New Terrorist Threats and How to Counter Them

Report Homeland Security

New Terrorist Threats and How to Counter Them

July 31, 2000 16 min read
Ambassador Paul Bremer
Policy Analyst

Let me talk first about the analysis the National Commission on Terrorism made of the terrorist threat and then talk about our recommendations for dealing with that threat.1 I should say that our commission's mandate was to examine America's policies concerning international terrorism, not those affecting domestic terrorism. International terrorism is terrorism directed against Americans either here or abroad. So if an international terrorist group conducts a terrorist act in the United States, that is international terrorism. If a purely domestic group attacks Americans in the United States, that did not fall within our ambit.

Our conclusion was that the threat is growing. There is a paradox, because if you look at the figures put out by the Department of State, the number of international terrorist incidents has been falling since the late 1980s. But the number of casualties has been rising. This is an important phenomenon that draws you to the conclusion that the motives of the terrorists are changing. What do I mean by that?

If you look back to when modern terrorism arose in the late 1960s with the hijackings and the killings at the Munich Olympics, and then the terrorism in Western Europe in the 1970s, what we found were Marxist-Leninist terrorist groups organized along typical Marxist lines, very tightly cellular, tightly controlled with precise political, secular objectives such as: Get the United States out of Europe; push Israel back into the sea; break NATO's connection to Germany. And these groups thought--and in this they were wrong--that they had broad public support. The Baader-Meinhoff gang in Germany, Action Directe in France, the Red Brigades in Italy all thought they had broad public support for their objectives. So these groups effectively constrained themselves in the kind of acts they would conduct. They would conduct terrorist acts to get public attention to their cause but they did not want to kill so many people that they alienated people from their cause, because they thought people could be brought to support their objectives. So the objective of terrorist acts in the 1970s and into the middle 1980s was to get attention for the cause.

After an attack, these groups would release a long screed telling you what their cause was. If you worked your way through such pronouncements, you would find a typical Marxist-Leninist analysis of the world. But they were trying to get attention to their cause and not to alienate people. There was a self-constraint built into the terrorists' acts and the number of casualties they were willing to inflict. What we have seen in the 1990s is that self-constraint seems to be coming off, and this is shown by the fact that the number of incidents is down but the number of casualties is up.

The conclusion our commission reached is that many of these groups now are working from different motivations. They are not working from the motivation of trying to persuade people of the wisdom of their particular political cause. They are acting instead for ideological or religio-ideological or apocalyptic objectives. People who are operating on those kinds of terms are not necessarily constrained in the number of casualties they want to inflict; in fact they may want to inflict massive casualties. And once you step across that threshold in terms of your analysis of the motives, you then have to be very concerned, as we were, about the possibility of terrorist groups escalating dramatically up the scale to what we call catastrophic terrorism.

The kinds of groups that are committing these kinds of acts fall into several categories: religious terrorists, ideological terrorists, terrorists who have an apocalyptic vision. There were concerns we would have millennial terrorists. That fortunately passed without an incident. But we have groups such as the Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, which attacked the Tokyo subway system with nerve gas several years ago. There are the groups which have been operating in a loose way under Osama bin Laden's direction in the Middle East.

Groups now are increasingly not taking responsibility for attacks, which is another indication that the motive is changing. Instead of saying, "We attacked because we want you to release those guys who are prisoners in a jail in France," there is very often no claim now. In fact the largest attacks in the last 12 or 13 years have all been unclaimed, starting with Pan Am 103. So motives of revenge, motives of ideology or religion, motives of apocalypse--these led the commission to believe that we are facing a serious possibility of escalation of terrorism into catastrophic terrorism.

Now, this is paralleled by an unsettling change in the structure of terrorist groups which makes them more difficult to combat. Terrorist groups in the 1970s and 1980s were organized along classic Marxist-Leninist cellular structures. Such an organization structure served a terrorist leader's purpose because the leader wanted carefully to calibrate the amount of violence and death that was incurred precisely because he was trying to get broader support for his group. These new groups are much less hierarchical in their organization; they tend to be ad hoc groups, like the group that came together in the World Trade Center bombing of 1993. Today, groups kind of coalesce, come together for an attack, and go away.

