Huntingdon College | Political Science 

International Terrorism and Response: notes

by Jeremy Lewis
PhD Johns Hopkins University; Professor and Chair, Political Science Dept.
Last revised on 9 Jan,  2003
Terrorism Index
Outlines Index
Courses Index
HC PSC Home Page
AL World Affairs
Contents of these notes:
  • Characteristics of Terrorism 
  • Nation States and Terrorism
  • Balance of Power principle 
  • Stimulus to Terrorism
  • Terrorist Organization 
  • Needs of Terrorist groups
  • Possible Responses and Their Effects
  • International Terrorism & Response examples, 1970s - 2001
  • Further Reading and commentators

  • Characteristics of Terrorism:
  • Although we tend to react with shock and anger to terror bombings, the phenomenon is complex and difficult to understand -- let alone to prevent.
  • An attack or series of attacks designed to strike fear into the hearts of a civilian population.
  • It has variously been described as a form of low intensity warfare, as protest by the powerless, as freedom fighting, and as cold-blooded murder of unarmed people.
  • Human rights violations and war crimes are related offenses.
  • Usually attacks on military targets (e.g. USS Cole) are not taken as terrorism.
  • May be domestic or international in nature, yet some domestic terrorism occurs with external support.
  • Usually terrorist groups fight an asymmetrical war: since they cannot take on armies in pitched battles, unfortunately they attack softer targets.
  • However, types of terrorism are not always clearly distinguished.
  • Nation States and Terrorism:
  • We tend to distinguish between the Nation State which has armed forces, covert forces and intelligence agents -- and terrorist groups which have no state to control, no sovereignty.
  • However, States often direct or sponsor terrorist gangs; it is claimed that Iraq and Afghanistan both have been supporting the Al Qaeda movement led by Osama Bin Laden. (Note that arabic names can be transliterated in several ways).
  • In warfare, also some states have deliberately terrorized civilians to break resistance; the most obvious example is Nazi Germany.
  • Since the Age of Chivalry in the fourteenth century, and the treaty of Utrecht in 1648, some nation states have gradually developed a notion of separation of military from civilian, and have restrained to some degree their attacks, trying to damage military but not civilian targets. 
  • States do attack civilians amid total war, e.g. world wars: Bin Laden cites the US bomb dropped on Hiroshima as a rationale for killing US civilians.
  • States engage in military attacks which cause civilian "collateral damage"; but this is not regarded as terrorism so long as the attack is designed with "purity of arms" to minimize collateral damage.
  • International terrorism now embraces organizations which used to be national; e.g., Libyan governmental and American private community support of the IRA in the 1970s and 1980s arguably makes this a form of international terrorism.
  • Where the bounds or legitimacy of a nation state are disputed, it is also disputed whether the conflict is defined as terrorism, freedom fighting, internecine strife, civil war or low intensity war. 
  • For instance, the PLO and Hamas used to argue Israel is an illegitimate state; hence they are freedom fighters rather than terrorists, and seek the end of an illegal military occupation by Israelis.  Israelis on the other hand usually consider their state a legitimate democracy and hence resistance to be terrorism.
  • Balance of Power principle: 
  • sometimes states and terror groups switch their alliances. 
  • The US supported Bin Laden against the Soviet army in Afghanistan in the 1980s, offering training and weapons -- only to find him turning against the US following the Gulf War of 1991.  In 2001, the Russian government indicated immediately that it would support the US against Bin Laden.
  • Stimulus to Terrorism:
  • Sometimes designed to force a change in the policy of a nation state, but sometimes simply for revenge.
  • A fanatic is one who kills for an ideal; religious and nationalistic ideals seem the strongest stimuli, yet these are not normally considered evil when in moderation.
  • Suicidal fanatics are rare, and in recent years have sprung from sources in the middle east among radical Islamic fundamentalist groups.
  • Terrorist Organization:
  • Terrorist groups are often organized for secrecy in connected networks of small cells; with only three per cell and only one knowing the identities of others outside, this network is resistant to capture and interrogation.
  • In the period 1980 - 2001 we have seen numerous networks develop a more global range.
  • The internet and relatively secure radio and satellite communications have added a international dimension in recent years.
  • Traditional use of couriers selected from trusted family members can make it difficult for surveillance.
  • Training camps for young would-be terrorists (or freedom fighters) can be detected by satellites and other means and have been vulnerable to counterattack.  For examples, PLO camps in North Africa and Lebanon have repeatedly been aerially bombed by Israeli and US forces.
  • Schools for the very young have been used to indoctrinate future members of the movement, for example among Palestinians.
  • Needs of Terrorist groups: (any of these may be interdicted.)
  • Charismatic and ruthless leadership (until aging, death, capture, humiliation, assassination, arrest.)
  • inspirational ideals (until ideals fade in culture)
  • supply of indoctrinated young men, aged about 15 - 25. 
  • similar and sympathetic population in which to move and hide (not common in US for middle eastern terrorist groups, more available in Europe or middle east)
  • weaponry, explosives, ammunition, logistics, skills, training (widely available and may entail state sponsorship.)
  • Safe harbor within a nation state for training, development, command, control  and regrouping.
  • Possible Responses and Their Effects:
  • Intelligence Gathering.  US has massive electronic surveillance operations, with translators & analysts, but reliable human intelligence can be frustratingly difficult to produce.
  • Security Enhancement, protection of public places.  Necessary if  very costly, and fixed defenses always leave some potential target for a clever terrorist.
  • Law Enforcement.  Can be effective, if not quick, where attacks on domestic soil leave evidence and suspects.
  • International Law Enforcement (War Crimes Tribunals, the International Court of Human Rights at the Hague.)  Used increasingly for war criminals, e.g. Serbs in Bosnia.  relies in part on new theory of international customary law, hard to define.  Could backfire against nations that use it -- e.g. American military officers might in future be defendants.
  • International cooperation in intelligence, law enforcement, military action.
  • Diplomatic negotiation, condemnation.  Attractive  because of low cost, though may take time and not powerful without military threat.  Gets to root of political problem which may be exacerbated by military action.
  • Economic Sanctions. Attractive because falls short of war, but effects fall on poorest members of rogue state.  Tried against Iraq in 1990, can be effective in reducing rogue state's ability to develop weapons of mass destruction, shows condemnation, but there is temptation for cheating if rogue state has valuable oil.  Takes years to have serious impact -- and rogue state may respond with military action.
  • Asset Freezes.  Used by Carter administration against Iran in 1980: financial assets can be sequestered -- but terrorist groups' assets may be hard to trace.  Can raise the difficulty level for targetted groups, if unlikely to deal a mortal blow by itself.
  • Military Action.  May be either surgical strikes (if intelligence is good) or strategic bombing (if not); may satisfy the domestic population but may also cause casualties and heavy costs.  Depends upon having a recognized adversary, and substantial forces.  May stimulate further recruits to terrorist groups in the population attacked by the response.  May lead to an ongoing war without stopping terrorist attacks.  Bombing of Libya in 1984 did seem to be effective.
  • Covert military action.  May be plausibly deniable, yet send a message to the target without causing an international backlash.  Limited to small scale action to preserve secrecy, and often becomes known after the event.  Risks few casualties among special forces.
  • International Terrorism and Response examples, 1970s - 2001: primarily attacks against US interests.
  • (Draft: some dates are not confirmed, many examples yet to be added; death counts in some cases are from Economist newspaper, 15 Sep 2001.)
  • 1972 Munich Olympics: Israeli athletes kidnapped, murdered by Palestinians.
  • Police Response: German police snipers ineffective, Germany forms GSG9 unit (swat team) for future.

