The terrorist threat
The Ultimate Terrorists, by Jessica Stern. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999, 204 pp.
Melvin A. Goodman
Terrorism has increasingly become a major security concern for the United States. In the past several years, we have witnessed bombings at the Olympics Games in Atlanta, a federal building in Oklahoma City, and the World Trade Center in New York. In 1996, a politically motivated terrorist team set off a large car bomb near the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 Americans. A messianic cult used the nerve gas sarin in a Tokyo subway in 1995 and attempted to spray anthrax spores from the roof of a building in Tokyo in 1993. As a result, many Americans fear that future terrorist attacks could be directed against the United States. Some U.S. leaders want to prepare for an incident of catastrophic terrorism in the near term. They favor policies that anticipate such an attack and, in case of failure to prevent it, establishes ways to respond to it. Conventional weapons will most likely continue to be the weapons of choice for terrorists, but the implications of possible terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are so severe that their consequences also need to be assessed.
Jessica Stern’s The Ultimate Terrorists is a serious attempt to describe the problem of international terrorism at the turn of the century and to develop a national strategy for dealing with the problem. She examines the technology and materials that would be required to conduct an act of terrorism in the United States and highlights the growing ease with which modern technology puts destructive power within the reach of smaller and smaller groups of individuals devoted to terror. Stern also provides a strategy for deterrence that gives the Justice Department and the FBI greater leeway in initiating investigations of and infiltrating potential terrorist groups and prohibiting the dissemination of unclassified bomb-making information. In supporting such latitude, she recognizes that the cure might be worse than the disease but argues effectively that if Washington does not prepare in advance for a terrorist attack, then it is more likely to take actions that revoke civil liberties in the wake of one.
A former staffer with the National Security Council, Stern falls into the trap that bedevils so many writers on terrorism: She exaggerates the number of recent acts of terrorism aimed at the United States as well as the likelihood that extremist Islamic groups are at the center of these acts. She endorses the “clash of civilizations” thesis of Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington, who has predicted a military struggle between the Western states and the Islamic nations and has warned that “violent Islamic extremists” can impose “significant pain [on the United States] through acts of terrorism.” But it is dangerous to encourage the notion that radical Arab communities have some kind of monopoly on terrorist acts. The Oklahoma City bombing and the bomb at the Olympic Games in Atlanta were the work of Americans, not Arabs; Prime Minister Rabin was killed by a Jew, not an Arab; Indira Gandhi was assassinated by a Sikh and her son by a Tamil Tiger. Stern catalogues virtually every case of Arab involvement in terrorist acts but does not refer to the military actions of the United States and Israel that have occasionally led directly to acts of terrorism.
Stern, who was portrayed by Nicole Kidman in the film “The Peacemaker,” creates the impression that terrorist acts aimed at the United States and U.S. citizens are increasing. In fact, according to data from the intelligence community, acts of international terrorism are down substantially from their zenith in the mid-1980s, and terrorist attacks against Americans are not increasing in lethality. Moreover, the Middle East is not the epicenter of terrorism; for the past two years, more terrorist attacks have taken place in Columbia than any other country. The author also ignores the link between drug trafficking groups and terrorist organizations and, as a result, does not address the need for a serious U.S. policy to deal with its drug problem as a way to get a handle on the terrorism problem.
Stern is at her best when she describes weapons of mass destruction that could be used in possible acts of terrorism against the United States and the vulnerability of the United States to such attacks. Fortunately, chemical, biological, and radiological agents have rarely been used, and few people have been killed. Nevertheless, according to the CIA, more than 20 nations have developed chemical and biological weapons, and some of these nations (Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Syria) are listed as supporters of terrorism by the State Department. Terrorists are unlikely to use nuclear weapons, but the South African secret nuclear program, which was closed in 1989 and revealed to the world in 1993, demonstrated that virtually anybody can make a bomb. Thus, the need to counter the proliferation of nuclear materials will continue to be a high-ranking policy priority.
