Terrorism and Terrorists
THE NATURE OF TERRORISM
Terrorism is the deliberate targeting of noncombatants for a political purpose. It is the means used, and not the ends pursued, that determine whether or not a group is a terrorist group. Terrorism is a weapon of the weak. Because terrorist groups are both outmanned and outgunned by their opponents, they use violence against civilians, not in the expectation of defeating their adversary but rather to communicate a political message.1 The choice of symbolic and particularly vulnerable targets enhances the psychological impact of their actions and thereby compensates for their relative weakness. Put differently, terrorism is often the strategy of choice for parties without the capability to achieve their
NOTE: This appendix provides some essentials about terrorism, but the reader is urged to consult more authoritative references, including D. Benjamin and S. Simon, The Age of Sacred Terror, Radical Islam’s War Against America, Random House, New York, 2003; M. Crenshaw, ed., Terrorism in Context, Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, Pa., 1995; R. Gunaratna, Inside Al Qaeda’s Global Network of Terror, Columbia University Press, New York, 2002; B. Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, 2nd edition, Columbia University Press, New York, 2006; W. Reich, ed., Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind, Woodrow Wilson Center Press, Washington D.C., 1998; L. Richardson, What Terrorists Want, Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat, Random House, New York, 2006; Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, Pa., 2004.
objectives otherwise. It is an “asymmetric” response in the face of greater power of more conventional forms. Box B.1 draws the contrast between conventional war and a war against terrorists.
Unlike the case for perpetrators of other forms of political violence, for terrorists the victims of their violence and the audience they seek to influence are not the same. Victims are chosen either at random or as
The Contrast Between Conventional War and Counterterrorist Efforts
The struggle against terrorism differs from historical norms for providing for our security. In the past, we have raised armies to defend against state-organized military forces and to enforce our security and interests outside our borders. These “enemy” forces were most often easily identifiable as enemies and we created a set of rules for monitoring their activities, for defending against them, and for attacking them. These rules regularly call for the violation of the laws of other countries.
We have also provided for our security against those who break our laws through the application of law enforcement techniques by federal, state, and local governments. Those who are found guilty of breaking laws are regarded as “criminals.” Until they are found guilty, they are afforded all the rights of the innocent and can be found guilty only by a rigorous process of evidence and judicial process.
The rules for armies dealing with “enemies” in battle conditions have evolved to be quite different from those that apply to law-enforcement agencies dealing with “potential criminals” within the domestic borders of the United States. Armies permit their elements and members to destroy “enemies” upon “recognition.” They do so quickly and without “due process” by any separate jurisdictional structure.
One of the most demanding new attributes of our current struggle with terrorists is that some of the “enemy” is imbedded in our day-to-day midst. The “enemy” has advertised its intent to destroy our society as a necessary part of defending its own and has demonstrated the potential to be a serious threat to our way of life. The “criminal” is seeking to satisfy selfish interest at the expense of others but is not attempting to destroy society. Although the difference between these motives is profound, our processes for dealing with “enemies within” and “criminals” is not much different.
A criminal act that produces localized terror is different from the serious national threat posed by a terrorist group from a foreign organization. We cannot realistically prevent all manner of tragedies that are the result of criminal behavior, stupidity, or random acts—U.S. highway fatalities, for example, total something like 30,000 per year. However, those conditions create a quality of anxiety very different from the citizen’s sense of insecurity that results from his/her government being unable to provide safety in the face of the threat of foreign organizations that wish to do them and their country harm. One involves the routine and understood risks of daily life that can be addressed by each individual in his/her own way. The other is a frighteningly ever-present risk of unknown harm from an uncertain deliverer.
representatives or symbols of a larger group in order to influence the behavior of a third party, usually a government. What sets terrorism apart from other forms of political violence, even the most proximate forms like guerrilla warfare, is the deliberate targeting of civilians, not as an unintended consequence of warfare, but as deliberate strategy.
SOME TACTICS OF TERRORISM
The operational code of the current generation of transnational terrorists is to use the strengths of Western democracies against us. For example, they exploit a free press to amplify their actions and spread the fear their operations inspire. And they exploit the openness of society to operate covertly. Although basic training and recruitment may occur in the open (much as Al Qaeda operated in Afghanistan), operational planning and training are often undertaken in an undercover manner. That is, the individuals, the organizations, and their leadership attempt to keep their identities, communications, plans, and locations from being known to the targeted nation even when the terrorists are within the borders of the nation being targeted.
