Taking the Offensive

The case for major changes in the way the United States confronts terrorism 

What 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.

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.

In 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: Attack now.

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.

The 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.

Analysts 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 over Scotland.)

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.

If 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.

For 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.