This presents both opportunities and challenges. The challenge is that it is very difficult to get information about them because they don't have the structure. On the other hand, as in the case of the World Trade Center, they tend to be less professional and that gives you opportunities after an attack to bring law enforcement into play. No professional terrorist would have gone back to try to claim his rental car deposit after conducting the World Trade Center attack.

So the commission concluded that the threat is increasing and that there is a possibility that terrorists will escalate to what we called in our report catastrophic terrorism. We have in mind what in military terms are called weapons of mass destruction or what we call CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, or Nuclear) agents to conduct catastrophic terrorism. I will come back to that in a minute because it is a very important conclusion.

What are the implications for American policy? Basically, we made recommendations in three areas: in the area of intelligence, in the area of cutting off support for terrorist groups, and in the area of catastrophic terrorism. Let me just walk through our main recommendations in each of those three areas.


It is obvious that there is no substitute for good intelligence if you are going to have an effective counterterrorist policy. I have worked in and around government for 35 years now, and I have never seen a field in which intelligence is more central to good policy and intelligence is more difficult to get than in the field of terrorism. If you don't have good intelligence on terrorists, you simply don't have an effective counterterrorist policy and, most of all, you cannot prevent attacks. After all, the basic objective of counterterrorism is to stop the attacks before they happen.

We looked at our program to deal with terrorist intelligence and found a couple of areas that needed improvement. First of all, we recommended that the CIA be given a broader mandate to go after terrorist spies. If you want to find out what a terrorist group is up to, you have to have a spy in the terrorist group. It is as simple as that. You can have the most effective chain of spies you want in a city, but if they are all going to the country club or the League of Women Voters, they are not going to tell you very much about terrorism. And if the agents look like me, we are not likely to be told an awful lot about what is going on in a terrorist group. You have to have a spy in the terrorist group. In 1995, the CIA put into effect regulations that we found are hampering the recruitment of spies in terrorist groups. And we recommended that these restrictions be done away with. We recommended that the CIA go back to the process that was in place before 1995 to assess the value of potential assets (as they are called in the CIA) in terrorist groups.

This is a very important recommendation. It is one with which the CIA formally disagrees. As some of you may know, they have said they do not believe these restrictions are reducing the number of recruitments they are making among terrorist groups. I think they are just plain wrong. I don't think they are not telling the truth; I think they simply don't know what is actually happening out in the field. And I can go into that in more detail. But in any case, this was in many ways our most important recommendation.

The CIA is primarily responsible for collecting terrorist intelligence abroad and the FBI is responsible here in the United States. So we also looked at the question of how the FBI collects intelligence against international terrorists in the United States. We found that the guidelines under which the FBI agents operate are adequate, but they are badly written and confusing. These are guidelines that set out the terms under which the FBI can open what they call a preliminary inquiry against somebody who may be suspected of being a terrorist. All of us read them (they run to about 42 pages), and we had a number of current and former FBI agents testify that they found them confusing. We recommended that the attorney general sit down with the director of the FBI and rewrite these guidelines to put them into more easily understood English.

The third area we looked at is how intelligence is shared. This is a very important issue because it is fine to have good intelligence in a box over here, but if it does not get to the analyst or the decisionmakers over there, it doesn't do you very much good. Here the problem is mostly in the FBI. The FBI's objective is to make cases against terrorists. They are our investigators and law enforcers and they want to make cases. This leads to both cultural and structural obstacles to sharing intelligence. First of all, the cultural one is that FBI agents understandably want to make the best case they can and they don't want to indiscriminately share the intelligence, the information that they have picked up in their investigation. And secondly, there are legitimate structural problems with getting that information around. Some of them are legal, but again some of them are just regulatory. For example, an FBI field officer who is investigating a possible terrorist in, say, Los Angeles, will conduct a number of interviews and fill out what are called 301 forms. The information on that form will rarely come to FBI headquarters at all. It is even less likely to get to the other people who are trying to analyze the terrorist threat in the intelligence community. Nor will it get to decisionmakers.

