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Thoughts on the News - 6/2/2002


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Osama Bin Laden, September 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta, Timothy McVeigh, and Yassir Arafat

The Never Changing Face of Terrorism

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 United States.

High-profile, overseas terrorism attacks on Americans

  • 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. State Department.

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.

The Arsenal of Terrorism

Suicide Bombers, Car Bombs, and Planted Bombs

Before 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.

Planted 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 mobile.  

While 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.  

Continuing 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). 

Kidnappings & Assassinations

Terrorism 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."  

Today 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 Afghanistan. 

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.

Assassination 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.  

American 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.  

International Terror Networks:  Arms Dealing, Terror Training, and Foreign Financial Support

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 Union.

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 organization's activities.

The IRA and Colombia - a case of international terrorist networks

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 Colombian rebels?

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 1995.  

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.

Weapons 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 neighbors.  

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.

Updated Sunday June 2, 2002.