Terrorism And Lethality

Terrorism And Lethality Although the total volume of terrorist incidents world-wide has declined in the 1990s, the proportion of persons killed in terrorist incidents has steadily risen. For example, according to the RAND-St Andrews University Chronology of International Terrorism,5 a record 484 international terrorist incidents were recorded in 1991, the year of the Gulf War, followed by 343 incidents in 1992, 360 in 1993, 353 in 1994, falling to 278 incidents in 1995 (the last calendar year for which complete statistics are available).6 However, while terrorists were becoming less active, they were nonetheless becoming more lethal. For example, at least one person was killed in 29 percent of terrorist incidents in 1995: the highest percentage of fatalities to incidents recorded in the Chronology since 1968–and an increase of two percent over the previous year’s record figure.7 In the United States this trend was most clearly reflected in 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Since the turn of the century, fewer than a dozen of all the terrorist incidents committed world-wide have killed more than a 100 people.

The 168 persons confirmed dead at the Murrah Building ranks sixth on the list of most fatalities caused this centuryin a single terrorist incident–domestic or international.8 The reasons for terrorism’s increasing lethality are complex and variegated, but can generally be summed up as follows: The growth in the number of terrorist groups motivated by a religious imperative; The proliferation of “amateurs” involved in terrorist acts; and, The increasing sophistication and operational competence of “professional” terrorists. Religious Terrorism The increase of terrorism motivated by a religious imperative neatly encapsulates the confluence of new adversaries, motivations and rationales affecting terrorist patterns today. Admittedly, the connection between religion and terrorism is not new.9 However, while religion and terrorism do share a long history, in recent decades this form particular variant has largely been overshadowed by ethnic- and nationalist-separatist or ideologically-motivated terrorism. Indeed, none of the 11 identifiable terrorist groups10 active in 1968 (the year credited with marking the advent of modern, international terrorism) could be classified as “religious.”11 Not until 1980 in fact–as a result of the repercussions from the revolution in Iran the year before–do the first “modern” religious terrorist groups appear:12 but they amount to only two of the 64 groups active that year. Twelve years later, however, the number of religious terrorist groups has increased nearly six-fold, representing a quarter (11 of 48) of the terrorist organisations who carried out attacks in 1992.

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Significantly, this trend has not only continued, but has actually accelerated. By 1994, a third (16) of the 49 identifiable terrorist groups could be classified as religious in character and/or motivation. Last year their number increased yet again, no to account for nearly half (26 or 46 percent) of the 56 known terrorist groups active in 1995. The implications of terrorism motivated by a religious imperative for higher levels of lethality is evidenced by the violent record of various Shi’a Islamic groups during the 1980s. For example, although these organisations committed only eight percent of all recorded international terrorist incidents between 1982 and 1989, they were nonetheless responsible for nearly 30 percent of the total number of deaths during that time period.13 Indeed, some of the most significant terrorist acts of the past 18 months, for example, have all had some religious element present.14 Even more disturbing is that in some instances the perpetrators’ aims have gone beyond the establishment of some theocracy amenable to their specific deity,15 but have embraced mystical, almost transcendental, and divinely-inspired imperatives16 or a vehemently anti-government form of “populism” reflecting far-fetched conspiracy notions based on a volatile mixture of seditious, racial and religious dicta.17 Religious terrorism18 tends to be more lethal than secular terrorism because of the radically different value systems, mechanisms of legitimisation and justification, concepts of morality, and Manichean world views that directly affect the “holy terrorists'” motivation.

For the religious terrorist, violence first and foremost is a sacramental act or divine duty: executed in direct response to some theological demand or imperative and justified by scripture. Religion, therefore functions as a legitimising force: specifically sanctioning wide scale violence against an almost open-ended category of opponents (e.g., all peoples who are not members of the religious terrorists’ religion or cult). This explains why clerical sanction is so important for religious terrorists19 and why religious figures are often required to “bless” (e.g., approve) terrorist operations before they are executed. “Amateur” Terrorists The proliferation of “amateurs” involved in terrorist acts has also contributed to terrorism’s increasing lethality. In the past, terrorism was not just a matter of having the will and motivation to act, but of having the capability to do so–the requisite training, access to weaponry, and operational knowledge. These were not readily available capabilities and were generally acquired through training undertaken in camps known to be run either by other terrorist organisations and/or in concert with the terrorists’ state-sponsors.20 Today, however, the means and methods of terrorism can be easily obtained at bookstores, from mail-order publishers, on CD-ROM or even over the Internet. Hence, terrorism has become accessible to anyone with a grievance, an agenda, a purpose or any idiosyncratic combination of the above. Relying on these commercially obtainable published bomb-making manuals and operational guidebooks, the “amateur” terrorist can be just as deadly and destructive21–and even more difficult to track and anticipate–than his “professional” counterpart.22 In this respect, the alleged “Unabomber,” Thomas Kaczynski is a case in point. From a remote cabin in the Montana hinterland, Kaczynski is believed to have fashioned simple, yet sophisticated home-made bombs from ordinary materials that were dispatched to his victims via the post.

