Terrorism 2

Terrorism’s Increasingly Lethality Essay, Research Paper Although the total volume of terrorist incidents world-wide has declined in the 1990s, the proportion of

Terrorism’s Increasingly Lethality Essay, Research Paper

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


The reasons for terrorism’s increasing lethality are complex and variegated, but can generally be summed up as


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. 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


“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-ft wide crater six stories deep, and causing an estimated $550

million in both damages to the twin tower and in lost revenue to the business housed there31–as the more

“high-tech” devices constructed out of military ordnance, with timing devices powered by computer

micro-chips and detonated by sophisticated timing mechanisms used by their “professional” counterparts.32

“Professional” Terrorists

Finally, while on the one hand terrorism is attracting “amateurs,” on the other hand the sophistication and

operational competence of the “professional” terrorists is also increasing. These “professionals” are becoming

demonstrably more adept in their trade craft of death and destruction; more formidable in their abilities of

tactical modification, adjustment and innovation in their methods of attack; and appear to be able to operate for

sustained periods of time while avoiding detection, interception and arrest or capture. More disquieting, these

“professional” terrorists are apparently becoming considerably more ruthless as well. An almost Darwinian

principle of natural selection seems to affect subsequent generations of terrorist groups, whereby every new

terrorist generation learns from its predecessors, becoming smarter, tougher, and more difficult to capture or


Accordingly, it is not difficult to recognise how the “amateur” terrorist may become increasingly attractive to

either a more professional terrorist group and/or their state patron as a pawn or “cut-out” or simply as an

expendable minion. In this manner, the “amateur” terrorist could be effectively used by others to further conceal

the identity of the foreign government or terrorist group actually commissioning or ordering a particular attack.

The series of terrorist attacks that unfolded in France last year conforms to this pattern of activity. Between

July and October 1995, a handful of terrorists, using bombs fashioned with four-inch nails wrapped around

camping style cooking-gas canisters, killed eight persons and wounded more than 180 others. Not until early

October did any group claim credit for the bombings, when the radical Armed Islamic Group (GIA), a militant

Algerian Islamic organization, took responsibility for the attacks. French authorities, however, believe that,

while “professional” terrorists perpetrated the initial bombings, like-minded “amateurs”– recruited by the GIA

operatives from within France’s large and increasingly restive Algerian expatriate community were responsible

for at least some of the subsequent attacks.33 Accordingly, these “amateurs” or new recruits facilitated the

campaign’s “metastasising” beyond the small cell of professionals who ignited it, striking a responsive chord

among disaffected Algerian youths in France and thereby increasing exponentially the aura of fear and,

arguably, the terrorists’ coercive power.

Likely Future Patterns of Terrorism

While it can be argued that the terrorist threat is declining in terms of the total number of annual incidents in

other, perhaps more significant respects–e.g., both the number of persons killed in individual terrorists

incidents and the percent of terrorist incidents with fatalities in comparison to total incidents–the threat is

actually rising. Accordingly, it is as important to look at qualitative changes as well as quantitative ones; and to

focus on generic threat and generic capabilities based on overall trends as well as on known or existing groups.

The pitfalls of focusing on known, identifiable groups at the expense of other potential, less-easily identified,

more amorphous adversaries was perhaps most clearly demonstrated in Japan by the attention long paid to

familiar and well-established left-wing groups like the Japanese Red Army or Middle Core organisation with an

established modus operandi, identifiable leadership, etc. rather than on an obscure, relatively unknown religious

movement, such as the Aum Shinri Kyu sect. Indeed, the Aum sect’s nerve gas attack on the Tokyo

underground34 arguably demarcates a significant historical watershed in terrorist tactics and weaponry.35 This

incident clearly demonstrated that it is possible–even for ostensibly “amateur” terrorists–to execute a

successful chemical terrorist attack and accordingly may conceivably have raised the stakes for terrorists

everywhere. Accordingly, terrorist groups in the future may well feel driven to emulate or surpass the Tokyo

incident either in death and destruction or in the use of a non-conventional weapon of mass destruction

(WMD) in order to ensure the same media coverage and public attention as the nerve gas attack generated.

The Tokyo incident also highlights another troubling trend in terrorism: significantly, groups today claim credit

for attacks less frequently than in the past. They tend not to take responsibility much less issue communiqu?s

explaining why they carried out an attack as the stereotypical, “traditional” terrorist group of the past did. For

example, in contrast to the 1970s and early 1980s, some of the most serious terrorist incidents of the past

decade–including the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing–have never been credibly claimed–much less explained

or justified as terrorist attacks once almost always were–by the group responsible for the attack.36

The implication of this trend is perhaps that violence for some terrorist groups is becoming less a means to an

end (that therefore has to be calibrated and tailored and therefore “explained” and “justified” to the public) than

an end in itself that does not require any wider explanation or justification beyond the groups’ members

themselves and perhaps their specific followers. Such a trait would conform not only to the motivations of

religious terrorists (discussed above) but also to terrorist “spoilers”–groups bent on disrupting or sabotaging

multi-lateral negotiations or the peaceful settlement of ethnic conflicts or other such violent disputes. That

terrorists are less frequently claiming credit for their attacks may suggest an inevitable loosening of

constraints–self-imposed or otherwise–on their violence: in turn leading to higher levels of lethality as well.37

Another key factor contributing to the rising terrorist threat is the ease of terrorist adaptations across the

technological spectrum.38 For example, on the low-end of the technological spectrum one sees terrorists’

continuing to rely on fertiliser bombs whose devastating effect has been demonstrated by the PIRA at St Mary

Axe and Bishop’s Gate in 1991 and 1992; at Canary Wharf and in Manchester in 1996; by the

aforementioned World Trade Center bombers and the persons responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing.

