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Bill GertzAn excellent primer on the groups, motives and methods of the current terrorist threat.
— The Washington Times
The author of Terrorism: How the West Can Win--a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations--takes a fascinating look at the ominous rise of terrorism throughout the world, including the United States, and suggests ways in which democracies can defend themselves against this deadly threat.
The Plague of Domestic Terrorism
Organized crime has plagued all the democracies. It has attacked business establishments, assaulted judges, corrupted police officials. But the rise of terrorism in recent decades presents a new form of organized violence directed against democratic societies. Making their appearance in the late 1960s, terrorist attacks have afflicted virtually each of the Western countries in an unfailing sequence. The societies targeted have included Britain, Italy, France, Holland, Spain, Germany, Japan, Argentina, Israel, and most recently the United States itself. No country is immune, few are spared.
This new violence differs significantly from that of organized crime. While the violence of traditional organized crime is directed to achieving financial gains, terrorist violence, regardless of the specific identity and goals of its perpetrators, is always directed toward achieving political ends. Because of this distinction, the scope of the violence of organized crime is radically more limited. Gangsters kill only those they have to kill - usually other gangsters - in order to win or maintain control over specific areas of legal or illicit commerce. But terrorists are out to terrorize the public at large, with the intent of compelling some kind of change of policy, or else as retribution for the government's failure to follow the policies demanded by the terrorists.
This gets to the heart of what terrorism is, and how it differs from other kinds of violence. Terrorism is the deliberate and systematic assault on civilians to inspire fear for political ends. Though one may quibble with this definition, for example by broadening "political ends" to include ideological or religious motives, it nonetheless captures the essence of terrorism - the purposeful attack on the innocent, those who are hors de combat, outside the field of legitimate conflict. In fact, the more removed the target of the attack from any connection to the grievance enunciated by the terrorists, the greater the terror. What possible connection is there between the kindergarten children savaged in an office building in Oklahoma to the purported grievances of the Patriots of Arizona? What do the incidental shoppers bombed in the World Trade Center in Manhattan have to do with the Islamic jihad?
Yet for terrorism to have any impact, it is precisely the lack of connection, the lack of any possible involvement or "complicity" of the chosen victims in the cause the terrorists seek to attack, that produces the desired fear. For terrorism's underlying message is that every member of society is "guilty," that anyone can be a victim, and that therefore no one is safe.
Paradoxically, this all-encompassing characteristic of terrorist violence is also its undoing in democratic societies. The effect of fear is offset by an equal and often more powerful effect of revulsion and anger from the citizenry. By its very nature, the inhuman method chosen by the terrorists to achieve their aim disqualifies the aim from the start as one worthy of moral support. Though their professed purpose is invariably couched in the language of freedom and the battle for human rights, there is a built-in contradiction between such professed aims and the method chosen to implement them. In fact, the methods reveal the totalitarian strain that runs through all terrorist groups. Those who deliberately bomb babies are not interested in freedom, and those who trample on human rights are not interested in defending such rights. It is not only that the ends of the terrorists do not succeed in justifying the means they choose; their choice of means indicates what their true ends are. Far from being fighters for freedom, terrorists are the forerunners of tyranny. It is instructive to note, for example, that the French Resistance during World War II did not resort to the systematic killing of German women and children, although these were well within reach in occupied France. But in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge showed no such restraint in their war against what they saw as the American-supported occupation. France, of course, is today a democracy; Cambodia is merely another one of the many despotisms where terrorists have come to power - and where they proceeded to carry out some of the most ghoulish crimes committed against humanity since World War II. Terrorists use the techniques of violent coercion in order to achieve a regime of violent coercion. They are undemocratic to the core, making use of the pluralism and freedom guaranteed by liberal societies in order to crush this very pluralism and freedom.
The citizens of free countries understand this instinctively. That is why the terrorists' message has limited sway in capturing a broad following from among the democratic citizenry of the society they attack. Thus the Baader-Meinhof faction seeking to build a new German society failed to win the hearts and minds of German youth; thus the Red Brigades failed to sway the masses in Italy; thus the Japanese Red Army remained an utterly marginal group. None of them ever gained the sympathy of the public at large, and remained restricted to a few hundred followers, sometimes a few dozen.
