In This Issue
September 1, 1998 Volume 28 Issue 3
Volume 28, Number 3 - Fall 1998

Modern Mutations of Global Terrorism

Tuesday, September 1, 1998

Author: Glenn E. Schweitzer and Carole C. Dorsch

The triumverate of high technology, uninhibited criminals, and ready cash have come together to create "superterrorism", a lethal synergy that threatens larger and larger segments of the world's population.

The near-simultaneous bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in early August sent chilling messages about the new dimensions of global terrorism. These devastating acts underscored the success of terrorists in raising large sums of money to finance and dispatch mercenaries to do their bidding anywhere in the world. They showed that the chemical ingredients for terrorists' bombs can be produced in many countries. They demonstrated that the distinction between terrorism sponsored by states and similar actions carried out by independent terrorist organizations is fading fast. At the same time, the cruise-missile strikes launched by the United States 2 weeks later against terrorist training bases in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan suspected of producing ingredients for chemical weapons were a warning to terrorists that national boundaries may not be a protection against retaliation.

Terrorists have plied their trade throughout human history. During recent decades, we have witnessed a spate of aircraft hijackings, the Iranian seizure of the U.S. embassy in Teheran, destruction of other embassies and facilities in the Middle East, and repeated attacks on valuable property and equipment of American companies in Colombia and elsewhere. The bombings at the Murrah building in Oklahoma City, the World Trade Center in New York, and Centennial Park in Atlanta have demonstrated vulnerabilities that put us in the crosshairs of the terrorists' sights - right where we live (Box 1).

      Box 1 - Domestic Terrorism Since the Oklahoma City Bombing

    • Midwest, 1994-95: Members of the white supremacist Aryan Republican Army go on a 7-state crime spree, leaving behind pipe bombs as they rob 22 banks from Nebraska to Ohio.
    • Vernon, Oklahoma, November 1995: A self-proclaimed prophet and leader of an Oklahoma militia is arrested while preparing a bombing spree against civil-rights offices, abortion clinics, welfare offices, and gay bars.
    • Spokane, Washington, April-July 1996: Citing biblical law, three self-described "Phineas Priests" commit bank robberies and bomb offices of the daily Spokesman-Review, Planned Parenthood, and a local bank.
    • Atlanta, Georgia, July 1996-February 1997: Pipe bombs explode at Centennial Olympic Park, an abortion clinic, and a gay bar, killing 1 and injuring more than 100 people. The so-called Army of God takes credit for the clinic and bar bombings.
    • Phoenix, Arizona, July 1996: Federal agents arrest 12 members of the Viper Militia and seize over 300 pounds of ammonium nitrate - a key ingredient of the Oklahoma City bomb - plus 70 automatic rifles, thousands of bullets, and 200 blasting caps.
    • Clarksburg, West Virginia, October 1996: Federal agents arrest Mountaineer Militia members for possession of explosives and for allegedly plotting to blow up the FBI's fingerprint facility, where 2,000 people work. Authorities seize TNT, grenades, and C-4 plastic explosives.
    • Kalamazoo, Michigan, March 1997: Federal agents arrest a local militia activist for allegedly giving 11 pipe bombs to a government informant and plotting to bomb government offices, armories, and a TV station.
    • Yuba City, California, April 1997: A blast that shatters area windows leads police to 550 pounds of petrogel, a gelatin dynamite, allegedly stored by local militia activists. The explosives are enough to level three city blocks.
    • Wise County, Texas, April 1997: Federal officials arrest four Ku Klux Klan members who had planned to blow up a natural-gas refinery and use the disaster as cover for an armored-car robbery.
    • Fort Hood, Texas, July 1997: Convinced that army bases are training United Nations troops to stage a coup, an antigovernment group plans to attack Fort Hood on July 4. Authorities arrest seven people and seize machine guns and pipe bombs.
      SOURCE: Schweitzer and Dorsch, 1998, p. 272.

As a result, architects now hesitate to design buildings with parking garages. We question every unattended piece of luggage. We wrap security blankets around our national celebrations. In many American cities, we see hazardous-materials teams in space-age garb conducting training exercises. Our Secretary of Defense warns of the possibility of chemical or biological attacks on American soil. Is it any wonder that the nation's paranoia pulse is rising?

The triumvirate of high technology, uninhibited criminals, and ready cash have come together to create superterrorism, a lethal synergy that threatens larger and larger segments of the world's population. Although the definition of superterrorism will continue to evolve, we consider it to mean using advanced technologies in the commission of violent acts that cause massive damage to populations and public and private support networks.

