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Crimes of Terror, Counter-Terrorism and a Militarized Incapacitation Strategy in Iraq

Dr. Joshua Kaiser, Dartmouth University, and Dr. John Hagan, Northwestern University, study the consequences of a militarized incapacitation strategy in Iraq. Full tittle: Crimes of Terror, Counter-Terrorism, and the Unanticipated Consequences of a Militarized Incapacitation Strategy in Iraq.


“COIN,” the counter-terrorism doctrine the U.S. used during the Iraq War, was in criminological terms overly reliant on militarized “incapacitationist” strategies. Based on a competing “societal reactions” or community-level labeling theory, we argue that COIN failed to anticipate but predictably produced state-based “legal cynicism” in Arab Sunni communities—increasing rather than decreasing politically defiant terrorist crimes. We test our hypotheses with nationally representative surveys and data on terrorist attacks collected before, during, and immediately after the 2007 Surge in U.S. troops. The Surge increased perceptions of unnecessary U.S.-led violence against Arab Sunni non-combatants, provoking cynical beliefs in Arab Sunni communities, creating local contexts in which terrorist attacks increased, and foreshadowing later advances by the Islamic State. Our findings show that oversimplified, incapacitation-oriented control tactics—in domestic policing, in COIN, or in the traditional warfare strategies that are replacing COIN—are likely to contribute to rather than reduce cycles of violence.


A series of linked opinion pieces recently published in the New York Times, titled “Vietnam ’67”, elaborated the lasting consequences of the Vietnam War in contemporary American life. That legacy is especially apparent in recent crimes of terror and counter-terrorism in Iraq. The U.S. Department of Defense first introduced the terms “counter-insurgency” and then “counterterrorism” to refer to “search and destroy” operations against Viet Cong forces. Later, it used “collateral damage” to refer to civilian casualties resulting from U.S.-initiated attacks. In the final stages of the Vietnam War, “pacification” efforts were added to the counter-terrorism strategy to “win hearts and minds” by providing security and resources to South Vietnamese civilians. All of these tactics were reprised during the Iraq War.

In criminological terms, those kinds of counter-terrorism tactics are based on a militarized version of “incapacitation” theory. Based on the same logics used by domestic American policing and imprisonment policies since the 1970s and 1980s, military strategists (even those focused on winning the support of local populations) in Iraq and Vietnam approached potential terrorists and other threats as targets to be controlled, eliminated, hindered, or otherwise incapacitated (Hagan 2010). U.S. military forces thus swept through communities where they killed, injured, displaced, and detained thousands of suspects, expecting to gain civilian support by protecting them. This kind of individual-focused, incapacitative approach is not dissimilar to other states’ counterterrorist efforts that have backfired in other contexts and ultimately produced further violence. Like decisionmakers in Northern Ireland or Argentina (Crenshaw 1983; LaFree and Dugan 2009) and military strategists that rely on traditional theories of unnuanced ethnic warfare (Kalyvas 2006; Kalyvas and Kocher 2007), for example, American policymakers gave little consideration to the sociologically predictable, secondary consequences of consistent aggression within targeted communities.

In contrast to an incapacitationist approach, “societal reactions” theories accurately anticipate mechanisms through which state efforts to control crimes (of terror or otherwise) can label individuals or communities as deviant, criminal, or antagonistic to the state. Such labels have their own consequences, including further violence (Becker 1963; Lemert 1967). Recent work on incapacitative policing in Chicago (Sampson and Bartusch 1998; Kirk and Papachristos 2011) and the U.S.-led counter-insurgency in Iraq (Hagan, Kaiser, and Hanson 2015, 2016) extends the societal reactions approach by adding the community-level mechanism of “legal cynicism,” or a shared cultural belief in laws as illegitimate and nonbinding that can result from repressive state violence. This kind of legal cynicism can explain how and why incapacitative state control that fails to anticipate cultural, community-level factors—whether aimed toward crime control or counter-terrorism—can have adverse, violence-increasing effects. This paper applies a societal reactions approach to a combination of datasets over that measure terrorism, military attacks, and community-level cultural factors to argue that U.S.-led incapacitative violence in Iraq created legal cynicism among civilian non-combatants in Arab Sunni communities, and thereby intensified not only insurgent resistance (Hagan et al. 2016), but also crimes of terror.


The tactics of the Vietnam War foreshadowed a revamped but still predominately combative U.S. military doctrine called “COIN,” which guided the 2007 troop Surge in Iraq. The term “COIN” refers to the counter-insurgency strategy formally articulated in the COIN Manual (U.S. Army 2007; see also Meyer 2013) that conflates counter-insurgency with counter-terrorism strategies and is typically characterized as a population-centric model designed to gain local support by “winning hearts and minds.”

