The New Faces of Terrorism
L. Paul Bremer III was Ambassador-at-Large for counterterrorism in the adminstration of Ronald Reagan. He is now the managing director of Kissinger Associates in New York.
NEW YORK - An Iraqi plot to kill former President Bush while visiting Kuwait in 1993. Simultaneous Kurdish terror attacks all over Europe. A plan to bomb New York buildings and tunnels. Whether these events mark the arrival of a new wave of terrorism depends on how the West responds now, and an effective response requires a clear analysis of what we are up against.
During the 1970s, the West lacked a conceptual basis for meeting the terrorist threat that had begun to besiege it. By the 1980s, however, Western countries had reached two vital conclusions: That terrorism are criminals and that government-sponsored terrorism is unacceptable. The successes the West had in the 1980s in controlling the spread of terrorism flowed from that shared perspective.
All civilized nations have laws to apply to criminals. And the West, behind vigorous American leadership, showed that the international community was prepared to use diplomatic, political, economic and even military measures against states which use terrorism.
Although in the 1990s we can expect statesponsored terrorism to linger, a new form of decentralized, religion-motivated terrorism is evolving.
The Iraqi government's plan to kill Bush in Kuwait was a classic example of direct state use of terrorism. President Bill Clinton's response, though tardy and minimal, at least had the symbolic value of showing that America is still prepared to use military force against states using terror.
The Kurdish terrorist attacks in many European cities in June 1993 showed how some states indirectly support terror. The Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK) which conducted the attacks is a Marxist terrorist group long supported by Syria. Along with a halfdozen other terrorist groups, the PKK has its headquarters in Damascus, where its leaders frequently give open press conferences. The PKK has several terrorist training camps in Lebanon's Bekka valley, an area entirely controlled by the Syrian army.
During the Reagan Administration, these issues were regularly raised with the Syrians. We even gave the Syrian foreign minister an annotated map of the Bekka valley with the terrorist camps identified by longitude and latitude and asked that they be closed down. They are still operating today. So, America is certainly justified in continuing to consider Syria a state that supports terrorism.
The more recent New York terrorist plans may reveal a shift in the direction of terrorism for the 19gos. In the 197os and 1980s, anti-American terrorists had raw political goals. Radical European Marxist groups (Action Directe, Red Brigades, Red Army Faction) sought to expel America from Europe and to destroy NATO; Middle Eastern terrorism was mostly conducted by secular Palestinian Marxists whose objective was to weaken America's ties to Israel, the better to destroy Israel.
These political terror groups were tightly organized, with well-defined command and control structures. They were content to attack US targets in Europe or the Middle East because such targets were easier to hit. And blowing up American buildings in Frankfurt or Cairo delivered a message clearly related to the groups' political objectives.
Now in America we may be witnessing the emergence of a rel igio us- ideological terrorism similar to the radical Iranian fundamentalism of 1979. To these terrorists, America is the Great Satan, the symbol of capitalist corruption, pornography and drugs. Whereas the secular terrorists of the 1980s hated America because of whom we supported, these thugs hate us for what we are. They seek not a shift in American policy but the destruction of American society. To them it is a very real Holy War.
Such a war is a difficult concept for 20th century Westerners. When they arrested Iranianbacked Hezbollah terrorists in 1988, incredulous French police found that the terrorists had elaborate plans to establish an "Islamic Republic of France." To Western ears it was a wild notionuntil one recalls that there is a historical precedent: In the 18th century the tide of crusading Muslim armies was not defeated until it had reached Poitiers in the middle of France. Muslims nonetheless occupied Spain for another 700 years.
There are three reasons why the new terrorism will be difficult for America to combat.
First, Americans cannot believe that anybody really hates us. We prefer to think that such hatred is the result of "misunderstanding." If only we could sit down and talk to the other guy, he would understand and love us.
Yet, these new religious terrorists hate us precisely because they do understand us. It is no coincidence that many of the most radical leaders of the Iranian revolution were educated in the US. Most of the people arrested in the New York incidents lived there. As in the 1970s, a clear conceptual understanding of the nature of the threat will be the first step in developing an effective strategy.
Second, it is logical for these groups to attack America itself. Bombing the World Trade Center or Wall Street delivers a much stronger message about their hatred of America than an attack on an American building overseas. But we cannot turn America into an armed camp with watchtowers on every corner and security checks in every public garage.
Finally, these groups appear to be more spontaneous and less organized than the groups we have faced before. In New York, both terrorist groups seem to have coalesced without a clear organizational structure (although they were no doubt inspired, if not directed, by Sheik Abdul Rahman). This is good news because both outfits were remarkably amateurish, yet their religious fanaticism and the fragmented nature of such groups make them more difficult to penetrate and preempt.
We were lucky in New York. But luck can run out. What is to be done?
The post-Cold War world will spawn many, ethnic, religious and national conficts. As the only remaining global leader, whose mass culture touches all the world, America can expect terrorist attacks on American targets. There are three lessons from the recent terrorist incidents.
First, the West must continue to provide the resources needed for effective counterterrorism. This means not slashing intelligence budgets or destroying the specialized military counterterrorist forces built up in the 1980s. We must give police departments, the FBI, immigration officials and others the money and equipment they need to meet the new threats.
Next, all countries must keep up the pressure on nations chat support terrorism. It is scandalous that our European allies continue to treat Iran as a normal member of the international community, even selling it equipment which can be used for military or terrorist purposes. Many Europeans are still deeply engaged in commerce with Libya and Syria. American leadership is as vital today as it was in the 1980s, because if we do not lead on these issues, no one will.
The close patterns of international cooperation I were woven in the 1980s by persistent high-level attention from top American officials. We will need that cooperation more than ever in the 1990s.