A number of events have contributed to the ramping up of terrorism. The political fragmentation of the Soviet Union and the recent near-collapse of Russia's economy have heightened the specter of leakage of missile and nuclear weapons technologies from poverty-stricken Russian institutions. Saddam Hussein has shown how a determined leader with financial resources can assemble arsenals of devastating destructive power for use either on the battlefield or in terrorist strikes. In 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo cult - with a war chest of $1 billion - dispersed sarin gas in the Tokyo subway, causing thousands of injuries. With $600 billion of laundered money being cycled through the world each year, any financial constraints that prevented mass killings in the past are fast disappearing (Raine and Cilluffo, 1994). Much of this illicit worldwide fortune springs from drug sales that overlap activities of a number of terrorist groups. And while most terrorists will continue to prefer the "sophistication of simplicity" of the conventional bomb and the pistol, even one group with access to a single weapon of mass destruction could cause massive devastation.

In our view, superterrorism includes:

  • the use of nuclear weapons or conventional explosives configured to scatter radioactive material;
  • the release of chemical or biological agents, other than minor poisoning incidents;
  • the detonation of plastic explosives; and
  • cyber attacks on electronic networks that underpin a nation's physical infrastructure.

To understand the full dimensions of superterrorism, we must look beyond the increased firepower available throughout the world. Other developments play a part in ratcheting up the threat:

  • Whereas terrorism of the 1970s was largely politically motivated, beginning in the 1980s, terrorism has become rooted more broadly in economic and religious issues.
  • Links forged between the forces of organized criminals, drug traffickers, money launderers, and gatekeepers of sophisticated weaponry are growing tighter. More than a decade ago, the Pakistani nuclear program received money laundered through the now-discredited Bank of Credit and Commerce International. Aum Shinrikyo has relied on money from narcotrafficking. In Colombia, where narcoterrorists thrive, bartering of cocaine for Russian advanced conventional weapons has been uncovered. Increasingly, drug money provides fuel for conventional terrorism in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.
  • Liaisons between international terrorist groups and their surrogates living in the United States are growing. The bombing of the World Trade Center, a plot to blow 11 American planes out of the skies over the Pacific Ocean, and the attacks in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam exposed the reach of foreign terrorist groups into the United States. Aum Shinrikyo, for example, maintained offices in the United States. Also, according to the FBI, many of the roughly 400 Iranian students attending U.S. universities and technical institutions in 1997-1998 were anti-American Shiite Muslims who provided Iran the capability to launch operations against the United States (Watson, 1998).
  • Megacities of the developing world with populations exceeding 10 million will soon number more than 20. Disenfranchised urban youth provide a large recruitment pool for international crime, attracted by opportunities for an amorphous type of revenge or for simply destroying what they cannot hope to have.
  • The media provide terrorists with unprecedented global coverage, magnifying extortion demands and helping send political messages.

Availability of Nuclear Technologies
Americans are no novices to the threat of nuclear holocaust. But during the Cold War, the enemy was tangible and the targets reasonably clear. Now, nuclear technologies are becoming available to terrorists. Packing radioactive material around explosives is not difficult; indeed, it was seriously considered by the World Trade Center bombers. And although constructing nuclear weapons with far greater destructive power is much more complicated, such weapons are not out of reach of governments with patience and resources. Even Aum Shinrikyo had plans to develop its own device.

A key chokepoint in constructing a nuclear weapon has been the availability of highly enriched uranium or plutonium, materials that are difficult to produce. But over the years, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have produced such material. Should even 20 kg of highly enriched uranium find its way out of Russia or another nuclear state, a crude nuclear device might well be constructed by a terrorist group with more limited technical and financial resources.

Terrorist organizations have already shown they can overcome the technical difficulties of assembling the ingredients for a chemical attack on a metropolitan area. We would like to believe that the Tokyo subway experience has heightened our awareness of the telltale signs of such plotting, but advance discovery is far from certain. While our police and fire departments have considerable experience responding to chemical accidents, they fear that a deliberate chemical release would be followed by a second attack, using high explosives, aimed at the emergency workers. A number of toxic agents - including some originally developed by military organizations and others routinely used in agriculture or industry - could wreak havoc if released in crowded sports arenas, airports, or convention halls.

Biological agents, while more difficult to handle and package into effective weapons, lurk on the horizon as a danger of untold proportions. The possibility of anthrax spores, plague bacteria, or new flu viruses being injected into air conditioning or heating systems has frightened local officials in every major American city. Detection devices are in a primitive stage of development, and the effects of exposure to biological pathogens may not be apparent for days. Few hospitals are equipped to treat more than a handful of infected patients. The challenges of responding to such incidents and tracking down the perpetrators are clearly complex.

Given the devastation inherent in high-tech weaponry - whether it be a SCUD missile, a crippling electronic communication, or a biological or chemical agent - putting the brakes on superterrorism will not be easy. This task demands special and more sweeping types of preventive actions. The international and national responses to the planning or carrying out of superterrorism must include harsh disincentives: swifter and more severe punishments than those used to deal with less menacing types of violence.

