9 January 1999. Thanks to A.
World Affairs Council
16 November 1998
DCI Counterterrorist Center
Central Intelligence Agency
Good afternoon. I'm very pleased to be with you to offer some perspectives on international terrorism, including the shape and nature of the problem, and what can be done, and is being done, about it. I thank the Council for its kind invitation, and I salute you for your interest in a topic that must seem very remote from this beautiful corner of our country.
The most basic, and most obvious, reason that you are correct to be concerned about this subject is that terrorism is a threat to lives and property. Those of us who work on the subject--in an intelligence, law enforcement, diplomatic, or any other role--have as our shared goal the saving of lives and property, particularly American lives. But the direct physical threat from terrorism can only be a partial justification for devoting concentrated attention and effort to the problem. However precious each life lost to terrorism is, the number of such lives, particularly American lives, that have been so lost has so far fortunately been small, compared to, say, the loss of life from highway accidents or common murders.
We need to be concerned about terrorism not just because of its direct physical costs but also because of the indirect costs to our nation, to its policies, to stability overseas, and to our everyday lives at home.
It is a cost of terrorism when terrorist attacks or the threat of them stymie efforts to resolve long-running regional conflicts.
In the Israeli-Palestinian equation, for example, terrorist violence by extremists on both sides has become one of the major barriers to achieving a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Israelis insist that a solution must be found to the problem of terrorist violence by the likes of Hamas and the Palestine Islamic Jihad. Arafat's Palestinian Authority replies that it is doing what it can but simply cannot control all of the activities of those groups. Terrorist violence by Jewish extremists has had a similar effect, enflaming passions on the Palestinian side and limiting the room for maneuver by any Palestinian leader. It was terrorism, and what to do about it, that was the biggest hurdle to overcome in reaching the Wye agreement last month, and it is terrorism that already has been, and will continue to be, the greatest threat to the agreement itself.
Similarly, in Northern Ireland, although a comprehensive agreement was reached this spring and has already become the stuff of which Nobel Peace Prizes are made, how the parties deal with the threat of renewed terrorism will be one of the biggest factors to determine whether the agreement succeeds or unravels. This is partly a matter of the IRA having retained its capability to use violence--the so-called decommissioning of arms issue--and partly a problem of fringe groups on both the Catholic and Protestant sides being able to use terrorism to derail implementation of the peace agreement.
There are other costs of terrorism, perhaps less apparent.
It is a cost of terrorism whenever countries that are otherwise our friends and allies limit their cooperation with the United States out of a concern for becoming a target of terrorists.
It is a cost of terrorism when US military commanders, out of a well-founded concern for their troops' security, make decisions about deployments and basing arrangements that are driven more by considerations of force protection than by operational effectiveness.
It is a cost of terrorism when US diplomatic missions are turned into walled fortresses that afford our diplomats protection but tend to isolate them from the local populations with which they are supposed to interact.
It is a cost of terrorism for our government to pay the salaries of me and others whose mission is to combat that scourge, and to pay even more for the countless security measures that have been erected at home as well as abroad to protect each of us.
And it is a cost of terrorism each time you have to empty your pockets at a metal detector, drive around a vehicle barrier, have your access to a public building made more difficult, or any other time your daily lives are made more inconvenient by antiterrorist security measures.
We are now in a period of heightened public concern about terrorism, as reflected by your invitation to have me come and address the subject. But the phenomenon is, of course, not at all new. Terrorism has been around as long as there have been people who have felt driven enough to use extreme and violent measures in pursuit of whatever is their cause, and ruthless enough to accept the deaths and sufferings of innocents in the process of using those measures.
Throughout terrorism's history--and to a very large degree this is still true today--terrorism has been a diverse phenomenon, involving a wide variety of perpetrators, ideologies, and objectives. There is no single terrorist profile that will enable us to comprehend what makes terrorists tick, no single type of goal that terrorists pursue, and no single type of conflict that, if resolved, would cause the phenomenon to waste away.
