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The Military's Role in Counterterrorism: Examples and Implications for Liberal Democracies

The Military's Role in Counterterrorism: Examples and Implications for Liberal Democracies - Cover

Authored by Dr. Geraint Hughes.

May 2011

228 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The author examines historical and contemporary examples of military involvement in counterterrorism, outlining the specific roles which the armed forces of liberal democracies have performed in combating terrorism, both in a domestic and international context. He describes the political, strategic, conceptual, diplomatic, and ethical problems that can arise when a state’s armed forces become engaged in counterterrorism, and argues that military power can only be employed as part of a coordinated counterterrorist strategy aimed at the containment and frustration—rather than the physical elimination—of the terrorist group(s) concerned.


In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 (9/11) attacks, the U.S. Government was criticized for adopting a militaristic response to the threat posed by al-Qaeda and affiliated groups. As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that in Northern Ireland demonstrate, any liberal democracy that uses its armed forces to combat terrorism will incur controversy both domestically and internationally. The use of military power in counterterrorism is contentious, because historical and contemporary examples suggest that it can have the following negative strategic, political, and ethical effects: The state can generate indigenous resentment that terrorist groups can exploit, and can, by resorting to military force, kill or maim a substantial number of civilians. It can also encourage human rights abuses that are antithetical to the norms of a liberal democracy--such as the maltreatment and torture of detainees --and can (as demonstrated by Uruguay in 1973 and Russia currently) lead to the subversion of the constitutional order and its replacement by authoritarian rule.

While addressing these criticisms, this Letort Paper also argues that there are contingencies in which democratic states are obliged to employ military means in order to protect their citizens from the threat of terrorism, whether in a purely domestic context or when facing a transnational terrorist network such as al-Qaeda. While outlining the specific roles that armed forces can perform (including hostage rescue, military aid to the civil authority, interdiction, and intelligence-gathering), this paper also describes the strategic, political, diplomatic, and ethical challenges that arise from using military means to fight terrorism either on one’s home soil or in the international arena. This paper’s principal conclusion is that democratic governments can use their armed forces if the existing police/judicial framework cannot address the threat posed by terrorists, but that military means have to be integrated as part of an overarching strategy to contain terrorism and to limit the capacity of its practitioners to conduct attacks against citizens. The author also outlines a series of questions that civilian decisionmakers should ideally resolve prior to turning counterterrorism missions over to their military counterparts.

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