October 6, 1994 | Backgrounder on Department of Homeland Security
Terrorism is a cancer that has plagued the Middle East for decades. It is now metastasizing into new and more deadly forms that pose grave challenges to the United States and the West. Middle Eastern terrorists are striking outside their home region, boldly attacking high-profile targets, and killing in a more indiscriminate manner. Last year the U.S., which had never suffered a major terrorist attack on its soil by Middle Eastern terrorists, was rocked by the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City, which killed six Americans and wounded over 1,000. This was the highest casualty toll ever recorded for a single terrorist incident. A subsequent bombing campaign against targets in New York City was stopped in its tracks in June 1993 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The World Trade Center bombing embodies several ominous trends in Middle Eastern terrorism. It epitomizes the drift toward large-scale, indiscriminate violence. It also underscores the degree to which radical Islamic extremists have supplanted radical nationalists, such as the Palestine Liberation Organization, as the chief Middle Eastern terrorist threat to the U.S. Moreover, radical Islamic groups are inciting Sunni (orthodox) Muslims to support revolutionary terrorism in Egypt and Algeria, just as radical Shia Muslims were incited by the Iranian revolution. Finally, the Sudanese connection of several of the bombers demonstrates how Sudan has become the "new Lebanon" -- a host for a wide variety of terrorist groups and an important bridge between Shia Iranian radicals and the new wave of Sunni Arab radicals.
The United States cannot afford to ignore the wake-up calls presented by the World Trade Center bombing and the foiled Iraqi- sponsored assassination attempt against former President George Bush during his April 1993 visit to Kuwait. The taboo against international terrorist attacks inside the country and against important national symbols has been broken. Washington must lead a concerted international effort to make such terrorist attacks more difficult, more costly to the perpetrators, and more risky for the states that back them.
The Worldwide Spread of Middle Eastern terrorism
The U.S. is by no means the only country to feel the wrath of Middle Eastern terrorists in recent months. In July, 117 people were killed in a series of four bombings in nine days that swept Argentina, Panama, and Britain. Most, if not all, of this carnage is believed to be the handiwork of the world's most deadly terrorist organization -- Hezbollah (Party of God), an Iranian-sponsored and Syrian-backed terrorist group based in Lebanon that perpetrated the October 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. In August, radical Islamic terrorists seeking to overthrow the Algerian government killed two Chinese and five French citizens in Algeria, as part of a terrorist campaign against foreigners that has claimed 60 lives since September 1993.
Yet, the U.S. and its citizens have been the world's foremost targets of international terrorism in recent years. The FBI estimates that 32 percent of terrorist attacks worldwide from 1982 to 1992 were targeted against Americans or American property. (FBI Terrorist Research and Analytical Center, "Terrorism in the United States: 1982-1992" (Washington D.C., 1993), p. 11.) Middle Eastern terrorism remains the greatest terrorist threat to the United States. Although some 20 percent of all international terrorist incidents from 1982 to 1992 have been traced to Middle Eastern quarrels, these incidents have accounted for about 35 percent of terrorist-related fatalities. (Testimony of terrorism expert Brian Jenkins before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on International Security, International Organizations and Human Rights, March 12,1993.) Middle Eastern terrorist incidents repeatedly have drawn the U.S. into international crises. State-sponsored terrorist attacks against Americans have triggered U.S. military retaliation against Iran, Iraq, and Libya.
Iran has been the foremost state sponsor of terrorism since the 1979 Iranian revolution. But terrorist attacks against Western targets dropped off after the 1989 election of President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was more interested in rebuilding Iran with Western help than in exporting revolution. Now that Rafsanjani is steadily losing ground to more radical leaders in a bitter internal power struggle, there could be an escalation of Iranian-sponsored terrorism. Indeed, this may already have started to happen with Hezbollah's July bombing campaign.
Despite the growing danger, the Clinton Administration has failed to mount a credible effort to stem the tide of terrorism. Although it pays lip service to counterterrorism, the Administration unwisely remains wedded to a State Department reorganization plan that would downgrade the Office of Counterterrorism and signal friends and foes that fighting terrorism is not a high priority. To more fully protect American citizens from the scourge of Middle Eastern terrorism, the Clinton Administration should:
Make counterterrorism a top priority in American foreign policy.
The Administration should shelve its plan to downgrade the status of the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism and make terrorism a top permanent agenda item at the annual G-7 summits.
Tackle international terrorism as a form of low-intensity warfare.
Treating it as a purely criminal matter does not effectively address the issue of state-supported terrorism.
Punish state sponsors of terrorism on as many fronts as possible.
Raise the diplomatic, economic, political, and military costs of state terrorism to the point where they exceed the expected benefits.
Mobilize reluctant allies to maximize pressure on terrorist states and groups.
Washington increasingly should apply public pressure on allied governments, particularly in Europe, that appease terrorist states.
Maintain the option to retaliate unilaterally for terrorist attacks with decisive military force.
The use or threat of force is an essential deterrent to state- supported terrorism.
Stand firmly behind states threatened by Middle Eastern terrorism.
Algeria, Egypt, Israel, and Turkey require firm U.S. support and close cooperation against international terrorism.
Upgrade counterterrorism intelligence.
The FBI, CIA, and other intelligence agencies need to expand their sources of human intelligence on international terrorism and consult closely with allies and other concerned states.
Reform immigration laws to improve internal security.
Deportation proceedings should be streamlined, political asylum requests should be screened more quickly and decisively and visas should be denied to members of groups that use, support, or advocate terrorism. Federal criminal penalties for visa and passport forgeries should be toughened.
Work to restore order in anarchic areas where international terrorist groups thrive.
The U.S. should back efforts by the governments of Lebanon and Afghanistan to roll back the influence of Islamic radicals and dismantle terrorist training camps.
The Upsurge in Radical Islamic Terrorism Outside the Middle East
Middle Easterners are the prime suspects in a series of four terrorist attacks against far-flung Western targets in July. On July 18 a car bomb destroyed a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing 96 people and wounding more than 200. The next day a bomb destroyed a commuter plane in Panama, killing 21, most of them Jewish businessmen. A car bomb exploded outside the Israeli Embassy in Lebanon on July 27, wounding 13 people. The next day another car bomb demolished the London offices of a Jewish charity organization.
