Drone Strikes Fail to Fight Root Problem of Terrorism


The Richmond Times-Dispatch published a commentary on the ineffectiveness of drone strikes in deterring terrorism last week, arguing that the main flaw of drone use is that it cannot deter an enemy unwilling to die. I would add that drone strikes are not an effective tool of deterrence because they only raise the risks of engaging in terrorist acts, and do not address the reasons people turn to terrorism in the first place. Drone strikes are a primary tool the U.S. uses to fight large terror networks, yet this practice isn't able to target the fluid nature of the movements and only works to make them angrier.

Individuals can engage in terrorism for a multitude of reasons; the post-martyrdom remuneration for their families, political or ideological beliefs, even the sheer thrill of the act. In England, one recently-convicted terrorist claimed that his involvement in plots in the U.K. and U.S. was motivated by a possible free holiday to New York. There are desperate individuals who turn to terrorism in hopes that their families will be compensated for their act, viewing it also as a way to bring honor to their kin. Many others subscribe to the need for an Islamic caliphate, while others just want to watch the world burn. While drone strikes can take out the targeted individuals and leave innocent civilians unharmed, they do not tackle the reasons the terrorist movement continues to gain supporters. Drone strikes can remove the immediate threats, but they do not tackle the issues that help the movement replace those deposed.

The drone strikes could theoretically work as a tool for deterrence. Thomas Schelling argued in Arms and Influence that deterrence can be achieved if a state’s threats to punish its opponents or to remove its ability to act against the state, are viewed as credible. Recent high-profile targets like Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki and members of the Haqqani network, make the threat of retaliation by the U.S. more credible to potential terrorists. However, the power of deterrence, as Schelling recognized, lies in the threat of violence, not blunt violence itself. Thus the paradox: as more drone strikes are carried out against terrorists, and the U.S. engages in more violence outside its borders, it is giving terrorists greater justification for their cause. Drone strikes might even help in terrorist recruitment.

Another point of note is that we can never really know whether drone strikes are effective deterrents against terrorism, because we cannot measure what has not happened. This means there is no way to objective way to assess whether the strikes are effective, and all we can rely on is the word of officials who may have vested interests in promoting those strategies.

It helps to think of deterrence effects by drawing a parallel to domestic crime. There are initial deterrence effects that occur when a new policy is introduced. So drone strikes appear to have a large effect as many individuals cease their actions when they fear the repercussions if they engage in terrorism. Those that are left undeterred, however, are not the ones who fear the repercussions, and any continued drone strikes in the future are unlikely to have additional marginal deterrence effects. The U.S. already deterred a large majority of the potential terrorists when it hit bin Laden, and it should stop there. The message has already been sent.

Future strikes, aside from their questionable legality, will not deter significantly more terrorists, and only continue to legitimize the movement. The strikes themselves do not address why individuals turn to terrorism, the deeper root causes of it. They can take the al-Awlakis of the world out, but there will be more to replace them. The have achieved their maximum deterrent effect already, and it is time to stop.

Photo Credit: Dablo Azul