s the turn of the century approached, the U.S. government repeatedly warned Americans that terrorists might attack either in the United States or overseas.
Many incidents toward the end of 1999 made this warning seem real. The government of Jordan arrested a group of militant Muslims they accused of involvement in terrorism, and news reports claimed that they were involved in a plot against the United States. A man was arrested trying to smuggle explosives across the border from Canada into the State of Washington, while another man and woman were arrested trying to sneak into Vermont from Canada. Investigations linked the people arrested in Vermont with the man arrested in Washington, and connected both to a radical Islamic terrorist group in Algeria. In the face of such events, Seattle canceled part of its New Year’s celebration. Meanwhile, a threat was received that mail from Frankfurt, Germany to the United States might contain bombs, and German officials slowed the mail for inspection.
As it happened, no terrorist attacks occurred. What are we to make then of the flurry of reports and incidents related to terrorism that accumulated in December? We might well ask about them what people are asking about the other great pre-millenium scare, the Y2K problem. Was there a real problem or was it just media-driven exaggeration?
As far as terrorism is concerned, the danger was and is real, but it has also been exaggerated. The exaggerations occur often because people look at our complex and remarkably open society and imagine all the things that terrorists could do to us. If they can blow up large public buildings, why could they not use computer attacks to take down our banking system or power supply or use chemical weapons in a subway or at the Super Bowl? But people forget that taking advantage of our vulnerabilities is not free. Terrorism has costs—in money, time, political support and the personal safety of the terrorists—that constrain what terrorists can do. In addition, since the United States began to pay attention to the terrorist threat a little over 30 years ago, we have learned a good deal about how to raise the costs that terrorists must pay. By keeping the cost of terrorism high, we have minimized and managed the danger of terrorism.
To put the terrorism warnings and arrests of the New Year in perspective, we need to understand what is real and what is exaggeration in the danger posed by terrorism. When we have a sense of this we can better decide what needs to be done to counter terrorism. This is especially true of the newest and most disturbing terrorist threat: an attack that causes mass casualties.
Terrorism is premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatants to influence an audience. Terrorists use violence not primarily to harm or kill the particular people who are their victims but to intimidate a larger audience. Terrorists attack individuals or property in order to scare the population at large or the government into doing what they want it to. Terrorism, then, is violent public persuasion.
In so far as terrorism is public persuasion, it is essentially a political activity, although a perverse one. It is perverse not because it is violent (the American Revolutionaries used violence to end the injustice of British rule) but because it is violence against innocents. Terrorists typically do not attack the soldiers or the officials of the government they are contending with. This would be too difficult; the costs would be too high. Instead they kill or harm people who have no connection to the problem that motivates them as long as in doing so they think they can further their cause. The explosions at the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, which Muslim extremist Osama bin Ladin has been accused of organizing, killed 25 times more Africans (some of them Muslims) than Americans.
While the number of domestic terrorist incidents in the United States has been low compared to some other countries in the past three decades, international terrorists—terrorists operating on the territory or against the citizens of more than one country—have targeted Americans more often than any other nationality. There are several reasons for this.
Since the end of the Second World War, the United States has been the dominant power in the world. Many of those who wanted to establish new states, seize power in old ones or carry out socioeconomic revolutions have seen the United States as the greatest obstacle to their aspirations, and they have used terrorism against us in hopes of achieving their goals.
During the Cold War, many of these terrorist groups were aided by the Soviet Union, its allies in eastern Europe and other parts of the world. Currently, those who see our way of life and our close association with Saudi Arabia, for example, as a threat to Islam target us. Because Americans are so active in the world, as businessmen, journalists, educators, missionaries, and tourists, we present our enemies with a tempting array of targets. Domestically, our great wealth allows even marginal groups and individuals to subsist and use violence if they choose to. The freedom we enjoy as individuals gives them plenty of room to operate.