A previously unknown group calling itself Ansarallah (Partisans of God) claimed responsibility for the Buenos Aires and Panama bombings. American intelligence specialists believe that the group is a subsidiary of Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based radical Shiite terrorist organization. Sheik Sobhi Toufeili, the leader of Hezbollah's most militant faction, is suspected of being the leader of the group. (Louise Lief, "Partisans of Terror," U.S. News and World Report, August 8, 1994, p. 36.) There has been speculation that the attacks were meant to derail the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, because the bombings straddled Jordanian King Hussein's July trip to Washington to sign a non-belligerency accord with Israel. A more likely explanation, however, is that this spate of terrorism was a spillover of the intensifying fighting between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.
Hezbollah undoubtedly was smarting over Israel's capture of one of its leaders, Mustafa Dirani, in Lebanon on May 21. The radical Islamic terrorists also may have been angry over Israel's June 2 air strike that killed some 45 of its cadres in Lebanon. Israeli and American intelligence officials are said to have little doubt that Iran also was behind the July 18 Buenos Aires bombing. (Testimony of Steven Emerson, before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on International Security, International Organizations and Human Rights, August 1, 1994.) Up to 20 Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who train and equip Hezbollah forces, apparently were killed in the June 2 air strike. (Michael Parks, "Bombings Underscore World's Vulnerability," The Los Angeles Times, August 1, 1994, p. A3.) Iran was implicated in a similar terrorist operation in Argentina that took the lives of 29 people in March 1992. Hezbollah claimed responsibility for that bombing, which destroyed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, possibly retaliating for an earlier Israeli attack that killed its military chief. Electronic intelligence intercepts and an extensive forensic investigation revealed that Iranian officials had helped acquire the plastic explosives used in that 1992 bombing. (Steven Emerson, "Diplomacy That Can Stop Terrorism," The Wall Street Journal, July 22, 1994, p. A10.) Iran also has been implicated in the July 18 Buenos Aires bombing by an Iranian defector questioned by Argentine criminal investigators. (Gabriel Escobar, "Iranian Diplomats Said to Be Suspects in Blast at Argentine Jewish Center," The Washington Post, July 29, 1994, p. A27.)
The string of bombings in July greatly concerns U.S. counterterrorism officials. They are worried about the ability of Hezbollah terrorists to mount a sustained, coordinated, and well- organized terrorist campaign against targets all over the globe. (The car bomb used against the Israeli Embassy in London was delivered by a woman, a fact that has led some experts to doubt involvement of Hezbollah in that particular attack, because the organization previously has condemned the use of women in terrorist actions. Nevertheless, the possibility that a secular terrorist group carried out that attack does not necessarily let Iran off the hook, because Tehran has used secular groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command.) The attacks apparently were planned well in advance and utilized local support networks for reconnaissance and preparation. (Michael Parks, "Bombings Underscore World's Vulnerability," The Los Angeles Times, August 1, 1994, p. A3.) The July 19 mid-air bombing of a Panamanian commuter plane is especially troubling because it may be the first suicide terrorist attack on an airliner. (British counterterrorism officials secretly have warned British airlines to be on guard for suicide bombers. Jamie Dettner, "Airlines Warned of Suicide Bombers," The Washington Times, August 8, 1994, p. A15.)
The Continuing Mystery of the World Trade Center Bombing
The February 26, 1993, bombing of the World Trade Center was a curious terrorist operation. On the one hand it was well-planned and professional; the terrorists were able secretly to construct and deploy a massive truck bomb. On the other hand, it was a surprisingly amateurish operation. The four terrorists convicted of the attack took unnecessary risks, such as giving a correct name and address when renting a vehicle for delivering the bomb.
So far, no foreign state has been found responsible for the World Trade Center attack. But there are disturbing shreds of circumstantial evidence that point to possible Iranian or Iraqi involvement. Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, the radical Egyptian cleric who inspired and possibly directed the bombers, long has been on the Iranian payroll, according to Vincent Cannistraro, the former head of CIA counterterrorism operations. (Bill Gertz, "Iran Backs Terrorist Networks in U.S., Canada," The Washington Times, March 17, 1993, p. A7.) Sheik Omar regularly was given large sums of money by Iran's intelligence service, using Iran's delegation to the United Nations as a conduit. ("Washington Whispers," U.S. News and World Report, May 31, 1993, p. 23.) U.S. government investigators discovered that about $100,000 was transferred to the suspects before the bombing from banks in foreign countries, including Iran, but it is not known if this was payment for the attack or for other activities such as propaganda or recruitment. (Ralph Blumenthal, "$100,000 Is Linked to Trade Center Suspects," The New York Times, April 25, 1993, p. 41.)
Other signs point toward Iraq. For instance, the attack took place during the second anniversary of the ground offensive against Iraq in Operation Desert Storm. Terrorist attacks launched on anniversaries historically have been a common means of seeking vengeance in the Middle East. Another troubling circumstance is that Ramzi Yousef, who apparently set the plot in motion, entered the U.S. in 1992 on an Iraqi passport on a trip that began in Iraq. Moreover, Abdul Yasin, an Iraqi suspect who cooperated with the FBI and was released from jail, later flew back to Iraq and is now believed to be living in Baghdad. Many New York law enforcement officials reportedly believe that Iraq was involved, although they can not prove it. (Laurie Mylroie, "World Trade Center Bombing -- The Case of Secret Cyanide," The Wall Street Journal, July 26, 1994, p. A16.)
Iraq also would seem to have more to gain from such a terrorist operation than Iran. Saddam would have had a strong incentive to punish the U.S. for its role in Desert Storm. Iraq also may have wanted to provoke a confrontation between the U.S. and its arch-rival Iran by casting suspicion on Tehran for the bombing. This would strengthen Iraq's perceived value in the Middle East as a bulwark against revolutionary Iran, an argument Iraqi diplomats have made in attempts to persuade members of the United Nations Security Council to lift the U.N.-mandated sanctions against Iraq. (Iraq also had sponsored a similarly deceptive terrorist operation in June 1982, when it ordered the Abu Nidal Organization, a renegade Palestinian terrorist group, to shoot the Israeli Ambassador to Britain, an act which provoked Israel to punish the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) by invading Lebanon to destroy its base camps. The payoff for Iraq was that the Israelis dealt Iraq's rival Syria a sharp military setback in the course of the Lebanon War, and precluded Syria from joining its ally Iran in its 1980-1988 war with Iraq.)
