How to Combat Terrorism

By Badolato, Ed | The World and I, August 2001 | Go to article overview

How to Combat Terrorism


Badolato, Ed, The World and I


A lot has happened in counterterrorism over the past year that invites a quick review of our policy toward terrorism, what terrorists are up to, and the threats that should cause us the most concern. One of the most significant areas to be considered is the current momentum toward developing a comprehensive national counterterrorism strategy.

This is not an easy task, and it is a major challenge for President Bush and Congress. A number of useful initiatives were put into place by the previous White House, as well as top-level studies sorting out the international and domestic terrorist problem. Nearly 50 federal agencies and 12 Capitol Hill committees are involved in figuring out how to spend $12 billion to combat terrorism, but we still essentially have no strategy and no single official in charge.

With the exclusion of the USS Cole attack, international terrorist activity against the United States has declined since the mid-eighties and early nineties. Strategic thinkers cite the demise of the Soviet bloc and the consequent removal of its support for terrorists as major reasons for this decline. Also, some countries that used to be havens for terrorists now condemn terrorism; international cooperation against terrorism has increased; and our global capabilities against terrorism are stronger.

THREATS TO AMERICA

Yet, with the recent Cole attack, we may be entering a new era of terrorist activity. Five key factors affect the level of potential terrorism threats to America: U.S. predominance in world economic, political, and military affairs; the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; the rise of Islamic extremism and strident nationalism; the increasing use of global mobility and sophisticated communication systems by terrorists; and the worldwide expansion of uncontrolled criminality and organized crime.

U.S. government terrorism policy. Since the 1980s, the United States has based its counterterrorism policy on four pillars. First, make no concessions to terrorists and strike no deals. Second, use a "full court press" to isolate terrorists and apply pressure on state- terrorism sponsors to force them to change their behavior. The third principle is to follow the rule of law and bring terrorists to justice for their crimes; the fourth is to seek increasing international support to bolster the counterterrorism capabilities of those countries that want to work with the United States and require assistance.

Translating existing policy into an effective national strategy has been a problem. We need a national strategy that will allow us to preempt or disrupt terrorist attacks and, if attacked, guide our sure and swift response.

The new terrorists. The terrorist threat has been changing in ways that make it more dangerous and difficult to counter. International terrorism once threatened Americans only when they were abroad. As the World Trade Center bombing and the thwarted plans to bomb the Lincoln and Holland tunnels in 1993 clearly demonstrated, today's international terrorists can attack us in our own territory.

In December 1999, an alert U.S. Customs Service official stopped Ahmed Ressam as he attempted to enter the United States from Canada-- apparently to conduct a terrorist attack. The circumstances surrounding this border arrest suggest that the suspect planned to target large groups celebrating the turn of the millennium. But consider that on an average day, over one million people enter the United States legally, and thousands enter illegally.

Terrorists are using the same modern computer and communications technology as the rest of us, resulting in more information being gathered and disseminated. Raids on terrorist safe houses are increasingly turning up computers, CD-ROMs, and other high-tech equipment, all used to support their illegal actions.

The extensive use by terrorists of computers, cell phones, and the Internet compounds the problem for law enforcement and intelligence- gathering agencies. …

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