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Responding to Terrorism across the Technological Spectrum

Authored by Dr. Bruce Hoffman. | July 1994

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What do these trends suggest for the future? First, terrorists will continue to rely on the same two basic weapons that they have used successfully for more than a century: the gun and the bomb. What changes we will see will be more in the realm of clever adaptations or modifications to existing "off the shelf" technology (such as the PIRA is so accomplished at) or the continued utilization of readily-available, commercially- purchased materials that can be fabricated into crude--but lethally effective and damaging--weapons (such as the explosive device used by the World Trade Center bombers). Their preference for this traditional arsenal is areflection ofan operational conservatism imposed by the terrorist organizational imperative to succeed. For this reason, terrorists must always keep ahead of the technologycurve. Thus, when confronted by new security measures, terrorists will seek to find and exploit new vulnerabilities or else simply change their tactics accordingly.

Second, the sophistication of these devices will be in their simplicity. Unlike military ordnance, such as plastic explosive, for example, the materials used in "home-made" bombs are both readily- and commercially-available, thus they are perfectly legal to possess until actually concocted or assembled into a bomb. These materials are also far more difficult to trace or for experts to obtain a "signature." For example, the type of explosive used in the 1988 in-flight bombing of Pan Am 103 was Semtex H, a plastic explosive manufactured in Czechoslavakia and sold primarily to other former-Warsaw Pact countries during the cold war as well as to such well-known state sponsors of terrorism as Libya, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and North Korea. Thus, for foreign governments seeking to commission terrorist attacks or use terrorists as surrogate warriors, the terrorists' use of such "home-made" materials carries with it both advantage and appeal in possibly enabling the state sponsor to avoid military retaliation or international sanction.

Third, a combination of the resurgence of terrorism motivated by a religious imperative, the proliferation of "amateur" terrorist groups, and the growing sophistication of established, more "professional" groups is likely to lead to higher levels of lethality and destruction than in the past. The erosion of the self-imposed constraints that have hitherto inhibited the infliction of mass, indiscriminate casualties by terrorists is evident in each of these categories. Indeed, terrorism today increasingly reflects a deadly mixture of all three: it is perpetrated by "amateurs"; motivated by religious enmity, blind hatred or a mix of individually idiosyncraticmotivations; and conceiveably exploited or manipulated by terrorist "professionals"and their state sponsors. In this respect, the availability of relatively sophisticated, off-the-shelf weaponry such as hand-held, precision-guided surface-to-air missiles, or the relative ease with which chemical or biological warfare agents can be manufactured, suggests that terrorists possessing this constellation of characteristics would have little trouble crossing into thedomain of either "high tech" weaponry or weapons of mass destruction.79

Moreover, the post-cold war new world order and attendant possibilities and payoffs of independence, sovereignty, and power may entice both new and would-be nations along with the perpetually disenfranchised to embrace terrorism as a solution to, or vehicle for the realization of their dreams. Today, when old empires and countries are crumbling and new ones are being built, the possession of a nuclear bomb or the development of a chemical or biological warfare capability may thus become increasingly attractive either to new nations seeking to preserve theirsovereignty or to would-be nations seeking to attain their independence. In both instances, terrorists may find new roles for their skills and expertise. Terrorists may be employed by countries either to steal nuclear weapons or strategic material from another country, or they may be paid to stage a covert nuclear, chemical, or biological attack to conceal the involvement or complicity of their state patron. In this respect, the lessons of Iraq's overt invasion of Kuwait loom large. In the future,terrorists may become the "ultimate fifth column": a clandestine, cost-effective force used to wage war covertly against more powerful rivals or to subvert neighboring countries or hostile regimes.

By the same token, ethnic/religious fanaticism--as previously noted--could more easily allow terrorists to overcome the psychological barriers to mass murder than could a radical political agenda. A terrorist group of religious zealots, with state support, in a context of ongoing violence (i.e., the civil wars occurring in the former Yugoslavia or some new internecine conflict in one of the former Soviet Union's republics) could see the acquisition and use of a chemical, biological, or nuclear capability as a viable option. State sponsorship, in particular, could provide terrorists with the incentives, capabilities, and resources they previously lacked for undertaking an ambitious operation in any of these domains. Combined with intense ethnic enmity or a strong religious imperative, this could prove deadly.80

One final observation seems in order: while the volume of worldwide terrorism fluctuates from year to year, one enduring feature is that Americans remain favored targets of terrorists abroad. Since 1968, the United States has annually headed the list of countries whose nationals and property are most frequently attacked by terrorists.81 This is a phenomenon attributable as much to the geographical scope and diversity of America's overseas commercial interests and the large number of its military bases on foreign soil as to U.S. stature as a superpower and leader of the free world. Terrorists, therefore, are attracted to American interests and citizens abroad precisely because of the plethora of readily available targets. Many terrorists believe that it is easier to operate against Americans overseas than it is to strike at targets in the United States. Furthermore, there is the symbolic value inherent in any blow struck against U.S. "imperialism," "expansionism," or "economic exploitation." Almost obligingly, the American press can be counted upon to provide publicity and exposure for any attack on an American target, especially if there are civilian casualties. These reasons suggest that, despite the end of both the cold war and the ideological polarization that divided the world, the United States will nonetheless remain an attractive target for terrorists seeking to call attention to themselves and their causes. Moreover, as the only superpower, the United States may likely be blamed for more of the world's ills, and therefore could be the focus of more terrorist attacks than before.82


79. According to a 1990 report, for example, "Canberra bombers, Rapier missiles and tube artillery" can be readily obtained on the international black market. It similarly notes that while terrorist groups as diverse as Germany's Red Army Faction, Italy's Red Brigades and various Palestinian organizations reputedly "have recruited microbiologists, purchased bacteriological experimentation equipment and dabbled in sending toxins such as anthrax to potential victims"; they have to date not done so. See "Violence: A Buyer's Market," Jane's Defence Weekly, May 12, 1990, pp. 909-911. See also, "Guns: Buyer's Market," The Economist, May 16, 1992.

80. Thesis originally advanced by the author in collaboration with Peter deLeon in The Threat of Nuclear Terrorism: A Reexamination, Santa Monica, CA: RAND, N-2706, January 1988.

81. Followed by Israel, France, Great Britain, West Germany, the Soviet Union, Turkey, Cuba, Spain, and Iran. Source: The RAND Chronology of International Terrorism.

82. One can envision ethnic, nationalist, and irredentist minorities turning to the United States for support and intervention which, if not provided, could act as a catalyst for increased anti-American terrorism designed to coerce the United States to intervene on their behalf or to punish it for not intervening. Of course, terrorism designed to protest or reverse U.S. intervention in local conflicts (such as was the case in Lebanon during the 1980s) is likely to continue as well.