Terrorism is the use of or threat to use violence to advance one’s political, social or cultural agenda. It has been around forever. Terrorism, whether by anarchists, religious terrorists, terrorists seeking to replace one political and economic system with another, terrorism used to influence decision-makers at home or abroad, et cetera, has been a part of humanity for many centuries. The most dangerous type of terrorists, however, are those who willingly sacrifice their lives to advance their agenda. Suicide bombers terrify civilian populations because there is no completely successful way to prevent attacks by terrorists prepared to die for their cause. During World War II, as violent, as brutal, and as vast in scope as any war in human history, what scared soldiers the most was the fear of enemy soldiers willing to die to kill them. That is why Japanese “kamikaze” pilots, fighter pilots who deliberately crashed their aircraft, often with extra fuel tanks and bombs to maximize the damage they inflicted, were a source of enormous terror to American sailors serving in the Pacific. Even acknowledging that many Japanese kamikaze pilots were administered drugs by their commanders to ensure compliance, the fact of bomb-laden aircraft flown by enemy pilots determined to die to sink an American warship and kill as many people as possible was what most terrified the men and women aboard those ships.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, as physically devastating as they were, had an even greater psychological impact because the airplanes used as weapons were flown by terrorists trained and determined die in the process of killing Americans and destroying prominent landmarks. You cannot deter suicidal terrorists. Deterrence depends upon the vulnerability of the subject to be deterred to fear of death (or imprisonment in the case of criminal science). Terrorists who agree, or volunteer, as many do, to carry out suicide attacks can paralyze a community with fear. It does not matter if you can identify the terrorist in your midst. You cannot stop him or her from carrying out an attack, however politically ineffective, when the individual or individuals carrying out such attacks are expecting to die in their own explosions.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, there were a number of terrorist groups operating across Western Europe, such as the Red Army Faction (West Germany), the Revolutionary Organization of 17 November (Greece), the Basque separatist group ETA (Spain), the Red Brigades (Italy) and many others. Many of these groups were supported by Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, who terrified communities in Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Holland, and elsewhere. While many individuals associated with these groups professed the willingness to die for their cause, few actually did, which reduced their effectiveness as politically-oriented militant organizations. After the fall of the Soviet Union, those groups in France, Germany, and Italy who had enjoyed material support from the communist bloc countries suddenly lost that support and withered away, their members imprisoned. What made groups like al-Qaeda so different, as well as terrorist organizations in Lebanon, was the willingness of these groups’ members to carry out suicide attacks. The fear generated by suicidal terrorists greatly exceeded that posed by groups the memberships of which are less willing to sacrifice their lives.
Whether extremist organizations whose members are ready to die to kill as many of their enemies as possible and to influence decision-makers have been more effective is another question. Al-Qaeda certainly drew attention to itself, but were its ultimate goals achieved? No. The Islamic State killed many innocent people across Iraq and Syria and, for a brief time, attained its objective of an Islamic caliphate within the territory it controlled. That caliphate was destroyed, however, by the concerted efforts of numerous countries, sometimes by countries with very disparate long-term objectives. Algerian terrorist organizations fighting for independence from France attained their objectives without resorting to mass suicide attacks (although many Algerians died for their cause), but the Irish Republican Army has to date failed to achieve full independence from Britain and unification with the rest of Ireland, the ultimate goals for which it agreed to lay down its arms following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
The most effective terrorists are those who are prepared to die to inflict casualties on their enemies. Most terrorists ultimately fail, however, to attain their objectives other than the spread of fear.