Deterrence in the Twenty-first Century

Deterrence in the twenty-first century - Air University Press

Chapter 16

Deterring Nonstate Actors

The Challenge of al-Qaeda

John Stone

It has frequently been suggested over the last few years that

the concept of deterrence has had its day, that its previously

important position within Western strategy arose from the particular

conditions of the Cold War, and that these conditions

are no longer extant. According to this line of argument, the efficacy

of deterrence rested on our capacity to punish Soviet

aggression by destroying targets that Moscow dearly wished to

preserve. This made Soviet cities a vital target set, for not only

was Moscow loath to place them at risk, but they were also remarkably

vulnerable to attack. Today, however, the gravest strategic

threat we face is from nonstate actors—shadowy and elusive

groups that simply do not generate targets that can readily

be held at risk and whose members are frequently more than

willing to sacrifice themselves in pursuit of their objectives.

This makes such groups essentially invulnerable to retaliatory

measures, and thus strategies based on deterrence are powerless

to affect them.

The challenge to deterrence is exemplified by al-Qaeda, which

in 2001 proved both willing and able to attack the homeland of

the world’s foremost military power, killing upwards of 3,000

people in the process. In the wake of 9/11, the United States

moved swiftly to smash al-Qaeda’s infrastructure in Afghanistan

and to topple the Taliban regime. But whilst this counteroffensive

might conceivably have discouraged other states from

extending help to bin Laden and his associates, it did not deter

al-Qaeda itself from mounting further operations against the

West, as the subsequent bombings in Madrid and London demonstrated.

Indeed, military action could not hope to do so, because

it could not threaten the idea of al-Qaeda. The events of

9/11 had already ensured that this idea was beamed around the

world to lodge invisibly in receptive hearts and minds. And it is

this idea that now represents the most important aspect of al-

Qaeda; for even if bin Laden and his lieutenants were killed or

captured tomorrow, the idea will survive, inspiring individuals


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