Conceptualizing the Deterrence of Terrorism in the Era of Strategic Competition

March 2024 No Comments

Author: Dr. Steven S. Sin (START, University of Maryland)

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Deterring terrorism literature began as a reaction following the events of September 11, 2001. Since that time, there has been fairly robust research that applied deterrence theory to terrorism, terrorists, and violent non-state actors in general. This paper explores both the innovations and pitfalls of deterring terrorism scholarship while arguing for conceptual precision in defining levels of analysis as well as the alignment of influence mechanisms and desired outcomes when thinking about deterrence as applied to countering terrorism. This paper begins with a summary of the existent literature on deterring terrorism, focused on theoretical reconceptualization and expansion of deterrence theory as scholars attempted to apply the deterrence framework to terrorism. The paper then discusses four deterrence models — triadic deterrence, deterrence by delegitimization, deterrence by punishment and by denial, and cumulative deterrence — developed that differ significantly from those traditionally associated with deterrence theory. Finally, the paper proposes that one must be precise in conceptualizing at what level one seeks to deter terrorism, what is/are the desired outcome(s), and what are the influence mechanisms available (and how do they contribute to achieving the desired outcome(s)) when applying deterrence theory in the context of terrorism. The paper asserts that when one insists on conceptual precision in these areas, deterrence theory, as applied to terrorism, can not only be a fruitful tool for scholars and practitioners alike to dissect and understand terrorism, but it can also provide practitioners the foundations to develop strategic analytical tools that can aid in countering terrorism in the era of strategic competition.

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