The Terrorisms Increasingly Lethality

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Although the total volume of terrorist incidents world-wide has declined in the 1990s, the proportion of persons killed in terrorist incidents has steadily risen. For example, according to the RAND-St Andrews University Chronology of International Terrorism,5 a record 484 international terrorist incidents were recorded in 1991, the year of the Gulf War, followed by 343 incidents in 1992, 360 in 1993, 353 in 1994, falling to 278 incidents in 1995 (the last calendar year for which complete statistics are available).6 However, while terrorists were becoming less active, they were nonetheless becoming more lethal. For example, at least one person was killed in 29 percent of terrorist incidents in 1995: the highest percentage of fatalities to incidents recorded in the Chronology since 1968–and an increase of two percent over the previous year’s record figure.7 In the United States this trend was most clearly reflected in 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Since the turn of the century, fewer than a dozen of all the terrorist incidents committed world-wide have killed more than a 100 people. The 168 persons confirmed dead at the Murrah Building ranks sixth on the list of most fatalities caused this centuryin a single terrorist incident–domestic or The reasons for terrorism’s increasing lethality are complex and variegated, but can generally be summed up as The growth in the number of terrorist groups motivated by a religious imperative; The proliferation of “amateurs” involved in terrorist acts; and, The increasing sophistication and operational competence of “professional” terrorists. The increase of terrorism motivated by a religious imperative neatly encapsulates the confluence of new adversaries, motivations and rationales affecting terrorist patterns today. Admittedly, the connection between religion and terrorism is not new.9 However, while religion and terrorism do share a long history, in recent decades this form particular variant has largely been overshadowed by ethnic- and nationalist-separatist or ideologically-motivated terrorism.

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Indeed, none of the 11 identifiable terrorist groups10 active in 1968 (the year credited with marking the advent of modern, international terrorism) could be classified as “religious.”11 Not until 1980 in fact–as a result of the repercussions from the revolution in Iran the year before–do the first “modern” religious terrorist groups appear:12 but they amount to only two of the 64 groups active that year. Twelve years later, however, the number of religious terrorist groups has increased nearly six-fold, representing a quarter (11 of 48) of the terrorist organisations who carried out attacks in 1992. Significantly, this trend has not only continued, but has actually accelerated. By 1994, a third (16) of the 49 identifiable terrorist groups could be classified as religious in character and/or motivation. Last year their number increased yet again, no to account for nearly half (26 or 46 percent) of the 56 known terrorist groups active in 1995. The implications of terrorism motivated by a religious imperative for higher levels of lethality is evidenced by the violent record of various Shi’a Islamic groups during the 1980s.

For example, although these organisations committed only eight percent of all recorded international terrorist incidents between 1982 and 1989, they were nonetheless responsible for nearly 30 percent of the total number of deaths during that time period.13 Indeed, some of the most significant terrorist acts of the past 18 months, for example, have all had some religious element present.14 Even more disturbing is that in some instances the perpetrators’ aims have gone beyond the establishment of some theocracy amenable to their specific deity,15 but have embraced mystical, almost transcendental, and divinely-inspired imperatives16 or a vehemently anti-government form of “populism” reflecting far-fetched conspiracy notions based on a volatile mixture of seditious, racial and religious dicta.17 Religious terrorism18 tends to be more lethal than secular terrorism because of the radically different value systems, mechanisms of legitimisation and justification, concepts of morality, and Manichean world views that directly affect the “holy terrorists'” motivation.

For the religious terrorist, violence first and foremost is a sacramental act or divine duty: executed in direct response to some theological demand or imperative and justified by scripture. Religion, therefore functions as a legitimising force: specifically sanctioning wide scale violence against an almost open-ended category of opponents (e.g., all peoples who are not members of the religious terrorists’ religion or cult). This explains why clerical sanction is so important for religious terrorists19 and why religious figures are often required to “bless” (e.g., approve) terrorist operations before they are The proliferation of “amateurs” involved in terrorist acts has also contributed to terrorism’s increasing lethality. In the past, terrorism was not just a matter of having the will and motivation to act, but of having the capability to do so–the requisite training, access to weaponry, and operational knowledge. These were not readily available capabilities and were generally acquired through training undertaken in camps known to be run either by other terrorist organisations and/or in concert with the terrorists’ state-sponsors.

Today, however, the means and methods of terrorism can be easily obtained at bookstores, from mail-order publishers, on CD-ROM or even over the Internet. Hence, terrorism has become accessible to anyone with a grievance, an agenda, a purpose or any idiosyncratic combination of the above. Relying on these commercially obtainable published bomb-making manuals and operational guidebooks, the “amateur” terrorist can be just as deadly and destructive21–and even more difficult to track and anticipate–than his “professional” counterpart.22 In this respect, the alleged “Unabomber,” Thomas Kaczynski is a case in point. From a remote cabin in the Montana hinterland, Kaczynski is believed to have fashioned simple, yet sophisticated home-made bombs from ordinary materials that were dispatched to his victims via the post. Despite one of the most massive manhunts staged by the FBI in the United States, the “Unabomber” was nonetheless able to elude capture–much less identification–for 18 years and indeed to kill three persons and injure 23 others. Hence, the “Unabomber” is an example of the difficulties confronting law enforcement and other government authorities in first identifying, much less, apprehending the “amateur” terrorist and the minimal skills needed to wage an effective terrorist campaign.

This case also evidences the disproportionately extensive consequences even violence committed by a lone individual can have both on society (in terms of the fear and panic sown) and on law enforcement (because of the vast resources that are devoted to the identification and “Amateur” terrorists are dangerous in other ways as well. In fact, the absence of some central command authority may result in fewer constraints on the terrorists’ operations and targets and–especially when combined with a religious fervour–fewer inhibitions on their desire to inflict indiscriminate casualties. Israeli authorities, for example, have noted this pattern among terrorists belonging to the radical Palestinian Islamic Hamas organisation in contrast to their predecessors in the ostensibly more secular and professional, centrally-controlled mainstream Palestine Liberation Organization terrorist groups. As one senior Israeli security official noted of a particularly vicious band of Hamas terrorists: they “were a surprisingly unprofessional bunch . . . they had no preliminary training and acted without specific instructions.”

In the United States, to cite another example of the potentially destructively lethal power of amateur terrorists, it is suspected that the 1993 World Trade Center bombers’ intent was in fact to bring down one of the twin towers. By contrast, there is no evidence that the persons we once considered to be the world’s arch-terrorists–the Carloses, Abu Nidals, and Abul Abbases–ever contemplated, much less attempted, to destroy a high-rise office building packed with people. Indeed, much as the inept World Trade Center bombers were derided for their inability to avoid arrest, their modus operandi arguably points to a pattern of future terrorist activities elsewhere. For example, as previously noted, terrorist groups were once recognisable as distinct organisational entities. The four convicted World Trade Center bombers shattered this stereotype.

Instead they comprised a more or less ad hoc amalgamation of like-minded individuals who shared a common religion, worshipped at the same religious institution, had the same friends and frustrations and were linked by family ties as well, who simply gravitated towards one another for a specific, perhaps even one-time, operation. Moreover, since this more amorphous and perhaps even transitory type of group will lack the “footprints” or modus operandi of an actual, existing terrorist organization, it is likely to prove more difficult for law enforcement to get a firm idea or build a complete picture of the dimensions of their intentions and capabilities. Indeed, as one New York City police officer only too presciently observed two months before the Trade Center attack: it wasn’t the established terrorist groups–with known or suspected members and established operational patterns–that worried him, but the hitherto unknown “splinter groups,” composed of new or marginal members from an older group, that suddenly surface out of nowhere to attack.

Essentially, part-time time terrorists, such loose groups of individuals, may be–as the World Trade Center bombers themselves appear to have been–indirectly influenced or remotely controlled by some foreign government or non-governmental entity. The suspicious transfer of funds from banks in Iran and Germany to a joint account maintained by the accused bombers in New Jersey just before the Trade Center blast, for example, may be illustrative of this more indirect or circuitous foreign connection.27 Moreover, the fact that two Iraqi nationals–Ramzi Ahmed Yousef (who was arrested last April in Pakistan and extradited to the United States) and Abdul Rahman Yasin–implicated in the Trade Center conspiracy, fled the United States in one instance just before the bombing and in the other shortly after the first arrests, increases suspicion that the incident may not only have been orchestrated from abroad but may in fact have been an act of state-sponsored terrorism.

Thus, in contrast to the Trade Center bombing’s depiction in the press as a terrorist incident perpetrated by a group of “amateurs” acting either entirely on their own or, as one of the bomber’s defence attorneys portrayed his client manipulated by a “devious, evil . . . genius” (Yousef), the original genesis of the Trade Center attack may be far more complex. This use of amateur terrorists as “dupes” or “cut-outs” to mask the involvement of some foreign patron or government could therefore greatly benefit terrorist state sponsors who could more effectively conceal their involvement and thus avoid potential military retaliation by the victim country and diplomatic or economic sanctions from the international community. Moreover, the prospective state-sponsors’ connection could be further obscured by the fact that much of the “amateur” terrorists’ equipment, resources and even funding could be entirely self-generating. For example, the explosive device used at the World Trade Center was constructed out of ordinary, commercially-available materials–including lawn fertiliser (urea nitrate) and diesel fuel–and cost less than $400 to build.

Indeed, despite the Trade Center bombers’ almost comical ineptitude in avoiding capture, they were still able to shake an entire city’s–if not country’s–complacency. Further, the “simple” bomb used by these “amateurs” proved just as deadly and destructive–killing six persons, injuring more than a 1,000 others, gouging out a 180-ft wide crater six stories deep, and causing an estimated $550 million in both damages to the twin tower and in lost revenue to the business housed there31–as the more “high-tech” devices constructed out of military ordnance, with timing devices powered by computer micro-chips and detonated by sophisticated timing mechanisms used by their “professional” counterparts. Finally, while on the one hand terrorism is attracting “amateurs,” on the other hand the sophistication and operational competence of the “professional” terrorists is also increasing. These “professionals” are becoming demonstrably more adept in their trade craft of death and destruction; more formidable in their abilities of tactical modification, adjustment and innovation in their methods of attack; and appear to be able to operate for sustained periods of time while avoiding detection, interception and arrest or capture.

More disquieting, these “professional” terrorists are apparently becoming considerably more ruthless as well. An almost Darwinian principle of natural selection seems to affect subsequent generations of terrorist groups, whereby every new terrorist generation learns from its predecessors, becoming smarter, tougher, and more difficult to capture or Accordingly, it is not difficult to recognise how the “amateur” terrorist may become increasingly attractive to either a more professional terrorist group and/or their state patron as a pawn or “cut-out” or simply as an expendable minion. In this manner, the “amateur” terrorist could be effectively used by others to further conceal the identity of the foreign government or terrorist group actually commissioning or ordering a particular attack. The series of terrorist attacks that unfolded in France last year conforms to this pattern of activity. Between July and October 1995, a handful of terrorists, using bombs fashioned with four-inch nails wrapped around camping style cooking-gas canisters, killed eight persons and wounded more than 180 others.

