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Obama Must Not Rush into Retaliation

Author: Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow
December 30, 2009
Guardian UK


American officials are still unravelling the failed terrorist bombing of a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. While details remain unclear, it appears that Abdulmutallab received operational guidance and training in Yemen from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The revelation of the Yemeni-based group's involvement has predictably brought pressure from congressional leaders and policy analysts to "do something" in response, including what is described by one administration official as "visible retaliatory military action".

An overt and immediate U.S. military strike in Yemen in response to the failed bomb plot may look increasingly likely, but it would be a bad short-term solution. As recent history demonstrates, counterterrorist strikes in retaliation for specific terrorist plots or operations have often proven to be militarily ineffective, and unsuccessful in deterring the targeted group from pursuing additional terrorist attacks. Consider three well-known examples:

• In April 1986, the U.S. president Ronald Reagan decided to retaliate against Libya for its involvement in the bombing of a Berlin disco that killed two American servicemen. U.S. aircraft bombed a range of targets associated with the regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi, including the Aziziyah Barracks compound in Tripoli, where it was believed the Libyan leader lived.

The results of the attacks were meagre: Libya's infrastructure was not significantly damaged and Gaddafi survived, becoming more defiant than ever. Moreover, Libya's support for international terrorism increased in direct response, with British and American hostages in Lebanon assassinated by Libyan-controlled terrorist groups, and most significantly, the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people.


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