Fertiliser is perhaps the most cost-effective of weapons: costing on average one percent of a comparable

amount of plastic explosive. Its cost-effectiveness is demonstrated by the facts that the Bishop Gate blast is

estimated to have caused $1.5 billion and the Baltic Exchange blast at St Mary Axe $1.25 billion. The World

Trade Center bomb, as previously noted, cost only $400 to construct but caused $550 million in both damages

and lost revenue to the business housed there.39 Moreover, unlike plastic explosives and other military

ordnance, fertiliser and its two favourite bomb-making components–diesel fuel and icing sugar–are readily

and easily available commercially, completely legal to purchase and store and thus highly attractive “weapons

components” to terrorists and others.

On the high-end of the conflict spectrum one must contend not only with the efforts of groups like the Aum to

develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons capabilities, but with the proliferation of fissile materials from

the former-Soviet Union and the emergent illicit market in nuclear materials that is surfacing in Eastern and

Central Europe.40 Admittedly, while much of the material seen on offer as part of this “black market” cannot be

classified as SNM (strategic nuclear material, that is suitable in the construction a fissionable explosive device),

such highly-toxic radioactive agents can potentially be easily paired with conventional explosives and turned

into a crude, non-fissionable atomic bomb (e.g., “dirty” bomb). Such a device would therefore not only

physically destroy a target, but contaminate the surrounding area for decades to come.41

Finally, at the middle-end of the spectrum one sees a world awash in plastic explosives, hand-held

precision-guided-munitions (i.e., surface-to-air missiles for use against civilian and/or military aircraft),

automatic weapons, etc. that readily facilitate all types of terrorist operations. During the 1980s,

Czechoslovakia, for example, sold 1,000 tonnes of Semtex-H (the explosive of which eight ounces was

sufficient to bring down Pan Am 103) to Libya and another 40,000 tonnes to Syria, North Korea, Iran, and

Iraq–countries long cited by the U.S. Department of State as sponsors of international terrorist activity. In

sum, terrorists therefore have relatively easy access to a range of sophisticated, “off-the-shelf” weapons

technology that can be readily adopted to their operational needs.

Concluding Observations and Implications for Aviation Security

Terrorism today has arguably become more complex, amorphous transnational. The distinction between

domestic and international terrorism is also evaporating as evidence by the Aum’s sects activities in Russia and

Australia as well as in Japan, the alleged links between the Oklahoma City bombers and neo-Nazis in Britain

and Europe, and the network of Algerian Islamic extremists operating in France, Great Britain, Sweden,

Belgium and other countries as well as in Algeria itself. Accordingly, as these threats are both domestic and

international, the response must therefore be both national as well as multinational in construct and dimensions.

National cohesiveness and organisational preparation will necessarily remain the essential foundation for any

hope of building the effective multinational approach appropriate to these new threats. Without internal

(national or domestic) consistency, clarity, planning and organisation, it will be impossible for similarly diffuse

multinational efforts to succeed. This is all the more critical today, and will remain so in the future, given the

changing nature of the terrorist threat, the identity of its perpetrators and the resources at their disposal.

One final point is in order given the focus of this conference on aviation security. Serious and considerable

though the above trends are, their implications for–much less direct effect on–commercial aviation are by no

means clear. Despite media impressions to the contrary and the popular mis-perception fostered by those

impressions, terrorist attacks on civil aviation–particularly inflight bombings or attempted bombings–are in fact

relatively rare. Indeed, they account for only 15 of the 2,537 international terrorist incidents recorded between

1970 and 1979 (or .006 percent) and just 12 of 3,943 recorded between 1980 and 1989 (an even lower .003

percent). This trend, moreover, has continued throughout the first half of the current decade. There have been a

total of just six inflight bombings since 1990 out of a total of 1,859 international terrorist incidents. In other

words, inflight bombings of commercial aviation currently account for an infinitesimal–.003–percent of

international terrorist attacks.42 At the same time, the dramatic loss of life and attendant intense media coverage

have turned those few tragic events into terrorist “spectaculars”: etched indelibly on the psyches of commercial

air travellers and security officers everywhere despite their infrequent occurrence.43

Nonetheless, those charged with ensuring the security of airports and aviation from terrorist threats doubtless

face a Herculean task. In the first place, a defence that would preclude every possible attack by every possible

terrorist group for every possible motive is not even theoretically conceivable. Accordingly, security measures

should accurately and closely reflect both the threat and the difficulties inherent in countering it: and should

therefore be based on realistic expectations that embrace realistic cost-benefit. Indeed, there is a point beyond

which security measures may not only be inappropriate to the presumed threat, but risk becoming more

bureaucratic than genuinely effective.