Consider the kinds of purposes that a terrorist leader or group might hope to achieve through any one terrorist act.
Perhaps the most rational, most finely calculated, type of terrorist act is one designed to gain leverage--to acquire bargaining chips to be used to gain some very specific objective. This has been the nature of countless hijackings, skyjackings, and hostage-takings through the years. When the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement in Peru seized the Japanese ambassador's residence a couple of years ago, for example, it was to acquire bargaining chips, in the form of Peruvian officials and foreign diplomats, to be exchanged, they hoped, for the freedom of their jailed comrades.
Other sorts of terrorist objectives depend more on the actual infliction of death and destruction than on the mere threat to do so. The attacks on our military forces in Saudi Arabia--in Riyadh in 1995 and at Khobar Towers in 1996--can be seen as part of an effort to drive the US military out of the Persian Gulf region, and with it the US ability to employ military forces in the area promptly and effectively. The attack on the US Marine barracks in Beirut more than a decade earlier had a similar goal.
As another sort of objective, terrorists might stage attacks as a way of showing the flag: of demonstrating to their adversaries, their patrons, their rank-and-file membership, or themselves that they are alive, kicking, and capable.
And, getting to objectives that are at least as much visceral as rational, terrorism can be an act of revenge. It was so for Lebanese Hizballah in its two major attacks against Jewish or Israeli-related targets in Buenos Aires: the Israeli embassy in 1992, and the AMIA building in 1994, each of which followed Israeli actions taken against Hizballah leaders or facilities in Lebanon.
Even more visceral--and here we come to a mode of terrorist thinking that is farthest removed from the way you or I think--is the objective of inflicting as much pain and suffering as possible on an adversary simply because of hatred for that adversary. This is mostly what the bombing of the World Trade Center five years ago was about, and it is mostly what the bombings of our embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam this August were about. This isn't eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth revenge or retaliation; it is simple, savage, elemental hatred of Americans and what they stand for.
I'll get back to the perpetrators of those latter tragedies in a moment, but let us first note the other dimensions of the diversity of international terrorism, and what some of the recent patterns have been.
The individuals involved are certainly diverse. They include the hapless youth who is recruited for a suicide mission, and the cunning organizer who recruits him. They include imams and illiterates, sheiks and soldiers.
The ideologies are similarly diverse. Just over the past couple of decades the principal terrorist threats to US interests have appeared to come, at one time or another, from the left or from someplace on the political spectrum other than the left, from secular extremists or from religious ones, and from groups of a particular nationality or from universalist movements.
Now, one of the principal changes in the face of international terrorism over the past decade has been a substantial decline in--and in some areas, the virtual disappearance of--leftist terrorism. European leftist groups that were so active in the seventies and eighties--such as the Italian Red Brigades or the German Red Army Faction--have been relegated to the dustbin of history, victims of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and the general discrediting of their ideology, as well as of enhanced counterterrorist efforts that many Western governments initiated in the 1980s. In April of this year--as a sort of punctuation mark to this salubrious trend--we saw the unusual event of a terrorist group formally announcing its own dissolution. In a letter to news media, the Red Army Faction--which had not actually carried out a terrorist act in five years--declared that it was "stuck in a dead end," that it was ending its project, and that the RAF was now history.
The decline of the leftists is one of the reasons for an overall reduction in the frequency of international terrorism since the mid-1980s. But while the frequency--the raw number of incidents--has declined, the lethality of terrorism has, if anything, been tending upward in recent years. There has been relatively less of the finely tuned use of terrorist tactics to acquire bargaining chips, and relatively more attempts to inflict high casualties, motivated by revenge or simple hatred. The signature terrorist act of the 1990s is not the airplane hijacking or group kidnapping, but rather the powerful truck bomb that levels buildings and kills people by the scores, if not by the hundreds.
