Terrorism's not mysterious, so why is policy muddled? A great deal of information is available, yet governments have failed to produce coherent policies.

The Argument

October 04, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

The thickly wooded hills of western North Carolina and the arid mountains of Afghanistan would appear to have little in common, but they serve as lairs for a new and increasingly lethal breed of terrorist.

Eric Rudolph, the suspected bomber of an Alabama abortion clinic, continues to evade the FBI in the hills outside Murphy. Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind behind twin U.S. embassy bombings and financier for a jumble of dusty terrorist camps south of Kabul, is just as elusive. Although they come from vastly different Christian and Muslim traditions, both men share warped fundamentalist religious views. They despise Jews and see current governments all over the world as either U.S. puppets and infidels or dupes of a "New World Order" that should be violently dispatched.

They also represent a growing domestic and foreign threat America has yet to come to grips with: religious terrorists, many of whom are trying to arm themselves with chemical, nuclear or biological weapons.

For more than a decade, the United States has often talked about a war on terrorism, a term on the lips of grim-faced Clinton administration officials as they made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows after the deadly embassy bombings in Africa.

We now know a lot about how terrorists operate and are funded, and a recent plethora of books provide both insight into their activities and useful roadmaps for terrorist fighters. While the United States has devoted hundreds of millions of dollars to myriad anti-terrorist programs, there remains a lack of focus, commitment and overall strategy for dealing with this growing scourge.

The question is, will the U.S. government follow the lead? Successive administrations have not had the will or the wallet for the necessary multi-faceted response: repeated military actions, arm-twisting of nations that support terrorists, greater use of spies, appeals to moderate religious elements, adequate homeland defense, tapping a terrorist's riches and aggressive diplomacy to resolve regional disputes that incubate terrorism.

Bruce Hoffman, director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland tells us in "Inside Terrorism" (Columbia University Press, 288 pages, $24.95) that a connection between religion and terrorism is not new.

After all, the word "thug" is derived from a seventh-century religious cult that terrorized India and "assassin" was the name of a radical offshoot of the Muslim Shi'a Ismaili sect that sought to repel Christian crusaders from present-day Syria and Iran.

But the number of religious terrorists groups has grown appreciably in the 1990s, accounting for nearly one-third of all active terrorist groups in 1994 before rising to one-half in 1995, he notes. Warped fundamentalism has become the battle cry of the terrorist in the post-Cold War era as communist ideology lies discredited and the promised benefits of a liberal capitalist state have yet to materialize in many countries - or are rejected by religious zealots.

It was the driving force behind terrorist acts that range from 1995's sarin nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway by the cult Aum Shinrikyo to the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building by Christian Patriots. The World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and last month's deadly attacks on two U.S. embassies (( came at the hands of Muslim fundamentalists.

Religious imperatives also lead to more intense acts "that are not constrained by the secular terrorists moral or practical constraints. To die for a religious cause one becomes 'blessed'," Hoffman points out.

The same is becoming increasingly evident in this country as right-wing militia groups grow in numbers and fury. Many are beginning to experiment with the dreaded weapons of mass destruction.

Meanwhile, in each of the last two years, the FBI has opened 100 investigations into chemical and biological weapons threats, compared to a few dozen annually in each of prior years. Though most turn out to be hoaxes, the sharp increase has concerned officials.

Kerry Noble was among these home-grown terrorists. A directionless one-time Bible student, he rose to become a leader in CSA, the Covenant the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, before cooperating with the FBI. In "Tabernacle of Hate" (Voyageur Publishing, 240 pages, $19.95), Noble takes us into the twisted and paranoid world of the Christian Patriots, who believe the United Nations and the World Bank are bent on taking over America and transforming it into a Godless nation.

"The religious belief system of the terrorist right is not to be underestimated," Noble writes, "any more than the religious beliefs of those in the Middle East. What individuals believe determines what they do. And those who are in authority in the movement are making sure that the followers feel cornered to force them into action."

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