The Last Resort


Until the dramatic events of September 2001 terrorism was perceived as an exceptional and a rare phenomenon, which didn’t quite bother specialists of any field. Today there is hardly a person who has never though about the roots and the nature of this evil. The growing threat takes multiple forms, including transnational groups targeting means of transport, planning attacks with weapons of mass destruction or through the Internet, or resorting to new channels to finance their acts.[1] And even though we may disapprove of it, terrorists can indeed assemble plausible if not logical arguments in defense of their actions.

However, whatever the ideological motives of terrorist groups are one should, consider the reasons for a choice of this means of warfare in the first place as to develop an effective doctrine to combat it. As Major Robert W. Cerney states, “terrorists exercise their right to fight for what they believe in the only way they can with any hope of survival till the eventual achievement of their goal.”[2] Terrorism as a means of warfare indeed proves to be successful, but the key point in Maj. Cerney’s assertion is that it’s the only feasible option for those waging an asymmetric war.

It is worth mentioning, that none of the conflicts is perfectly symmetrical, but the wider the gap, the dirtier it gets. Today with only one remaining superpower and more generally the considerable and predictably widening technological divide, a huge imbalance in the capacity of warring parties has become a characteristic feature of any contemporary armed conflict.[3] The wide disparity between the parties, primarily in military and economic power, potential and resources, provides for a need for a form of violence that serves as a force multiplier that maximizes the outwardly limited resources in confrontation with an incomparably stronger opponent that a party cannot effectively challenge by conventional means. Given the inability to fight on the enemy’s own ground and to challenge a stronger opponent on equal terms, the weaker, lower status side has to find some other ground and to rely on other resources to establish a two-way asymmetry.[4] This, in turn, conditions the terrorists’ modus operandi: attacking the enemy’s weakest points, namely, its civilians and non-combatants, thus, not conforming to international legal standards. Yet, why would one play by the system rules when those rules are established to support a system fought…

Western societies are becoming more vulnerable due to many factors, including global communications, travel, and the proliferation of weapons technology, as well as the fact that the number of relatively deprived people in failing societies is growing.[5] The threat of terrorism forces them to respond by increasing homeland security measures. The latter have reduced the number of attacks by 34 percent, limiting the number of terrorism victims to an average of 67 a year and having cost the developed countries roughly US$70 billion since 2001.[6] The material cost of a suicide bombing, in turn, is as low as $150(US), and results in an average of 12 deaths, spreading enormous fear throughout the targeted population.[7] Thus, it amounts to an estimated $5.8(US) billion a year protecting 34 innocent lives which might be deprived at a price of $425(US). Apart from this financial asymmetry, one should also bear in mind that terrorism is responding to new security challenges with new approaches having the same bloodshed effect.

To this end, terrorism seems to be the last if not the only resort of the weaker parties trying to shift the balance and restore the warfare symmetry with any means possible. Given that the means are dirty and that terrorism will not conform to international standards, we must adapt to it and consider a more effective, yet legal, strategy of combating it with a view of its asymmetric character.

Written by Jan Guardian

[1]       United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, The Universal Legal Framework Against Terrorism. New York (2010), p. iii.

[2]       Major Robert W. Cerney, International Terrorism:  The Poor Man’s Warfare. Executive Summary. USMC CSC 1991 [online][accessed 28 March 2013].

[3]       Robin Geiss, Asymmetric Conflict Structures. International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 88, 864, December 2006, 757-758.

[4]       Ekaterina Stepanova, Terrorism in Asymmetrical Conflicts: Ideological and Structural Aspects. SIPRI Research Report No. 23. OxfordUniversity Press (2008), p. 20.

[5]       Shahram Chubin, Jerrold D. Green, Terrorism and Asymmetric Conflict in Southwest Asia. RAND (2002), p. 7.

[6]       Bjorn Lomborg, Is counterterrorism good value for money? NATO review 4 (2008) [online][accessed 29 March 2013].

[7]       Ibid.



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