  • Covert action Response: over the years, Israeli Mossad reportedly tracks down and assassinates each one of the gang.
  • 198x German Aircraft hijacking to Mogadishu, Somalia.
  • Military Response, successful: British SAS and German GSG9 assault airliner, rescue hostages and kill hijackers.
  • 198x Hijacking to Entebbe, Uganda.
  • Military Response, successful: Israeli troops assault airliner, rescue hostages and kill hijackers.  (Renamed Operation Johnathan after loss of commander Netinyahu to sniper fire.)
  • 1983 US embassy, Beirut: suicide bomb killed 63.
  • 1983 US marine barracks, Beirut: suicide truck bomb killed 299. 
  • US withdrew forces from Beirut.
  • 1988 Lockerbie bombing of Pan Am flight 103: plane from Frankfurt falls on Scottish village.
  • Law Enforcement & Intelligence response: evidence points to head of Libyan intelligence; under diplomatic pressure, Libya agrees to trial under Scottish law located at the Hague.  In late 1990s, prosecution succeeds.
  • 1984 Disco Bombing: US troops wounded in Germany, surveillance indicates an order from Libya.
  • Intelligence and Military Response: US bombs Tripoli and other locations in Libya.  Although Col. Ghadaffi is not killed, Libyan government seems afterwards to moderate its behavior.
  • 1984 Achille Lauro: sea jacking, murder of 1.  Group negotiates safe passage with Egyptian Government but US surveillance intercepts phone call.
  • Intelligence & Military Response: US locates plane flying out gang, intercepts with naval fighters, forces down to US airbase, arrests via special forces -- but on Sicilian soil.  Italian government prosecutes gang -- but releases leader, Abu Nidal.
  • Law enforcement abroad: 198x US arrest of terrorist in international waters, lured from Egypt to a yacht by female agent.

