The Third Strategic Actor

I agree with Chris Preble’s assessment of Steve Simon’s opinion piece in the New York Times Tuesday. Why We Should Put Jihad on Trial” is animated by a sound understanding of the strategic logic of terrorism. Simon knows that the proper response is outclassing terrorists in terms of ideology and legitimacy. Trying KSM transparently in New York is just, and doing justice is powerful counterterrorism. The procedural and security fears about it are poorly founded.

It’s useful to compare another opinion piece, written with welcome thought and care, but missing a key point about counterterrorism. In “Holder’s al Qaeda Incentive Plan,” Wall Street Journal “Main Street” columnist William McGurn assesses the incentive structure terrorists face if they are accorded the niceties of a trial should they attack civilians in the United States, compared to the rough treatment they would and should expect were they caught attacking U.S. troops on a foreign battlefield.

It’s a troublesome irony, and it’s very smart on McGurn’s part to game out the thinking of terrorists rather than indulging impulses to react as they would have us do. But terrorists are not the actors a trial in New York is most meant to influence.

In her book, How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns, U.S. National War College professor of strategy Audrey Kurth Cronin writes:

Most people think of terrorism as a dichotomous struggle between a group and a government. However, given their highly leveraged nature, terrorist campaigns involve three strategic actors—the group, the government, and the audience—arrayed in a kind of terrorist “triad.” More specifically, the three dimensions are the group that uses terrorism to achieve an objective, the government representing the direct target of their attacks, and the audiences who are influenced by the violence.

Similarly, at Cato’s counterterrorism conference, I argued that terrorism seeks to induce overreaction on the part of victim states, driving support to terrorists from their geographical and ideological neighbors. Declining to overreact, and having the discipline to meticulously accord terror suspects fair treatment, dissipates the gains terrorists want and expect: increased support from their neighbors.

This is why a public trial—for all its costs and complexities—is worth doing. It’s to gain advantage with the third strategic actor.