Despite one of the most massive manhunts staged by the FBI in the United States, the “Unabomber” was nonetheless able to elude capture–much less identification–for 18 years and indeed to kill three persons and injure 23 others. Hence, the “Unabomber” is an example of the difficulties confronting law enforcement and other government authorities in first identifying, much less, apprehending the “amateur” terrorist and the minimal skills needed to wage an effective terrorist campaign. This case also evidences the disproportionately extensive consequences even violence committed by a lone individual can have both on society (in terms of the fear and panic sown) and on law enforcement (because of the vast resources that are devoted to the identification and apprehension of this individual). “Amateur” terrorists are dangerous in other ways as well. In fact, the absence of some central command authority may result in fewer constraints on the terrorists’ operations and targets and–especially when combined with a religious fervour–fewer inhibitions on their desire to inflict indiscriminate casualties.

Israeli authorities, for example, have noted this pattern among terrorists belonging to the radical Palestinian Islamic Hamas organisation in contrast to their predecessors in the ostensibly more secular and professional, centrally-controlled mainstream Palestine Liberation Organization terrorist groups. As one senior Israeli security official noted of a particularly vicious band of Hamas terrorists: they “were a surprisingly unprofessional bunch. . . they had no preliminary training and acted without specific instructions.”23 In the United States, to cite another example of the potentially destructively lethal power of amateur terrorists, it is suspected that the 1993 World Trade Center bombers’ intent was in fact to bring down one of the twin towers.24 By contrast, there is no evidence that the persons we once considered to be the world’s arch-terrorists–the Carloses, Abu Nidals, and Abul Abbases–ever contemplated, much less attempted, to destroy a high-rise office building packed with people.

Indeed, much as the inept World Trade Center bombers were derided for their inability to avoid arrest, their modus operandi arguably points to a pattern of future terrorist activities elsewhere. For example, as previously noted, terrorist groups were once recognisable as distinct organisational entities. The four convicted World Trade Center bombers shattered this stereotype. Instead they comprised a more or less ad hoc amalgamation of like-minded individuals who shared a common religion, worshipped at the same religious institution, had the same friends and frustrations and were linked by family ties as well, who simply gravitated towards one another for a specific, perhaps even one-time, operation.25 Moreover, since this more amorphous and perhaps even transitory type of group will lack the “footprints” or modus operandi of an actual, existing terrorist organization, it is likely to prove more difficult for law enforcement to get a firm idea or build a complete picture of the dimensions of their intentions and capabilities. Indeed, as one New York City police officer only too presciently observed two months before the Trade Center attack: it wasn’t the established terrorist groups–with known or suspected members and established operational patterns–that worried him, but the hitherto unknown “splinter groups,” composed of new or marginal members from an older group, that suddenly surface out of nowhere to attack.26 Essentially, part-time time terrorists, such loose groups of individuals, may be–as the World Trade Center bombers themselves appear to have been–indirectly influenced or remotely controlled by some foreign government or non-governmental entity. The suspicious transfer of funds from banks in Iran and Germany to a joint account maintained by the accused bombers in New Jersey just before the Trade Center blast, for example, may be illustrative of this more indirect or circuitous foreign connection.27 Moreover, the fact that two Iraqi nationals–Ramzi Ahmed Yousef (who was arrested last April in Pakistan and extradited to the United States) and Abdul Rahman Yasin–implicated in the Trade Center conspiracy, fled the United States28 in one instance just before the bombing and in the other shortly after the first arrests, increases suspicion that the incident may not only have been orchestrated from abroad but may in fact have been an act of state-sponsored terrorism.

Thus, in contrast to the Trade Center bombing’s depiction in the press as a terrorist incident perpetrated by a group of “amateurs” acting either entirely on their own or, as one of the bomber’s defence attorneys portrayed his client manipulated by a “devious, evil . . . genius”29 (Yousef), the original genesis of the Trade Center attack may be far more complex. This use of amateur terrorists as “dupes” or “cut-outs” to mask the involvement of some foreign patron or government could therefore greatly benefit terrorist state sponsors who could more effectively conceal their involvement and thus avoid potential military retaliation by the victim country and diplomatic or economic sanctions from the international community. Moreover, the prospective state-sponsors’ connection could be further obscured by the fact that much of the “amateur” terrorists’ equipment, resources and even funding could be entirely self-generating. For example, the explosive device used at the World Trade Center was constructed out of ordinary, commercially-available materials–including lawn fertiliser (urea nitrate) and diesel fuel–and cost less than $400 to build.30 Indeed, despite the Trade Center bombers’ almost comical ineptitude in avoiding capture, they were still able to shake an entire city’s–if not country’s–complacency.

Further, the “simple” bomb used by these “amateurs” proved just as deadly and destructive–killing six persons, injuring more than a 1,000 others, gouging out a 180 …


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