In addition, terrorists are prepared often to give up their lives, take the lives of innocent bystanders, and disavow other conventional forms of value in pursuit of their goals. This ferocity of commitment makes deterrence more complicated than it might be for nation-to-nation confrontation. In stark terms, what might serve to deter a suicide bomber? Whatever the answer is to this question, death is not it.
Lastly, for most practical purposes, terrorists do not appear to place many limits on the violence that they are willing to perpetrate,2 and so the specter of terrorists with weapons of mass destruction looms large in counterterrorist efforts. Likewise, the highly interdependent nature of modern society leaves the United States (and other developed nations)
more vulnerable than many other societies. Our access to power, communications, information, transportation and ultimately food and water are very vulnerable to attack. This asymmetric mismatch between modern dependence on attackable infrastructure and the relatively lower dependence of terrorist adversaries on such infrastructure lessens the ability to deter through conventional forms of retaliation.
A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE ON TERRORISM
Terrorism is not a new phenomenon. Documented groups like the Zealots and the Sicarii date as far back as the first century in the Common Era. Like their contemporary successors they had a mix of religious and political motives and sought to ignite a general revolt among the masses against the established authorities. The Medieval Assassins, who operated from the 11th to the 13th century, provide an early example of state-sponsored terrorism as well as an early example of a culture of martyrdom among terrorists. Generally speaking, terrorist groups prior to the French Revolution tended to mix religious and political motives, whereas in the 19th and 20th centuries terrorists groups, reflecting the broader secularization of society, tended to focus on political objectives. This changed in the 1970s with the impact of the Iranian revolution and the popularization of the ideas of fundamentalist Islamic writers like Maulana Mawdudi and Sayyid Qutb that again fused religion and politics and inspired the founders of contemporary Islamic terrorist groups.
Although the primary terrorist threat to the United States emanates from Islamic extremists, terrorists have belonged to most religious traditions and to none. There have been Christian terrorists, like the ETA in Spain and the IRA in Ireland. There have been Jewish terrorists, like the Zealots, the Sicarii, and the Stern Gang in Palestine. There have been Hindu terrorists, like the Thugi in India. There have been atheist terrorists, like the RAF in Germany, Action Directe in France, and the Red Brigades in Italy, and there have been secular terrorists like the Shining Path in Peru, the PKK in Turkey, and the LTTE in Sri Lanka.
Terrorism is a tactic employed by many different groups in many parts of the world in pursuit of many different objectives. There are no simple or uniform explanations of its causes. The fact that terrorism has been so widespread, used by Peruvian peasants, German professors, Saudi imams, Egyptian intellectuals, Tamil teenagers, and young cricket players from Britain, suggests that no single cause can explain the actions of such a diverse group. Yet, the actual practitioners of terrorist tactics are very few. Meta-explanations like poverty, inequality, or alienation
thus cannot adequately explain the behavior of small groups, when these conditions are so widespread. Factors like inequality and alienation are better understood as risk factors that increase the likelihood of terrorism and increase the likelihood that once a terrorist group forms it will gain adherents, rather than as causes of terrorism per se. The essential requirements for terrorism are a disaffected individual, a complicit community, and a legitimizing ideology.
It is helpful to think in terms of terrorists as having both primary and secondary motives, or underlying and immediate motives. The primary motives differ with the type of group: ethno-nationalist groups, for example, want autonomy or secession; social revolutionary groups want to overthrow capitalism; religious groups want to bring about the apocalypse or to replace secular law with religious law. Terrorist groups have been singularly unsuccessful in achieving these underlying or primary objectives. However, terrorists have been quite successful in achieving their secondary or more immediate objectives: revenge, renown, and reaction.
The single most powerful motive of the terrorist is the desire for revenge. This holds true no matter what the precise political objective is or where in the world the terrorist is operating. Sometimes this is revenge for a perceived wrong inflicted on the individual or his family; more often it is a wrong inflicted on a group with which the terrorist identifies. Second, terrorists seek renown. This implies publicity, but much more than that, it implies glory in an effort to redress the perceived humiliation a person, or the group with which he identifies, has suffered. Finally, terrorists seek to provoke their adversaries into a reaction, preferable an overreaction. Terrorists do not have territory or even armies; all that they have is their action, and it is how they communicate with the world. By reacting, their adversary demonstrates their importance. By provoking the war on terror, terrorists have succeeded in exacting revenge, in attaining renown, and in eliciting a reaction.