That Americans have been the principal terrorist target has become an especial cause of concern lately because of a growing sense, reflected in numerous newspaper articles and televised reports (including a short time ago a series on ABC’s Nightline), suggesting that a terrorist attack with a chemical, biological or radiological weapon capable of causing mass casualties or a computer attack on our financial system causing mass disruption are now more likely or even inevitable. President Clinton himself has said that he expects such an attack to occur some time in the future.
Students of terrorism have noted several reasons to think that mass casualty terrorist attacks might now be more likely. First, at least one of these attacks has already occurred. In 1995, the group Aum Shinrikyo used sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 and injuring several thousand. This episode and the use of chemical or biological agents against civilians by Iraq, for example, have slowly eroded the taboo against the use of mass casualty weapons that once prevailed. This erosion has occurred because means and motives have coincided.
Technologies of all sorts are more readily available today than before and human ingenuity can find ways to put them to evil uses. The means are at hand, for example, to make viruses that can destroy human lives, a nation’s crops, or its computers’ memories. Terrorists have a motive for such evil ingenuity, some think, because terrorists must find ways to attract attention to their causes even as traditional methods—bombings, shootings, hijackings—become too familiar to excite interest or too difficult because of security measures.
Finally, over the past decade terrorist groups have emerged that do not depend on states for support. Financed by drug trafficking, extortion or the contributions of wealthy sympathizers, these groups are loosely organized, difficult to track and not constrained by the policies of states, which tend to be more cautious because they have more to lose if they defy the conventions that govern international conduct.
These arguments all contain some truth, but the whole truth leads to a more balanced view of the danger we face. Consider the case of Aum Shinrikyo. This group did manage to manufacture a poison gas and disseminate it in a subway. But the gas was not very pure and the delivery system not very effective. Most of those injured in the attack suffered from shock or the fear that the gas had made them sick, not from the ill effects of the gas. Aum was fanatical and well financed and better staffed with good scientific talent than any other terrorist group has been. Yet, it still had little to show for its efforts to develop the kind of mass casualty weapon we hear so much about now. In fact, Aum turned to gas after failing to make effective weapons out of botulinum and anthrax. It actually spread some of these agents but they failed to work. The case of Aum shows how difficult to overcome are the technological barriers to the development of mass casualty weapons.
Could terrorists not go out and buy a mass casualty weapon rather than develop their own? Such weapons are held by only a few countries. Some of these countries, it is true, support terrorists, but there is no evidence that one has been willing to give a mass casualty weapon to a terrorist group. Such groups have been known to change masters and to stab their old masters in the back. It would be a foolish master who would arm his untrustworthy servant with such a powerful weapon.
Just as technical obstacles make developing a mass casualty weapon an exceedingly difficult chore, so do different but equally formidable obstacles arise for anyone wanting to develop the capability to destroy our information systems.
It is one thing, and a relatively simple one, to deface a web page. It is altogether a different thing to analyze and attack an information system in a fundamental way, especially if that system is protected and those who run it are alert.
Developing the expertise to carry out a serious information system attack would take considerable time and money. Would terrorists want to pay those costs? They might try to hire the necessary talent, but this would impose another cost: diminished security. Could the terrorists trust such hired guns? Would they take the risk?
To be willing to take the risks and pay the costs associated with developing mass casualty or disruption weapons, terrorists would have to have powerful motivations to do so. On balance, such motivations appear to be lacking.
Bombs made from conventional explosives have long been the favorite weapon of terrorists. They are capable of creating devastating damage, as the bombings of the World Trade Center, our embassies in Africa, and the Federal building in Oklahoma City attest. Terrorists can inflict all the pain they want and generate all the publicity they need with old-fashioned methods. They appear to have no need to pay the higher costs associated with more exotic weapons.
Nor is it the case that the constraints of state support are no longer in evidence. Osama bin Ladin is considered the very model of the new autonomous terrorist, but he depends now on the sanctuary given him by the government of Afghanistan.
