From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashbacks: "The Triumph of Terrorism" (September 11, 2001)
A collection of Atlantic articles from the past 15 years gives insight into the terrorist mind—and how the U.S. may have both encouraged and inflamed terrorist groups around the world.
The Atlantic Monthly | June 1992
Reports & Comment
hat appears to be a remarkable quietude in the activity of
the world's terrorist groups should not be taken as a sign that the scourge of
international terrorism has ended. To be sure, the dramatic changes in
political and military balances around the world—from the collapse of
communism to the rending of the Arab world which resulted from the Persian Gulf
War—have not left terrorist groups unaffected. But whereas some of the
objectives of terrorist groups and the infrastructure that makes their
activities possible may have undergone important changes, terrorism remains as
potent a threat as ever. Terrorism specialists in and out of government believe
that the apparent calm of the past year or so may be only the prelude to yet
another, more dangerous outbreak of terrorist attacks.
Taking the Offensive
The case for major changes in the way the United States confronts terrorism
by Mark Edington
This need not be the case. For, paradoxically, changes in
the world which make terrorist movements potentially more deadly also make it
possible to undercut the terrorist threat more effectively. But undercutting it
would require that the United States move away from its predominantly defensive
approach to terrorism. It would also require us to decide how much weight ought
to be placed on the right of people to be safe from wanton violence when
protection of that right runs afoul of other foreign-policy objectives.
Reorienting our policy regarding terrorism would be costly, in terms of both
dollars and politics, but the potential rewards are considerable. A debate over
strategy is taking place within the small community of U.S. policy-makers
responsible for fighting terrorism, which is scattered throughout the
Department of Defense, the Department of State, the National Security Council,
the intelligence agencies, and national law-enforcement organizations.
n late January and early February of last year, in the
midst of the air campaign against Iraq, counterterrorism planners in the
Pentagon drafted a recommendation for the senior decision-makers in the war
effort, in favor of direct strikes against the known haunts of terrorist
leaders in Iraq. In the months preceding Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, U.S.
intelligence analysts had watched as terrorists such as Abu Nidal, Abu Abbas,
and Abu Ibrahim gathered in Baghdad as guests of Saddam Hussein. At the same
time, the Iraqi President was observed to be repairing his links to other
leading terrorists—George Habbash, Nayef Hawatmeh, Ahmed Jibril, and the
organization Hizbollah, fifteen of whose members Saddam Hussein brought back to
Iraq from a Kuwaiti prison after Iraq invaded. Reports in the Western press of
these developments gave early credibility to the fear that any hostile move
against Iraq by the United States would bring about an eruption of terrorist
attacks against U.S. citizens and corporate interests, and against U.S. allies.
After the war began, the Pentagon's counterterrorism
planners saw an opportunity. Intelligence work had tracked some of the
terrorist leaders as they fled Baghdad for the relative safety of the
countryside. The precision of sophisticated U.S. weaponry could be used, some
officials argued, in selective strikes against terrorist camps in the context
of a war that was enjoying popular support at home. This would send a signal
that the United States would not hesitate to strike against terrorists and the
states that supported them. The Pentagon planners' recommendation was simple:
The answer that came back down the chain of command was no.
In the midst of war, the White House remained cautious about pushing too far
beyond the United Nations mandate. Even if the opportunity existed to hobble
some of the most dangerous terrorist organizations in existence, the possible
political costs were seen to weigh yet more heavily. For example, Syria, long
on the State Department's list of sponsors of terrorism but by now a key
partner in the coalition against Saddam Hussein, might take exception.
Officials also feared a spate of terrorist reprisals. And there was grave
concern—voiced chiefly by the military—about the possibility of civilian
casualties. These would have unpredictable but certainly negative effects on
the political consensus supporting the coalition.
It is hard to say, even now, whether the decision not to
strike was a proper one. It is possible that a single error in a mission
broadened to fight not only Saddam Hussein but also his terrorist allies could
have had devastating consequences. By the same token, it may be that a strike
could have effectively eliminated Middle East terrorism as a threat to innocent
civilians for the foreseeable future. The decision to hold fire illustrates the
constraints the United States faces in fighting back against terrorism.
he United States has always condemned terrorism publicly.