The U.S. government has launched a massive response to the possibility that American soil could soon become a battleground for superterrorism (Box 2). Immediate objectives, as evidenced by the prompt retaliation to the recent embassy bombings in Africa, include broadening the hunt for known international terrorists and hitting them before they hit us - or before they hit us again. Strengthening the international legal framework for containing weapons of mass destruction and for penalizing renegade states will provide an improved basis for decisive intervention. With or without international support, we frequently apply trade sanctions to force rogue countries to comply with acceptable norms of behavior, uncertain of the effectiveness of such economic pressure.

      Box 2 - New Counterterrorism Measures Adopted by the Clinton Administration
    • Upgraded airport security through new devices for screening carry-on and checked baggage, new technologies for inspecting international air cargoes, additional canine teams, better passenger profiling, and expanded security forces.
    • Improved bomb detection through studies of the feasibility of tagging and licensing explosives, increased inspections of explosive manufacturing facilities, expanded training for explosive detection specialists, and assessments of previously encountered devices.
    • Increased staff for the FBI to assess vulnerabilities in the physical infrastructure of the country, to improve daytime and nighttime overhead surveillance of suspicious activities (a new Project Nightstalker), and to expand technical capabilities to address nuclear, chemical, and biological threats.
    • Better physical protection overseas for American troops in the Persian Gulf region, for senior diplomats, and for diplomatic and trade offices.
    • Expanded capabilities of U.S. attorneys and courts to handle additional workloads generated by counterterrorism measures.
    • Reinforcement of many U.S. federal buildings, particularly those occupied by law enforcement agencies.
    • Contingency funds to respond to unanticipated events.
    • Expanded efforts to detect illegal exports of relevance to weapons of mass destruction, to prevent nuclear smuggling, and to respond to nuclear incidents.
    • Expanded efforts and improved coordination among intelligence collection agencies.

      SOURCE: Schweitzer and Dorsch, 1998, p. 254.

Russia, while not a rogue state, is an interesting case. We have cooperated with Russia to help secure its stockpiles of nuclear-weapons-related materials and provide the nation's scientific and technical work force civilian research opportunities. This is so even though some in the West are reluctant to become financially involved with a country that may be backsliding on its commitment to economic reform.

U.S. researchers are developing more-sophisticated sensors to detect weapons and dangerous materials and uncover drugs hidden in freight shipments, luggage, and concealed compartments of vehicles. They are also investigating new antidotes to reduce the health impacts of exposures to chemical and biological agents. Meanwhile, many federal agencies are working at a frenzied pace with local officials to strengthen capabilities to cope with a catastrophic incident.

To mount an effective prevention and response strategy, however, other essential ingredients must be added to the mix.
Since terrorists can strike almost anywhere, stronger partnerships between law enforcement agencies and the private sector are critical. Partnerships must include retailers and distributors of dangerous chemicals; owners and operators of power, water, communication, and transportation systems; importers of goods from drug-producing and drug-transit countries; administrators of high-tech training programs that involve participants from questionable countries; officials of financial institutions; and executives of multinational companies that might inadvertently sell dual-use products to unreliable customers.

Additional approaches to intelligence collection and dissemination can increase the odds of detecting terrorist plots in their formative stages and in bringing perpetrators to justice. Intelligence agencies play a crucial role in detecting terrorist activity. Standard intelligence methods - eavesdropping, satellite photography, reports from informants, observations by hardworking gumshoes, and analyses of media reports - are indispensable. However, the number and variety of known groups of concern, let alone the unknown groups, are staggering. Missing just one could have enormous consequences.

Multiple Customers for Intelligence Information
At the same time, no longer are the president, his advisers, and various government agencies the only customers for intelligence information. Many private-sector organizations, local law enforcement officials, first responders, and even ordinary citizens who are likely to face the initial fallout of attacks need information. Most of these individuals do not have security clearances for secret briefings. Higher priority should be given to collecting and sharing open-source information, including improved methods for filtering reliable and unreliable information now flooding the Internet.

If maintaining stability within Europe and on its periphery is the new goal of NATO, then confronting the threat of international terrorism and organized crime is a central agenda item for an organization with both political and military muscle. While terrorists will not tumble European governments, they can cause considerable damage. As Iranian agents have demonstrated in Germany and Algerian dissidents in France, terrorist activities rooted abroad can divert attention from other pressing issues. Of course, in some Balkan countries, terrorism has become a way of life, and drug trafficking and money laundering throughout the continent are often directly tied to U.S. interests. NATO should play a role in better integrating intelligence and analysis functions and should sponsor joint exercises for responding to major international terrorist incidents. These steps should support rather than compete with efforts of law enforcement organizations that consider counterterrorism to be their turf.