Compare this to the much more pervasive network of organized crime. Organized crime does not deal with the advancement of political ideas; it deals with the advancement of corruption, assisted by intimidation. It has many thousands of people on its payroll, and in some countries, most notably Italy, it penetrated all levels of society, up to members of the Cabinet. Graft requires no ideological persuasion. It speaks in the language of money, which is a universal tender, and therefore has wide appeal. This is why organized crime is so difficult to uproot, while most forms of terrorism in the democratic countries are relatively easy to stamp out.
This last statement needs to be examined, especially with regard to the United States. After all, America is the world's greatest democracy, and if terrorism cannot be successfully fought there, perhaps it is not a challenge as easily met as I have suggested. Indeed, in the rush of anxiety following the Oklahoma bombing, there was considerable concern in the United States that this bombing was a harbinger of a future wave of terrorist attacks against American society. It is true that the success of terrorism in one place often prompts imitation elsewhere, and in that regard it is not inconceivable that demented individuals and organizations will seek to replicate this tragedy. But I maintain that terrorism based exclusively in America is unsustainable and can be reduced to insignificance in short order - that over a few years at most, almost every one of these groups can be isolated, infiltrated, and disarmed.
The most important reason for this is the fact that the American public is by and large inoculated ideologically against the spread of the terrorist virus - that is, against the beliefs which motivate the terrorists. Such ideological inoculation can be seen in an example gleaned from a different held: Two former KGB agents said on the CBS program 60 Minutes that they worked for twenty years out of the Soviet embassy in Washington, yet failed to recruit even a single American citizen to spy against the United States. The only ones who did work for them were Americans who walked in unsolicited through the gates of the embassy, and their sole motivation was money. This reflects the basic patriotism of Americans and their widespread belief in the premises on which their society is built - unlike, say, many Soviet citizens who did not share such convictions about the Soviet Union during the years of the Cold War.
The belief in the peaceful resolution of disagreements, in the basic rights of other individuals, and in the law of the land - all these are the building blocks of a democratic education, indeed a democratic world-view, which forms an impenetrable wall in the mind of each citizen against participating in political violence. The possibility of persuading Americans that the indiscriminate bombing of other Americans is somehow going to be beneficial to the United States or the world is next to nil outside of the most lunatic fringe of society.
This fact flies directly in the face of one of the most infamous pieces of revolutionary wisdom ever uttered: Mao Ze-dong's theory that the irregular violence of his "people's army" could not be resisted because his men would simply disappear into the friendly and supportive populace, swimming among them "like the fish in the sea." This theory may have worked in China in 1949. Massacred, starved, impoverished, and oppressed, parts of the Chinese populace may very well have constituted such a sea that could provide the guerrillas with succor, cover, and moral support. Most proponents of modern terrorism have liberally borrowed this theory, interchanging "terrorists" for "guerrillas," and suggesting that these, too, would be able to disappear into the friendly people's sea. But no such sea exists in the United States in 1995, nor in virtually any other democratic country today. The potential sympathizers willing to listen to the cynical theories of terrorist ideologists and collaborate with them in their grisly deeds do not constitute a "sea" but a collection of puddles at most.
The consequences of this reality for anti-terrorist law enforcement in a country like the United States are of the first order. For even in a nation as vast as America, the number of places in which any given terror initiative may be incubated or hatched is so small that it can usually be identifed with relative ease. Law enforcement officials know more or less whom to keep tabs on, and if they do not, the overwhelming majority of law-abiding citizens are willing and able to rapidly pool their knowledge and share it with the authorities. Thus within a day after the bombing in Oklahoma, federal investigators had literally thousands of leads offered them by ordinary citizens anxious to help. While the accused killer was apprehended by other means, the result of this public outpouring of support was that much of Timothy McVeigh's network of associates and potential supporters was laid bare to the scrutiny of both the police and the public within days.
While not every terrorist group can be located quite this quickly, it is nevertheless true that the Oklahoma City bombers are not a needle in the haystack of American society; they are a needle in a bathtub, whose clear water ensures that their chances of hiding and getting away with their acts for very long is ordinarily exceedingly limited. One need only recall the shortlived exploits of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), whose brief spate of murders and robberies received notoriety with the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst in 1974. The entire course of the SLA's violent history lasted just over a year. They were then forced into hiding and inactivity for several more months, until they were caught and wiped out by a Los Angeles Police Department SWAT team.