Our experience has been that we can pressure states that support terrorism and that the states in turn curtail the activity of the terrorists they support. This process worked with Libya, which has turned over for trial two people indicted for their role in blowing up a Pan Am jet a decade ago. We have now begun this process with Afghanistan by persuading the UN to impose sanctions on the country. While some terrorists do operate in small autonomous groups without direct state support, such groups are unlikely to have the resources to pay the high costs exotic weapons impose. Finally, although eroded, the taboo against the use of mass casualty weapons still exists and threatens those who break it with terrible retribution.
To argue that the threat of a mass casualty or information terrorist attack is less likely than often supposed is not to argue that such attacks will never happen. They remain a possibility. But in seeing the difficulties that terrorists face in carrying them out, we realize that we are not helpless. We can protect ourselves by continuing the policy of raising the costs that terrorists and their supporters must pay to carry out attacks, whether of the traditional or newer variety. As the costs rise, fewer and fewer terrorists and supporters can or will pay them.
Raising the costs of terrorism has been our strategy from the beginning of our struggle with terrorism. In the course of this struggle, we have learned or should have learned a few lessons.
First, we have learned or should have learned to attack terrorists where they are weak and we are strong. This sounds like common sense but one still occasionally hears calls for the use of military force against terrorists as a sure way to put an end to this scourge. The fact is that it is always easier for the terrorists to use force against us than for us to use force against them. We present many more targets to the terrorists than they present to us. In any tit-for-tat violent exchange, therefore, we are likely to come out the worse. We are better off relying on economic sanctions and our ability to cajole and persuade other countries and international organizations to cooperate in the struggle against terrorism by imposing sanctions on states that support terrorism and prosecuting individuals who engage in it. No terrorist organization or state supporter of terrorism can match us in this arena.
Our military might is not useless against terrorism but must be used very sparingly. Given the small-scale and dispersed character of terrorist organizations military force often ends up striking targets of marginal worth. The strikes, however, often blunt our efforts to persuade people and governments that terrorism is unacceptable. Following the bombing of our embassies in Africa, much of the commentary in the Muslim press around the world was as outraged as our own at this wanton taking of innocent life. Following our retaliation with cruise missiles against a factory in Sudan we may have mistakenly associated with bin Ladin, this outrage turned against us. Terrorism, remember, is a political activity. So is the struggle against it. We and the terrorists are competing for the support of the same people. All that we do against terrorism, including our use of force, must be guided by this fact.
Second, as just suggested, we have learned that international cooperation is essential in the fight against terrorism. That cooperation, painstakingly constructed over the past 30 years, was on display recently in the way that Canadian and German authorities worked with the U.S. government to address the New Year terrorist threats. In a world such as ours, where people, ideas and things move easily and quickly across borders, international cooperation is increasingly critical for success against terrorism.
Third, as the increasing traffic across our borders testifies, we have found ways to improve our security without restricting our liberties. The number of people flying has increased enormously in the same period that we have imposed strict security measures on air travel. More traffic crosses our borders today than at any time in our history but, contrary to what some people think, we have more control over our borders now than ever before. According to media reports, border police near San Diego are complaining of boredom.
This last point—balancing security and liberty—has become more important lately, given the possibility that an attack with a mass casualty weapon could occur in the United States. For even if such attacks are unlikely, they are potentially so devastating that steps must be taken to prevent them and deal with their consequences.
As Federal officials pondered the horrendous consequences of such an attack, questions arose about whether plans to prevent or deal with them were sacrificing some of our traditional liberties. Should police search powers be increased or the military given more domestic responsibility? In certain cases, the flexibility of our Federal system has allowed us to address the dangers of a mass casualty attack without any loss of liberty. For example, the National Guard, subject to the authority of State Governors and not the Federal government, and with an established role in disaster relief, has been given responsibility to prepare for the consequences of such an attack. (Ohio was recently chosen as one of the States where the National Guard would play this role.)
But not all issues related to the proper balance of security and liberty will be so happily resolved. Given the possibility of a mass casualty attack, balancing the different requirements of security and liberty has become and will remain the single most important task in our effort to counter terrorism.
David Tucker teaches at the United States Naval Postgraduate School, and is an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center. He is the author of Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism.