Enter the new terrorist, mute and bloodthirsty

August 18, 1998|By Bruce Hoffman

THE BOMBINGS in East Africa demonstrate again how dangerous a place the world has become for the United States, despite the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism. The two attacks on U.S. embassies, moreover, underscore an emerging trend in international terrorism: the infliction of mass, indiscriminate casualties by enigmatic adversaries, striking beyond terrorism's traditional theaters in Europe and the Middle East.

Above all else, the tragic incidents in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, serve notice that terrorism is -- and will remain -- one of the pre-eminent threats to international security in the 21st century. As a highly fluid and dynamic phenomenon, terrorism is likely to evolve into new and ever more dangerous forms to obviate existing security procedures and overcome the defensive barriers placed in its path.

Getting set up

In this most critical respect, we run the risk of setting ourselves -- and our diplomats -- up for future attack by concentrating on the hasty implementation of physical security measures recommended more than a decade ago without also understanding the fundamental changes that distinguish today's terrorists.

In the past, terrorism was practiced by a collection of individuals belonging to an identifiable organization with a defined command-and-control apparatus. The group's leader was often well known. Radical leftist organizations such as the Japanese Red Army, the Red Army Faction in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, as well as ethno-nationalist terrorist movements like the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Irish Republican Army and the Basque separatist group ETA, conformed to this stereotype of the "traditional" terrorist group.

Defined objectives

These organizations had a defined set of political, social or economic objectives. They generally issued communiques taking credit for, and explaining, their actions. However disagreeable or distasteful their aims and motivations were, their ideology and intentions were at least comprehensible.

Most significantly, however, these more familiar terrorist groups engaged in highly selective and mostly discriminate acts of violence. Their bombing targets -- embassies, banks, airline carriers, etc. -- symbolized their hated foes; they kidnapped and assassinated persons whom they blamed for economic exploitation or political repression to attract attention to their causes.

Only rarely did these groups venture outside their self-proclaimed "operational areas" -- mostly their own or neighboring countries or established international centers and global crossroads of diplomacy and commerce -- to carry out attacks. The two U.S. embassy attacks, however, appear to depart dramatically from these established patterns. First, they occurred in a region of the world that until now had remained mercifully outside the maelstrom of international terrorism. Kenya and Tanzania, the masterminds doubtless believed, were unschooled in terrorism countermeasures routinely deployed elsewhere.

Second, the operations themselves do not appear to have been undertaken by an identifiable terrorist organization. Suspicion has variously focused on a shadowy militant Islamic group in Egypt; the fugitive Saudi financier of jihad, Osama bin Laden, and possible Iranian and Iraqi connections. But the perpetrators, much less their "behind-the-scenes" architects, remain unknown.

This type of massive attack by an enigmatic adversary accompanied by hazy claims and broad demands conforms to a pattern of international terrorism increasingly evident in recent years. It has typically involved an ad hoc amalgamation of like-minded individuals who appear to have been brought together for a specific, sometimes only a "one-off," mission. From its start, the entire operation is deliberately designed to cloak the identity of the attack's perpetrators and mask its actual sponsor.

Finally, this particular trend in terrorism represents a different and potentially far more lethal threat than that posed by "traditional" terrorist adversaries. The absence of a central command authority removes any inhibitions on the terrorists' intention to inflict widespread, indiscriminate casualties. The anonymity intrinsic to this type of operation, furthermore, thwarts easy identification of the perpetrators, thereby facilitating their escape and greatly complicating their possible apprehension. It is also a useful means by which state sponsors of terrorism or paymasters can avoid implication and escape military retaliation or sanctions.

The nonidentity, if you will, of these new types of adversaries is significant in terms of the measures the U.S. government can bring to bear in countering them. Accordingly, it is likely to prove more difficult for investigators and intelligence analysts not only to identify an attack's perpetrators but to get a firm idea of their intentions and to build a complete picture of their capabilities.

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