Preparing for Tomorrow's Terrorism

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Preparing for tomorrow's terrorism

 Tuesday, 6 June 2000 20:45 (ET)

  LOS ANGELES, June 6 (UPI) -- Of all the possible threats to American
 security in the 21st century, terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, possibly
 involving chemical or biological weapons, seem the most likely -- and
 understandably cause the greatest immediate concern.

  The National Commission on Terrorism, which issued its report this week,
 has concluded that current efforts to detect, prevent and prepare for such
 attacks are inadequate. Meeting the threat of tomorrow's terrorism, in its
 view, will require a bare-knuckle approach that includes some measures bound
 to provoke controversy.

  These include dropping human rights concerns in recruiting terrorist
 informants, making it easier to initiate FBI investigations, paying for
 legal help if agents overstep their bounds, monitoring foreign students
 studying in the United States, frequently updating the list of Foreign
 Terrorist Organizations, hanging tough on Iran and Syria while adding
 Afghanistan to the list of state sponsors of terrorism, designating Pakistan
 and NATO-ally Greece as states "not fully cooperating" with the United
 States, expanding federal authority, and considering designating the Defense
 Department as the lead federal agency for responding to catastrophic
 terrorist incidents in the United States.

  How much controversy the commission's recommendations cause will depend on
 perceptions of the future threat. Will the next decade resemble the last 10
 years? If so, then the level of terrorist-caused violence, although tragic,
 is tolerable -- the republic is not in peril. Those subscribing to this view
 will greet the commission's recommendations with skepticism.

  What if, however, one sees the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City
 bombings as a wake-up call to a more violent future? One need not escalate
 to some future terrorist Pearl Harbor. Suppose instead that the next decade
 sees the equivalents of World Trade Center and Oklahoma bombings, plus four
 or five major attacks: truck bombs at several more buildings in New York, a
 huge bomb in one of the city's tunnels, or a suicide bomb attack on one of
 its crowded subways; the blowing up of federal buildings in Arizona; a
 massive explosion at propane storage tanks in California; a bomb that causes
 heavy casualties at public celebrations in Washington.

  Such a scenario is not far-fetched. In fact, terrorists attempted all of
 the events described above during the last 10 years but were foiled through
 undercover investigations, alert police or Customs agents and sheer good

  Add to this scenario a successful attempt by some mad group or individual
 to disperse nerve gas or infectious material in a subway or other contained
 environment -- a Tokyo-type attack here. The total casualties of this entire
 dark sequence of events would amount to possibly several hundred dead and
 thousands injured, still statistically insignificant when measured against
 the homicide rate in this country. The risk to individual citizens would be
 infinitesimal. Automobile travel would remain a thousand times more

  However, the psychological impact of a large-scale terrorist bombing every
 17 months would be enormous. A chemical or bioterrorism attack could cause
 national hysteria. Liberal democracies have been shaken by levels of
 violence far below this. Politicians would pound the podium demanding the
 most draconian measures while an alarmed public screamed for even more. In
 such circumstances, the commission's recommendations would seem mild.

  Whether the next 10 years brings nothing worse than that suffered in the
 '90s or takes us closer to the second scenario, only time will tell. The
 commission's own assessment of the threat does not exceed the current
 consensus among analysts. Today's terrorists are potentially more dangerous
 and certainly more difficult to deal with. Terrorist attacks inspired or
 commissioned from abroad now occur on American soil. Large-scale
 indiscriminate violence has become the reality of today's terrorism. At the
 same time, terrorist organization has become more fluid. Networks and ad hoc
 conspiracies are replacing the identifiable terrorist groups we dealt with
 in the past. The new murkier structures are harder to identify, more
 difficult to penetrate.

  The commission is highly critical of current intelligence efforts. It
 found U.S. intelligence to be "overly risk averse," "excessively dependent
 on foreign intelligence services," and to have procedures that are "both
 intricate and burdensome." It also cited "bureaucratic and cultural
 obstacles," "lack of clarity," and "considerable confusion."

  To reverse the situation, the commission recommends clarification,
 simplification, streamlining of procedures, modifying the adversarial
 posture that prevails, making sure that agents on the ground know what they
 can (and thereby what they cannot) do, and offering them assistance rather
 than flack when they seek guidance -- dull bureaucratic stuff, but the
 reality of governance.

  Most attention will focus on the commission's recommendation to drop the
 guidelines that restrict the recruitment of unsavory informants who have
 committed human rights abuses. But the best information about terrorist
 plans will come not from archbishops and archangels, but rather from
 terrorist informants, thugs who are not likely to meet our standards of

  In order to learn what some terrorist organization may be planning next,
 would we not recruit one of its members even knowing he had participated in
 previous terrorist attacks?

  Monitoring foreign students does not mean putting them under active
 surveillance. It does mean having the capability to know when students from
 a hostile country actively developing nuclear weapons are in the United
 States studying nuclear physics.

  The commission's findings and recommendations on possible terrorist use of
 chemical or biological weapons happily do not dwell on how many teaspoonfuls
 of anthrax would be required to kill everyone in a major American city. They
 address the more pedestrian but vital issues of regulation, legal authority,
 and coordination of efforts in the event of a crisis.

  To improve chances of gaining early warning of a bioterrorist attack, the
 commission recommends that the United States develop an ambitious
 international monitoring program to provide early warning of infectious
 disease outbreaks and possible terrorist experimentation with biological
 substances. Had such a system been in place in 1995, it just might have
 picked up evidence of the Aum Shinrikyo sect's experiments with anthrax. The
 sect's bioterrorist effort failed; it later resorted to nerve gas. Even if
 terrorists do nothing in the biological field, improving the ability to
 identify and track diseases worldwide would be a useful contribution to
 world health.

  In the case of a catastrophic terrorist attack, the commission suggests
 that the Department of Defense may be designated the lead federal agency
 instead of the FBI or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. There may
 arise circumstances that will require mobilizing the vast capacity or
 specialized capabilities possessed by the armed services. However, before
 replacing civilian agencies, we need to carefully identify the circumstances
 and set the rules. The commission proposes that a federal panel be convened
 to do this.

  One major obstacle to effectively combat terrorism is the nation's
 tendency to lurch from crisis to crisis. Indifference quickly follows
 outrage -- until another terrorist bomb goes off. The violent swings in
 national mood impede efforts, like intelligence collection, that require
 perseverance. They also expose us to the danger of overreaction.

  The national commission's recommendations will not be accepted without
 discussion or debate, nor should they be. We have been given a moment of
 calm in which to consider the risks we as a nation are willing to accept.
 Our decisions today may be the best defense of our liberty tomorrow.

  (Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior adviser to the president of RAND Corp.,
 served as an adviser to the National Commission on Terrorism.)
 Copyright 2000 by United Press International.
 All rights reserved.

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The Terrorism Research Center is dedicated to informing the public of
the phenomena of terrorism and information warfare. This site features
essays and thought pieces on current issues, as well as links to other
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clicking on the area of interest.

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Nuclear Terrorism - Sabotage and Terrorism of Nuclear Power Plants

Patterns of Global Terrorism Department of State Publications
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Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism

Civil Litigation & High-Tech Law

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.
     ----Lord Acton

     Power kills; absolute power kills absolutely.

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