A New Strategy for the New Face of Terrorism

A New Strategy for the New Face of Terrorism

Mini Teaser: The Third World War was begun on Tuesday, September 11, on the East Coast of the United States--so began the French magazine L'Express two days later.

by Author(s): L. Paul Bremer

The Third World War was begun on Tuesday, September 11, on the East Coast of the United States--so began the French magazine L'Express two days later. Whether these words turn out to be prediction or exaggeration will depend on how the world now reacts to the new face of terrorism represented by the vicious attacks of that day.

The September 11 atrocities made for the most dramatic day in American history, dwarfing even the events at Pearl Harbor sixty years ago. Three times as many Americans died in New York and Washington as died at Pearl Harbor. And this time innocent civilians, not military men, were the intended targets. But this was not just an attack on America. Citizens of at least eighty countries died in the collapsed World Trade towers. We are all, in a direct way, victims of the new terrorism.

The Changing Nature of Terrorism

While the attacks were shocking for their audacity and effectiveness, they should have surprised no serious student of terrorism. A large-scale attack on American soil has been widely predicted by experts. For years they have drawn attention to a disturbing paradox: while the number of international terrorist incidents has been declining over the past decade, the number of casualties has risen. This trend reflects the changing motives of terrorists.

During the 1970s and 1980s, most terrorist groups had limited political motives. For them, terrorism was a tactic mainly to draw attention to their cause. These groups reasoned that many people would sympathize with that cause if only they were made aware of it. Designing their tactics to support this objective, these "old-style" terrorists rarely engaged in indiscriminate mass killing. They rightly concluded such attacks would disgust the very audiences they were trying to convert to their cause. So most terrorist groups designed their attacks to kill enough people to draw in the press but not so many as to repel the public. Often they used terror to force negotiations on some issue, such as the release of jailed comrades. As one terrorism expert put it, these groups were seeking a place at the negotiating table.

Eventually, most terrorist groups in Europe overplayed their hands and the publics turned against them. But anti-terrorism policies helped win the day. With vigorous American leadership, European countries and the United States developed a counter-terrorist strategy to deal with this threat. At the heart of that strategy were three principles: make no concessions to terrorists; treat terrorists as criminals to be brought to justice; and punish states that support terrorism. On balance, this strategy worked.

Over the past decade, however, it has become clear that many terrorist groups are motivated less by narrow political goals and more by ideological, apocalyptic or religious fanaticism. Sometimes their goal is simply hatred or revenge, and tactics have changed to reflect these motives. Rather than avoiding large-scale casualties, these terrorists seek to kill as many people as possible. They are unconstrained by the respect for human life that undergirds all the world’s great religions, including Islam.

Beginning with the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 in December 1988, through the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, to the chemical attacks in the Tokyo subways in 1995 and the attacks on two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, terrorist actions have resulted in increasing numbers of casualties. The September 11 attacks killed more than 5,000 people, making it the single worst terrorist attack in world history.

Things could get even worse. During the 1990s, concerns arose that terrorists might use chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear agents. In the 1980s, terrorist groups could have developed such weapons, but they did not do so, apparently calculating that their use would make public support for their causes less likely. But far from steering away from such agents, the new terrorists might find these weapons attractive precisely because they can kill tens of thousands. This was the goal, fortunately unrealized, of Aum Shinrikyo's chemical attack on the Tokyo subway. Indeed, there is evidence that some new terrorist groups, including bin Laden's Al-Qaeda, have tried to acquire nuclear, biological and chemical agents. It is known that the terrorist states of North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria all have tried to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Moreover, in the 1990s, information about chemical and biological agents became widely available on the Internet. The recent anthrax attacks may foreshadow a major escalation to bioterrorism by Islamist and perhaps other terrorists.

The changed motives of these "new-style" terrorists mean that at least two-thirds of the West's old strategy is outmoded. One pillar of that strategy, not making concessions to terrorists, remains valid. But it may be irrelevant when faced with groups like Al-Qaeda. Such groups are not trying to start negotiations. They make no negotiable “demands†that the West can comply with to forestall further attacks. These men do not seek a seat at the table; they want to overturn the table and kill everybody at it.

It is an honorable reflection of the basic friendliness of the American people that most of us find it difficult to believe that anybody hates Americans. Many find it especially confusing that men who lived among us, sometimes for years, attending our schools and shopping in our malls, should hate the very society whose freedoms they enjoyed. That they somehow must not understand us is the first reaction of many.

But this reaction reflects a misunderstanding about the new terrorists. They hate America precisely because they do understand our society; they hate its freedoms, its commitment to equal rights and universal suffrage, its material successes and its appeal to so many non-Americans. Thus, the question of whether or not to make concessions in the face of such hatred is simply irrelevant. Nothing America can say or do, short of ceasing to exist, will satisfy these terrorists.

Our long-standing objective of "bringing terrorists to justice", the second pillar of U.S. strategy, is also irrelevant to the new fight. During the past decade, an increasing percentage of terrorist attacks, especially those conducted by Middle Eastern groups, have involved suicides. This underscores the perpetrators' extraordinary commitment to terror, but it also shows the futility of relying on the concept of using criminal justice to punish them. Men who are prepared to die in an airplane crash are not going to be deterred by the threat of being locked in a prison cell. We need to revise our thinking; now our goal should be, as President Bush has suggested, “bringing justice to the terrorists.

