Terrorist spectaculars: the evolving threat

The definition for ‘spectacular’ terrorist attacks is inversely related to the government’s toughness and its belief that it confronts a militant group

Can the government’s military operation in North Waziristan incite Taliban attacks? To date, most existing theories and empirical studies conclude that such a counter-reaction is highly likely because it creates new grievances while forcing militants to seek security, if not safety, in rebel tactics. Commonly cited methods for militant retaliation include the lethality and destructiveness of indiscriminate and spectacular violence. Terrorists choose from a wide variety of targets and attack methods. Unlike the past, the Taliban have diversity in target choices and attack modes in domestic and transnational terrorism. The current counterinsurgency operation in North Waziristan appears so far successful in defeating the insurgency and levels of violence have decreased over time. Even though there are several potential factors explaining this development, it prompts the question of how effective military offensives are at weakening the Taliban and their ability to carry out violent attacks. I suspect that targetted killings of the Taliban reduce their fighting capacity in the short term, which leads to fewer attacks against government targets as the Taliban shy away from costly combat. However, as a way of adapting to a temporary reduction in capacity, the Taliban may instead increase their targetting of the civilian population in retaliation, with the purpose of undermining the legitimacy of the government and military operation. 
Unknown shooters fired at a PIA plane when it was touching ground at Peshawar airport killing a woman on board and injuring three others. Serious as this may be, this is the third incident at a Pakistani airport this month and is a serious concern for the government’s counterterrorism stance and the potential for backlash attacks. Peshawar is also a Pakistan air force base and, given the value of air strikes in the current military operation against the terrorists, it matters a great deal. The results from target selection of 125 violent sub-state campaigns show that terrorist campaigns against civilian targets are significantly less effective than guerrilla campaigns against military targets aimed at inducing government concessions. The recent shootings at Bacha Khan Airport require close examination of this potential double effect of military offensives and the contention that killing militants can reduce their attacks against government targets but, at the same time, risks leading to an increase in attacks against civilian targets. The use of force thus seems to be a double-edged sword in the struggle against the Taliban in the present war in North Waziristan.
Pakistan has the threat of signalling models of terrorist attacks by the Taliban where the government faces a trade-off from its counterterrorism responses and the backlash or counter-reaction from the Taliban that such responses can incite. In such circumstances, an endogenous characterisation of terrorist spectaculars is a viable threat, given the government’s counterterrorism stance and the potential for backlash attacks. In particular, spectacular attacks are pooling, rather than separating, phenomena, whereby the government cannot discern based on past attacks and the militancy of the terrorist group. The definition for ‘spectacular’ terrorist attacks is inversely related to the government’s toughness and its belief that it confronts a militant group. Therefore, intelligence must be focused in relation to the avoidance of spectacular attacks by the Taliban and the propensity for counterterrorism to give rise to a backlash attack. Analysts study conflicts between terrorists and governments in a setting of asymmetric information. The government can be uncertain about the level of resources available to the Taliban for use in violent attacks. This analysis of conflict is modelled as a signalling game where the magnitude of terrorist attacks serves as a signal of terrorist resources. With complete information, optimal government retaliation depends non-trivially on the Taliban’s resources. With asymmetric information, this provides the Taliban with an incentive to convey the message that their resources are large in an attempt to soften government retaliation. Thus the ‘military’ attack levels of high resource Taliban groups must be distorted upward if they are to convey any information to the government. In addition there are equilibria, where attacks are uninformative of Taliban resources but where the government softens its retaliation. In either case, the government suffers under asymmetric information. Simply varying the flexibility of government responses affects the likely outcome of conflicts, and this gives rise to an assessment of the value of government intelligence gathering and commitment.
Strategic analysis of the Taliban in this situation hint that the terrorist organisation’s choice over the scale and planning horizon of terror attacks bear on the consequences for the organisation’s survival. The Taliban can engage in short-term attacks planned and executed in a single period, characterised by a low fixed-member loss and relatively high marginal causalities, and longer term attacks planned and executed over variable periods, having a high fixed member loss but relatively low marginal causalities. Longer-term terrorist attacks require more resources and cause more damage if successful and short-term attacks can fail because of failed execution or counter-terror interdiction but they can be ultra-spectacular. Today, if I were to analyse optimal strategies and explore the implications for the survival of the Taliban as an organisation, the results would identify a set of terrorist strategic regimes that show that the Taliban’s attack decisions are likely to occur in a short-term spectacular order as a function of the organisation’s dying strength. 
The impact of backlash from the Taliban is contingent in the wake of the gallant men who are fighting against the terrorists. The Pakistan army has proved to the world that Pakistan will no longer submit meekly to terrorist violence and will respond forcefully to end the violence. An overwhelming majority of the public supports the bombing campaign against the Taliban. Support for strong military action, including the possible use of ground and air forces, has been consistently approved and has remained strong even when questions mention the possibility of retaliation against Pakistan, Pakistan army casualties, innocent civilian casualties, or a long war. At the same time, the public has shown patience, with a strong majority willing to restrain military action to ensure that it is correctly targetted. Support for taking such military action in response to terrorist attacks is sometimes interspersed with muted whispers by those who are very critical of the military but what is often forgotten is that this is not the best time for polarisation.

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