The Global Terrorist Threat

By Simon, Jeffrey D. | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

The Global Terrorist Threat


Simon, Jeffrey D., Phi Kappa Phi Forum


When terrorists attacked the United States on the morning of September 11, 2001, they set in motion a sequence of events that demonstrated unequivocally the power and influence of terrorism. Less than two hours of unimaginable violence by nineteen terrorists led to repercussions felt around the world. Beyond the death and destruction that the terrorists caused -- more than 3,000 people were killed in the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- they also inflicted a deep psychological wound upon this nation. Sadness was expressed throughout the country for those who had lost their lives, as well as empathy for the families of the victims and rage and anger at those responsible for the violence. There was also the realization that life in America might never be the same again.

Although the United States had experienced major terrorist attacks on its soil in the past, including the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the September 11 attacks were beyond most people's worst nightmare. Hijacked planes crashing into U.S. landmarks and live television coverage of the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsing images that will likely be etched in one's mind forever.

TERRIFYING INNOVATION

Yet as shocking as these attacks were, they should not have been surprising. Terrorists continually think up new and more devastating ways to perpetrate their violence. They escalate their violence when they perceive that the public and governments have become desensitized to the "normal" flow of terrorism. By perpetrating a violent act that causes more casualties than previous ones, terrorists are guaranteed widespread publicity for their cause and reaction from various parties. Terrorists also view new types of attacks as ways to penetrate existing security measures. Furthermore, because there had been suicide attacks on the ground in Lebanon in the 1980s and a suicide attack at sea in Yemen in 2000, it was just a matter of time before terrorists used suicide attacks from the air. That it occurred in the United States shattered any remaining illusions that America could avoid on its own soil such terrorist attacks as had plagued many other nations.

Security was raised to unprecedented levels both in the United States and elsewhere after the events of September 11. The economic effect of the attacks was staggering, with losses estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Reflecting the anger of the country, President George W. Bush called the attacks "acts of war" and vowed to defeat terrorism wherever it existed in the world. Accordingly, the U.S. launched a military response in Afghanistan that resulted in the collapse of the ruling Taliban regime that had protected the primary suspects in the attacks, Osama bin Laden and his terrorist group, al Qaeda ("The Base"). Hundreds of Taliban and al Qaeda members were killed or captured in the military operation, although the fate of bin Laden remained uncertain as of early 2002.

While viewing terrorism as a "war" can be appealing to government leaders, policymakers, the media, and the public -- it implies that with the right mix of policies and actions a nation can win the war -- the reality is that terrorism can never be completely "defeated." The roots of the violence are diverse, with terrorists found in a wide range of political, religious, and ethnic-nationalist groups. Terrorism can even be just one person with one bomb and one cause. Furthermore, the advantage in any "war" on terrorism unfortunately lies with the terrorists because they need to commit only one spectacular act to reverse all perceptions of counter-terrorist progress.

DISPARATE GROUPS

The disparate nature of terrorism can be seen in the variety of groups active throughout the world and the different causes that propel them into violence. Al Qaeda, for example, is representative of the emergence of the religious-inspired terrorist groups that have become the predominant form of terrorism in recent years. …

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