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The Benefits of Counterterrorism Restraint in a Diminished Terrorism Threat Environment

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This commentary is published as part of IPD’s project, Deconstructing the Changing Middle East Security Architecture.


When should the United States and other Western allies like Canada use kinetic operations to counter-terrorism threats? No foreign policy question has been more important since the September 11, 2001, attacks, particularly when it comes to formulating Middle East policy. In such rare historical cases, the urgency of the threat answers this question. But today’s international terrorism threat is not “blinking red,” making our counterterrorism response less clear. Based on all indicators, international terrorism remains a problem but does not seem quite as urgent. So, what should America and its Western partners do about it in our seemingly diminished terrorism threat environment today where the decision to employ military power beyond drone strikes is cloudy? This brief policy paper develops four empirical and theoretical reasons from the political science literature as to why an over-active counterterrorism response in a diminished threat environment is problematic.


When should the United States and Western allies like Canada use kinetic operations to counter-terrorism threats? No foreign policy question has been more important since the September 11, 2001 attacks, particularly when it comes to formulating Middle East policy. In rare cases, the urgency of the threat answers this question. The decision to go after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was a no-brainer. Replace George W. Bush with any other American president and the response would have been essentially the same. Although the twenty-year occupation of Afghanistan would not have happened under different American leadership, the decision to target Al Qaeda’s leaders after the worst terrorist attack in history was automatic, inevitable, and wise. The same is true of the decision to target the Islamic State (ISIS) once it became clear that the group was attracting thousands of foreign fighters from around the world and was intent on striking globally outside of the region. But today’s international terrorism threat is not “blinking red,” making our counterterrorism response less clear. Based on all indicators, international terrorism remains a problem but does not seem quite as urgent. So, what should America and its Western partners do about it?

Al Qaeda and ISIS are now shadows of their former selves. Al Qaeda never fully recovered from the loss of Osama bin Laden just like ISIS never recovered from the loss of its Caliphate. Sure, the typical caveats are in order: Even a lone wolf or small cell can cause substantial terror; jihadist ideologies are still alive; and important pockets of fighters remain from the Levant to the Horn of Africa to Afghanistan. The point is that we are seemingly in a diminished terrorism threat environment today where the decision to employ military power beyond drone strikes is cloudy.

This is true for four main reasons for which there is growing empirical and theoretical support within the political science literature.

Four Problems with Counterterrorism Overreaction

First, the paradox of counterterrorism is it often spurs more terrorism. This intuition has been made plenty of times before, but I find statistical evidence for it. My studies on the policy of “leadership decapitation” demonstrate that militant leaders frequently restrain the rank-and-file, so taking them out can make their groups even more extreme in their targeting choices. Without the leader communicating which targets to avoid, punishing transgressors and vetting out rogue operatives, they’re freer to act on their own initiative to attack civilians.1Abrahms and Potter, 2015; Abrahms and Mierau, 2017.

In my book, Rules for Rebels: The Science of Victory in Militant History, I detail how numerous militant groups became less restrained upon losing their leaders.2Abrahms, 2018. In 1954, the British launched “Operation Anvil” to stamp out the Mau-Mau uprising. Capturing their leaders around Nairobi initiated a period of uncoordinated, rudderless violence. The Provisional Irish Republican Army also became more violent after the leaders got arrested in the early 1970s. When Filipino police assassinated its founder Abdurajak Janjalani in 1998, the Abu Sayyaf group devolved into a movement of bandits that increasingly preyed on private citizens. When the Israel Defense Forces killed al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade leaders during the Second Intifada, the Palestinian terrorist group increased its attacks against Israeli civilians. When Nigerian police summarily executed its founder Mohammed Yusuf in 2009, Boko Haram also became more ruthless towards civilians. The Salafist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham also became more extreme after a 2014 attack on its headquarters in the northwestern province of Idlib, Syria took out the leadership.

The risk is when the leader is bad, but more moderate than subordinates. The key is for national militaries to understand the relationship of the leadership to potential successors before electing to take it out.