A final disquieting consideration was the nature of the World Trade Center bomb itself. Not only was the bomb huge, loaded with 1,200 pounds of explosives, but it was customized with compressed hydrogen to magnify the blast and sodium cyanide to create a poisonous cloud after the explosion. (The sodium cyanide apparently burned up completely instead of turning into a gas. See Mylroie, op. cit., p. A16.) A bomb that big and sophisticated has never before been detonated by a terrorist group that did not have state sponsorship or long-standing experience in building explosive devices.
The New Breed of Radical Islamic Terrorists
The World Trade Center bombers are a new breed of terrorist. Unlike the tightly disciplined cells that dominated terrorism in the past, they functioned in a loosely organized ad hoc manner. Three of the six charged with the bombing were dedicated followers of Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, the fiery spiritual leader of the Islamic Group, a radical fundamentalist movement that has waged a terrorist campaign to overthrow the Egyptian government.
At least three of the six bombers had fought in the war in Afghanistan against Soviet and Afghan communists. The Sheik also made at least three visits there since 1980 and two of his sons reportedly fought there. Thousands of Muslims from roughly 40 countries flocked to Afghanistan following the 1979 Soviet invasion. (Pakistani officials estimated that at least 2800 foreign Muslims remained in Afghanistan in 1993. Edward Gargan, "Where Arab Militants Train and Wait," The New York Times, August 11, 1993, p. A8.) Radicalized veterans from the Afghan war -- called by some journalists the "University of Jihad"(Holy War) -- have returned home and have become the spearheads of radical Islamic movements in Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Egypt, Sudan, and many other places around the world. (Tim Weiner, "Blowback From the Afghan Battlefield," The New York Times Magazine, March 13, 1994, p. 53.) Hundreds of these "Afghanis" are being trained by Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Sudanese training camps.
Radical Islamic movements have mushroomed not only in the Muslim world, but also among Muslim immigrants in the West. The World Trade Center bombers were all either recent immigrants or illegal aliens. Although they may have been drawn to America by economic opportunities and political freedoms, these terrorists rejected America's values and what they considered to be its degenerate culture of materialism and secularism. Rejecting assimilation into the resented society of their host country, they were susceptible to incitement by Sheik Omar. What they did mirrors what happened in several other terrorism cases, such as Hezbollah's 1985-1986 bombing campaign in France and its bombings in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994. In all three cases, small portions of local immigrant communities provided support for the terrorist operations.
Ironically, many radical Islamic movements outlawed in their own countries have found sanctuary in Western countries. So long as they are in the West, they cannot be arrested by the police back home. Like Sheik Omar, leaders of these radical movements lambaste their host countries while taking advantage of their open political systems to travel freely, organize politically, raise funds, recruit new members, support underground opposition movements in their home countries, and sometimes to direct terrorist activities. Germany long has been a base for Islamic extremists. (German intelligence officials estimate that about 700 Arab extremists live there, along with over 42,000 other foreign extremists. Jim McGee, "U.S. Pledges Global Pursuit in Bombing," The Washington Post, March 13, 1993.) The U.S. has become a safe haven for Hezbollah, the Islamic Group, Algerian fundamentalists, and Palestinian fundamentalists. Israeli officials claim that Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement), the radical Palestinian Islamic group that is using terrorism to undermine the nascent Palestinian-Israeli peace, actually is directed from a headquarters in the United States. (Ehud Yaari, "A Safe Haven for Hamas in America," The New York Times, January 27, 1993.)
The support networks that these terrorist groups are forming inside the U.S. for fundraising, recruitment, and propaganda activities could become the nucleus for terrorist attacks on American soil. These potential terrorists are dangerous because, unlike hit teams dispatched from the Middle East, they are now blending into Western societies where they have established personal and communal roots. U.S. counterterrorism officials worry that "sleeper cells" already established inside the U.S. could lie dormant for many years until activated for specific terrorist actions. (The FBI discovered a sleeper cell of the Abu Nidal organization inside the U.S. in 1986 and arrested four Palestinian members in April 1993 after one member of the group murdered his daughter. See William Carley, "A Trail of Terror," The Wall Street Journal, June 16, 1993, p. A1.)
Moreover, the decentralized structure of many of the radical Islamic movements makes it difficult for host governments to detect, defend against, or apprehend terrorists lurking within these movements. The loosely linked informal webs of Islamic militants, often organized in small groups around a charismatic cleric, are harder to track and infiltrate than the more rigidly organized Palestinian terrorist groups that have been a major threat for decades. The Palestinian groups had a more straightforward organization and often were corrupt and therefore susceptible to bribery. They also were easier to penetrate because infighting between rival organizations led them to provide information on each other.
The new breed of radical Islamic terrorist is more intractable, less likely to betray other terrorists, and more unpredictable. In contrast to long-established Palestinian terrorist groups who had more predictable targets and objectives, Islamic radicals have more unclear motives and a wider variety of targets. They not only attack Israel, secular governments in Muslim countries, and states that support the secular regimes they oppose, they also target reporters with whom they disagree, intellectuals they despise (such as Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses), and Western cultural institutions such as the American University in Beirut.
Most Palestinian terrorist groups refrained from assaulting Americans or launching attacks on American soil. The reason: they wanted to influence American public opinion to change U.S. foreign policy and to drive a wedge between Israel and America. They made the cold-blooded political calculation that killing Americans would hurt, rather than help their political cause.
This self-imposed restraint often is not as strong among Islamic militants. This new breed of terrorist is hostile not only to American policies, but to many American values. For example, they reject secular law and democracy and the separation of church and state. They view American culture as a threat to Islamic piety and revile what they perceive to be the degenerate secular and materialist bias of American society. To Islamic radicals, the U.S. is the villainous successor of the European colonial empires that have sought to dominate the Middle East since the time of the crusades. In their holy war against the West, terrorism is an acceptable instrument for carrying out the will of God. Because they are motivated by apocalyptic zeal, and not sober political calculations, their choice of possible targets is much wider and more indiscriminate than that of other terrorists. Since they are less predictable, they can be more dangerous than Palestinian or other Middle Eastern terrorists.