On the other hand, the FBI does a very good job of disseminating information about an immediate threat. There is no problem here. We are talking about, for example, information which might turn up in a raid on an apartment in Los Angeles. Say the agents find a computer with a hard disk with lots information on it. The agents will download the information and review it to determine what part of it they can use in the case that they eventually are going to make. But there may be a whole bunch of other stuff on the disk that could tell you an awful lot about how that terrorist group is working if you were an analyst following that terrorist group. Unfortunately, that information never gets out of that field office in Los Angeles.

The CIA for many years faced the same problem. How do you take intelligence you gather, given the sensitivity of sources and methods, and get it to the people who need to know about it? The CIA has solved this problem by having a cadre of reports officers, as they are called. At most stations overseas there is a reports officer and there are reports officers back at headquarters whose job it is to look over intelligence and determine who else needs this stuff. They ask: "How do I sanitize it or make it less sensitive so that I can get it out to people who need it?" So our commission recommended that the FBI establish a similar cadre of professional reports officers who would be stationed at the major field offices in the United States and, of course, back here at headquarters at their counterterrorism center.

There is a related issue that we covered, which I will not go into in great depth here, which is the problem of interpreters and translators. There is a crying, desperate need throughout the intelligence community for more of these specialists. This is something that needs to be addressed urgently.

Finally in the intelligence area we looked at, and made recommendations about, budgets. We did not have a chance, given the six months we had for this commission, to look deeply into the whole counterterrorism budget. But we did conclude that the CIA, the FBI, and particularly the National Security Agency need more resources. And in the case of the NSA, we believe there are some structural changes that also need to be made.


The second general area we looked at was the question of support for terrorism. One of the phenomena of the 1990s has been the decline in overt state support for terrorism. This can be put down to a success for America's policy and the leadership America has exerted for almost 15 years now in the fight against terrorism. State sponsors are less evident. They are still around, and we cited in particular Iran and Syria in this respect.

In the case of Iran, we said that while there are obviously interesting political developments going on inside of Iran, the fact is that even since Mohammad Khatami was elected president of Iran, Iranian support for terrorism, particularly in the Middle East, has increased. Now you can argue about whether he has control or doesn't have control. This is an interesting argument, but basically this should not have anything to do with America's policy toward Iran. After all, he is the president, and the government of Iran is responsible. They are conducting terrorist attacks. The commission recommended no further concessions by the American government toward the Iranians until they have actually stopped support for terrorism.

Khatami yesterday in Berlin once again said he welcomes the latest speech by the Secretary of State. In the last year and a half the U.S. government has repeatedly said we want better relations with Iran. In her speech in March, the Secretary changed American policies toward Iran as a gesture to them. Khatami's response yesterday was to assert that the U.S. had not done enough. The commission thinks our government has done enough; and we should tell the Iranians: "Now stop your support of terrorism." In particular we have cited the evidence that Iran may have been involved in the bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia which killed 19 American servicemen in 1996.

We have suggested that the administration should push our allies much harder to support us in getting Iranians to cooperate on a criminal investigation into Khobar Towers. In other words, de-politicize the issue as we did with the Pan Am 103 bombing and say that this is a criminal issue and although you Europeans may disagree with us on our approach to Iran, as you disagreed with our approach on Libya, you ought to be able to bring pressure to bear on the Iranians to cooperate on the criminal investigation into the Khobar Towers bombing.

Similarly with Syria, the commission said we thought there should be no movement toward giving Syria a clean bill of health until they stop their support for terrorism.

As state support has decreased or gone underground, terrorist groups are turning more and more to privatization, like everybody else. They have gone to raising their own money. They are doing their IPOs here and there and they are using non-governmental organizations and front organizations. They are raising money from dupes or people who are sympathizers but don't realize they are supporting terrorism. We believe that the American government has had too narrow an approach to going after this terrorist fundraising. Our government has focused too much on a particular law that was passed in 1996. The commission suggested that the government should take a much broader approach toward going after terrorist fundraising. It is not an easy field. It's not an easy one to make good cases on, but it is an area that we think is important to concentrate on.