These trends in the ideologies and the tactics of terrorists are related. It is no accident that the most conspicuous case in the last couple of years of the old-style tactic of taking hostages and bargaining--that is, the takeover of the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima--came at the hands of an old-style, now anachronistic group like the Tupac Amaru. The perpetrators of the newer brand of high-casualty terrorism are of a different breed.
This is not to say that there are not plenty of other groups, besides the leftists, who are and/or continue to be major parts of the international terrorist scene but have strong reasons not to engage in indiscriminate bloodletting. I'm speaking in particular of organizations whose goal is self-determination, through either autonomy or statehood, for a group of people who are defined in terms of ethnicity, language, or religion. Palestinians have, through the years, been by far the most prominent of the terrorists driven by self-determination. But there are also Irish, Basques, Serbs, Kurds, Armenians, Sikhs, Kashmiris, Tamils, and others.
For most of these groups, a significant disincentive to using terrorism to lash out against the United States or other Western states is that part of their goal is eventually to be accepted by, and to operate as a normal part of, the community of nations. They want to create and lead entities that will conduct foreign policies, receive foreign aid, and transact normal business that requires not burning their bridges to Washington and other Western capitals. It may seem like a stretch to make the transition from terrorist to statesman--a statesman who might even be welcomed in Washington--but Gerry Adams, and Arafat of course, have shown it can be done.
So which breed of terrorists are we talking about when we discuss the perpetrators of modern, high casualty international terrorism? The principal terrorist threat to US interests today, and the one that occupies most of the time and attention of counterterrorist people like myself, is a threat based ostensibly on religion. Not just religion as a defining characteristic of a particular group of people, but religion as a revolutionary force and a transnational calling. I say "ostensibly" because the terrorism that is waged is, despite frequent quotation of religious texts or sayings in an effort at justification, not one that the great majority of scholars of the faiths in question have ever found warranted.
We are talking mainly about extremism that is rooted in the Middle East, and mainly about terrorists who claim to act in the name of Islam. There are several reasons why this brand of terrorism has gained such prominence, including the intensity and persistence of intercommunal conflicts in the Middle East. The foremost such conflict has for decades been, and still is, the one between Israelis and Arabs over issues of land and peace in Palestine. Much of what had been the secular Palestinian opposition to Israel has, since the Declaration of Principles in 1993, taken a peaceful path. But staying outside the Arab-Israeli peace process, and fervently opposed to it, is a continued militant opposition which contends that the Arab-Israeli accords that have been reached in the five years between the Declaration of Principles and the Wye Agreement last month constitute a sell-out of the Palestinian people. The fact that one of the defining characteristics of the conflict is religious--since part of Israel's identity is as a Jewish state--has encouraged the Arab opposition to the peace process to define itself in religious terms. And, indeed, the immediate terrorist threat to that process comes from radical Islamist groups: HAMAS and the Palestine Islamic Jihad (although there are still secular Palestinian terrorist groups, such as the PFLP-GC, that also oppose the peace process).
Looking at the Middle East more broadly, there has been a malevolent chemistry between the socio-economic conditions that tend to breed terrorists, and religion as an opposition political force that is there to mobilize them. In the slums of Gaza, or Cairo, or Algiers, or Beirut, or even in some parts of the Arabian Peninsula where the opportunities for advancement have been less than in some other parts of that region, there has been a plentiful supply of the sort of people--mostly young, underemployed Arab males--who are most likely to join extremist groups. Meanwhile, radical Islam has become the principal--and in some places, the sole--instrument of political opposition to existing regimes. Pan-Arab nationalism pretty much died with Nasser, and the leftists have come and gone. Nowadays, if you are a deeply discontented person in that part of the world and you want to do something forceful to overturn the political status quo, joining a radical Islamist group is the thing to do.
There is another important ingredient in Middle Eastern terrorism, and that is state sponsorship. There are seven regimes currently on the Secretary of State's official list of state sponsors of terrorism. Five of them are in the Middle East. Of those, three are secular regimes that, while still significant factors in terrorism, have for various reasons become less of an immediate threat than they once were.