Not until early October did any group claim credit for the bombings, when the radical Armed Islamic Group (GIA), a militant Algerian Islamic organization, took responsibility for the attacks. French authorities, however, believe that, while “professional” terrorists perpetrated the initial bombings, like-minded “amateurs”– recruited by the GIA operatives from within France’s large and increasingly restive Algerian expatriate community were responsible for at least some of the subsequent attacks. Accordingly, these “amateurs” or new recruits facilitated the campaign’s “metastasising” beyond the small cell of professionals who ignited it, striking a responsive chord among disaffected Algerian youths in France and thereby increasing exponentially the aura of fear and, arguably, the terrorists’ coercive power. Likely Future Patterns of Terrorism While it can be argued that the terrorist threat is declining in terms of the total number of annual incidents in other, perhaps more significant respects–e.g., both the number of persons killed in individual terrorists incidents and the percent of terrorist incidents with fatalities in comparison to total incidents–the threat is actually rising.

Accordingly, it is as important to look at qualitative changes as well as quantitative ones; and to focus on generic threat and generic capabilities based on overall trends as well as on known or existing groups. The pitfalls of focusing on known, identifiable groups at the expense of other potential, less-easily identified, more amorphous adversaries was perhaps most clearly demonstrated in Japan by the attention long paid to familiar and well-established left-wing groups like the Japanese Red Army or Middle Core organisation with an established modus operandi, identifiable leadership, etc. rather than on an obscure, relatively unknown religious movement, such as the Aum Shinri Kyu sect. Indeed, the Aum sect’s nerve gas attack on the Tokyo underground34 arguably demarcates a significant historical watershed in terrorist tactics and weaponry.35 This incident clearly demonstrated that it is possible–even for ostensibly “amateur” terrorists–to execute a successful chemical terrorist attack and accordingly may conceivably have raised the stakes for terrorists everywhere.

Accordingly, terrorist groups in the future may well feel driven to emulate or surpass the Tokyo incident either in death and destruction or in the use of a non-conventional weapon of mass destruction (WMD) in order to ensure the same media coverage and public attention as the nerve gas attack generated. The Tokyo incident also highlights another troubling trend in terrorism: significantly, groups today claim credit for attacks less frequently than in the past. They tend not to take responsibility much less issue communiqués explaining why they carried out an attack as the stereotypical, “traditional” terrorist group of the past did. For example, in contrast to the 1970s and early 1980s, some of the most serious terrorist incidents of the past decade–including the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing–have never been credibly claimed–much less explained or justified as terrorist attacks once almost always were–by the group responsible for the attack.

The implication of this trend is perhaps that violence for some terrorist groups is becoming less a means to an end (that therefore has to be calibrated and tailored and therefore “explained” and “justified” to the public) than an end in itself that does not require any wider explanation or justification beyond the groups’ members themselves and perhaps their specific followers. Such a trait would conform not only to the motivations of religious terrorists (discussed above) but also to terrorist “spoilers”–groups bent on disrupting or sabotaging multi-lateral negotiations or the peaceful settlement of ethnic conflicts or other such violent disputes. That terrorists are less frequently claiming credit for their attacks may suggest an inevitable loosening of constraints–self-imposed or otherwise–on their violence: in turn leading to higher levels of lethality as well.37 Another key factor contributing to the rising terrorist threat is the ease of terrorist adaptations across the technological spectrum.

For example, on the low-end of the technological spectrum one sees terrorists’ continuing to rely on fertilizer bombs whose devastating effect has been demonstrated by the PIRA at St Mary Axe and Bishop’s Gate in 1991 and 1992; at Canary Wharf and in Manchester in 1996; by the aforementioned World Trade Center bombers and the persons responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing. Fertiliser is perhaps the most cost-effective of weapons: costing on average one percent of a comparable amount of plastic explosive. Its cost-effectiveness is demonstrated by the facts that the Bishop Gate blast is estimated to have caused $1.5 billion and the Baltic Exchange blast at St Mary Axe $1.25 billion. The World Trade Center bomb, as previously noted, cost only $400 to construct but caused $550 million in both damages and lost revenue to the business housed there.39 Moreover, unlike plastic explosives and other military ordnance, fertiliser and its two favourite bomb-making components–diesel fuel and icing sugar–are readily and easily available commercially, completely legal to purchase and store and thus highly attractive “weapons components” to terrorists and others.