And finally, we considered the possibility of catastrophic terrorism. By catastrophic terrorism we mean a terrorist act or a series of terrorist acts causing tens of thousands of casualties. Here we came up with three main points. We believe that you cannot put a probability on the possibility of catastrophic terrorism. But we have to say it can no longer be excluded. First, because as I suggested at the outset, the motivation seems to have changed. Secondly, the technology is more available today than it was ten years ago and not in the least through the Internet. And so we looked at this and said there are several things that we think should be done.

First of all, the most likely threat is from biological terrorism, at least in terms of creating thousands of casualties. And we came up with two things that should be done on biological terrorist threats. First of all, biological agents, the pathogens which can be turned into deadly things such as anthrax or smallpox, should be much more tightly controlled than they are now in the United States. We said the goal should be that biological agents become as tightly controlled as nuclear agents have been for the last fifty years. That is the standard and there a number of things that can be done in the law to bring it up to that standard.

Secondly, it is not easy to make a biological agent into a weapon. As it turns out, it is difficult. You need specialized equipment. It happens that the United States government already controls much of that specialized equipment for export. You cannot export a lot of that equipment. But you can sell it domestically. And we suggested that this anomaly ought to be fixed. There ought to be controls on the specialized equipment for domestic sales. We are talking about very specialized fermentation chambers, aerosol inhalation chambers, cross-flow filtration systems--very sophisticated equipment that is already banned for export but is not controlled for domestic sale. We suggested that the Congress ought to consider requiring that such equipment be tagged in some way, so that it in some way can be traced. This will involve a lot of work between Congress and the private sector, as many things do these days.

Next, we think it is important to establish a long-term R&D program to look into areas such as detection technologies in biological and chemical agents, development of anti-virals for smallpox, etc. The government has a good short-term R&D program that we looked at, run jointly by the State Department and Defense Department. It seems to work well, but tends to be tactical and short-term. We suggested that the President establish a long-term R&D program, perhaps at one of the national labs and take the sort of approach that was taken after the war towards nuclear technology. The long-term R&D program would focus on technologies which need to be looked at in the long term with a horizon of seven to ten years out.

Finally, we looked at the question of how the United States government is organized, if I can use the word loosely, to respond to a catastrophic terrorist attack. And we found that it was possible to imagine a situation where there was a catastrophic attack or a series of attacks or which took place while we were in hostilities with a foreign power, where the President would want the Department of Defense as the lead agency in responding to such an attack. This seems to have gotten everybody's nerves in this town even more exposed than they were before, particularly at the Pentagon. But the fact of the matter is that there is no other institution that has the command and control, the communications, and the logistic capabilities in this country of DOD. It seems clear to me that in the event of a catastrophic attack of some kind where you have tens of thousands of casualties, where the American people are going to be screaming for a response, that a President is going to want to consider using the military in some fashion.

Our argument is that you had better think about that beforehand, not afterwards. If you are concerned with civil liberties, that is an even better reason to think about it beforehand. And the example we use is Pearl Harbor, which was certainly by anybody's definition a catastrophic attack on the American people. After Pearl Harbor America's two great 20th century liberals, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Earl Warren, locked up Japanese-Americans. Our view is that the best way to assure that in the wake of a catastrophic event you do not trample on our constitutional rights and on the civil liberties we have come to take for granted, is to think about it ahead of time to make plans and to exercise them ahead of time.

That is all that we have recommended. That the scenario should be thought about, it should be planned, and it should be exercised, and hopefully put on a shelf to gather dust for the next hundred years. But it is better to get prepared for catastrophic terrorism than to try to improvise afterwards.

These were the commission's conclusions. We are saying that we think that America's counterterrorist policy is more or less on track. We think that there are three or four major areas where more can be done. We expect the threat to continue to increase, but if these prudent and balanced recommendations are followed by the executive branch and by Congress, fewer Americans will die from terrorism in the years ahead.

Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, formerly Ambassador at Large for Counterterrorism, served as the chairman of the National Commission on Terrorism.


1. The commission's report can be found at:


Ambassador Paul Bremer

Policy Analyst