Syria remains on the list because it continues to provide safe haven to several terrorist groups, particularly Palestinian ones. But it has been several years since the last terrorist attack in which the Syrians were directly complicit, and Assad's objective of eventually reaching his own peace agreement that would include return of the Golan Heights motivates him to place significant limits on any terrorism with even indirect links to Syria.
Libya's Qadhafi has not really changed his stripes since committing terrorist outrages in the 1980s, but he has had his tail between his legs lately because of the international pressure to which he has subjected himself by refusing to hand over the Pan Am 103 bombing suspects, and because of his desire to get out from under the associated international sanctions.
Saddam in Iraq is still out to get the United States and its Western allies, particularly because of his defeat in Desert Storm. There is little doubt that given the opportunity, he would attempt to use terrorism to this end, as he tried to do in targeting former President Bush for assassination in 1993. But during Desert Storm itself his terrorist apparatus suffered serious setbacks, and his ability to make trouble on this front is less than it once was.
The other two State sponsors in the Middle East are radical Islamic regimes that share the goal of exporting their brand of revolution throughout the region. One of them, Sudan, is dominated by Hasan al-Turabi's National Islamic Front and, despite efforts in recent years to be seen to clean up its act, still plays host to a long roster of terrorist groups.
The other one, Iran, has been the most active and effective state sponsor of terrorism for most of the nearly two decades that the clerical regime has been in power. One manifestation of that Iranian policy has been the assassination, by Iranian state agents, of Iranian political oppositionists overseas. Another is Tehran's assistance, in cash and in kind, to a large number of terrorist groups of various nationalities, specifically ones opposed to the Arab-Israeli peace process as well as ones dedicated to overthrowing moderate governments in the region.
Since the middle of last year we've been watching Tehran closely to see if that regime may be changing its attitude toward terrorism for the better. A new and somewhat kindlier face--Khatami--was elected as President of Iran last August. Based on Khatami's words and some on his deeds, it appears that he would like to make some changes along this line, if for no other reason than to normalize to some degree Iran's relations with the West. His main problem is that any changes in this direction run up against the opposition of harder line elements who answer more to Supreme Leader Khamenei. It is really too early to foresee how this is all going to come out; suffice it to say that the future of Iran's terrorism policy will be a reflection of the internal political struggle within Tehran.
But state sponsorship is only a piece of the Middle Eastern radical Islamist terrorism picture. Another part of it is a litany of groups that may receive support from Iran or other states but most of which would exist and be a threat even without state support. These include the previously mentioned Palestinian groups, Egyptian groups like al-Gamaat al-Islamiyya, which perpetrated the massacre at Luxor a year ago, and the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, responsible for many of the village massacres in its country.
As another part of this picture, there is a phenomenon that for want of a better name might be called ad hoc groups or nongroup groups. By this I mean collections of like-minded extremists who may congregate around the same mosque or religious leader, but who don't belong to any established or known terrorist group. Instead, they become a group, or a cell, only when they come together to do their dirty deed, to commit a terrorist act, after which they may go their separate ways. The archetypes of this phenomenon are those Middle Easterners who came to the New York area, moved in the circles associated with the Blind Shaykh, Omar Abd-al Rahman, and who were responsible for the bombing of the World Trade Center and subsequent abortive plot to bomb other New York City landmarks.
These manifestations of modern international terrorism--even just limiting our perspective to the radical Islamist Middle Eastern variety--do not constitute a single foe. There is no terrorist international, no all-encompassing organization, no single person, group, or state pulling the strings, no one center of gravity that, if it could somehow be erased or neutralized, would eliminate the problem.
That said, we have observed a trend in recent years toward increased networking and cooperation among groups, and across national lines. In this regard, the one person who has had over the last couple of years the greatest influence as a catalyst, a leader, and a mobilizer is the man who was ultimately responsible for the tragedies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on 7 August, and whose indictment was announced in New York twelve days ago: Usama Bin Ladin.