In some ways, COIN recognized that the foundations of anti-state violence are often politically motivated beliefs and attitudes about military and government institutions. Like its Vietnam War precursor, however, the ultimate COIN doctrine put into action featured a traditional, combatcentered use of force designed to debilitate potential terrorists: incapacitative counter-terrorism more than community-centered reduction of insurgency.

Community-engaged Warfare

In the Field Manual that outlined COIN, Generals David Petraeus and James Amos (2006) noted that counter-insurgency strategies had received little attention since the Vietnam War. Petraeus prided himself on being a soldier and scholar, and had written a doctoral thesis on “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam” (Petraeus 1987; Kaplan 2013). Drawing on his combined experience and study of warfare, he argued that war had confirmed that to prevail against insurgents, “you must protect the population” (Ricks 2009:81). COIN therefore initially emphasized civic engagement designed to win civilian support—although numerous sources suggest that Petraeus used a combination of charismatic argumentation and strategic manipulation of events to gloss over the extent to which COIN failed to anticipate political, cultural, and ultimately violent community responses among targeted populations (e.g., Kalyvas 2008; “The Petraeus Affair: The Man and His Myth” 2012).

Dominant wisdom in many circles treats terrorism as most likely when groups perceive no other way to handle political or social grievances—or, put into strain-theory terminology, no other means to object to societal configurationsthat obstruct their desired ends (Agnew 2010; Chenowith 2013). Terrorism is, like other crimes that attempt to exert control, an extreme form of “self-help” (Black 2004). Because democratic institutions theoretically promote representative and accountable government, “promoting democracy” was the central tenet of George W. Bush’s war on terror in Iraq and elsewhere (Dalacoura 2011)—and COIN’s approach to institution building and community security was largely based on that assumption.

Likewise, theories focused on more proximate causes of terrorist attacks have largely drawn from rational-choice models since at least the Vietnam War (Braithwaite 2005; LaFree and Dugan 2009). The key in such theories to reducing terrorism is undermining both active support provided to terrorist organizations and explicit attitudes among the populace that approve of terrorist activities and groups (Davis and Cragin 2009).

COIN thus emphasized “winning hearts and minds” as a supplement to conventional war theory’s violent combat orientation (Kaplan 2013). In a manner analogous to domestic community policing, the intent was to address root causes of support for terrorism through new forms of protection and institution-building. COIN therefore included social and political programs and expenditures intended to make Iraqi civilians feel more secure, with the goal of engendering trust in U.S.-led counter-terrorist efforts, bolstering the Iraqi government’s perceived effectiveness in protecting its people and providing essential services, and thereby reducing approval of and resources available to terrorist groups. It did not, however, theoretically anticipate or elaborate on the cultural and political mechanisms through which militaristic efforts could or might result in local support and decreases in anti-state violence, a flaw that would prove fatal (Kaylvas 2008).

Coercing Hearts and Minds

However, early drafts of the COIN manual proved controversial. Retired Lt. Colonel Ralph Peters wrote a widely circulated New York Post column, “Politically Correct War,” that reasserted traditional military beliefs and the crucial role of force in “war’s brute reality.” Petraeus was dismayed that his advocacy of civic engagement had insufficiently reaffirmed the simultaneous need for force, though he noted that “the word ‘kill’ is mentioned an average of once per page” (Ricks 2009:2017). To protect the manual from further criticism, Petraeus revised it to reemphasize the need to “kill the bad guys” (Kaplan 2013:218).

At the heart of the matter was a stubborn reliance on the use of force that revealed similarities between theories of warfare and crime control. General Raymond Ordierno, who led day-to-day military operations in Iraq alongside Petraeus, summarized the blurry lines between counterinsurgency and crime control: “Some [insurgents] have decided they want to reconcile with the government of Iraq.…Those that do not…we continue to go after and treat as criminals” (Kagan 2009:141). An early advocate of the Surge, Vietnam veteran and Senator Charles Robb, explained what this kind of blurring of lines meant: “It’s time to let our military do what they’re trained to do on offense—without being overly constrained by a zero casualties or collateral damage approach” (Gordon and Trainor 2012:276).

