Targeting Terrorists: A cost-benefit analysis

By Boaz Ganor
ICT Executive Director

When analyzing the question of targeted attacks against terrorists as a
counter-terrorism measure, there are two aspects that need to be addressed: the matter of
the moral and legal implications and the question of the effectiveness of such a strategy.
With regard to the moral question, it can be argued that since the Palestinians imposed a war of
attrition on Israel in October 2000, Israel is morally allowed, in the face of a terrorist and
guerilla war, to use violence in self-defense directly against terrorists engaged in
executing these attacks.

However, one must differentiate between attacks against actual terrorists, who are directly
involved in executing attacks on civilians, and members of the political
wing of a terrorist organization. While the leaders and activists of the organization's
political wing are not legitimate targets of attack, it is legal by any standard of
international legislation to use violence against enemy military personnel, especially in time of war. Moreover, compared to most other counter-terrorist offensive measures, targeted attacks on individual
terrorists are more selective, and less likely to result in collateral damage, and thus more

This brings us to the question of whether targeted attacks can be viewed as an effective means
of combating terrorism. This question can only be answered by means of a cost-benefit analysis.
On the benefit side, we can place two factors: as long as the targets of these attacks are
terrorists of an organization's military wing, who are personally engaged in either the
preparation or the execution of severe terrorist attacks, neutralizing these people may greatly
influence the capability of the terrorist organization to execute the attacks. In any event, the
operation will disrupt terrorist attacks that are in the final stages of preparation by the people
targeted. At the same time, hitting the terrorists may also influence the organization's long-term
capability to carry out attacks. The second factor on the benefit side of the equation is that
members of the organization's military wing will need to spend time and resources in guarding
themselves; in the past Hamas terrorists were known to request that the Palestinian Authority
place them in protective detention. Others are forced to be continually on the move from place
to place for their own safety. All of this naturally disturbs the day-to-day operations of a
terrorist organization, and with it, the process of preparing and carrying out attacks.

On the cost side of the equation, there are several factors which should
be taken into account. The first is the physical costs of the counter-terrorist operation --
the monetary and technological costs -- which are usually negligible. The second and more
significant cost is the intelligence damage. Since this kind of operation requires concrete and
accurate intelligence, in the wake of the operation, the Palestinian Authority will do everything
possible to locate the sources of Israeli intelligence. Thus, the targeting of the terrorists
can result in intelligence sources being either withdrawn or blown. Thirdly, there is the matter of
the operation's cost in terms of Israel's international image. The majority of Western countries
do not view the deliberate targeting of terrorists as a legitimate operation, unless the
terrorists involved were acting against their own country. Thus, carrying out such operations
inevitably leads to expressions of international condemnation. This is true even though
Israel is careful to limit the use of such measures solely to military targets. The terrorists
themselves are, of course, held to no such exacting standards, and concentrate on deliberate attacks
against civilians.

But the most significant potential cost in carrying out this type of
operation is the boomerang effect. Like any other effective offensive activity against a terrorist
organization, targeted attacks immediately raise the motivation of that organization to
retaliate. What the outcome of this will be all depends on the previous motivation and capability of
the organization targeted.
If the organization's ability to execute terror attacks is limited only by its operational capability,
then, while the killing of the organization's operatives may raise the group's motivation, this
cannot be translated into actual retaliatory attacks.

However, when the organization is limited in its terrorist activity by motivation and interests,
rather than by operational capability, then one should expect a backlash to occur. With regard to
Hamas, which relies heavily on suicide bombings, we can conclude that the organization is not
limited by its capability to carry out attacks. Suicide bombings are the most primitive type of
attack, demanding little in the way of skills or physical resources. Due to its extensive network
of indoctrination, Hamas has no problem finding volunteers for this type of activity. And since
the PA has not even begun to dismantle the Hamas military infrastructure, the organization can
easily put together a simple explosive device comprising several kilograms of material. Thus,
the motivation of Hamas is definitely going to be higher in the wake of Israel's counter-terrorist
activity, and this will very likely be translated into retaliatory attacks.

In the end, the determination of the effectiveness of a particular targeted attack depends on the
the net sum of all these costs and benefits. Israeli intelligence can be assumed to be in
possession of concrete information on what these "ivy league" terrorists were engaged in before
they were killed. The security apparatus is thus the only body in a position to effectively analyze
whether the operation was worth the possibility of one or more "boomerang" attacks.