It can be argued, however, that the one-hundred-year history of the Ku Klux Klan refutes this proposition. The Ku Klux Klan, after all, engaged in violent attacks against black Americans and others. But the Klan was an outgrowth of the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War. It was formed in the late 1860s, in a society which was largely supportive of an often violent resistance against the liberalizing norms being imposed by the North. The Klan really was living in a sea of covert and overt sympathy, which sometimes reached as far as protection by local law enforcement officials - hence its longevity and its ability to muster not only terror but actual mass membership reaching millions at its height in the 1930s. But by the mid-1960s, the culture had changed in the new South, and the Klan's appeal dried out accordingly.
That is, until now. The investigation into the backgrounds of the suspects in the Oklahoma City bombing has led American law enforcement officials and journalists into a bewildering thicket of far-right, white supremacist and anti-federalist groups, often heavily armed, who in recent years have begun organizing themselves into local "militias" - in many cases actively planning to fight a civil war against the federal government. In this they vaguely echo the leftist anarchism df the minute Weathermen movement of the 1960s, but with a significant difference: Militia strength is now estimated to range from 10,000 to upward of 100,000, organized into a loose confederation with strongholds in thirty states, especially Montana, Idaho, Texas, Michigan, Indiana, and Florida. The fringes of the American right have always offered a certain support to anti-government groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, Posse Comitatus, and the Aryan Nations. In 1958, the John Birch Society was formed around the claims that the government was becoming dominated by Communist sympathizers, and arguing for limitations on the power of the federal government, the dismantling of the Federal Reserve System, and withdrawal from the United Nations. Periodically, radical splinters of this movement, from tax resisters to gun freaks, have had violent run-ins with federal agents. In 1983, for example, a member of the Posse Comitatus - a movement of agrarian tax resisters claiming the IRS was an arm of "Zionist international bankers" - wanted for the slaying of two U.S. marshals, was himself killed in a shoot-out with federal agents in Arkansas.
What makes this new "patriot movement" different is its ideological conviction that violen confrontation with what they view as a conspirational and authoritarian federal government has become inevitable - therefore making preparation for this conflict the duty of every true American patriot.
"Patriot" ideology appears to have taken a trun toward paranoia with President George Bush's 1990 announcement of his intention to forge a New World Order under the aegis of the United Nations (of which the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein was to be the first test). The idea that the United States would somehow be subordinated to the UN, an organization particularly hated and distrusted in "patriot" demonology, was enough to drive some in the fanatic fringe to distraction. Though Bush handily won the war against Iraq, this did not prevent the New World Order from promptly evaporating; international efforts led by the United States under the banner of the UN quickly fizzled out in Somalia and elsewhere. Yet the "patriots" remained convicted that America was in the throes of a great foreign conspiracy. A popular culture, in the form of apocalyptic anti-federal government novels such as William Pierce's The Turner Diaries and computerized bulletin boards on the Internet began spreading frantic warnings of the coming showdown with an American government controlled, variously, by one or more of the usual suspects: Russia, Zionism, and the United Nations - not to mention that perennial favorite, the Trilateral Commission. What the entire genre has in common is the belief in an imminent effort by the federal government to seize private weapons, a belief which has reached fever pitch in the wake of two events: the August 1992 Idaho shoot-out between reputed white separatist Randy Weaver and U.S. federal agents, in which Weaver's wife and son lost their lives along with a federal marshal, and the April 1993 attack by the FBI on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in which more than seventy cultists were killed.
Following these actions, many of the militias concluded that civil war was coming, and began to say so. Thus the Florida State Militia handbook warns: "We have had enough ... violence and bloodshed, enough Waco ... and government attacks on Christian Americans," and calls on its members to "buy ammo now. You will not be able to get it later." Bo Gritz, who founded an armed community in Idaho called Almost Heaven, has called for the trial and execution of "the traitors who ordered the assaults on the Weavers and Waco." Samuel Sherwood of the United States Militia Association in Idaho has preached that "civil war could be coming, and with it the need to shoot Idaho legislators." Norman Olson, leader of the Northern Michigan Regional Militia, understands "warfare, armed rebellion" to be coming "unless the spirit of the country changes." And it is these beliefs which have in the last few years fueled an unprecedented explosion of membership in these organizations, as thousands of sympathizers and fellow travelers have openly joined their ranks.
The language of militia and patriot ideology was exactly the kind of language used by Timothy McVeigh, the principal suspect in the Oklahoma City bombing, when he wrote in a letter in 1992 to the Union Sun & Journal of Lockport, New York, that the politicians had gone "out of control": "Do we have to shed blood to reform the current system? I hope it doesn't come to that. But it might."