I'm not going to take the time to give you Bin Ladin's biography; you've read and heard a lot about him in the last three months. Simply put, he has used his prestige, his charisma, the respect he won among Islamic militants during an earlier war in Afghanistan, and of course his wealth to become the preeminent Islamic terrorist leader of the moment. He wields his influence not just as the head of his own organization, called Al Qaida, but also as the lodestar of an alliance of mostly Sunni Islamic radical groups. The exact lines of accountability and allegiance within that alliance are often unclear, but Bin Ladin's own leading position is not.
Bin Ladin, like many of his co-extremists, rails against Israel. But his central issue is the US presence in the Arabian Peninsula, particularly the US military presence that has been in Saudi Arabia, his former homeland, since Desert Shield and Desert Storm, as well as the complicity in that presence of what he regards as an illegitimate Saudi regime. Bin Ladin's portrayal of that presence as an attempt to subjugate Muslims is a gross misrepresentation of its true nature and purpose. But his determination to oppose it is unmistakable. Perhaps the best statement of Bin Ladin's intentions is found in the declaration that he issued this February in the name of his "International Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and Crusaders." The operative part of the declaration, phrased as a fatwa, or religious edict, reads, and I quote: "To kill Americans and their allies, both civil and military, is an individual duty of every Muslim who is able, in any country where this is possible." End quote.
Please note two things about this statement, which can be taken as one of the more egregious, but still representative, expressions of the international terrorist threat that we face today. One, the United States as the terrorists' principal bete noire--the one great Satan really worth hating. And two, the intention to strike anywhere the terrorist is able to strike, regardless of the location of the particular grievances or issues at hand. This latter aspect becomes particularly worrisome when coupled with what is another trend in international terrorism in recent years--that is, the extension of the geographic reach of several terrorist groups through the construction of large infrastructures which span much of the globe and in some cases reach into the United States.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the threat we face. So what can be done about it? And more specifically, what are those of us in Washington actually doing about it?
There is no silver bullet for fighting terrorism--no one approach, one strategy, one technique that, used by itself, will make a significant dent in the problem. Disbelieve anyone who argues in favor of any single tactic as the best way to deal with the problem. We must use, and are using, a panoply of policy and operational instruments, simultaneously and in concert.
On one hand are the security countermeasures that are taken on the assumption that there will always be terrorists and terrorism, and that we need to do what we can to protect the most likely targets of attack. The security measures that have been erected around our embassies, our military installations, our civil aviation system and other attractive targets have been far from foolproof, as the fate that befell the embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam has most recently demonstrated, and to some extent they have induced terrorists to turn from harder to softer targets. But the net effect has unquestionably been to inhibit terrorism, as is suggested, for example, by the success that the aviation security system has had in curbing skyjacking.
On the other hand are things the US might do to prevent terrorist groups from emerging in the first place, and/or to avoid having individuals turn to terrorism. This would mean settling the conflicts or issues that generate the groups, and providing for the socio-economic needs of the individuals who might join the groups. This raises a whole separate set of policy and resource questions, and I will say no more about it.
In between those two are a variety of instruments that we use on the assumption that terrorists will be with us for the foreseeable future, but that they can be deterred or disabled in ways that will reduce the overall incidence of terrorism. Let me briefly enumerate some of these instruments, without attempting a net assessment of their effectiveness.
There are political and diplomatic efforts, which are mainly the responsibility of the Department of State to undertake. These include such things as encouraging individual friendly governments to cooperate with us in counterterrorism, ostracizing state sponsors, and promoting multilateral conventions on the subject.
A related instrument is the provision of training and other assistance to other governments to help them combat terrorism more effectively.
A another instrument related to political and diplomatic efforts is economic sanctions, which have been applied to several state sponsors.
Somewhat related to the economic instrument are financial measures, such as those embodied in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which criminalized the making of financial contributions to foreign terrorist organizations and provided for the freezing of such organization's assets.