Islamic radicals also often have a different audience in mind than Palestinian nationalists. Instead of using terrorism to influence Western powers to change their policies, they often use terrorism to punish Western powers and inspire other Muslims to rise up against the West. This focus on the Muslim audience rather than an American audience helps explain how the bombers of the World Trade Center could rationalize their bloody actions. The bombing was meant to demonstrate the power of Islamic radicals and the vulnerability of the U.S., not to lead the U.S. to rethink its Middle East policy.
The Persistent Threat of State-Sponsored Terrorism
The Middle East is a hotbed of state-sponsored terrorism. Five of the seven states that have been branded by the U.S. government as sponsors of international terrorism-- Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Syria--are located in the region. (Cuba and North Korea are the other two on the State Department's list of states that sponsor terrorism.) Moreover, 22 of the 41 major international terrorist groups described in the State Department's annual report on global terrorism are based in the Middle East. (See U.S. Department of State, Patterns of Global Terrorism: 1993, April 1994, Appendix B.) The region not only is infested with more terrorist groups than any other region, but these groups subscribe to a wider variety of ideologies and causes, ranging from Marxism to secular Arab, Armenian, Kurdish, and Palestinian nationalism to radical Islamic fundamentalism. Each year the Middle East is the world's foremost exporter of terrorism, with most of the spillover afflicting Western Europe. (Between 1980 and 1989 over 400 terrorist actions spilled over from the Middle East to other regions, with 87 percent of these actions occurring in Western Europe. Paul Wilkinson, "Terrorism, Iran and the Gulf Region," Jane's Intelligence Review, May 1992, p. 222.)
Because of the heavy concentration of terrorist states and terrorist groups, most new trends in terrorism develop in the Middle East, then spread quickly to other regions. Radical Palestinian groups such as the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) pioneered the tactic of airline hijackings after the 1967 Arab- Israeli war. When improved airport security measures made hijacking more difficult, Palestinian groups such as the 15 May organization were in the forefront of the trend of airline bombings.
Most terrorist groups prior to 1970 were autonomous organizations of indigenous dissidents that pursued their own agendas without outside support. (Neil Livingston and Terrell Arnold, eds., Fighting Back: Winning the War Against Terrorism (Lexington, Mass: D.C. Heath, 1986) p. 12.) During the 1970s the Soviet Union and its satellites greatly expanded their support for terrorist groups. Moscow often used Middle Eastern client states such as Iraq, Libya, Syria, and the former People's Democratic Republic of South Yemen as intermediaries to mask Soviet arms, training, intelligence, and logistical support for a wide variety of terrorist groups.
The radical Arab states, which regularly used terrorism as a tool of repression against internal opposition, sought their own terrorist surrogates to wield as weapons against Israel, Western powers, and other Middle Eastern states. Libya, Syria, and Iraq courted Palestinian splinter groups or created their own Palestinian puppet organizations to buttress their claims to Arab leadership. These puppets also were used as proxy terrorists who, if caught, would not bring down retaliation on the head of the state sponsor.
The 1979 Iranian revolution brought Iran into the forefront of international terrorism. Iran organized, trained, equipped, and financed Shiite revolutionary movements such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Ad Dawa (The Call) in Iraq and the Gulf States. Under Iranian supervision, Hezbollah unleashed a lethal terrorist campaign in 1983 to drive the Western peacekeeping forces out of Lebanon, bombing the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in April and the Marine barracks in October. After Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was elected President in 1989, Iranian support for international terrorism was toned down and the Western hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon gradually were released by the end of 1991. But assassinations of Iranian exile leaders continued at an alarming pace. Government-sponsored terrorism also was supplemented by terrorism financed by Iranian so-called charitable foundations, many of which are controlled by radical clerics opposed to many of Rafsanjani's policies. One of these, the Fifteenth of Khordad Foundation, has put a $2 million bounty on the head of Salman Rushdie, condemned to death as a blasphemer by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. (Rushdie's publishers, translators, and bookstores that sell his books have been targeted for terrorist attacks. In the last five years 113 people have died in violence related to the Rushdie affair in more than 20 countries. See Bizhan Torabi, "The West, Iran Deadlocked Over Rushdie," The Washington Times, February 16, 1994, p. A13.)
President Rafsanjani's power steadily has been eroded by radical rivals who have gained dominance over the Iranian parliament. He is a lame duck, prohibited by the Iranian constitution from running for re- election for a third term in 1996. As the struggle to succeed him intensifies, there is a good chance that Iran's support for terrorism will escalate. The West and the U.S. make convenient targets for hard- liners in their fight to seize power. In fact, Iran already has become more aggressive in supporting terrorism. In addition to suspected Iranian involvement in the July bombings in Buenos Aires and London, three Iranians await trial in Thailand for an attempt to bomb the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok in March. In April, the British government charged that it had clear evidence of growing contacts between Irish Republican Army terrorists and Iranian embassies in Europe. (In addition to providing money and possibly arms to the I.R.A., London charged that Iran also was building links to the Syria-based Japanese Red Army. Stewart Dalby, "Iran Accused of Terrorist Links," Financial Times, April 29, 1994, p. 1.) In May, more than 300 Iranian Revolutionary Guards arrived in Bosnia to organize Muslim militias and terrorist groups, according to U.S. intelligence sources. (Bill Gertz, "Iranians Move into Bosnia to Terrorize Serbs," The Washington Times, June 2, 1994, p. A1.)
Toward a More Effective U.S. Counterterrorism Policy
The U.S. has an historic opportunity to crack down on Middle East terrorism. The end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Empire have deprived Middle Eastern terrorist states of superpower backing. The embryonic peace agreement between Israel and the PLO has reduced one source of terrorism, although Palestinian rejectionists both within and outside the PLO continue their terrorist war against Israel. Iraq's defeat in the Gulf War and subsequent isolation has constrained state support from that quarter, particularly as long as Baghdad moderates its policies in an effort to wriggle out of U.N.- sponsored economic sanctions. Iran and Libya are isolated and beset by substantial economic problems caused in part by low oil prices. Sudan's radical Islamic regime is drained by a long-running civil war and a grim economic situation. Syria faces a precarious future as President Hafez al-Assad, not in the best of health, plots his personal political endgame.