AL QAEDA AND THE TERRORIST THREAT TO THE UNITED STATES
Ever since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the threat of further attacks has become the primary national security concern of the United States and many of its allies. The scale, ferocity, and nature of the attack were unprecedented in the lengthy annals of terrorism. The fact that the attack took place on American soil, targeted American civilians, and inflicted casualties greater than the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 has led to a serious re-evaluation of U.S. national security strategy.
For the first time in U.S. history nonstate actors have both demonstrated a capacity to inflict serious harm on the United States and have
articulated a desire to do so. Previously U.S. foreign and defense policy has been based on the assumption that our adversaries were other states or alliances of other states, but now we face a threat from transnational substate actors. The evolving nature of this threat requires that the United States develop new strategies in response.
Operation Enduring Freedom was launched in fall 2001 in response to the attacks of 9/11. This campaign succeeded in toppling the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which had harbored Al Qaeda, the group responsible for the attacks. The military campaign also succeeded in destroying the central command-and-control structure of the group. The group and the ideology to which it adheres, however, survive.
Today, the most salient and serious terrorist threat to the United States is Al Qaeda, even though throughout history there have been many other types of terrorist movements in many parts of the world.3 Its senior leadership has explicitly argued that the continued success of the Western way of life, as exemplified by the United States, will inevitably lead to the erosion of traditional Islamic values and their way of life. In the face of this proposition, Al Qaeda has resorted to terrorism as a means to achieve its ends because that choice does not confront U.S. economic and military strength and it leverages the safeguards of U.S. domestic freedoms to their advantage. Other movements or organizations may emerge in the future to challenge the United States in this way, but for the moment, Al Qaeda is the primary terrorist adversary of the United States.
The basis of Al Qaeda’s strength is twofold. They have a motivating ideology that a great many people find appealing, and they have demonstrated extraordinary organizational agility. Al Qaeda’s ideology is an eclectic and inconsistently articulated mix of Islamic fundamentalism; animus toward the West and secular Muslim regimes; objections to specific U.S. policies in the Middle East, in particular U.S. support for Israel; and grandiose aspirations for a return to a mythical caliphate stretching from Spain to Indonesia. The breadth of these criticisms of the West means that disaffected Muslims all over the world can identify with some part of the ideology while the religious basis provides a legitimacy and coherence to the appeal. Unlike earlier terrorist groups that tended to start with local grievances and then build from there, part of the success of Al Qaeda has been the ease with which the ideology has infused local conditions, thereby gaining adherents for the transnational cause. The religious nature of the ideology has facilitated the elevation of the conflict with the West into cosmic terms, thereby eliminating previous constraints on the
behavior of individuals and legitimizing and rationalizing the infliction of mass casualties.
The organizational agility has been demonstrated by the ease with which Al Qaeda has adapted to the destruction of its central command structure and training bases and re-emerged in an entirely new organizational form: a diffuse network of like-minded individuals bent on destruction of the West. The new incarnation of Al Qaeda is made possible by the existence of new technologies, the very attributes of the globalization they are so quick to decry but are so adept at exploiting. The current organization of Al Qaeda, therefore, is unprecedented as it is entirely dependent on a set of new technologies that were unavailable to its predecessors.
It is impossible to know how many terrorists there are who wish to harm the United States. Ten of thousands of Mujahadeen fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. After the war many returned to their country of origin, radicalized local militant groups, and fought to overthrow local secular regimes. Others turned their attention to the fight against the West, which was blamed for propping up corrupt regional leaders.
After the first Gulf War the deployment of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, designed to serve as a trip wire in the event of another Iraqi invasion, served as a rallying cry for extremists who perceived the deployment as humiliating and were convinced that the United States was determined to take over the Muslim world. Al Qaeda re-established training camps in Afghanistan under the Taliban and recruited young Muslims from the Middle East and the Muslim diaspora in Europe to come and be trained in the militant arts of jihad.
The war in Iraq has served to swell the ranks of those who wish to attack the West. Young men from North Africa and the Gulf states are flocking to Iraq to take part in the war against the United States while the unpopularity of the war is radicalizing young Muslims resident in Europe to attack their compatriots, as occurred in Madrid on March 11, 2004, and in London on July 7, 2005. The numbers, therefore, appear to be growing.