On the high-end of the conflict spectrum one must contend not only with the efforts of groups like the Aum to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons capabilities, but with the proliferation of fissile materials from the former-Soviet Union and the emergent illicit market in nuclear materials that is surfacing in Eastern and Central Europe.40 Admittedly, while much of the material seen on offer as part of this “black market” cannot be classified as SNM (strategic nuclear material, that is suitable in the construction a fissionable explosive device), such highly-toxic radioactive agents can potentially be easily paired with conventional explosives and turned into a crude, non-fissionable atomic bomb (e.g., “dirty” bomb). Such a device would therefore not only physically destroy a target, but contaminate the surrounding area for decades to come. Finally, at the middle-end of the spectrum one sees a world awash in plastic explosives, hand-held precision-guided-munitions (i.e., surface-to-air missiles for use against civilian and/or military aircraft), automatic weapons, etc. that readily facilitate all types of terrorist operations.

During the 1980s, Czechoslovakia, for example, sold 1,000 tonnes of Semtex-H (the explosive of which eight ounces was sufficient to bring down Pan Am 103) to Libya and another 40,000 tonnes to Syria, North Korea, Iran, and Iraq–countries long cited by the U.S. Department of State as sponsors of international terrorist activity. In sum, terrorists therefore have relatively easy access to a range of sophisticated, “off-the-shelf” weapons technology that can be readily adopted to their operational needs. Concluding Observations and Implications for Aviation Security Terrorism today has arguably become more complex, amorphous transnational.

The distinction between domestic and international terrorism is also evaporating as evidence by the Aum’s sects activities in Russia and Australia as well as in Japan, the alleged links between the Oklahoma City bombers and neo-Nazis in Britain and Europe, and the network of Algerian Islamic extremists operating in France, Great Britain, Sweden, Belgium and other countries as well as in Algeria itself. Accordingly, as these threats are both domestic and international, the response must therefore be both national as well as multinational in construct and dimensions. National cohesiveness and organisational preparation will necessarily remain the essential foundation for any hope of building the effective multinational approach appropriate to these new threats. Without internal (national or domestic) consistency, clarity, planning and organisation, it will be impossible for similarly diffuse multinational efforts to succeed. This is all the more critical today, and will remain so in the future, given the changing nature of the terrorist threat, the identity of its perpetrators and the resources at their disposal. One final point is in order given the focus of this conference on aviation security.

Serious and considerable though the above trends are, their implications for–much less direct effect on–commercial aviation are by no means clear. Despite media impressions to the contrary and the popular mis-perception fostered by those impressions, terrorist attacks on civil aviation–particularly inflight bombings or attempted bombings–are in fact relatively rare. Indeed, they account for only 15 of the 2,537 international terrorist incidents recorded between 1970 and 1979 (or .006 percent) and just 12 of 3,943 recorded between 1980 and 1989 (an even lower .003 percent). This trend, moreover, has continued throughout the first half of the current decade. There have been a total of just six inflight bombings since 1990 out of a total of 1,859 international terrorist incidents. In other words, inflight bombings of commercial aviation currently account for an infinitesimal–.003–percent of international terrorist attacks.

At the same time, the dramatic loss of life and attendant intense media coverage have turned those few tragic events into terrorist “spectaculars”: etched indelibly on the psyches of commercial air travellers and security officers everywhere despite their infrequent occurrence. Nonetheless, those charged with ensuring the security of airports and aviation from terrorist threats doubtless face a Herculean task. In the first place, a defence that would preclude every possible attack by every possible terrorist group for every possible motive is not even theoretically conceivable. Accordingly, security measures should accurately and closely reflect both the threat and the difficulties inherent in countering it: and should therefore be based on realistic expectations that embrace realistic cost-benefit. Indeed, there is a point beyond which security measures may not only be inappropriate to the presumed threat, but risk becoming more bureaucratic than genuinely effective.

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