On occasion, as in the April, 1986, retaliatory raid on Libya for its support
of terrorist attacks against Americans in Western Europe, the country has even
struck back militarily—with some success. But any effort to retaliate has
always been subservient to what are typically described as the larger
foreign-policy objectives of the United States. When the Cold War dictated many
of those objectives, U.S. counterterrorist actions were leashed by concern over
how Moscow would respond—in large measure because most of the states abetting
terrorists were allies or clients of the Soviet Union.
As a result, the response of the United States to terrorism
became, almost by default, a defensive one. Rather than focus on the sources of
terrorist violence, we sought to protect ourselves against the symptoms,
whether through increased security measures in airports, better cooperation
among intelligence services and law-enforcement agencies (both within the
United States and in concert with other countries), or the installation of
concrete barriers in front of our embassies abroad. While the United States
didn't often take the offensive itself, it sometimes provided information and
assistance to those who did take the offensive (particularly the Israelis).
This defensive approach can claim a number of victories,
many of which have been, and will remain, unheralded. Terrorist movements have
been monitored and analyzed with increasing precision, and many potentially
devastating attacks have been quietly thwarted. (In late January of last year,
for example, coordination between U.S. and Thai officials resulted in the
detention in Bangkok of three Arab nationals who had been linked to the
building of explosive devices, presumably for use against Western targets.) But
the defensive strategy toward terrorism has, in essence, made us sitting ducks.
It has not deterred terrorists from trying again and again, or from developing
more technically advanced—and more lethal—methods of violence. The defensive
posture has also done nothing to diminish the incentive for terrorists to try
to shock their victims into compliance: whereas target countries must succeed
every time in protecting themselves, terrorists have to succeed in their
objectives only sporadically. One bombing of an airplane, one machine-gunning
of a synagogue, one assassination of a public official, demonstrates anew the
terrorists' ability to penetrate a country's defenses.
Our defensive approach has cost us in other ways as well.
Western intelligence has frequently had to sit and simply watch terrorists
buying arms, establishing safe houses, financing operatives. For years before
the Bank of Credit and Commerce International was shut down, British
intelligence officials were aware that more than forty accounts at the London
branches of the bank were under the direct control of customers like Abu Nidal
and his associates. It is possible—indeed, it is likely—that the Bank of
England was restrained from taking early action against the fraudulent BCCI
because of the intelligence community's interest in maintaining a source of
information about Abu Nidal's activities and plans. During its years of
association with the BCCI, Abu Nidal's organization alone was responsible for
the injury or death of hundreds of civilians in a variety of terrorist attacks.
nalysts of terrorism in both government and academe look
with growing concern on the dozens of emerging potential sources of terrorist
violence: the fractious postwar Arab world, and the resentment toward the
United States in much of it; spreading ethnic and nationalistic tensions in
Central and Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and elsewhere; and new
alliances between terrorist groups and drug lords on several continents. This
is hardly an exhaustive list. The specialty literature, as encountered in such
journals as Terrorism and Comparative Strategy, fairly brims with reports and analyses of emerging movements. Not all
are of equal importance, and some pose no threat to the United States. But the United
States has interests in every part of the world where terrorism is rife.
Some features of terrorism are sure to remain familiar.
Whatever the specific objectives of terrorist groups, most of them will still
perceive a reason to attack U.S. nationals and U.S. interests. Frequently the
United States is targeted simply because of its dominance in international,
political and economic arenas; it is seen as the guarantor of whatever status
quo terrorist movements seek to destroy. And whoever their specific victims may
be, terrorists are always mindful of the global presence of the U.S. media.
But other features are changing. It may cease to be true
that terrorists almost never harm Americans except overseas. The
"reach" of terrorist attacks—that is, the distance between where
they are planned and where they take place—has grown steadily over the past
two decades, in large part because of the training, infrastructural support
(safe houses, falsified passports, intelligence), and weapons and explosives
made available to terrorist movements by the clandestine services of the former
communist regimes in Eastern Europe, notably East Germany and Czechoslovakia.
