Since the 1990s, one of the big debates among analysts of terrorism is whether terrorists are “operationally conservative” or not. Much of this goes back to a debate between Bruce Hoffman on the one hand and Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon on the other . For instance, see:
What this argument usually boils down to is an argument over whether terrorists are fixated on a small number of weapons or whether they are willing and able to use new weapons, such as nukes, chem and bio.
It is true that since the anarchists fell in love with dynamite, most terrorist operations have been conducted with guns or bombs. It may even be true that terrorists are “operationally conservative.” However, it seems to me flabby thinking to jump from the first point to the second.
Consider this: for more than 100 years armies have inflicted the vast majority of their battlefield casualties with artillery and small arms. Most soldiers who personally engage in killing the enemy are infantrymen who kill with small arms.
Does the fact that armies are so fixated on small arms and artillery make them “operationally conservative”? Hardly. Even within the context of the Battle of the Somme in 1916–at the height of the war most often described as characterized by intellectual ossification–there was substantial adaptation underway. This adaptation has only accelerated in more recent decades.
The problem here is that terrorism analysts confuse the nature of the weapon used with how that weapon is used. That is a fundamental error.
If we were to recognize the fundamental unity of military studies (e.g. military history) and terrorism studies this problem would get sorted out tout de suite. So, too, would some problems of terminology. For instance, to terrorism analysts “operational” refers to what military analysts call “tactical.” Terrorism analysts virtually never refer to what military analysts call the “operational” level. (For a rare exception tune in tomorrow.) They only seldom even refer to what military analysts call the “strategic” level.
A merger between military and terrorist studies makes a great deal of sense, it seems to me. After all, both war and terrorism are attempts to bring about political goals through the application of violence. Should we do it?