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Military Support Outside of International Coalitions Increase Risk of Terrorist Attack

Over the past two decades, the number of armed conflicts around the world have decreased by over 40%. While this decrease highlights a positive trend regarding the frequency of armed conflicts, the way armed actors are fighting has also changed. For example, over a quarter of 2013’s intrastate conflicts involved foreign troops—often escalating these conflicts and evoking hostility towards in-country foreign troops, as well as towards civilians of the countries providing military support. Past research has shown a growing relationship between foreign military support (either in the form of troops, weapons sales, or military equipment) and the higher likelihood of domestic terrorist attacks against civilians of the country providing support. This research attempts to take these findings a step further to understand more about how international military involvement in intrastate conflicts can increase the likelihood of retaliatory terrorist attacks at home—as well as whether this likelihood changes depending on how many countries are involved, where the conflict takes place, and whether foreign militaries are part of a coalition or acting alone.

Since the end of the Cold War, violence between countries (interstate conflict) has become much less common, while violence within countries (intrastate conflict) is on the rise. In 2012, all but one of world’s 32 violent conflicts were on the intrastate level. The rise in intrastate conflict is more concerning when we begin to look at whom, and where, actors are fighting. Intrastate conflicts are confined within the borders of a single country and are usually characterized by local disputes between multiple actors of that country, as in the case of a civil war. However, today’s intrastate conflicts are marked by increasing levels of outside participation from foreign groups and militaries. In 2013, international troops participated in over a quarter of the world’s intrastate conflicts, often escalating these conflicts and often escalating these conflicts and evoking hostility towards in-country foreign troops, as well as towards civilians of the countries providing military support.

To answer these questions, the authors look at a 10-year period between 1998 and 2007 and examine all known terrorist attacks, the countries where the attacks took place, and the home country of the organization that conducted the attacks. They examine whether there is a relationship between the location of these terrorist attacks and both a country’s provision of military support to intrastate conflicts and the nature of this military support (as part of a coalition, such as NATO, UN, EU, or unilateral). Finally, the authors separate conflict areas into six distinct regions: Africa, America, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Oceania to see if the conflict region matters when analyzing the number of retaliatory terrorist attacks.

Their results show that all measured forms of military support (deployed troops, weapons sales, military equipment) increase the likelihood that citizens of the supporting country experience an attack organized by terrorist groups originating from the country receiving assistance. However, among these forms of support, weapons sales are the most significant factor in increasing the likelihood of a terrorist attack. Also, foreign military support to conflicts in Asia and the Middle East are more closely tied to terrorist retaliation than foreign military support to other regions is. When compared to the Americas, foreign military deployments in Asia are linked to three times as many retaliatory terrorist attacks, and foreign military deployments in the Middle East are linked to over five times as many. In addition, when military support is provided by countries of fixed coalitions, such as the UN or NATO, terrorist retaliation is much less likely compared to when support is provided by ad hoc missions, such as the “Coalition of the Willing” or “Operation Enduring Freedom” in Iraq and Afghanistan respectively. The authors suggest that this distinction may be due to the fact that fixed coalitions operate as a result of a joint agreement among numerous countries, making it more difficult for terror organizations to identify a single country to blame or target. Also, fixed coalition forces, especially the UN, appear to be “more neutral, less aggressive and have a more positive image in the international community.” Lastly, fixed coalition missions attract less, and different, media attention than ad hoc missions do, resulting in lower visibility and fewer opportunities to apply negative connotations to the coalition’s actions.

Talking Points:

  • Deploying their military may make countries less secure: Foreign military support in intrastate conflicts increases the risk of retaliatory terrorist attacks by groups from countries experiencing those conflicts. Weapons sales are the most significant factor in increasing the likelihood of a terrorist attack.
  • Countries providing military support as part of a fixed coalition are not at significant increased risk of retaliatory terrorist attacks. Ad-hoc missions seem to substantially enhance the possibility of terrorist retaliation.

Contemporary Relevance:

The so-called Global War on Terror is an utter failure in its conception and implementation. Military missions can lead to “battlefield” victories, as we can observe in the taking of ISIS’s territorial base. Such victories, however, come at unacceptable human, social and economic costs. The re-taking of the Iraqi city of Mosul cost the lives of an estimated 9,000 to 11,000 civilians, and did nothing to address any of the root causes of ISIS’s existence. As this study shows, the types of military responses to terrorism employed by the U.S.—ad hoc operations without broad international support—are counterproductive and lead to resentment and retaliation. It is long overdue for the U.S. to reassess the role of their military in combating terrorism. This study reinforces the notion that “there is no military solution— a commonly used phrase in the context of justifying and executing military interventions and operations. When leaders state that there is no military solution, the military option is never seriously questioned and is always kept on the table. Sometimes dominant, sometimes subtler, almost always stated in the context of justifying military approaches, and always within the military solution paradigm.

To be sure, many real experts and pseudo experts will accept the suggestion that there is no military solution to a given violent conflict or to forms of terrorism. However, they usually promote military action to move things into place for the desired political results. First, military action is accompanied by the killing and suffering of people as well as the well-known human, economic costs of all wars. Second, military action against an “ism”, an ideology, clearly has no ‘winnable’ outcome. Third, any form of military action will severely undermine constructive nonviolent approaches and often render them useless. Fourth, the sometimes-stated context of leveling the playing field is problematic. Casualties of war are much more than numbers on our newsfeeds, and moreover no military campaign is launched to create equitable outcomes but to achieve a guaranteed victory resulting in dictated victor’s justice or negotiations.

Practical Implications:

For peace advocates,  in the U.S., pointing to the human, social, political, and economic costs of war is an important element in their advocacy toolbox. Keeping war far away from home, for example by “defending our way of life” or “taking the battle to the terrorists” in foreign countries, keeps the public disengaged and allows the militaristic approach to prevail. When making decisions on whether or not to provide military support, countries need to factor in the human and political costs of the increased likelihood of a retaliatory terrorist attack at home. This research reveals one of the unforeseen costs of war through the increased likelihood of a domestic terrorist attack against civilians. In 2016, OECD countries experienced most deaths from terrorist attacks since 9/11/2001, while the likelihood of being killed in a terrorist attack in those countries remains extremely low (Global Terrorism Index, 2017). It therefore is not useful to create irrational fear of a surge of domestic terror attacks, but simply describe the counterproductive nature of military responses to terrorism. Instead of responses that are proven to create resentment and retaliation, the numerous viable nonviolent alternatives that peacebuilding practitioners have established need to be promoted and used.


Buts, C., & Du Bois, C. (2017). Military deployment and international terrorism: do location and mission type matter? Defence and peace economics28(6), 621-633.

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