(A few years ago Libya secretly bought a thousand tons of the sophisticated explosive Semtex from the Czechoslovakian
government; it took only about a pound to blow Pan Am Flight 103 out of the sky
Terrorism is cheap, and yesterday's sponsor states were
providing nothing that tomorrow's can't afford. With the end of the systematic
assistance provided by the KGB and its Eastern European subsidiaries,
terrorism's international support network is not eroding so much as evolving.
Sponsor states like Iraq, Libya, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Syria—already at
work acquiring more lethal weapons for their own arsenals—are no longer hemmed
in by the larger policy calculations of their patrons in the Kremlin. Syria,
which these days is supposed to be on its best behavior, continues to harbor
the terrorist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.
Many analysts of terrorism's symbiotic sponsor-client relationships believe
that the sponsor states will use their clients as private armies in protracted
conflicts against rivals for regional dominance, as well as to settle scores
against the larger Western powers that thwart their aspirations. Keeping track
of these groups is not easy. In the old, familiar Cold War days we understood
fairly well how the network operated, who supplied the wherewithal, and what
groups were supported by which states. We no longer always do.
Even if the negotiations among Israel, its Arab neighbors,
and the Palestinians conclude in an agreement, there will be extremists on all
sides determined to ensure that the agreement fails. Probably the only thing
these groups will agree on is the identity of the party most responsible for
bringing about a negotiated settlement, and hence the party most worthy of
their violent attentions: the United States. This is only part of the picture.
A number of reports suggest a growing threat from terrorist groups that have
ties with, and receive support from, drug traffickers—not only in Latin
America but also in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Northern Ireland. As
early as 1984 State Department officials were warning of an increasingly close
connection between narcotics producers and terrorist groups. (One such group,
the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, received support from the regime of
Manuel Noriega until his ouster, in 1989, and continues to receive aid from the
Castro regime.) Peru's notoriously violent Shining Path is also involved in the
drug trade. Terrorist groups with ties to drug traffickers are the ones most
likely to be the first to commit major acts of terrorist violence in the
mainland United States, against law-enforcement targets or even civilian ones.
The drug barons have already carried out assassinations in this country. They
hold a key advantage: they already know how to penetrate the borders of the
United States. They command an infrastructure and transportation network that
could be used as easily for smuggling in the implements of terrorism as for
smuggling in drugs.
Wherever terrorism occurs, new tactics and technologies will
help terrorists enjoy maximum reach for minimum relative cost. Explosives and
detonating devices are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Highly complex
"improvised explosive devices" (or IEDs, in the jargon of the trade),
such as the one used by Libyan agents to destroy Pan Am Flight 103, remain
virtually undetectable, despite the enormous resources devoted to airline
security. Chemical and biological weapons are probably already available to
terrorist groups. Access to nuclear devices, which could be held for ransom
even if not used as weapons, is not out of the question, given the chaos in the
former Soviet republics.
f these signs point toward a more widespread and deadlier
terrorist threat in the future, they also point to an increasingly exposed and
vulnerable sort of terrorism. Sponsor states, no longer fettered by their ties
to the Soviet Union, have more freedom to take unilateral action, but they have
also lost the shield that the Cold War provided. Although these countries are
ambitious, few of them are economically capable of risking complete isolation
for any extended period of time. As a result, terrorism's sponsors are a good
deal more susceptible than they once were to strong counterterrorist action. It
is this fact that underlies the thinking of those who would abandon the purely
defensive approach to fighting terrorism.
Most of the front-rank sponsor states of the 1990s confront
difficult economic circumstances. The dictators who rule these states
essentially have two choices. They can strive for regional
hegemony—intimidating neighbors, destabilizing moderate regimes nearby,
launching the occasional war; or they can seek to find a role to play in global
trade and finance, with a view to strengthening their economies. It is in the
interest of the United States to encourage actual and potential sponsor states
to choose the second path. But all too often states have been permitted to
claim adherence to the second path even as they pursue the first, using
terrorism as a principal instrument.