Of course, some militant leaders like Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were so extreme that their successors could not be worse. In such cases, the logic of decapitation strikes is strong. And I find statistical evidence that indeed militant groups are no more likely to use terrorism in the immediate aftermath of an operationally successful targeted killing of a maximally extreme leader. The risk is when the leader is bad, but more moderate than subordinates.3Abrahms, 2018. The key is for national militaries to understand the relationship of the leadership to potential successors before electing to take it out.

Second, terrorists often want to provoke government overreaction. As David Rapoport notes decades ago, terrorists have historically used the “politics of atrocity” to “produce counter-atrocities rebounding to the advantage of the original assailant.”4Rapoport, 1992, p. 1192. Russian anarchists and the Algerian National Liberation Front tried to elicit heavy-handed counterterrorism measures in order to erode the target government’s popular support and attract more terrorists. The main constraint of terrorists is their structural weakness compared to the government. Overreaction strengthens terrorists relative to the government for two reasons. The overreaction convinces those on the sidelines that the government is as extreme as the terrorists allege, growing their supporters and ultimately membership rosters.5Lake, 2002. And the harming of innocents can convince them that the government will target them regardless of whether they commit terrorism, strengthening the strategic logic of engaging in this violent behaviour.6Kalyvas and Kocher, 2007. Terrorist leaders may not have a sophisticated understanding of those two causal mechanisms, but realize that eliciting an overreaction can help them out organizationally at the expense of the government.

Third, whereas government excesses help terrorists, terrorist excesses help the government. Although a vast theoretical literature in political science purports to show the strategic utility of terrorism,7Abrahms, 2019. empirical work demonstrates that the non-state attacks on civilians tend to backfire by strengthening the resolve of the target country,8Abrahms, 2006; Berrebi and Klor, 2008; Chowanietz, 2011; Getmansky and Zeitzoff, 2014. lowering the odds of government concessions,9Abrahms, 2012, 2013; Gaibulloev and Sandler, 2009; and Getmansky and Sinmazdemir, 2012. eroding popular support,10Reich, 1990. and expediting organizational demise.11Lahoud et al., 2012. Terrorism is self-regulating behaviour with inherent limits that can reduce the need for a kinetic counterterrorism response. The biggest counterterrorism successes — from the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria to the Egyptian al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya to the Islamic State — are often due to the excesses of the terrorists themselves.

The biggest counterterrorism successes — from the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria to the Egyptian al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya to the Islamic State — are often due to the excesses of the terrorists themselves.

Fourth, even substantial counterterrorism investments generally yield disappointing returns. Afghanistan is currently on the brink of mass starvation, the Taliban has returned to power, and women are again imprisoned under Sharia law. Iraq is on the verge of another civil war. In Somalia, the Sahel, Mozambique and other areas of Africa, militant group behaviour is actually on the rise.12Mroszczyk and Abrahms, 2021. Of course, there is a selection issue where America is liable to fight in countries with the kinds of endemic problems that produce protracted violence. But this does not change the reality about the limits of American military power.  

The Path Forward: Policy Recommendations

These conflicts, though disastrous locally and still dangerous internationally, do not currently require the post-9/11 or ISIS treatment. But will they? Specifically, how much can America afford to ignore them? Unfortunately, the field of political science offers few answers. For all the studies published after 9/11, there is scant research on when transnational terrorist concerns are expected to graduate into full-fledged national security emergencies. Short of mass casualty attacks on the homeland or the surging of sociopathic militant groups with designs on American bloodshed, it is unclear when the U.S. should use its military for counterterrorism purposes. Nonetheless, the aforementioned research suggests four counterterrorism implications for addressing terrorism in the Middle East and beyond in the current threat environment.

First, the U.S. and its allies must be careful not to adopt kinetic operations that exacerbate the terrorism threat by making the mistake of targeting militant leaders whose successors will be even more extreme. To reduce the likelihood, greater research must be conducted on the extremeness of both extant leaders and subordinates to better determine whether targeted killings are liable to result in the production of even more terrorism. This may seem like common sense, but national militaries are not in the habit of making such assessments, perhaps because they are unfamiliar with the latest research on the determinants of leadership decapitation success.