Terrorism: The New Face of War

In the broader sense, the September 11 attacks preview the kind of security threat America will face in the 21st century. Terrorism allows the weak to attack the strong. It is relatively inexpensive to conduct, and devilishly difficult to counter.

Relative to all the other powers in the world, America is stronger than any country has ever been in history. The Gulf War showed that even a lavishly equipped conventional force (at the time, Iraq possessed the world’s fifth largest army) was no match for America. The lesson for would-be tyrants and terrorists was clear: America could only be attacked by unconventional means, and terrorism is a fundamental tactic of asymmetrical warfare.
Terrorists take advantage of two important asymmetries. First, in the fight against terrorism, defenders have to protect all their points of vulnerability around the world; the terrorist has only to attack the weakest point. This lesson was brought home to the U.S. government when Al-Qaeda attacked the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es-Salaam in August 1998, two embassies thought to be in little danger and thus ill-protected.
Secondly, the costs of launching a terrorist attack are a fraction of the costs required to defend against it. To shoot up an airport, a terrorist needs only an AK-47 assault rifle; defending that same airport costs millions of dollars. The September 11 attacks probably cost less than $2 million and caused over $100 billion in damage and business interruption. Thus, the new terrorism reverses the conventional wisdom that, in military operations, the offense must be three times as strong as the defense.

How, then, are we to fight this new and increasingly dangerous threat?

The proper objective of a counter-terrorist policy is to prevent attacks before they happen. So, more than in any other field of foreign and national security affairs, success in the fight against terrorism depends on having good intelligence. But there is no more difficult or dangerous kind of intelligence to collect. The surest way to know about an attack ahead of time is to have somebody tell you the plans. That means having a spy in the terrorist group itself.

Inserting an agent inside a terrorist group is among any intelligence agency's most difficult task. These groups are by nature clandestine and suspicious, even paranoid. Membership is often based on ethnic, tribal, clan or family ties, so Western intelligence agencies can rarely use their own nationals to infiltrate such groups.
There are two other possibilities for getting this valuable "human intelligence." Our agencies can, and do, work with friendly intelligence agencies in the Middle East. Often those organizations can use their own nationals to infiltrate terrorist cells. And if we handle such a relationship properly, our government can get useful and timely information about terrorist plans that enables us to disrupt them before they can be carried out. Such a relationship helped foil Al-Qaeda's planned millennium celebration attacks.

The second path is for the CIA itself to recruit a member of the group. This is exceptionally dangerous since the penalty, if caught spying, is certain death. We have also made the task more difficult for ourselves. Over the past 25 years, the United States has seriously undermined its capability to acquire human intelligence. In the mid-1970s, politicized attacks by Congress damaged CIA operations and morale. In the late 1970s, a large number of the Agency's best officers specializing in collecting human intelligence were fired. These trends were exacerbated when, in 1995, the Clinton Administration imposed rigid and bureaucratic procedures governing the Agency's recruitment of spies who themselves have been involved with terrorist organizations. These new guidelines had the effect of making such recruitments even more difficult than they already were.
The bipartisan National Commission on Terrorism, which I chaired, carefully investigated the effect of these 1995 guidelines. During our work in 2000, we heard testimony from serving CIA officers, at home and abroad, from first-tour case officers to station chiefs. Their testimony was unambiguous, unanimous and conclusive: the guidelines were an obstacle to the recruitment of effective spies in the struggle against terrorism. We strongly recommended their immediate cancellation.

The CIA's response to this recommendation was curious. Its leaders stated that they had never turned down a proposal presented to them to recruit a terrorist spy. But this entirely misses the point. By the time a proposed recruitment makes it to the CIA's leadership, it has already passed through a welter of rules, regulations, procedures, committees and lawyers that essentially guarantees that only the least suspect person will be suggested (assuming that after this tortuous and time-consuming process the terrorist is still around to recruit).
As the Bremer Commission noted, the major problem with the guidelines is the effect they have in the field. Officer after officer confirmed to our commissioners that the prospect of having to navigate Washington's bureaucratic jungle-gym was a clear disincentive even to begin the process of such recruitments. Many officers told us that they simply decided to go after easier targets. The guidelines have become an effective, though undesirable, bureaucratic prophylactic against risk-taking. They must be changed.

A New Strategy for Countering Terrorism

The elements of a new strategy to deal with the new threat are at hand. We need only the will to implement that strategy.

Our strategic objective must be to deny terrorist groups safe havens from which they can operate and garner various kinds of support from governments. As President Bush stated in his September 20 address, America intends to punish not just the terrorists but any group or state that has in any way supported them.

We must apply this strategy ruthlessly and creatively. Our tactics should range across the entire spectrum of activity from diplomacy, political pressure and economic measures, to military, psychological and covert operations. As the President has emphasized, this will be a long campaign demanding patience and cunning. The battle will be less like an American football game, with its fixed "battle lines" and clearly defined moves (as in the Gulf War), and more like European football: open, fluid and improvisational.

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