles with conventional warheads.  The cruise
missile is an expensive, sophisticated piece of hardware, but
it offers the advantages of being extremely accurate and
minimizing the possibility of U.S. casualties and prisoners.
While technology can provide some solutions in strike
capabilities, other less sophisticated means should not be
arbitrarily ruled out.
    Many nations have developed counterterrorist (CT) ground
forces.  These units are normally utilized in a reactive role
once a hostage situation has occurred.  While hostage rescue
is an important mission it should not be considered the only
mission for these highly trained forces.  Given the proper
set of circumstances, forces such as Delta Force should be
considered when developing a preemptive strike.  Use of a
ground CT force would provide an element of surprise to
terrorists who would normally expect the U.S. to use a more
technological solution.  Finally, it would demonstrate that
the U.S. has the will to take the fight to the "enemy", and
will use whatever means at our disposal to accomplish the
    The will of the U.S. is the last, and probably most
important, part of the preemptive strike equation.  Colonel
Harry G. Summers in his analysis of the Vietnam War, brings
out the importance of the will of the American people.(13:8)
If they feel that the cause is right, and that we are the
ones that must do something about it, they will bear the
hardships.  The American people must be told the importance
of stopping the threat of international terrorism, and that
preemptive strikes are a key ingredient in the plan.  If they
realize the level of the threat and that we have the ability
to reduce the threat, they will support the effort.
    It is important to remember that the terrorist threat
will not be easily resolved.  The use of military force is
not a unique solution.  It must be used in concert with other
instruments of national power in a coordinated national
strategy to influence terrorists and states that support to
cease their campaign of terror.  Likewise the United States
must not continue on the course of utilizing solely
diplomatic and economic instruments against a threat to our
national security.  There must be a coordinated national
strategy using all three instruments of national power
utilizing the proper tool, in the proper amount, and at the
proper time.  If we are to achieve security from this threat
and help preserve world order, the United States must be
prepared to use all means at its disposal.
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