Second, the U.S. and allies must avoid not only empowering more radical leadership replacements, but also inadvertently strengthening militant groups. In practice, this means exercising targeting restraint to ensure that counterterrorism operations steer clear of civilians. Harming civilians grows terrorist supporters not only by creating grievances, but also by convincing civilians that the government is as extreme as the terrorists allege and will be treated as such regardless of whether they perpetrate violence.

Third, the U.S. and allied governments should recognize that indiscriminate terrorist violence, while totally unacceptable, tends to erode the support of its perpetrators. Governments along with the private sector must exploit this politically counterproductive behaviour by highlighting its disastrous effects on the population, thereby reducing terrorist support.

Fourth, the U.S. national security establishment must recognize the limits and costs of post-9/11 American military interventions that were sold in the name of counterterrorism security but did not enhance it and even harmed it. In general, greater thought must go into where and how America should respond to terrorism, particularly in today’s ostensibly reduced threat environment.

Abrahms, Max. “Why terrorism does not work.” International Security 31, no. 2 (2006): 42-78.

Abrahms, Max. Rules for rebels: The science of victory in militant history. Oxford University Press, 2018.

Abrahms, Max. “The strategic model of terrorism revisited.” The Oxford handbook of terrorism (2019): 445-457.

Abrahms, Max, and Philip BK Potter. “Explaining terrorism: Leadership deficits and militant group tactics.” International Organization 69, no. 2 (2015): 311-342.

Abrahms, Max, and Jochen Mierau. “Leadership matters: The effects of targeted killings on militant group tactics.” Terrorism and Political Violence 29, no. 5 (2017): 830-851.

Berrebi, Claude, and Esteban F. Klor. “Are voters sensitive to terrorism? Direct evidence from the Israeli electorate.” American Political Science Review 102, no. 3 (2008): 279-301.

Chowanietz, Christophe. “Rallying around the flag or railing against the government? Political parties’ reactions to terrorist acts.” Party Politics 17, no. 5 (2011): 673-698.

Downes, Alexander B. “Draining the sea by filling the graves: Investigating the effectiveness of indiscriminate violence as a counterinsurgency strategy.” Civil Wars 9, no. 4 (2007): 420-444.

Downes, Alexander B., and Jonathan Monten. “Forced to be free?: Why foreign-imposed regime change rarely leads to democratization.” International Security 37, no. 4 (2013): 90-131.

Getmansky, Anna, and Thomas Zeitzoff. “Terrorism and voting: The effect of rocket threat on voting in Israeli elections.” American Political Science Review 108, no. 3 (2014): 588-604.

Kalyvas, Stathis N., and Matthew Adam Kocher. “How “Free” is Free Riding in civil wars?: Violence, insurgency, and the collective action problem.” World politics 59, no. 2 (2007): 177-216.

Lahoud, Nelly, Stuart Caudill, Liam Collins, Gabriel Koehler-Derrick, Don Rassler, and Muhammad Al-Ubaydi. Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined?. MILITARY ACADEMY WEST POINT NY COMBATING TERRORISM CENTER, 2012.

Lake, David A. “Rational extremism: Understanding terrorism in the twenty-first century.” Dialogue IO 1, no. 1 (2002): 15-28.

Mroszczyk, Joseph, and Max Abrahms. “Terrorism in Africa: explaining the rise of extremist violence against civilians.” E-International Relations (2021).

Rapoport, David. “Terrorism,” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Government and Politics, M. Hawkesworth and M. Kogan, eds. (London: Routledge, 1992).

Reich, Walter. “Understanding terrorist behavior: The limits and opportunities of psychological inquiry.” (1990).

Written By:
Max Abrahms
Max Abrahms is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy, Associate Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University, and author of Rules for Rebels: The Science of Victory in Militant History.
Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor