Americans have been targets of modern terrorism for over forty
years. The most common victims have been our military forces
overseas. But starting in the 1990s, Americans have come to know
the same tragedies as other innocent civilians in Israel, Northern
Ireland, and other world hot spots.
Terrorism crept into previously untouched areas of our lives with
such acts as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Oklahoma City in
1995, and finally the September 11 attacks. But ironically the
methods of terrorism have largely remained unchanged for
decades. Suicide bombers, car bombs, and assassination attempts
were common tactics around the world before making their way to the
High-profile, overseas terrorism attacks on
The 1983 car bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks
in Beirut - 242 Americans killed.
The Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland -
259 people killed in 1988.
The 1996 Khobar Towers (Saudi Arabia) car bombing
- 19 Americans killed in their barracks.
The 1998 car bombings of the American embassies in
Kenya and Tanzania - 391 people killed, including 12 Americans.
The October 2000 suicide bomb attack on the U.S.S.
Cole while refueling in Yemen - 17 sailors killed..
Note: To view a more comprehensive list of
terrorist attacks since 1961, see the U.S.
If the free world is to anticipate and stop terrorist attacks, it
will help all of us to understand how terrorists strike. Listed
below are the usual terrorist methods seen around the world. The
least frequent, listed at the bottom, is the most feared - weapons of
mass destruction. In the form of a nuclear weapon it has yet to be used by any terrorist group,
but it had been the most jarring warning sounded by experts before
September 11. Having seen four hijackings in one day, government
officials around the world gasped to think that the search for that
one terrorist nuclear bomb may be next.
Arsenal of Terrorism
Suicide Bombers, Car Bombs, and Planted Bombs
September 11, the most destructive attacks on Americans have been
through the use of bombs. As demonstrated by Timothy McVeigh and
Terry Nichols, making a bomb is as simple as following a recipe.
And once a terrorist or terrorist group is able to make a bomb, they
have an indiscriminant and powerful killer.
bombs have proven over time to be ineffective and are no longer very
common with international terrorists. Planting a bomb in a
building is time consuming, exposing the bomber at the target and
reducing the chances of success. Suicide
bombers and car bombs have the unusual advantage of being
Palestinian suicide bombers change our perception of a bomb threat, the most
destructive form of bombing is still the car bomb. Just by
coincidence, three of the five terrorist attacks against Americans
overseas listed above were car bombs. All five attacks were
in fact bombings. And these five attacks resulted in nearly one
thousand people dead.
on with the major domestic terrorist attacks on the U.S. in the last
ten years, bombings are ominous recurrences. The attacks include
the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Oklahoma City in 1995, and the
1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing (not a planted bomb but a satchel bomb
dropped off in Olympic Park).
is aptly named because its primary objective is to instill fear.
Nothing is as effective towards that goal as putting a face on a group
of hostages or individual victims. If a picture is worth a
thousand words, hostages scramble the most powerful governments to
"bring our people home."
two American missionaries are being held by Muslim militants in the Philippines.
It is worth noting now by the national media because of our escalating
military presence in the Philippines to follow up our successes in
Twenty-one years ago it was a starkly different situation.
Iran toppled Jimmy Carter's presidency by holding fifty-three Americans for over four hundred days. It would have been just an
embarrassing lesson if not for the four American commandos who died
trying to rescue these hostages.
It was the danger to American lives, some of whom were detained or
jailed, that further encouraged other American presidents to attack
Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989.
Kidnapping is a ploy that rarely works. In the U.S.,
kidnappers are almost always caught. With international
kidnappings, the demands are often so outrageous that the targeted
government is unable to comply.
Dick Pearl's kidnapping in mid-January 2002 is such an
example. Pakistani rebels asked for the release of al-Qaeda
detainees in Cuba, something the U.S. was hard pressed to
meet. The endgame was really a simple and symbolic assasination.
is the darker side of kidnapping. It carries an additional shock
effect in that it is quicker, focused on a high profile target, and
intimidating as a future threat. The only benefit to assassins
is that their cause receives instant but brief publicity, even if
their political agenda is not necessarily advanced.
assassinations have remained in our memories for decades. The
most notable ones are Abraham Lincoln, John and Robert Kennedy, and
Martin Luther King. But what were the causes behind their
deaths? They are almost entirely gone from people's memories,
making their deaths even more pointless.
Terror Networks: Arms Dealing, Terror Training, and Foreign
Modern organized terror networks originated when the U.S. and the
Soviet Union faced each other in the Cold War. The Soviets could
perpetuate their antagonism against the free world by arming and
training Middle East terrorists and European anarchists. It
wasn't always clear how a hijacking or high-profile bombing could
advance Soviet agenda except that it eroded the U.S. and other western
nations - and that was always a desirable effect for the Soviet Union.
With the end of the Cold War, terrorist training came to a sharp
halt throughout Eastern Europe, but not in places like Syria, Libya,
Iraq, then Chechnya, Colombia, and the Philippines. Terror also
remained active from Northern Ireland, Lebanon, and Israel's
Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The
Third World still had a beef against the West, they just had to
achieve their aims without open support from the collapsed Soviet
Today terrorist organizations have come to depend on each other
even if their individual aims are completely unrelated. The fuel
that feeds these loosely interrelated groups is money. The
source of this money is usually the worldwide weapons market, drugs,
and simple theft. There are also methods well known to groups
like the American mafia - extortion, hoarding of goods and services,
and legitimate businesses and charities that mask a terrorist
The IRA and Colombia - a case of international
On August 11, 2001 three Irish men were arrested
under suspicion of aiding a large rebel group in Colombia.
The connection was immediately made - the Irish Republican Army was
training Colombian rebels on bomb making techniques. But what
was the reason behind such an unusual union between the IRA and
The IRA's experience in terrorism includes car
bombings, kidnappings, assassinations, and arms
dealing. Colombian rebels are able to provide the straw that
stirs the lethal potion of terrorism - money, large amounts of drug
money. Without any consideration for the differing causes of
Ireland and Colombia, the IRA can provide top-notch terrorism
expertise in exchange for money, valuable drugs, or weapons.
Similarly disparate unions between terrorist
organizations illustrate how these groups loose their credibility by
their actions and the company they keep. Can the IRA truly
advance when it joins forces with one of the most powerful drug
producers in Colombia, sworn enemies to every legitimate country in
North America and Europe? The union is no more encouraging
than Iraqi financial support of Palestinian suicide bombers.
Airline hijackings reached epidemic proportions during the 1970s
and then subsided somewhat with only a few high-profile hijackings in
the 1980s. By the 1990s hijackings were almost nonexistent.
September 2001 changed hijackings forever.
Hijackings had proven to be a futile weapon. While a few
hijackings led to explosive confrontations, most had only limited
effect. An inherent quality of hijackings was that they never
achieved any real gain for terrorists and the situation diffused
within days. Kidnappings and hostage situations can last for
years. An assassination leaves a highly symbolic, if futile,
scar. Car bombs can kill hundreds of lives. But hijacked
airplanes have to eventually land, and hijackers were almost always
caught and arrested.
Another deterrent to hijackings beginning in the 1980s was that
special operations units in the U.S. and throughout Europe had become
unquestioned experts at hostage rescue, especially when facing an
airline hijacking situation. England, France, Germany and even
Israel could boast of successful hostage rescues between 1976 and
Now the nature of every future hijacking has changed. Combat
air patrols of fighter jets are as much a weapon against airline
hijackings as vigilante passengers who will fight back. So we
are not likely to see a return of the hijackings from the 1970s now
that the next evolution of hijackings has emerged - a terrifying
combination of hijacking and suicide bomber.
The most important element in preventing airline hijackings now is
our current struggle with airport security. Yet behind the
scenes there is also the larger intelligence war against terrorism
being fought around the world.
Our best chance to have prevented September 11 would have been to
have arrested the nineteen hijackers before they were able to
strike. As it was, the U.S. could only arrest one, the suspected
twentieth hijacker, Zacarias Musaui. But that's all in hindsight
now. We can only hope that our next chance ends with the success
of our foresight.
of Mass Destruction
The potential use of nuclear weapons increased in the 1970s when
countries throughout Asia and the Middle East successfully developed nuclear bombs.
The threat back then was that some of these countries would use a
nuclear bomb against each other or another lesser armed enemy.
Thankfully, nuclear weapons have remained a deterrence against
potential adversaries - between the Cold War Soviet Union and NATO,
between India and Pakistan, or between Israel and its Arab
Today the impending terrorist threat is that some owner of a nuclear weapon
will sell it, or loose it, to a rogue group not interested in
deterrence. Terrorist organizations are actively seeking a
sponsor with a nuclear capability. This is one reason we worry
about places like Iraq, Libya, and several of the financially strapped
former Soviet states.
All of these unstable elements around the world - technologically
advanced third world countries, aggressive terrorist organizations,
loose and unsecured nuclear missiles from the former Soviet Union -
can potentially lead to a stray nuclear bomb exploding in Paris,
London, or anywhere in the United States. With the improbable
terrorist successes on September 11, pessimists will say that this
catastrophic scenario is inevitable.
Preventing such a catastrophe is but a part of the larger issue of
nuclear non-proliferation. But tracking down individual nuclear
bombs before they fall in the hands of al Qaeda differs significantly
than, for example, monitoring the Iraqi nuclear program. The
challenge remains - to prevent even a single nuclear bomb from use by
a terrorist organization.
In the case of nuclear bombs and terrorist groups, no news is good
news. Unfortunately, our only herald of the bad news may be that
a nuclear bomb has been detonated by such a group. And this is
something no one can afford.
Who is at Risk
An analysis of who is at risk from terrorism would require another
article the length of this one. A brief snapshot includes most
of the same victims from the last twenty or thirty years. First
are our military forces serving overseas. Today the military
units at highest risk are stationed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and
throughout the Middle East (Saudi Arabia and Kuwait). Not to be
forgotten are our other forces in places like Bosnia, the Philippines,
and Central America. But with our recent understanding of al-Qaeda's
global reach, all American military forces should be aware that they
too may be a target.
Next at risk are Americans working and traveling overseas.
Americans working in remote or rural regions of any third world
country are potential victims of kidnapping. The most dangerous
world hot spots are the Middle East, Central America, the Philippines,
Central Asia, and Africa. What draws many Americans to these
countries are the following:
- Economic opportunities such as oil and mining companies.
- Government service in the State Department or the CIA.
- Relief and aid organizations employing doctors, teachers, social
workers, or cause activists.
Finally there are the victims of random violence overseas.
One such danger originates from anti-Semitic violence in places as
peaceful as Western Europe. Synagogues and other Jewish cultural
centers are unfortunately easy targets for militants - whether Islamic
or white supremacist - in Europe's permissive, misguided, and leftist
culture. But anti-Semitic feelings aside, most American tourists
can feel largely unthreatened traveling throughout the civilized
countries of Western Europe and Japan.
Common sense should prevail for any American traveling
overseas. Simply add security as another item to educate
yourself about before visiting any specific region. Consult the
U.S. State Department web site for travel advisories and valuable
information on the political climate of foreign countries. In
the end, reason will dictate that some regions and countries are more
dangerous than others. Only a cursory attention to the world
news will tell you that a business trip to Pakistan entails completely
different preparation than a week-long vacation to Barcelona.