Preparing for Tomorrow's Terrorism
By BRIAN MICHAEL JENKINS
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
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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