The numbers, however, tell only part of the story. One of the more disturbing trends is the fact that weapons of greater and greater lethality can now fall into the hands of smaller and smaller groups. The problem for the security services is that the smaller the group, the more difficult it will be to detect.
Up until now, terrorist groups, with the singular exception of the Aum Shinriku cult in Japan that released sarin gas on the Tokyo subway in March 1995, have evinced little interest in using weapons of mass destruction, specifically nuclear, radiological, chemical, or biological weapons. But earlier terrorist groups have not attempted to inflict
mass casualties. The perpetrators of 9/11, however, clearly wished to kill as many people as possible. The actions of the Al Qaeda leadership and their statements both suggest that if they could acquire these weapons, they would deploy them. The difficulties of acquiring, transporting, and successfully deploying these types of weapons are such that this is a very-low-probability event. But the consequences of a successful deployment of even the easiest of them, a radiological device, would be so catastrophic that there is no responsible option but to defend against them.
We cannot accurately predict how terrorists will next choose to attack us. Historically terrorists have been very conservative in their use of tactics, preferring simple tried technologies, given the conditions of uncertainty in which they operate. Hence, bombs and bullets have been tools of choice. However, the psychological payback of a successful deployment of even a crude chemical or radiological device is such that some terrorists are likely to try to acquire these weapons.
Still, the probability is higher that terrorists will attempt an attack with conventional explosives that can be acquired very easily but when strategically deployed can inflict significant casualties and even great psychological damage. The diffuse nature of the threat, and the fact that many militants operate largely independently of any central command, suggest the need to be prepared for all types of attack as well as the fact that different types of attack could be planned simultaneously.
Particular branches of fundamentalist Islam have proven to be very successful in attracting a range of different individuals to the jihadi cause and in so doing making it impossible to single out those to track. These range from poor uneducated young men from the Middle East and North Africa, to middle class, computer-literate, and Western-educated young men from the region, as well as first- and second-generation Muslims living in the West. They have also won converts to the cause via the Web, prisons, and personal networks. There is no simple profile of the terrorist; rather, the background of those participating in violence is constantly expanding and increasingly including formerly excluded categories of individuals. The anonymity of the web, for example, permits the participation of women.
TERRORISTS AND THEIR SUPPORTING TECHNOLOGIES
The most important of these new technologies is information technology, and in particular the Internet—Al Qaeda could not function without it. Today, Islamic fundamentalist terrorist groups rely on the Internet to communicate with their members, their supporters, and one another across the globe. They use the Internet to recruit members by hosting Web sites detailing the iniquities of their adversaries, the successes of
their attacks against the West, and the path to action. In this way they have successfully won adherents to the cause in counties as diverse as Algeria, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Pakistan, and Spain. Once recruited, they use the Internet to train their followers by providing online education manuals as well as directions to training camps. They produce propaganda videos both to sustain the converted and to intimidate Western publics as well as to win recruits and to raise funds. They use the Internet to create a virtual community of support for the militant wherever he or she may be and to sustain their commitment to the cause. They also use the Internet to plan and carry out their attacks, as was effectively demonstrated on September 11th.
Just as important, terrorists—by their very modes of operation—intermingle with the society they target. Not only do they use the indigenous information technology infrastructure and the Internet to interact with each other, they must also interact with society at large. Thus, they use cell phones, pay with credit cards, travel commercially, rent vehicles and apartments, and otherwise engage in conventional commercial activities—all of which are activities that leave a digital footprints that may subsequently be tracked.
Lastly, terrorists have more or less lost the territorial bases they used to house their own institutional infrastructure. Given the anonymity, affordability, and ease of access to the Internet, they have created a command-and-control structure in cyberspace. Given the determination of Western governments to deny terrorist groups safe physical havens within which to operate and to train with impunity, it seems certain that their reliance on new information technologies will only increase.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
We can reasonably expect the threat from terrorists groups to continue for the foreseeable future. There are no signs of the abatement of the threat. Terrorism, like other tactics, will continue to be deployed as long as it proves effective. Terrorists have been unsuccessful in achieving the fundamental political change they seek, but they have been particularly successful in achieving their more immediate goals: exacting revenge for real or perceived grievances, achieving renown for themselves and their cause, and provoking a reaction from the authorities. As long as terrorists continue to be successful in achieving their objectives of revenge, renown, and reaction, they are likely to continue to use terrorist tactics.