All of these Middle Eastern regimes, which have exported so much terrorism-related misery, are simultaneously vulnerable on a number of different fronts. In the past they have been able to shrug off Western demands to halt their support of terrorism. But now that they have lost Soviet backing and have become increasingly dependent on the West for economic support, that is no longer true. The West now has more influence and leverage over these states. Moreover, many of these regimes are threatened by internal political opposition, or the prospect of such opposition in the near future. The U.S. and other Western powers, therefore, gain potential leverage by supporting or threatening to support opposition groups hostile to terrorist regimes.
While the threat or actual use of force is the ultimate deterrent to terrorism, experienced terrorist states and groups often are successful in concealing their responsibility for terrorist outrages to avoid military reprisals. To deter terrorism, Washington must convince its allies and other concerned states to increase the diplomatic, economic, military,and political costs of state-supported terrorism. A unified Western campaign to curtail Middle Eastern terrorism now has a greater chance for success than ever before. Only the U.S. can forge and lead such a coalition. To build an international consensus to combat terrorism and to follow through and act on that consensus, the Clinton Administration should:
Make counterterrorism a top priority in American foreign policy.
The Clinton Administration must drop its short-sighted plan for downgrading the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism. This reorganization plan would fold that office into a new Bureau for Narcotics, Terrorism and Crime and demote the Coordinator for Counterterrorism from the current equivalent of an Assistant Secretary of State to the level of a Deputy Assistant Secretary. L. Paul Bremer, a former Ambassador-at-Large for Counterterrorism, noting that the office would be "gutted," charged that: "The Clinton Administration has neglected the terrorist threat, with our public officials paying only lip service to the problem." (L. Paul Bremer, "With Assad, Talk About Terrorism," The Wall Street Journal, January 14, 1994, p. A10.)
Congress has temporarily blocked the Administration's plans. Under the leadership of Representative Benjamin Gilman (R-NY), the House voted on April 18, 1994, to retain an independent Office of Counterterrorism. But the Administration has not given up on its reorganization plan, which originated in the Bush Administration as a cost-cutting measure.
Congress will again have to wrestle with the reorganization plan after April 30, 1995, when the Gilman amendment expires. At that time, Congress should consider insisting that the Administration permanently shelve its plans to downgrade State's counterterrorism office. This office instead must be given the bureaucratic clout to champion tough anti-terrorism policies against other bureaus in the State Department, or in other departments, that have little or no interest in combating terrorism. Therefore, the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, who is the U.S. government's senior full-time counterterrorism official, must have direct access to the Secretary of State, and not be relegated, as the Administration plans, to the bottom of a cumbersome reporting chain. To secure the diplomatic clout that is needed to impress U.S. allies and terrorist nations, the Coordinator should be restored to the status of ambassador-at-large, as was the case during the Reagan Administration.
Washington should aggressively raise the profile of the counterterrorism issue by injecting it into every multilateral diplomatic forum and every high-level bilateral meeting with officials from allied governments or terrorist regimes. The U.S. should ensure that the issue of terrorism appears automatically on the agenda at every G-7 summit. The Coordinator for Counterterrorism should become a permanent fixture at the summits as the prime mover in a multilateral working group on counterterrorism.
Tackle international terrorism as a form of low-intensity warfare.
Terrorism is the most ubiquitous kind of low-intensity conflict. Yet, it is too often treated primarily as a law enforcement issue. While bringing the rule of law to bear on terrorists is desirable, it is not always possible, particularly when terrorists are being protected by a state sponsor. In cases of state-supported terrorism, which the CIA estimates comprise up to 80 percent of all international terrorism, it is not realistic to rely solely on law enforcement agencies to fight terrorists.
State-supported terrorism is in effect an act of war and should be approached as a form of surrogate warfare. The U.S. should not unnecessarily hobble itself in this war against terrorism by treating state-sponsored foreign terrorists the same as it treats domestic terrorist groups. Counterterrorist forces should not require courtroom standards of evidence before they take action. Adopting a narrow legalistic approach to fighting terrorism would lead to American paralysis and terrorism would proliferate unchecked.
The U.S. should make use of the full arsenal of its weapons against terrorism by relaxing self-imposed restrictions on special operations. For example, Executive Order No. 11905, signed in 1976, was designed to prohibit assassinations of foreign leaders, but it also has been interpreted as prohibiting commando assaults on terrorist groups. This executive order should be refined to permit such special operations, particularly against terrorist groups that have killed Americans in the past, such as Hezbollah or the Abu Nidal organization. Counterterrorist teams also should be deployed to apprehend terrorists in anarchic areas such as Lebanon or Afghanistan, and not just in international waters or airspace.
The U.S. should also make greater use of non-violent covert actions, such as the dissemination of disinformation to create dissension inside terrorist groups and psychological warfare to aggravate the terrorists' sense of vulnerability and to encourage distrust of their state sponsors. Agents of influence, wherever they can be inserted, would help to disrupt terrorist operations and turn terrorists against each other. Sabotage operations also should be launched against the safehouses, logistics support networks, and financial assets of terrorist groups.
Punish state sponsors of terrorism on as many fronts as possible.
Middle Eastern states have relied heavily on state-sponsored terrorism because it is a cost-effective tool to their foreign policies. The U.S. should work with its allies and other concerned states to raise the diplomatic, economic, political, and military costs of supporting terrorism so high that it outweighs the strategic benefits.
Countries victimized by terrorism in the past have broken relations or reduced the size of the diplomatic mission of the state sponsor. This helps limit the threat of terrorism, because much of it is directed, supported, and financed by intelligence personnel operating under diplomatic cover. But diplomatic sanctions usually have been unilateral, ad hoc responses that have had little effect on terrorist states. Washington should propose an agreement among the G-7 and NATO allies that would require all of them to expel large numbers of diplomats, if not break diplomatic relations completely, with states that support terrorist attacks. Moreover, diplomatic personnel of these states should be expelled for each confirmed terrorist attack by a surrogate terrorist group.