None of the militias are willing to openly declare that the war with the United States has already started (much as Islamic radicals in the United States, whom I will discuss presently, are unwilling to state publicly that the jihad against the United States has already begun). None of them are willing to claim the Oklahoma City bombing as their own, although many profess to "understand the rage" which led to it. Many questions about the Oklahoma City bombing remain unanswered at the time of this writing, including who McVeigh's accomplices were and where he got the cash he used to plan his attack. What is clear is that in the heartland of America, the terrorist puddles are still puddles - but in the absence of forceful action by the government of the United States, there is the distinct danger that they will get larger and deeper.
Here one must be careful to maintain an important distinction between the xenophobia and bigotry of political extremism in the democracies, both on the left and on the right, and actual terrorism. Democracies always have their share of anti-immigrant or anti-establishment parties, as well as advocates of extreme nationalism or internationalism. Though such organizations - the French National Front is a good example - are unsavory in their views, they are often genuinely convinced participants in democracy, accepting its basic ground rules and defending its central tenets. These can and must be distinguished from the tiny splinters at the absolute fringes of democratic society, which may endorse many similar ideas but use them as a pretext to step outside the rubric of the democratic system to resort to violence and terror. The Ku Klux Klan, which is today attempting a political comeback in America, is forced to adopt softer tones in an attempt to squeeze in at the fringes of the legitimate spectrum. How far would the "new" Klan get if it turned out that it was still active in lynching innocent people in the night, or that it had taken up bombing buildings?
In short, American society at the close of the twentieth century still lacks a widespread and enduring social and cultural climate for the breeding of domestic terrorist organizations. It even lacks the pernicious chorus of intellectual rationalizers and legitimizers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon who gave European terrorism its short-lived flurry of faddish glamour when it first appeared. While there is a ready audience right now for instant experts expounding on the inevitable proliferation of domestic terrorism in America, the fact is that domestic terrorism has a bleak future in the United States, precisely because Americans - virtually all Americans - reject it out of hand.
Before I discuss the operational issues involved in defeating domestic terrorism, it is crucial to mention the battle of ideas which constitutes the first and most fundamental defense against terrorism. I have said that Americans, as profound believers in democracy and genuine lovers of their country, are for the most part inoculated against the ideas which are the wellspring of terrorism. But, as in the South of the Ku Klux Klan, it is clear that this was not always the case, and it would be foolish to think that the cultural resistance of Americans is necessarily permanent and undamageable. The intellectual bulwarks of a free society, like all aspects of freedom, have to be constantly nurtured and protected. In the case of the intellectual defense against the appeal of terrorism, the continual explication of democratic values is a fundamental requirement. That means first and foremost advancing the idea that the essence of democratic societies, and that which distinguishes them from dictatorships, is the commitment to resolve conflict in a nonviolent fashion by settling issues through argument and debate, and if the issue is important enough - through ballots rather than bullets.
As long as this ethos is widely maintained, democratic societies can cope with ethnic and social antagonisms, defusing their explosive potential and ultimately dissolving them. But when no such ethos is present, societies can descend into the most horrific bloodshed over almost any issue, as we have seen most recently in the monumental bloodlettings in Bosnia, Rwanda, Uganda, Somalia, and Algeria. While the Western democracies are thankfully nowhere near the condition of such countries, they, like all societies, have their frayed edges of unresolved grievances and violent alienation, which, if unattended, can serve as fertile soil for the growth of extremism and terrorism. The continual cultivation of democratic values throughout all levels of society is thus not a luxury or an abstract exercise but a crucial instrument for the survival and well-being of democratic countries.
The salient point that has to be underlined again and again is that nothing justifies terrorism, that it is evil per se - that the various real or imagined reasons proffered by the terrorists to justify their actions are meaningless. In its long and unfinished march from barbarism to civilization, humanity has tried to delineate limits to conflict. It has developed laws of war which proscribe, even in wartime, the initiation of deliberate attacks on defenseless civilians. Without this limitation there is no meaning to the term "war crimes." For if anything is allowable, then even the gassing of a million babies in Auschwitz and Dachau is also permissible. But by their uninhibited resort to violence and their repeated attacks on civilians, the terrorists brazenly cross the line between the permissible and the impermissible. By conditioning us to accept savage outrages as habitual or normal responses to undesired political circumstances, terrorism attacks the very foundation of civilization and threatens to erase it altogether by killing man's sense of sin, as Pope John Paul II put it. The unequivocal and unrelenting moral condemnation of terrorism must therefore constitute the first line of defense against its most insidious effect.
