Deterrence in the Twenty-first Century

Deterrence in the twenty-first century - Air University Press


or small groups to commit suicidal acts of violence against the

very societies in which they live.

In what follows, I want to suggest that this line of argument is

only partially correct. The Cold War model of punitive deterrence

may not be relevant to the challenges posed by al-Qaeda, but

this does not mean that deterrence per se is defunct. On the

contrary, deterrence, in various guises, remains a potent tool for

shaping al-Qaeda activity; indeed, it is helping to keep us safe as

I speak today. By way of support for this position, I propose to

explore two examples of deterrence at work. I make no special

claims for these cases, which are two amongst many. They are,

however, examples with which I happen to be familiar. Moreover,

that there exists some modest evidence for their effectiveness

also recommends their selection. As in most instances, it is notoriously

difficult to demonstrate that an adversary’s inaction is

due to a specific deterrent threat. Before we move on to discuss

these examples, however, it might be useful to say a little bit

more about the activities they are intended to deter.

At root, al-Qaeda is a symptom of the Islamic world’s unhappy

engagement with modernity. It is the extreme reaction of

a traditional society that feels its fundamental beliefs and values

are under siege by colonial forces. It harks back to a past

in which Islam was more readily capable of asserting itself in

the face of such alien influences and indeed of prevailing over

them. The key to regaining this past, it is argued, lies in a revolutionary

political programme designed to create a geographical

power base—a caliphate—within whose borders a radical

interpretation of Islamic life can be practised. To the extent

that obstacles to this project are encountered, force must be

used to sweep them aside. These obstacles include the regimes

that currently hold sway over the Middle East. They also include

Western powers, such as the United States and Great

Britain, who are charged with supporting the existing state

structure as a means of maintaining their own anti-Islamic influence

in the region.

A key problem facing al-Qaeda is that its capacity to generate

force in relation to the states that oppose it is small, which means

that direct confrontation would inevitably lead to crushing defeat.

Direct confrontation is therefore avoided in favour of action

intended—at least in the first instance—to augment al-Qaeda’s


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