This measure would raise the public uproar over terrorism and increase the costs of each attack. This may give pause to some terrorist states, particularly those such as Iran and Sudan, that want the West to bail them out of dire economic predicaments. At a minimum, reducing the diplomatic presence of terrorist states will make it harder for them to support terrorism out of their embassies. For example, the expulsion of diplomats greatly undermined Iraq's ability to export terrorism during the 1991 Gulf War.
Regardless of whether it can gain G-7 support for such an agreement, the U.S. should pressure its allies to pare down the diplomatic presence of Iranian and Sudanese diplomats in their countries. Diplomats from Iran and Sudan have been implicated in the July bombing in Buenos Aires and in the 1993 bomb plots in New York City. The Iranian diplomatic presence particularly should be cut back in Germany and Venezuela, which are centers for Iran's intelligence and terrorist networks.
Washington should persuade its allies to participate in developing a multilateral version of the State Department's list of states that support terrorism. Once placed on the list, a terrorist state should be denied economic assistance, arms sales, and preferential trade privileges from all participating states. Further, the allies would be committed to voting against financial aid for that state in international financial institutions such as the World Bank. If Western Europe and Japan presented a united front in threatening to impose sanctions, it could have a sobering effect on the five Middle Eastern terrorist states. All, with the possible exception of Libya, will require Western or Japanese economic assistance, loans or renegotiation of existing loans in the near future. Iran already is staggering under the financial burden of its $30 billion foreign debt. Iraq owes foreign creditors more than $14 billion, Syria owes $16.5 billion, and Sudan's foreign debt is in excess of $16 billion. Now that the Soviet Union has dissolved, they have no place else to go. The U.S. should convince its allies to take advantage of their financial leverage and elevate counterterrorism to the forefront of economic aid and loan renegotiation decisions.
Trade sanctions against terrorist states will be more difficult to extract from the Western Europeans and Japanese since they see Iran, Iraq, and Libya as potentially lucrative export markets and important sources of oil supplies. France and other countries already are impatient to lift the U.N.-sponsored economic sanctions on Iraq. To block this, Washington should make Iraq a high-priority test case for Western anti-terrorism cooperation. The U.S. should stress Iraq's abortive plot to assassinate former President George Bush during his visit to Kuwait in April 1993 (For more on Iraq's assassination plot, see James A. Phillips, "Punish Saddam's Terrorism With Military Action," Heritage Foundation Executive Memorandum No. 358, June 11, 1993.) and Baghdad's continuing terrorist attacks on the Kurds and on U.N. personnel in northern Iraq. To test Baghdad's intentions, Washington should request the extradition of Abdul Yasin, an Iraqi who participated in the plot to bomb the World Trade Center, who returned to Iraq. (Yasin was seen outside his father's house in Baghdad by an ABC News reporter earlier this year. Mylroie, op. cit.) If Baghdad balks at observing the terms of the extradition treaty that it signed with the U.S., then it clearly will be in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution Number 687 (April 1991), which called on Iraq to abandon its support of terrorism. This violation could become a justification for maintaining the U.N. sanctions on Iraq.
The Europeans have been more cooperative in imposing economic sanctions on Libya for its refusal to extradite two suspects in the 1988 Pan Am flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland. But these U.N.-imposed sanctions have fallen short of an embargo on Libyan oil. The U.S. should expand the sanctions to include Libya's oil exports. Washington should work through the U.N. Security Council to impose an oil export regime similar to the one imposed on Iraq: oil revenues would be funneled into a U.N.-administered escrow account that could be used to pay reparations to the families of victims of Libyan terrorism. This could be a model to punish other terrorist states that block international efforts to apprehend terrorists.
Another terrorist state that is extremely vulnerable to concerted international economic sanctions because of its crumbling economy is Sudan. It already has sought to appease the West by turning over the notorious Venezuelan-born terrorist Illich Ramirez Sanchez, alias "Carlos the Jackal," to France on August 15. (Carlos was a terrorist playboy who had outlived his usefulness to Syria, which had harbored him until 1991. Carlos's leftist politics did not endear him to Sudan's radical Islamic regime.)
Iran will be a more difficult case because of the reluctance of America's allies, particularly Germany and Japan, to sacrifice their short-term commercial interests in exporting to Iran. Now that Iran is having difficulty repaying its debts, foreign creditors may be more willing to consider trade sanctions against Tehran. In any case, the U.S. could strengthen its case for economic sanctions against Iran if President Clinton blocks the proposed $750 million sale of up to 20 Boeing 737 jetliners to Iran and prohibits U.S. oil companies, the largest purchasers of Iranian oil, from buying Iran's oil exports. (American oil companies currently are prohibited from importing Iranian oil into the U.S. but are allowed to buy it for resale elsewhere. See James Phillips, "Containing Iran," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 980, March 9, 1994.)
The U.S. should drive up the prospective political costs of state-sponsored terrorism. This can be done by supporting opposition groups in countries that engage in international terrorism. All Middle Eastern terrorist states have generated domestic opposition. Washington should provide diplomatic, economic, and even military support to the most viable opposition groups in terrorist states. The Kurds in Iraq, the resistance movements in southern Sudan, pro-Western exile groups and the increasingly restless Azeris, Baluch, and Kurds in Iran, and Libyan dissidents all merit increased American and Western support. The Assad regime in Syria has brutally eliminated most domestic opposition, but President Assad's persistent health problems and the recent death of his son and heir apparent, Basil, has increased uncertainty about the political durability of Syria's minority Alawite regime. Although there may be no viable opposition inside Syria in the short run, the U.S. should increase its diplomatic support for an independent Lebanon free from Syrian domination.
Mobilize reluctant allies to maximize pressure on terrorist states and groups.
Western Europe has borne the brunt of the spillover of Middle Eastern terrorism, yet historically has been reluctant to take determined action against it. Too often, European states have sought to appease terrorist states and cut separate deals with them, rather than take a unified stand against terrorism. Last October, Germany hosted a visit by Iran's Minister of Intelligence and Security, Ali Fallahiyan, the overseer of much of Iran's terrorist operations. France appeased Iran last December by expelling two suspected Iranian terrorists whose extradition had been sought by Switzerland for the 1990 assassination of an Iranian opposition leader in Geneva.
