Deterrence in the Twenty-first Century

Deterrence in the twenty-first century - Air University Press


a series of misadventures in relation to the so-called “Easter

Bomb Plot” that resulted in the arrest of 12 suspected terrorists.

Whilst it was certainly Easter, there does not seem to have

been either a bomb or a plot—or at least there existed no evidence

of them that would have stood up in a court of law. Nevertheless,

such high-profile events should not distract us from

important facts that do not make it into news headlines. And

one such fact is that the security service has been instrumental

in achieving 86 successful convictions under antiterror legislation

since January 2007. According to the head of MI5, Jonathan

Evans, this “has had a chilling effect on the enthusiasm of

the [terrorist] networks. They’re keeping their heads down.” 11 If

Evans’ analysis is correct, his organization is doing a good overall

job of deterring al-Qaeda in Britain.

By way of conclusion, I should like to reiterate my central contention

that al-Qaeda is amendable to deterrence, and raise an

additional point for consideration. As we have seen, al-Qaeda’s

core leadership and its local operatives, alike, are cost-sensitive

actors. And it is this cost sensitivity that provides us with opportunities

to achieve deterrent effects.

My additional point relates to the role of the US Air Force in

the foregoing. It might appear that the Air Force is irrelevant to

the approach to deterrence I have sketched here, but this is not

the case. On the contrary, airpower does have an important

role to play, although this role derives from the fact that deterrence

is only one component within a wider strategy for dealing

with the threat posed by al-Qaeda.

Another important component consists of efforts to neutralize

or destroy al-Qaeda’s core leadership. It would be unwise to

abandon such efforts because, left to their own devices, bin

Laden and his lieutenants will only become more capable of

supporting and directing local groups in their violent endeavours.

And this would be the case well before the long-term deterrence

measures I have described have had a chance to gain


A problem here, however, is that the twin goals of deterrence

and destruction are potentially in tension with one another.

Most obviously, overly enthusiastic efforts to hunt down bin

Laden and his associates risk undermining deterrence by creating

a climate in which an antiterror message cannot gain


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