Opinion 10/16/01

To counter terrorism, America needs a broader defense agenda

By Leon D'souza

They are armed with anonymity, willing to die for their cause, elusive and dangerous. Their sinister calculations of timing and place bespeak organizations that have honed their skills over many years. Their world is dark, and on Sept. 11, they brought darkness to the ultimate icon of the free world.

On that fateful September morning, America's most vibrant cities were crippled as terror struck and chaos ensued. Then life stood still.

Terrorism is a growing threat to the security of the United States. The troika of high technology, uninhibited criminals and ready cash has come together to create a lethal synergy that threatens large segments of the American population. There is a critical need to revisit and refine U.S. policy to combat terrorism.

Experts liken the study of terrorism to peering through smog. The organization of terrorist groups, their close interpersonal communications, and their penchant for soft targets of opportunity make it difficult to predict their future operations. In order to devise effective counter-terrorism policies, policy makers will need to understand the dynamics of terrorism in the present day.

The International Environment

Terrorism today is a different threat than it was in the 1980s. It derives ever-increasing effectiveness from its transnational nature. Both trade partners and terrorists alike exploit globalization and the free flow of trade across porous borders. Policymakers must strike a delicate balance between economic and civil liberties, and civil security.

Terrorism migrates and follows political instability. Analyst Stephen Sloan, in an essay entitled "Terrorism: How Vulnerable Is the United States?" suggests that the present security environment is best described as the "new world disorder." Sloan draws attention to the breakdown of central authority and the assault against the domination of the existing state system. The collapse of the artificial superficial equilibrium of the Cold War has given way to separatist movements in former republics of the now defunct Soviet Union. This instability has spilled over into Eastern Europe where former Soviet satellites are attempting to cope with the uncertainties of democratization.

Also, since Moscow and Washington are no longer disposed to using regional surrogates as a way of avoiding direct confrontation, a number of regional powers are emerging. The major powers seem to be unable to constrain these emerging regional forces. Consider countries such as Iran, Syria, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Cuba. These nations use terrorism as a form of diplomacy, and as an adjunct to their foreign policies.

Another concern is legitimacy. The authority of many states has been challenged by the growing assertion of both sub-national and transnational calls for self-determination by ethnic groups and religious movements that deny the legitimacy of what they perceive to be a questionable international order.

South Asia: The New Breeding Ground

I grew up in India. My country has grappled with cross-border terrorism for decades. For years, we have fought skirmishes and suffered incalculable losses. This plague persists in other nations in the region as well. South Asia has become a new locus for terrorism. Regional instability has played a significant role in the deterioration of the security environment in this part of the world.

Consider Afghanistan as a case in point. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the decade-long civil war that followed destroyed the government and civil society of that country. The Soviet withdrawal created a power vacuum and left the nation in the hands of warring Mujahideen factions. Many of Afghanistan's Taliban leaders came of age in training camps designed to create a generation of fighters. The terrorists trained in these camps supported similar organizations elsewhere in the region as they fostered relationships with Afghan Arabs and others involved with terrorism in the Middle East. Their worldview has been informed by the experience of war.

The proximity of terrorists to such sources of regional instability is a mutually reinforcing relationship. Terrorists contribute to regional instability by supporting groups intent on subverting peace processes. On the other hand, instability serves as fodder for terrorist groups by drawing more weapons into the region thereby increasing the likelihood of terrorists procuring additional weaponry. Now, governments could very well be expected to intervene and arrest this vicious cycle, but most regimes in the region are too preoccupied with domestic instability to focus on combating terrorism.

Ideological extremism is another source of concern. It has contributed significantly to the weakening of the security environment in South Asia. Some groups, like the Taliban, use extreme interpretations of religious doctrine to justify acts of terrorism. In Pakistan, political and economic difficulties, and the resultant damage to the institutions of that country, have provided fertile ground for terrorism.

The education systems in these nations have been perverted to serve vested interests. Since these states can't provide effective public education for want of resources, religious schools, called "madrasas," fill the void. These "schools" have been known to inculcate violent extremism and a fierce hatred of the West in their students.

The Contemporary Terrorist Organization

Terrorists change with the times. They are an extremely adaptable lot. Over the years, they have shifted targets and tactics many times over in response to changing circumstances. The modern terrorist organization is an ad hoc group, organized in much the same way as the Internet. It is a decentralized network of "cells." Osama Bin Laden's Al-Qaida network is an example of this new breed of terrorist organizations. These groups are flexible organizationally and tend to combine into task forces for specific missions. As a result of their organizational structure, these groups are harder to trace and penetrate, and their targets are harder to determine.

The modern terrorist organization is unhindered by past dependencies. State sponsors exert a reduced amount of influence than in the past as terrorists have found ways to obtain support from a variety of private sources.

Notwithstanding their access to modern technology, terrorists have remained fairly conservative in their approach. Bombing is still the most common type of attack. However, the magnitude of strikes has increased considerably with a shift in primary targets from airliners to public buildings. Here's what's frightening. Terrorists today have access to a wider range of weapons and explosives than at any time in the past. They have also found new destructive uses for otherwise peaceful technology. There is a growing concern among experts that terrorists will cross the threshold and engage in acts of mass or "super terrorism" by using atomic, biological and chemical weapons.

Terrorism and Missile Defense

Enter National Missile Defense. NMD is fast becoming the administration's panacea for safeguarding national security interests. The problem with this approach to countering terrorism is that it is essentially narrow in scope and purpose. The administration's ambitious plan could cause other nations to feel strategically threatened and to respond in ways that might exacerbate weapons proliferation problems and harm U.S. security by increasing the amount of nuclear material that could stray into the hands of terrorists.

Additionally, fiscal constraints imposed by the program might actually get in the way of other programs designed to protect the United States and its allies from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. If the administration maintains such a narrow policy focus, it might neglect smaller but more potent threats.

What America Must Do

The administration needs to broaden the homeland defense agenda. America must beef up border security, increase protection for vital infrastructure, prepare more meticulously to address the consequences of any chemical or biological attack, improve the intelligence gathering process, and expand cooperative threat reduction programs.

U.S. counter-terrorism policy must be based on a realistic assessment of America's vulnerabilities. "America's New War" can be won only through development of a consistent level of anti-terrorism awareness and countermeasures.

Balance, caution, understanding, sensitivity, and common sense. These are the watchwords of today.

On The Web:

Terrorism: Background and Threat Assessments


Countering the Changing Threat of International Terrorism



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