End of Chapter Question Pointers
Chapter 12 – Target Selection
Alex Braithwaite and Ian Orringer
- What are the most common targets of terrorist violence?
- Why do you think that terrorists select these targets?
- Why are democracies often considered vulnerable targets to terrorist violence?
- What is the difference between soft and hard targets?
- What is the role of fear in the terrorism process?
By implication and in keeping with this chapter, this is easiest to take as a question about violence perpetrated by non-state actors against civilians or the state. If so, make that clear in your answer. Chapters 3 and 14 serve as reminders that some scholars argue that states often also perpetrate terrorist violence. But states are likely to select different targets: often they are trying to prevent change, not enable it.
The basic survey of targets given here (pages 220-222) is useful as a starting point, but remember it is taking a global overview. Non-state groups within different conflicts might select very different targets. With regard to this last point, it is worth reflecting upon the distinction that used to be drawn between ‘domestic’ and ‘international’ terrorism which may point to different targeting priorities. See the Key Concepts box on page 116 for more on this.
We often associate terrorism with truly spectacular attacks – such as on the Munich Olympics (1972) or in America on 9/11 (2001). Still, what is memorable is not the same as what is typical or most common – indeed, the highly unusual event is likely to be remembered longer and more clearly.
If we understand terrorism as a form of symbolic communication to a wider audience (pages 220 to 222), then the precise choice of target matters. It is a symbol in its own right. ‘Signature structures’ such as the Eiffel Tower or the Twin Towers in New York stand for whole societies and values. That said, practical considerations surely matter, too: time, opportunity, social support (or its lack), money, other resources – all these are likely to affect the process of choosing a target.
It is also worth thinking about change over time: Chapter 17 on Old and New Terrorism will help you here. Similarly, take a look at Chapter 18 on how social media has changed, and is changing, the nature of terrorist violence. When it is so easy to record and share evidence of an attack, there may be a temptation to attack across a wider range of locations. This may result in terrorist violence becoming more diffused – as the emergence of the phenomenon of vehicle ramming may demonstrate.
This is an old way of looking at things that dates back to the first generation of terrorism research. Back in 1977 Paul Wilkinson claimed that (western) democracies were vulnerable because they had a free news media and because public opinion tended to identify with hostages: ‘the humanity and compassion which are part of the moral strength of liberal democracy may also be an achilles heel in the war against terrorism’. It is worth reflecting on how persuasive you find these views.
It is also worth reflecting deeply on exactly what is meant by vulnerability here. If the claim is that it is impossible to prevent all terrorist attacks and remain a (liberal) democratic society, then that point seems reasonable enough (see pages 224-226). If the claim is that democracy might collapse, that may seem overblown: see Chapters 11 and 19 on the poor record of anti-state terrorist groups in fighting democratic regimes.
Still, terrorism might not cause democracy to collapse, but it might well still shift it in more authoritarian directions. Liberal democracies balance the rights of minorities and freedoms of speech and assembly against the right of electoral majorities to get their way. Authoritarian democracies are much less concerned with protecting the values of pluralism: and much less inhibited about protecting human rights. For wider background here, see the discussion in Chapter 22 on Counterterrorism and Human Rights.
For a very basic overview, start with the Key Concepts box on page 215. These labels are rather simplistic, of course: in practice, it may be more helpful to think of targets being located across a spectrum from softer to harder. Thinking in terms of a spectrum helps us to consider how targets can be changed as well: usually by ‘target hardening’ measures.
The Global Terrorism Database, for instance, demonstrates the dramatic decline in aircraft hijackings once metal detectors were introduced at airports. Look, too, at Chapter 25 which explores in much more depth the world of counter-terrorist measures in rendering potential targets ‘harder’.
Alex Schmid and Albert Jongman once drew attention to a profound puzzle: how exactly the fear created by terrorism was supposed to be converted into political leverage (see page 8 for the original quotation).
Governments are meant to protect their citizens: in that sense, terrorism might be seen as a strategy to embarrass governments in the eyes of their own citizens. Yet the mystery remains how exactly that embarrassment is meant to be converted into political advantage. It is worth thinking about the role that repetition plays within the terrorism process. Even a spectacular attack may be shrugged off if it seems clear that it cannot be repeated.
Conversely, an attack form that seems shocking the first time may seem less so when it becomes more regular: and may become seen simply as a background nuisance. Getting that balance between projecting future threat but maintaining its shock value may be hard to maintain.