The U.S. must drive home to its allies that appeasement of terrorism is a self-defeating policy that only encourages more terrorism. France may be ripe for persuasion, now that an upsurge in terrorist attacks against French citizens in Algeria led Paris to crack down on exiled Algerian radicals in France in early August. France now criticizes the U.S. and Germany for allowing exiled Algerian radicals to continue to operate freely within their borders. Washington should cooperate with France and closely monitor the activities of Algerian radicals in the U.S., while pressing Paris to support greater international cooperation in isolating terrorist states, particularly Iran.
Germany and Japan, the two biggest exporters to Iran, are the weak links in Western efforts to isolate Iran. Both states argue that they aid Iranian "moderates" by maintaining good trade and diplomatic relations with Iran. This rationale has grown increasingly threadbare in view of Iran's continued support of terrorism. Besides, Iran's "moderates" are losing ground to more radical elements in Tehran who are likely to escalate terrorism unless confronted with firm international pressures. The U.S. should strongly warn Germany and Japan, first privately and increasingly in public, that appeasement only encourages Iran and other terrorist states to believe that terrorism is cost-free. Worse, by conducting preferential trade relations with Iran and granting it foreign aid and loans, Germany and Japan are subsidizing Iran's terrorism.
Washington also should press its allies to establish a high-level central office for coordinating counterterrorism policies. These offices could act as liaisons with allied counterterrorism agencies. Modeled on the U.S. Office of Counterterrorism, these offices would help raise the profile of counterterrorism as an international issue and make international cooperation more effective and timely. Washington also should lobby all its allies to adopt stiffer penalties for terrorism, including longer jail terms and the seizure of the assets of terrorist groups or states. The Europeans, in particular, should be pressed to stop releasing terrorists before their sentences have been completed.
Washington also should press Saudi Arabia to halt the flow of financial aid to radical Islamic movements. Substantial sums of money from private Saudi religious foundations and individuals have bankrolled Sheik Abdul Rahman and other radical fundamentalists. Riyadh placed restrictions on the flow of these funds outside the country in 1993 but needs to more carefully control the activities of the Islamic foundations to prevent them from meddling in the internal affairs of other Muslim countries.
Maintain the option to retaliate unilaterally for terrorist attacks with decisive military force.
The use or threat of use of military force is essential for punishing and deterring state-sponsored terrorism. The military response should be designed to raise the cost of terrorism above the price a terrorist state is willing to pay. The U.S. should not get bogged down in a tit-for-tat exchange by limiting its attacks merely to terrorist training camps. Instead, it should strike targets that the terrorist state highly values, such as its internal security forces and secret police. For example, if Iran or one of its surrogates, such as Hezbollah, lashes out at an American target, the U.S. should not content itself with destroying a few easily replaceable terrorist camps in Lebanon or Iran. Rather, the U.S. should attack Iran's Revolutionary Guards which train terrorists and provide internal security, as well as Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security.
A sharp and decisive military reprisal not only can have a deterrent effect on the terrorist state attacked, it also can have a strong demonstration effect on other states that support terrorism. For example, the April 1986 air strikes against Libya had a significant impact on Syria as well as Libya. According to the State Department, Libya reduced its involvement in international terrorism from 19 incidents in 1986 to six in 1987, while Syrian involvement fell from 34 in 1985 to six in 1986 and to one in 1987.
Special operations are an important option for fighting terrorists close to innocent civilians, in hostage rescue operations, and in efforts to apprehend terrorist leaders. The Pentagon must make an effort to maintain the strength and readiness of the Special Operations Command which includes the elite "Delta Force," Army Special Operations Forces, Navy Seals, Marine Reconnaissance teams, and a special assault unit from the 101st Air Assault Division. These forces should be periodically dispatched on anti-terrorism training exercises in friendly Middle Eastern states to give them familiarity with the region and experience with desert warfare.
Stand firmly behind states threatened by Middle Eastern terrorism.
Middle Eastern terrorists pose much more of a threat to secular and moderate regimes in the Muslim world than to the West. Islamic revolutionary movements have used terrorism to undermine and demoralize ruling governments, polarize societies, and intimidate secular opposition. Terrorists have become the shock troops of Islamic revolutionary movements seeking the overthrow of the governments of Egypt and Algeria. The U.S. has a major stake in both countries. A radical Islamic revolution in either of them would send shock waves throughout the Arab world.
Washington should steadfastly support the governments of Egypt and Algeria in their efforts to reach an accommodation with political opposition groups while firmly suppressing terrorists. American diplomats should not meet publicly with radical Islamic leaders because this could undermine the existing government. Nor should Washington permit radical Islamic leaders, such as Tunisian revolutionary Rashid el-Ghanoushi, to visit America unless they reject terrorism. Nor should it pressure any government to enter talks with any group that supports terrorism. Whenever possible the U.S. should share its intelligence on terrorist groups and their supporters with the governments battling revolutionary terrorists.
In addition to supporting moderate Arab regimes threatened by terrorism, the U.S. should cooperate closely with Turkey and Israel in combating terrorism. Both countries are valuable sources of intelligence on international terrorism and should be furnished with American intelligence on terrorist activities in a timely manner. The U.S. also should maintain relentless pressure on Syria to halt its support for the Kurdish Workers Party and the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, two terrorist groups that have killed scores of Turks. Moreover, Washington should strongly back Israel's demand that any Syrian-Israeli peace agreement must include guarantees that Syria will cease its support for Palestinian terrorists and help end Hezbollah's rein of terror in Lebanon.
Upgrade counterterrorism intelligence.
Fighting terrorism effectively requires detailed and timely intelligence about the operations of terrorist groups, their support networks and their state sponsors. The FBI has made effective use of intelligence information to pre-empt at least 78 terrorist plots since 1982. (Estimate provided by Kevin Giblin, Senior Intelligence Officer for Counterterrorism, FBI, in an August 3, 1993 Forum of the U.S. Global Strategy Council entitled "Terrorism: The Next Phase?") But the new breed of radical Islamic terrorists, organized in informal amorphous groups, presents a new challenge for intelligence-gathering. To maintain and expand its intelligence network, the FBI should make a systematic effort to recruit Arab-Americans and American Muslims.