And on the subject of criminalization, the application of the rule of law, and specifically of criminal law, to international terrorism as well as the domestic variety is a major tenet of US counterterrorism policy, as reflected in the very large role that our colleagues at the FBI have in dealing with the problem.
And, as another kind of instrument, and as we were reminded on the 20th of August, there is the option of using military force as a response to terrorism.
I have saved for last the part that those of us in the Intelligence Community play in this, and here I am going to make some statements about effectiveness, within the limits of what I'm sure you realize are the constraints that I face in talking about specific cases. Intelligence provides important support to all of the endeavors I have just enumerated, from furnishing information about likely threats to ensure that security countermeasures are effectively focused, to furnishing the substance of diplomatic demarches.
Intelligence has come to play a particularly important supporting role in law enforcement. This includes, among other things, working with the FBI to help determine responsibility for terrorist attacks already committed. This kind of determination of responsibility, by the way, also forms the basis for other kinds of responses to terrorist attacks; it was largely thanks to the Intelligence Community's work, for example, that responsibility for the East African bombings could be determined, in less than two weeks, with sufficient certainty to enable the President to make the decision that he did concerning military action.
Another major form of support to law enforcement that intelligence, and in particular the DCI Counterterrorist Center, provides is to assist in locating, tracking, and capturing fugitive terrorists. We've had considerable measurable success in this area. Over the last five years we have assisted in the rendering to justice of over 50 terrorists, with ten of these having come to stand trial here in the United States and the remainder having been turned over to foreign countries where they were wanted for their crimes.
There are two final endeavors where we in intelligence, and in particular the Counterterrorist Center, play not just a supporting role but are in the middle of the action. One is a function that I assume you would expect to be at the top of our list of responsibilities--and it is--and that is to acquire warning information about actual terrorist plots, and, acting on that information, to foil the plots. It is extremely satisfying when we are able to do this, and very frustrating that we are almost never able to describe publicly what we have done. But we have had successes in this area as well, most recently at about the same time as the African bombings in August.
The final thing we do may, in the final account, have the most impact in curbing terrorism. And that is the long-term disruption of the activities of terrorist organizations. I'm talking here not about foiling specific plots, but rather about impeding the day-to-day work of terrorist groups--the recruitment, the cell-building, the moving of men, money, and materiel, and the mere maintaining of a presence in a foreign country--all of the things that a group needs to be able to conduct terrorist operations in a given area. For us, this task involves regular cooperation with many foreign police, intelligence, and security services around the world. We assist and encourage those services to arrest, raid, confiscate, deport, and take other official actions to keep the terrorists confused, fearful, off balance, and focused on their own security, all of which makes them less able and less likely to conduct terrorist attacks. There is no good way to measure the success we have had on this front. But given what we have observed as to how terrorists react to this kind of pressure, I am certain that there are terrorist plots that were not hatched in the first place, and others that will not be hatched in the future, because of this work.
So there you have it: a wide range of tools that can be, and are, used to fight terrorism. They need to continue to be used consistently, and persistently, if that fight is to be successful. Our leaders have spoken of a "war" on terrorism, and that concept is certainly valid insofar as it implies that this country's counterterrorist efforts must be long-term and persistent rather than episodic and reactive.
That brings me to a closing comment, which refers back to you, the informed public. I mentioned earlier that we are currently in an era of heightened public and policy concern about terrorism. But that concern has, in the past, tended to rise and fall in response to spectacular terrorist incidents, or to the passage of time without such an incident occurring. The actual threat that terrorism poses to US interests does not rise and fall that fast, and it would be preferable if public concern, interest, and support for counterterrorism would not rise and fall so fast either. In other words, we will still need your continued interest even if, as we all hope, we see many months go by without another Nairobi or another Khobar Towers.
I thank you for the support you have already given. I also thank you for your attention, and I would be happy to entertain your questions.
Table of Contents