The Terror-Trap

Nick Sitter

The “terror-trap” is well known, yet democratic states walk straight into it time and again, warn Nick Sitter and Tom Parker, researchers on terrorism.

KNOWLEDGE @BI: Terrorism

France’s Prime Minister François Hollande announced new anti-terrorism measures and an increased role for the French security services in the “war against terrorism”, shortly after the attack on the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015.  

The new law was adopted on May 5th , as an emergency measure under an accelerated legislative procedure. It won support from both major political parties.

A similar law was passed in Canada on May 6th, again with an overwhelming majority, following the terrorist attacks in October last year. After the Al Shabaab attacks on Garissa University in Kenya on April 2nd, President Uhuru Kenyatta promised to respond in the “severest ways possible”. The following week Vice President William Ruto demanded that the UN close down a refugee camp in the Garissa area.

A threat to the state?

In the immediate aftermath of an attack terrorism is often presented as an existential threat to the state, this is especially true in democratic states. However, history tells us that this is rarely the case: the only case in which a democracy might convincingly be said to have collapsed as the direct consequence of a terrorist campaign was the military coup in Uruguay in June 1973.

In reality, while terrorism is a very real threat to individuals in society, both as physical and psychological victims of violence, it rarely, if ever, poses a direct threat to the continued survival of the state or democracy as such, either in the short or long term.

Democracies and their citizens face far more substantial threats every day. Organized crime, drug trafficking and corruption have a much greater impact on society than terrorism can ever hope to have. Heart disease, accidents and even the ‘flu pose a much greater threat to life.

Provoking an overreaction

Terrorists cannot, through terrorism alone, destroy democratic states. Many of them understand this. They therefore seek to provoke the state to overreact and by doing so to add further fuel to the fire.

Terrorists act in secret, but are prolific writers. One of the first modern terrorists, Sergei Nechaev, encouraged his followers not to target the worst Russian police officers for assassination so that their excesses could continue to push the people towards revolt.

The Basque separatist group ETA labelled this approach the action-repression-action theory of change. Al Fateh called it sequential detonation (al-taffir al-mutasalsil), and the Brazilian group National Liberation Action, established by Carlos Marighella, even stated in its manifesto that its goal was to cause a crisis that would provoke a military coup.

Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, who led the Al Qaeda in Iraq from 2004-2006, built his strategy on the same idea. In a letter to the Al Qaeda leadership, which US intelligence later published, he urged particularly brutal attacks against civilians in order to provoke the government and US forces into implementing harsh repressive measures.

Avoiding the terror-trap

The terror-trap is well-known, yet democracies walk into it time and again. Terrorism is a form of political jiu-jitsu: terrorists want to use the state’s power against itself.

A better solution is to avoid the trap and deal with the issue by remaining calm and rational even when confronted with provocative acts of violence. The instruments we already have are strong enough. Heavy-handed police force, more aggressive monitoring and more intense security measures that restrict individual freedom will only further polarize society and alienate key constituencies.

Decisions made in the immediate aftermath of attacks tend to be drastic, counterproductive and difficult to change.

Even when quieter times return, it may be politically difficult to reverse such measures. In the US, President Obama has found it extremely difficult to close down the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, even though both Republicans and Democrats agreed that this was a necessary step during the 2008 presidential campaign.

In the Second World War the Brits summed up our basic message with a well-known red poster. The best solution to terrorism is to KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON.


Nick Sitter (2015) "Terrorisme og demokrati", published in April in the anthology "Demokrati", Malnes & Thorsen (eds), Deryers Forlag.

Tom Parker's "It's A Trap: Provoking an overreaction is Terrorism 101" will be published in the June edition of Rusi Journal, published by the UK Royal United Services Institute

Nick Sitter, "Terrorismens historie" will be published by Dreyer in January 2016.

The image shows Francois Hollande in France. Photo: Matthieu Riegler, CC-by 3.0.

Text: Professor Nick Sitter ved Handelshøyskolen BI og Adjunct Professor Tom Parker ved Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program i New York City.


Published 15. May 2015

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