Military can't always fight on own terms

Intelligence is more valuable than firepower against terror groups

Terrorism Strikes America

History's Lessons

September 14, 2001|By Bill Glauber and Douglas Birch | Bill Glauber and Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - For even the most well-equipped and well-trained modern armies, the most difficult task may be defeating terrorism, a battle that confronts the United States as it considers effective retaliation against those who carried out this week's attacks in New York and near Washington.

There is evidence of the difficulty from all over the world:

Britain employed high-tech surveillance and crack troops for decades but failed to quash Northern Ireland's guerrillas. Russia virtually razed Chechnya to gain control of it, yet remains locked in a battle against bands of hardened fighters. And Israel has fought terror with a policy of assassinations but still suffers suicide bomb attacks.

Terror groups are everything modern armies aren't - secret and shadowy, often linked by a chain of command in which fighters are grouped in small cells that can quickly disband.

Penetrating the organizations remains a daunting task in which intelligence is more valuable than firepower. Even blanket bombing of known terrorist bases can prove futile because the organizations are decentralized and some members will probably survive.

"Basically, trillion-dollar armies can't fight terrorists on the same terms," said Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies. "We've all been trying. What you can do is kill terrorists with small groups of professionals as clever and cunning as the terrorists."

But Western democracies face legal and ethical hurdles in unleashing a campaign that could also turn hundreds or thousands of civilians into victims. In the case of this week's attacks, the United States has to figure out who was the mastermind as well as how to strike back effectively.

If it's shown that Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden triggered the attacks, it could prove difficult for the United States to hunt him down, as he reputedly hides out in the inhospitable regions of Afghanistan, a country that lies beyond the reach of conventional armies.

After the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in east Africa, the United States sought to destroy bin Laden's organization, Al Qaeda, by bombing what were believed to be training bases in Afghanistan and Sudan.

Andrew Kennedy, an analyst of the Royal United Services Institute, argues that the only way to defeat terrorists is to "cut off their lifeblood, cutting them down one by one." He claims that policy worked in West Germany as it fought to isolate far-left groups such as the Baader-Meinhof gang in the 1970s.

"The Germans got rid of their support bases, isolated them, identified them as extremists and crazies," he said. But it was done only at the cost of giving police and prosecutors extraordinary powers against individuals.

Kennedy said modern armies do hold advantages over terrorist groups. "Our forces are massive organizations with great technological expertise," he said. "We can bring to bear our satellites and the ability to monitor telephones."

Retired Adm. Jim Stark, a former president of the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., said terrorist organizations have to be attacked in different ways, not just on the battlefield but at the bank.

"We have the ability with our computer networks - and pressuring other governments - to identify assets, seize them and go after the business operations," he said. "There is usually some paper trail for tens of millions of dollars."

But it takes more than technology and good accounting to defeat terrorism. "Smart bombs" have to be used intelligently, Stark said, adding that military attacks need to be just as ruthlessly timed as the blows struck by the terrorists who hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon at the start of a workday when thousands were in their offices.

"Off with the kid gloves," Stark said. "This is a deadly war. We should wage it as a war and not as a court battle. We're not about to bring people to justice. Bringing people to justice is gone."

In Russia, experts take an even harder line, due in part to the experience of being bogged down in Afghanistan in the early 1980s, and the quagmire in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, where rebels attack government troops and officials almost daily.

Vladimir Borodulin, an expert on Islamic terrorism who teaches history at Moscow's Open University, says Washington should demand that states harboring terrorists - he named Iran and Iraq, among others - surrender them, or face a nuclear attack on their capitals. It's an extreme view, but many people in Moscow seem to share it.

"The American approach is, first of all, you look for the one who has committed this awful crime," Borodulin said. "But this is the wrong concept. If you go on like that, you will have more terrorist acts. Then you will have to go after the perpetrators all over again."

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