Terror Marches On

By Quigley, Robert C. | Security Management, January 1991 | Go to article overview

Terror Marches On


Quigley, Robert C., Security Management


Terror Marches On

FOR THE PAST 20 years, governments, law enforcement officials, security professionals, and the media have tracked terrorist targets and techniques throughout the world. They have witnessed the growth of professional terrorist organizations capable of committing outrageously violent acts in the name of religious retribution, political revolution, or pernicious revenge. In most instances the terrorist atrocities go unanswered. People perceive themselves as vulnerable, so government and private industry harden their physical security.

But wait! Perhaps security initiatives have been successful. Patterns of Global Terrorism: 1989, published by the US State Department in April 1990, says, "The year 1989 saw a steep decline in the number of terrorist acts committed worldwide - one of the sharpest yearly drops we have recorded since the advent of modern terrorism in 1968." The report depicts a 38 percent decline in the number of terrorist incidents worldwide from 1988 to 1989. The report also notes a significant drop in the number of people killed or wounded by terrorists.

Security plans and budgets are normally driven by statistics, particularly government statistics. International firms and clients are attuned to the terrorist threat, and any marked statistical deviation in the level of threat affects security budgeting and planning. This close correlation between statistics and planning caused some security professionals to review their data bases to corroborate 1989 statistical indicators. One such indicator, the Risk Assessment Information Service (RAIS) of Business Risks International, offered a dramatically different view of worldwide terrorist activity.

On March 2, 1990, RAIS reported a record number of terrorist incidents in 1989, reflecting a 16 percent increase over 1988. The RAIS data, which has been privately compiled for the past 20 years, also indicated a 10 percent increase in lethal attacks in 1989. In addition, RAIS statistics showed a marked increase in attacks against US business interests.

Such contradictory data places security professionals in a quandary. How can security planning be done with such inconsistencies? A spread of 54 percentage points in describing worldwide terrorist violence seems impossible.

The problem is that definitions shape statistics. Historically, the US definition of terrorism has focused heavily on its political nature. The State Department defines terrorism as premeditated, politically motivated violence against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine state agents, usually intended to influence an audience. International terrorism involves the citizens or territory of more than one country.

Law enforcement authorities, recognizing that criminal statutes contain neither a definition of terrorism nor a specific crime of terrorism, have been forced to use another definition. Their definition states that terrorism is the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property through a criminal act designed to intimidate or coerce a government, civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.

Whether to designate terrorism as a political act or a criminal act is a significant issue. The criminal act is generally codified in law. That means the elements of the crime have been spelled out and the evidence must directly relate to those elements. The political act, on the other hand, is defined by motivation and is therefore an extremely subjective offense. When a terrorist act is viewed primarily as a political act, a double standard is developed that sets motivation and moral judgments above the law.

The ambiguity associated with motivation in the US definition of terrorism has already caused serious problems in a number of extradition hearings, notably those involving the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA). The overemphasis on political motivation results in a purging of significant incident data before it is presented to security professionals or the public. …

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