Finally, we can no longer ignore the root causes of terrorism - whether they be grievances over access to land and water, frustrations over exploitation of the poor by the rich, or simply lack of alternative forms of employment. We must address the future of deprived populations. Otherwise, succeeding generations will turn increasingly to violence as their only route of escape from lives of subjugation, misery, and unfulfilled expectations. In thinking through such a strategy, we should remember our willingness to spend trillions of dollars to develop and build a nuclear arsenal to protect ourselves during the Cold War. Efforts to combat superterrorism may demand expenditures on a similar scale. What is needed is a multilevel defense and development program designed to ensure our national security. Such an initiative needs to recognize that population growth, hunger, disease, and environmental degradation are integral aspects of national security.

Some warn that the root causes of terrorism can seldom be effectively addressed (Ostrovitz and Schwartz, 1998). They argue that terrorists are motivated by hatred and revenge so deep that nothing will dissuade them from their goals. We must deal harshly with such individuals. But in some cases, root causes can be addressed, as we have seen in Ireland. Also, some will balk at the price tag of a program that attempts to address such widespread and ingrained problems. But the price of inaction is much, much higher.

Collisions with Personal Liberty Inevitable
As we raise our defenses against terrorism, collisions with personal liberties are inevitable. In some American cities, security surveillance cameras monitor the movement of people without their knowledge or consent. Sensitive scanners have been developed that can expose the naked body to public view and even penetrate the walls of lightly constructed houses. The American public is rightfully wary of such intrusions into their lives.

No discussion of modern terrorism would be complete without a commentary on Iraq. No matter how many times U.N. inspectors or U.S. aircraft destroy Iraq's chemical and biological weapons stockpiles, the threat of that nation rebuilding dismantled capabilities will persist. Evidence gathered by U.N. arms inspectors and recently made public confirms that despite Western dismantlement efforts, Iraq lacks only fissile material to rapidly complete construction of one or more nuclear devices (Gellman, 1998). It is imperative to redirect the efforts of Iraqi scientists and engineers to peaceful pursuits.

Clearly, the difficult Middle East peace process must continue. New components of the effort to address weapons of mass destruction more directly should be considered. For example, the region could be declared free of chemical and biological weapons in accordance with the international chemical and biological weapons conventions. In doing so, countries in the zone would accept the principle of complete transparency of their weapons-related activities. As an incentive, they would be given the opportunity to participate in programs that redirect military scientists to peaceful purposes, with active involvement of American and European research institutions.

Similar initiatives, which allow former weapons scientists to join international efforts to address global development problems, particularly in the fields of health and agriculture, are under way in the former Soviet Union. The United States and a number of other countries are funding these activities. The relevance of this experience to the Middle East needs careful examination. However, if the Moslem states are to foreswear chemical and biological weapons, regional arrangements to limit nuclear weapons must also be considered, undoubtedly with a more extended timeline in view of the difficulty Israel will have in giving up any portion of its nuclear arsenal.

In the near term, we must focus on developing an array of defense measures to deter terrorists before they strike. From a nationwide "neighborhood watch" to international partnerships and legal frameworks, a tightly woven web of deterrents is imperative.

At the same time, the only end-game that makes sense is one that redirects the momentum of terrorism toward building rather than destroying the nations of the world - a process that will take decades to accomplish and financial commitments that must constantly be renewed. Economic progress as a result of massive support to deprived nations and groups will never completely drown out the ethnic and religious animosity that fuels much of the terrorism around the world. However, it can provide new incentives to start the process of political accommodation. With superterrorism rapidly becoming a reality, the alternative to seeking new paths to peace is a future in which all societies are doomed to internecine warfare of the worst kind.

Gellman, B. 1998. Iraqi work toward A-Bomb reported. The Washington Post, Sept. 30, p. A1.

Ostrovitz, N., and S. M. Schwartz. 1998. George Washington University Terrorism Studies Program. Author interviews. May.

Raine, L. P., and F. J. Cilluffo, eds. 1994. Global Organized Crime. Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C. (Updated by author interview, April, 1998.)

Schweitzer, G., and C. Dorsch. 1998. Superterrorism: Assassins, Mobsters, and Weapons of Mass Destruction. New York: Plenum Press.

Watson, D. 1998. Foreign terrorists in America: Five years after the World Trade Center. Testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. February 24.

About the Author:Glenn E. Schweitzer and Carole C. Dorsch are the coauthors of Superterrorism: Assassins, Mobsters, and Weapons of Mass Destruction (Plenum Press, 1998). Schweitzer is a staff member at the National Research Council Office of International Affairs, and Dorsch is the owner and principal of the editorial consulting firm Cameron Publications Services.