The theft of nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union raises high-risk scenarios, and Stern’s book successfully outlines a policy for protecting Russian nuclear materials so that enriched uranium and plutonium does not reach the hands of terrorist groups. Indeed, the most serious threat to U.S. national security comes not from Russia’s military might but from its weaknesses. Russia’s inability to control its nuclear stockpile–materials as well as weapons–may be a more serious threat than terrorism over the long term. Stern’s book gives insufficient attention to this topic, but her policy recommendations fortunately emphasize the importance of reducing the risk of “loose nukes” in Russia and the former Soviet republics. Although she understands the security weaknesses at nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union, the recent discovery of Chinese espionage at U.S. weapons laboratories during the past 20 years reveals security lapses and a counterintelligence disaster in the United States as well.
The Clinton administration, with the assistance of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Act of 1991, has had its greatest foreign policy successes in demilitarizing and denuclearizing Russia and the former Soviet republics but has received very little credit from the foreign policy community. Conversely, Washington’s mishandling of its bilateral relations with Russia have led to unnecessary delays in Russian ratification of START II and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTB). A major casualty of the current Kosovo crisis could be a delay in the creation of a joint Russian-U.S. center to share early warning information about a missile attack.
Ratification of the CTB would go a long way toward limiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons. More than 120 countries have ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention but the United States remains in technical violation because of congressional foot-dragging in passing implementing legislation. Interagency conflicts have delayed approval of regulations needed for international inspections of chemical industry sites. The United States similarly has not been aggressive in arranging a protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention that provides for on-site inspections of biodefense labs, vaccine plants, and other dual-use facilities. The deterioration of Russian-U.S. relations is responsible for some of the delays in verifying and monitoring the biological and chemical weapons conventions.
U.S. policy also must start paying more attention to the states of the Caucasus and Central Asia in order to guard against the smuggling of nuclear materials. The United States pursues an unnecessarily harsh policy toward Iran for reasons of counterproliferation but virtually ignores Iran’s neighbors in Central Asia and the Caucasus, who could play a key role providing Tehran with illegal access to nuclear materials. Unfortunately, virtually all of the principal counterproliferation regimes are under siege because of continued U.S. military force in the Persian Gulf and the Balkans. The U.S. sanctioning of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) infiltration of the UN verification effort in Iraq led to the demise of one of the most effective international counterproliferation regimes.
Stern’s book begs the question of overreacting to acts of terrorism, which the Clinton administration did in the summer of 1998. Following terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies on the Horn of Africa, the United States bombed a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan and paramilitary facilities in Afghanistan. Clinton and his national security team assured us that we had overwhelming and incontrovertible intelligence linking these states to a terrorist network. We now know that the plant in Khartoum had no link to terrorism and that the soil sample collected by the CIA had been physically tainted and incorrectly analyzed. Senior CIA officials have made it known that they never considered the evidence as justification for military force in any event, but CIA director George Tenet fell into line with the president’s policy, thus effectively politicizing the intelligence on the issue. The United States then blocked a UN investigation of the incident and has refused to apologize for its action. mistake. The damage to U.S. credibility in this affair was significant, and credibility is essential to any long-term campaign against international terrorism.
Although some of her descriptions of the horrific effects of biological and chemical agents border on the side of hysteria, Stern’s extensive policy proposals for countering the “new terrorism” are for the most part reasonable and certainly contain substantial food for thought. Stern also recognizes that terrorism is first and foremost a psychological weapon, and she does an effective job of explaining the “dread factor,” which is the terrorist’s instrument for achieving influence or at least notoriety. Similarly, she is aware of the risk to civil liberties from a zealous policy against terrorism but does not address Clinton’s endorsement of the creation of a commander-in-chief for forces in the United States that would be responsible for homeland defense. Such a military position in the United States could lead to some loss of civil liberties in extreme cases.
Stern does not address the policy failures of the Clinton administration regarding limits on weapons of mass destruction. The United States must reduce the gap between the dangers of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons on the one hand and the nonproliferation treaties and institutions on the other. Washington needs to revive biannual nuclear nonproliferation consultations with Russia, ratify the CTB, bring the U.S. chemical industry into compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, and show more leadership in negotiating the compliance protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention. If the United States cannot revive the counter-proliferation system, then the task of countering terrorism will be that much greater.
In any event, we should not forget that the problem of terrorism was far greater a hundred years ago. In the period from 1894 to 1901, anarchists assassinated the president of France, the prime minister of Spain, the empress of Austria, the king of Italy, and the president of the United States. In fact, there has been a decline in terrorism since the Gulf War. Stern’s The Ultimate Terrorists needs some perspective.