Washington: Taking the Offensive

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

WAIT APPKARS 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 selectivestrikes against terrorist camps in thecontext of a war that was enjoying pop-ular support at home. This would senda signal that the United States wouldnot hesitate to strike against terroristsand the states that supported them.The Pentagon planners’ recommenda-tion was simple: Attack now.

The answer that came back down thechain of command was no. In the midstof war, the White House remained cau-tious about pushing too far beyond theUnited Nations mandate. Even if theopportunity existed to hobble some ofthe most dangerous terrorist organiza-tions in existence, the possible politicalcosts were seen to weigh yet moreheavily. For example, Syria, long on theState Department’s list of sponsors ofterrorism but by now a key partner inthe coalition against Saddam Hussein,might take exception. Officials alsofeared a spate of terrorist reprisals. Andthere was grave concern—voicedchiefly by the military—about the pos-sibility of civilian casualties. Thesewould have unpredictable but certainlynegative effects on the political consen-sus supporting the coalition.

It is hard to say, even now, whetherthe decision not to strike was a properone. It is possible that a single error in amission broadened to fight not onlySaddam Hussein but also his terroristallies could have had devastating con-sequences. By the same token, it maybe that a strike could have effectivelyeliminated Middle East terrorism as athreat to innocent civilians for the fore-seeable future. The decision to holdfire illustrates the constraints the Unit-ed States faces in fighting back againstterrorism.

THE UNITED STATES has alwayscondemned terrorism publicly.On occasion, as in the April,1986, retaliatory raid on Libya for itssupport of terrorist attacks againstAmericans in Western Europe, thecountry has even struck back militarily—with some success. But any effort toretaliate has always been subservient towhat are typically described as the larg-er foreign-policy objectives of theUnited States. When the Cold War dic-tated many of those objectives, U.S.counterterrorist actions were leashedby concern over how Moscow wouldrespond—in large measure becausemost of the states abetting terrorists were allies or clients of the Soviet Union.

As a result, the response of the Unit-ed States to terrorism became, almostby default, a defensive one. Ratherthan focus on the sources of terrorist vi-olence, we sought to protect ourselvesagainst the symptoms, whetherthrough increased security measures inairports, better cooperation among in-telligence services and law-enforce-ment agencies (both within the UnitedStates and in concert with other coun-tries), or the installation of concretebarriers in front of our embassiesabroad. While the United States didn’toften take the offensive itself, it some-times provided information and assis-tance to those who did take the offen-sive (particularly the Israelis).

This defensive approach can claim anumber of victories, many of whichhave been, and will remain, unherald-ed. Terrorist movements have beenmonitored and analyzed with increas-ing precision, and many potentiallydevastating attacks have been quietlythwarted. (In late January of last year,for example, coordination betweenU.S. and Thai officials resulted in thedetention in Bangkok of three Arab na-tionals who had been linked to thebuilding of explosive devices, presum-ably for use against Western targets.)But the defensive strategy toward ter-rorism has, in essence, made us sittingducks. It has not deterred terroristsfrom trying again and again, or from de-veloping more technically advanced—and more lethal—methods of violence.The defensive posture has also donenothing to diminish the incentive forterrorists to try to shock their victimsinto compliance: whereas target coun-tries must succeed every time in pro-tecting themselves, terrorists have tosucceed in their objectives only sporad-ically. One bombing of an airplane, onemachine-gunning of a synagogue, oneassassination of a public official, dem-onstrates anew the terrorists’ ability topenetrate a country’s defenses.

Our defensive approach has cost usin other ways as well. Western intelli-gence has frequently had to sit andsimply watch terrorists buying arms,establishing safe houses, financing op-eratives. For years before the Bank ofCredit and Commerce Internationalwas shut down, British intelligence of-ficials were aware that more than fortyaccounts at the London branches of thebank 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.

CIVILIANS IN 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 terrorismrelated 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.

—Mark Edington