In practical terms, an active counterterrorism policy means
that the United States cannot continue to have it both ways with nations
identified as sponsors of terrorism. The Department of State maintains a list
of sponsor nations, and inclusion on it should entail not merely the temporary
discomfort of an annual press conference but economic and political
sanctions—cutting off aid and trade, closing down sources of credit, freezing
assets in U.S. banks, recalling diplomats, and building coalitions of
like-minded states willing to do the same. Unless some kind of meaningful penalty
is associated with being branded a sponsor of terrorism, there's little point
in even maintaining the list. In fact, it undermines U.S. credibility.
An active counterterrorism policy also means that the United
States must be willing to act—and act first—in order to frustrate and punish
terrorists. The counterterrorism capabilities of U.S. military forces have been
greatly refined and enhanced during the past decade. U.S. special-operations
forces made a significant contribution toward ensuring the unprecedented speed
of Iraq's military collapse. They should be used. When storage sites for
terrorism's weapons can be located, they should be destroyed. When training
facilities can be located, they should be put out of business. When safe houses
where terrorists take refuge can be located, they should be raided. The United
States should redouble its efforts to monitor the movements of terrorists and,
whenever possible, intercept them. Sponsor states should be made to understand
that if they refuse to cooperate in counterterrorist efforts, the United States
will act unilaterally with military force—if necessary, against sites within
their borders. U.S. efforts in developing intelligence capabilities should
emphasize more strongly the penetration of terrorist cells, by recruiting more
spies. The more frequently the United States and its allies can preempt
terrorist attacks, the greater will be the deterrent effect.
Some who object to the adoption of a stronger, more
offensive counterterrorism policy argue that it would undermine other
foreign-policy objectives. In fact the truth is probably the other way around:
other U.S. interests have frequently been undermined by the failure to take a
firm stand against terrorism by means of well-defined, consistently applied
sanctions. Unquestionably the most significant terrorism-related damage that
was done to the United States in the 1980s was self-inflicted—entering into an
arrangement with Iran that, however indirectly, resulted in trading arms for
hostages. It is no surprise that one immediate consequence of this enterprise
was the seizure of more hostages. It is conceivable that the damage to U.S.
credibility caused by this single act was enough to make Saddam Hussein believe
that an attack on Kuwait would be worth the risk. Our other foreign-policy
interests have not, in short, been well served by our unwillingness to take a
consistent stand against terrorism. Once it is accepted by terrorist sponsor
states that our talk will be backed up by sanctions and action, it will quickly
become clear that having it both ways with Washington is no longer an option.
or the moment, any change in U.S. counterterrorism policy
hangs on the outcome of a debate within the government. As the investment
required to buy Syria's participation in the Middle East peace process
increases, most officials in the State Department's Bureau for Near Eastern and
South Asian Affairs counsel a policy that amounts to business as usual. More
important, as long as the peace process continues—regardless of results—both
Secretary of State James Baker and the White House are likely to continue
taking the same view. Some staff members of the National Security Council
advocate a more active counterterrorism effort, but the Bush Administration has
not followed up on a 1986 congressional recommendation to appoint an adviser
for low-intensity conflict at the NSC, and it has not fully implemented a 1984
National Security Decision Directive that would bring a greater degree of
coordination to the more than two dozen federal agencies somehow involved in
the fight against terrorism. When the White House focuses on active
counterterrorist measures at all, its eyes are on Libya, to the exclusion of
less clumsy but no less active sponsor states.
Across the Potomac, at the Pentagon, counterterrorism
planners in various departments, including the office of the assistant
secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict (a
relatively new position), are urging a tougher policy. In Congress support for such
a policy waxes and wanes with the cycle of anti-American terrorist attacks,
while a few key committee staff members work quietly to build a coalition that,
when the right moment comes, could force a change.
Ultimately, the fight against terrorism is a human-rights
issue; it derives from the view that no person, merely by virtue of
citizenship, can legitimately be seen as a combatant in the wars of stateless
criminal organizations. A willingness to take direct action against terrorists
and the states that underwrite their violence could break the back of terrorism
for a long time to come.
Copyright © 1992 by Mark Edington. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1992; Taking the Offensive; Volume 269, No. 6; 4-27.