The result was a doctrine strikingly similar to its Vietnam War precursors and detrimentally compromised by its competing purposes. As Thomas Meyer (2013) argues based on interviews with active duty officers deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, COIN created impossible contradictions by requiring junior officers to lead missions that combined combat and statebuilding initiatives. On the one hand, “[o]ne of the key innovations at the center of the Army’s new COIN manual was the almost anthropological focus on the populations among whom US forces were now operating” (Dodge 2012:82; Heuser 2007). On the other, junior officers were required to separate terrorists from civilian populations—a task that proved simpler in theory than in practice—which led them to engage in role-switching “on” and “off” tactics that “flicked the switch” between “hostile or not” in over-simplified ways (Meyer 2013). The result was a constant suspicion directed at civilians in ways similar to the challenges of domestic policing, leading to renewed commitment to traditional combat operations with an indiscriminate and excessive resort to violence (see also Miller and Moskos 1995). In the end, even the COIN manual mandated military operations like Phantom Thunder and Phantom Strike that were “conventional military search-and-destroy military missions, where large numbers of US troops and Special Forces were deployed.” (Dodge 2012:83; Kagan 2009).

Conflating Counter-insurgency and Counter-Terrorism

In the post-9/11 environment, COIN quickly conflated counter-insurgency efforts by both Shia and Sunni militias with counter-terrorism tactics directed at politically organized threats to the peace and security of the United States. COIN largely justified itself as incapacitating suspected terrorists and reducing public support for terrorism, and its implementation focused on military offensives against suspected terrorists that combined the forward redeployment into Iraqi communities of “in-country” U.S. troops with the newly “surged” U.S. forces. The hope was that a continuous, offensive presence of military forces in Iraqi communities would incapacitate terrorists, and when joined with a community engagement strategy, reduce terrorism. Such unsystematic treatments of terrorism and insurgency may treat them as one and the same, conflating “terrorism” with the insurgent, guerilla, or other actions of so-called “terrorist groups” (an even more ill-defined term), or analyze terrorism as a strategy of insurgency in such detail that terrorism for other ends is overlooked (Merari 1993; Moghadam 2014). Yet while acts of insurgency and terrorism can overlap, and while many insurgent groups committed acts of terrorism during the post-invasion period, the two also differ in important ways.

“[T]errorism is not true warfare,” because it targets non-combatants and non-military targets, is unilateral and covert, and lacks other hallmarks of warfare like the rules of war, a bounded and defined duration, a large scale, and territorial goals and targets (Black 2004). Terrorism also uses premeditated violence against proximate targets to direct fear or intimidation against a larger audience, and its goals are often political, religious, or social grievances that may not relate to insurgent warfare (Bergesen and Lizardo 2004; Davis and Cragin 2009; Chenowith 2013). Terrorism thus may be carried out by individuals and smaller, less hierarchical groups than insurgencies typically are, and it can often be more expressive than instrumental (Turk 2004).(1)

Like other social constructions, terrorism is one of the most contentious forms of violence to define, and many works devote entire sections or chapters to that pursuit (Ben-Yehuda 1993; LaFree and Dugan 2009). Because our primary purpose in this paper is not to isolate a single, most accurate definition but rather to distinguish crimes of terror from insurgent violence, we approach terrorism as violence that intends to strike fear and symbolize political opposition through attacks on non-combatant individuals, groups, and government institutions.

Recent research on the Iraq War has focused conceptually and operationally on insurgent attacks (Biddle, Friedman, and Shapiro 2012; Hagan et al. 2016). Those works have proven useful for the study of violent attacks by insurgent groups on American soldiers and Iraqi institutions. Whether COIN’s contradictory strategies actually succeeded in improving beliefs and attitudes among Iraqis and thereby reducing terrorist attacks, however, remains an open and (given COIN’s impetuous focus on counter-terrorism) key question.

Keep reading and access the full article here.

Joshua Kaiser is Junior Fellow in the Dartmouth College Society of Fellows. His research centers on the intersection of criminal law, state control, and inequality in the United States and across the globe. He is co-author of Iraq and the Crimes of Aggressive War and has recent publications in Law & Social Inquiry, Howard Law Journal, Harvard Law & Policy Review, and American Sociological Review.

John Hagan is MacArthur Professor at Northwestern University and the American Bar Foundation. He received the 2009 Stockholm Prize in Criminology and was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in 2018. He is co-author of monographs on Justice in the Balkans, Darfur and the Crime of Genocide, and Iraq and the Crimes of Aggressive War, and is a former President of the American Society of Criminology.

Suggested Citation:

Kaiser, Joshua and Hagan, John, Crimes of Terror, Counter-Terrorism, and the Unanticipated Consequences of a Militarized Incapacitation Strategy in Iraq (2018). Social Forces, Vol. 91, No. 1, 309-346, 2018. Available at SSRN:


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