The CIA needs to upgrade the volume and quality of its human intelligence on terrorist groups and states. It must develop a more extensive network of agents dedicated to counterterrorism intelligence and infiltrate terrorist groups on a long-term basis. The CIA should make every effort to recruit American and foreign personnel with extensive knowledge of and experience in the cultures and societies of their terrorist adversaries. The CIA's Counterterrorist Center, created in 1986 by President Reagan after the hijacking of TWA flight 847, should be expanded and devote more resources to surveillance of the new breed of radical Islamic terrorists. The National Security Agency and various defense intelligence agencies should be directed to give counterterrorism a higher priority in their intelligence- gathering efforts. The Defense Department also should consider dedicating more of its reconnaissance satellites to gathering information on possible military targets related to terrorism, such as terrorist bases and training camps in terrorist states and the Syrian- controlled areas of Lebanon.
In addition, the U.S. should improve its efforts to reward informants who provide useful information about terrorist activities. The State Department's International Counterterrorism reward program provides monetary awards of up to $2 million for information on terrorist activities against Americans. It has led to the defection of more than ten terrorist informants and the prevention of nearly a dozen acts of terrorism against Americans. This program should be publicized more widely in the Middle East. A recent report that a valuable informant was treated shabbily by the U.S. government is disconcerting because it could lead the trickle of informants to dry up. (See Jill Smolowe, "A Hero's Unwelcome," Time, May 9, 1994, p. 50.) Informants who risk their lives to provide important intelligence should be promptly rewarded for their efforts.
Reform immigration laws to improve internal security.
Sheik Abdul Rahman and two of the World Trade Center bombers entered the country illegally. They eventually were caught but were allowed to remain in the country pending subsequent legal proceedings. This situation is intolerable. Congress should reform the immigration laws to accelerate deportation proceedings and simplify and consolidate the lengthy procedural hearings and appeal system that permit illegal and undocumented aliens to evade immigration controls. Applicants for political asylum should be screened to weed out and immediately deport those without a credible basis for asylum.
Tougher penalties should be imposed on the production or use of fraudulent passports and visas. Nine of the original 35 indictable counts in the 1993 New York bombing plots involved visa or passport offenses. The recently passed crime bill contains a measure that will double the maximum prison terms for such crimes from 5 to 10 years (and increase to 20 years if the documents were used to facilitate terrorism) and boost fines from $2,000 to $250,000. A companion measure sponsored by Representative Gilman, which currently is under consideration by the House Judiciary Committee, would allow the government to seize the assets of criminals convicted of creating or using false documents for terrorism or drug smuggling. If passed, this measure would make it harder for terrorists to obtain false documents.
Finally, the U.S. government should automatically deny visas to members of groups that advocate, support, or participate in terrorism. Unfortunately, the 1990 Immigration and Naturalization Act killed the provisions of the 1952 McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act that allowed the U.S. government to restrict the entry into the U.S. of members of a group deemed a threat to U.S. security. The State Department now wrings its hands over denying visas solely because of membership in a terrorist group. This loophole, which puts the nation at risk, needs to be closed. Congress should pass legislation that enables the U.S. government to deny visas to foreigners because of membership in terrorist groups rather than requiring proof of personal involvement in terrorist acts, as is now the case.
Restore order in anarchic areas where international terrorist groups thrive.
Many of the World Trade Center bombers were supporters of the radical Afghan group Hezbi Islami (Party of Islam) led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a virulently anti-Western Islamic militant. Some reportedly were trained in Hezbi Islami camps and fought in the Afghan war. The U.S. should drop its short-sighted hands-off policy in Afghanistan that has led it to remain neutral in the fighting between Hekmatyar's Islamic zealots and the provisional government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani. With a limited commitment of financial aid, the U.S. can greatly strengthen the ability of the moderate Afghan forces to defeat Hekmatyar's drive to transform Afghanistan into a revolutionary Islamic state. By bolstering Rabbani's regime, the U.S. could help end the anarchy that gives terrorists a foothold in Afghanistan. (See James Phillips, "Winning the Endgame in Afghanistan," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder Update No. 181, May 18, 1992.)
In addition, Washington should press Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to end their support of Hekmatyar.
The U.S. also should revive its efforts to build a stable and independent Lebanon. Syria has sought to keep the Lebanese weak and divided to assure its own dominance there. It has vetoed the efforts of the Lebanese government to extend its control into southern Lebanon and disarm Hezbollah. The U.S. should insist that Syria abide by the terms of the 1989 Taif agreement, which require Syria to withdraw its 40,000 troops to eastern Lebanon and permit the Beirut government to extend its control over its own territory. Only then will Lebanon cease to be a staging area for international terrorism.
Middle Eastern terrorism has become more unpredictable and audacious. Radical Islamic terrorists inspired by Iranian, Algerian, and Egyptian revolutionary movements have overshadowed Palestinian nationalist terrorists as a threat to the West. These new terrorists often are supported by networks of radical Islamic activists who live in Muslim communities in the West. Even more worrisome is the training, arms, financial support, and guidance which radical Islamic terrorists receive from such states as Iran and Sudan.
International terrorism is not likely to be eradicated, but it can be weakened considerably if increased diplomatic, economic, political, and military pressure is brought to bear on the state sponsors of terrorism. The U.S. must lead an international campaign to raise the costs of terrorism. This will require a coordinated, firm, and relentless international effort. This kind of cooperation paid off in disarming Iraqi terrorism during the Gulf War, and it can work again. The U.S. must convince its allies that they now are involved, whether they want to be or not, in an international war against terrorism.
To do so, the Clinton Administration must do more to stop international terrorism. It must shelve its misguided plan to downgrade the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism, toughen its approach to terrorist states, and remain vigilantly on guard against terrorist movements. Only then will its allies sacrifice their short-term commercial interests to advance the long-term security interests of the West and other targets of Middle Eastern terrorists.
James A. Phillips is a Senior Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation.
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