  •  
  • 1990 Al-Qaeda's agent murders Jewish extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane in New York -- but jumps into wrong getaway car.
  • Law Enforcement response: police arrest assassin but owing to mistakes, he is prosecuted only for holding illegal weapon.
  • 1993 World Trade Center bombing, New York.  Truck bomb set off in basement of 110 story tower blocks holding up to 50,000 people.  6 killed, 1,000 injured but tens of thousands of civilians escape down stairs.
  • Law enforcement & Intelligence Response:  tracks down and convicts some members of Osama Bin Laden's gang on US soil, including 'blind Sheik' Omar.
  • 1995 Operation Bojinka (Airliner hijack & bomb) plots foiled by US intelligence, Bin Laden believed responsible.
  • multiple airliners intended hijacked over Pacific.
  • Arrest of Ramzi Youssef  yields his computer with good intelligence.
  • 1995 Federal building, Oklahoma city, domestic bombing by anti-federal militia-related individuals, kills 168.

  •  
  • 1996 Khobar towers barracks bombed in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 US troops.
  • Protective response: since intelligence was hard to come by, the US moved and secured its barracks more carefully. 
  • 199x US agents arrest terrorist on Pakistani soil, flee country ahead of security services, bring suspect back to US for trial.  Based on 1980s US law of arrest on foreign soil.

  •  
  • 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya & Tanzania: 224 killed, many civilians wounded outside.  Intelligence believed Bin Laden was responsible.
  • Military Response: Clinton administration ordered bombings of a pure drugs factory in Sudan and a bunker headquarters in Afghanistan.  Neither holding any terrorists, the retaliation was unsatisfactory.
  • 2000 USS Cole, guided missile destroyer, bombed in Aden harbor by small boat with suicidal crew; 17 killed but ship is saved; intelligence indicates Bin Laden responsible.  Owing to military target, probably not to be defined as terrorism.

  •  
  • 2000 millennial bombings plotted but foiled by US intelligence.  Several major incidents are found in captured plans.  Plotters have links to Al Qaeda.
  • Law enforcement: 2000-2001 some plotters from previous Al Qaeda bombings tried and convicted in US courts.

  •  
  • 2001 World Trade Center airliner crash bombing, New York, and Pentagon, near Washington DC.  Attacks show coordination, training (of pilots), planning and suicidal motivation, hallmarks of Bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization. 
  • Credible threat to White House prompts protection of president and Air Force One; president authorizes shooting down civil airliners to prevent crash bombings.
  • Civil airliners are ordered down to airports, US airspace reserved for military.
  • VP and Speaker are secured at different locations.
  • US president vows war response.  His rhetoric is muted, however.
  • US Secretary of State vows intelligence collection, diplomatic coalition building before military response.  He implies threat to those who do not join coalition, of worsened relations with US for future.
  • NATO invokes article 5, wherein an attack upon one is an attack upon all.  Hence the US may overfly NATO nations and take advantage of collective resources.
  • Law enforcement and intelligence appear to have quick success in tracing some of the plotters.
  • members of Congress suggest repealling the ban on assassinations, loosening restrictions on those unsavory characters whom the intelligence services can recruit as agents.  Some commentators point out those are symbolic only, and have not limited intelligence in practice.
  • Intelligence officials leak that they had Bin Laden in their sights but were never given the order to attack.  However, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger states categorically they never developed actionable intelligence on Bin Laden suitable for military action.
  • Dept of Defense calls up some Reserve units.
  • Israeli sources suggest any comprehensive attack on terrorism requires support for their attacks on PLO and Hamas, palestinian groups. 
  • West European nations hold widespread symbolic events in support of US.
  • The Times (London) reports SAS (special forces) have been operating along Pakistani border with Afghanistan for some time.
  • Pakistani government pledges cooperation with 'international' counterterrorist effort  {Owing to strong pro-Qaeda feeling among population, does not emphasize US.)
  • George Bush reminds nation that most muslims are peaceful, and receives support from President Chirac of France.
  • Some NATO members (Norway, Belgium, Italy) back off from some aspects of supporting the US "war" against terrorism.
  • October 7, aerial bombing and cruise missile attacks launched from US and British sources on Al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan.
  • Northern Alliance of anti-Taliban forces appears to be supported by US and gathers strength for a drive towards Kabul.
  • (US ground force intervention in Afghanistan followed)

  • Further Reading and commentators: recommended experts on Terrorism:
  • Brian Jenkins, consultant, commentator and author
  • Richard Holbrooke, US diplomat, chief architect of Dayton peace accords for Bosnia.
  • Simon Reeve, The New Jackals (British author's book.)
  • Judith Miller, Islamic Terrorism, New York Times journalist.
  • John Carew, Jihad, new book about the covert war in Afghanistan against the Russians in the 1980s, by author who claims to be an ex-SAS soldier involved.
  • Neil Livingstone, consultant, commentator and author (perhaps not as useful).
  • Top of Page