Terrorism: A New Kind of War?

In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a number of U.S. political leaders have said that the United States is now engaged in “a new kind of war.”

Is terrorism really a new kind of war? What, if anything, is new about it? In fact, the only thing “new” is that the United States has decided to treat it as war.

What shocks us most about terrorism is that it targets civilians. That innocent men, women and children are the targets of terrorism offends our sensibilities. Nonetheless, targeting civilians is neither new nor restricted to terrorists.

American nuclear strategy during the Cold War was designed to deter the Soviet Union from attacking the United States and its allies by threatening it with nuclear destruction. Although intended as a defensive measure, the United States would still have killed astronomical numbers of civilians in a nuclear exchange.

During World War II, civilians in the cities of Dresden,  Tokyo and London endured carpet bombing attacks that incinerated tens of thousands. And in August 1945, the United States attacked civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic weapons. Thus targeting civilians for attack does not make terrorism a “new kind of war.”

What about the claim that terrorists “hide behind civilians?” Does that make this a new kind of war? This claim presumes that the recent attacks on New York City and Washington were committed by a transnational organization. But it is hard to imagine that such a sophisticated, coordinated attack could have occurred without the support of a state.

State support of terrorism is not new. For example, the “Black Hand,” a group of Serbian ultra-nationalists, fired the opening shot of World War I on June 28, 1914, when one of its members assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. But now it is well known that the Black Hand was closely linked with the Serbian government. Today, the U.S. State Department identifies Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria as state sponsors of terrorism.

Terrorism is not a new kind of war, but rather a type of attrition strategy. It is a strategy that attempts to bypass an enemy’s strengths and attack his weaknesses. In the case of the United States, terrorists bypass the U.S. armed forces, the strongest in the world, and take advantage of America’s open society — a “weakness” that Americans nevertheless hold dear. The strategy seeks to force the United States to change its foreign policy by inflicting widespread pain on American citizens.

States may use terrorism in an attempt to coerce the America into withdrawing from the Middle East or the Korean peninsula. The common characteristic of the states on the current State Department list of terrorism sponsors is that they are weak states with international goals hostile to those of the United States. They choose a strategy of terrorism because they are too weak to attack us in a more conventional manner. The common bond of these states is found in their weakness and hostility, not Islamic fundamentalism or other ideology.

No, terrorism is not a new kind of war, nor is it a new kind of war for the United States. What is new is that the United States is finally treating terrorism as the act of war it truly is and always has been, instead of as a “mere” criminal action.

Stacy Bergstrom Haldi teaches international relations at Gettysburg College. She is the author of "Why Wars Widen: A Theory of Predation and Balancing" (2003) and is a writer for History News Service.