Yet it is precisely this defense that has been weakened by the rush to "explain" and "understand" the terrorists' motivations after the Oklahoma City bombing. A vast instant literature sprang forth seeking to explain the motivations and psychological makeup of America's newfound terrorists, just as a similar literature was produced at the height of European terrorism in the 1970s. A clinical understanding of terrorist psychology is of course important for fighting terrorism, but it must not spill over into the other connotation of understanding, that of acceptance. "Understanding" the personal hang-ups of Nazi leaders was perfectly justifiable as a means of advancing the total war against Nazism, but it never should have become an excuse to weaken the resolve for fighting Nazism as an absolute evil. The citizens of free societies must be told again and again that terrorists are savage beasts of prey, and should be treated as such. Terrorism should be given no intellectual quarter.
Like organized crime, the battle against terrorism should be waged relentlessly, resisting the attempt to glorify or mystify its perpetrators or their cause in any way. Indeed, the point of departure for the domestic battle against terrorism is to treat it as a crime and terrorists as criminals. To do otherwise is to elevate both to a higher status, thereby undermining the ability of governments to fight back. On the domestic level, the fact that terrorists are politically motivated criminals is irrelevant, except in providing clues for their apprehension.
If the first obstacle to the spread of domestic terrorism in most democracies is in the realm of political culture, the second is in the realm of operations. The advanced democracies usually have at their disposal a vast array of surveillance and other intelligence-gathering capabilities that give them the ability to track down terrorists, put them on trial, and punish them. The United States is especially capable of monitoring the activities of terrorists. It has technical capabilities that exceed anything available to any other country, especially formidable eavesdropping and photographic capabilities. The movements and activities of potential terrorists can thus be observed, and they may be apprehended before they strike - at least when the law enforcement agencies are permitted to act.
A good example of just how powerful a national security agency can be in a democracy is provided by the case of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's crackdown which resulted in the elimination of the chief Puerto Rican terrorist group, the FALN. By 1982 the FALN had reached a peak of logistical capabilities, executing no fewer than twenty-five separate terrorist attacks including bombings of civilian targets and violent armed robberies. Additional and more ambitious attacks were in the works, including assaults on prisons in which FALN members were being held. Yet eventually the FBI was able to catch up with the entire ring. It watched the movements of the group and literally listened in on its planning sessions for eighteen months. Finally, at the critical moment before a renewal of the terror spree, the FBI moved in and arrested four leaders of the group in the United States and tipped off the Mexican security services as to the location of a fifth. Without its head, the snake quickly expired, and by 1983 the FALN was unable to claim responsibility for a single terrorist act.
Evading the intelligence-gathering efforts of a democratic government is to a certain extent possible for a professionally organized terrorist organization. But the conditions for achieving this kind of capability are exacting. In order to maintain consistent, long-term terrorist activity in the face of massive counter-terrorist efforts that can be mounted by federal and local authorities, a terrorist group must have a number of assets at its disposal. First, its members must be exceptionally well trained in maintaining organizational secrecy and in the professional methods of covert operations and intelligence techniques. Second, it must be well funded and equipped, with the budgetary requirements of an effective terrorist organization rapidly running into the millions. And third, it must have a safe haven in and out of which its operatives can maneuver in their efforts to dodge the government's security services.
In the advanced democracies, none of these requirements is easy to meet, and for the same reasons that recruitment of terrorists is so difficult. Unwanted by the American public, the terrorists have neither the support of government officials who, in a non-democratic society, might share intelligence information with them or fail to take the necessary actions against them - they generally do not have a significant enough backing among citizens who are sympathetic and willing to help fund their activities - nor any piece of territory that has any kind of depth as a home base. In a modern democracy, the terrorist is most often alone, hunted, despised, and without means. Thus, the situation could in principle be created in which the terrorist would sooner or later succumb to the sophistication and sheer volume of activities against him.
|I||The Plague of Domestic Terrorism||7|
|II||The Question of Civil Liberties||27|
|III||The 1980s: Successes Against International Terrorism||51|
|IV||The 1990s: The Rise of Militant Islam in America and the World||75|
|V||The Gaza Syndrome||99|
|VI||The Specter of Nuclear Terrorism||121|
|VII||What Is to Be Done||129|