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Revisiting the Superterrorism Debate

There is little doubt that the catastrophic attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have transformed our understanding of terrorism. Not only has the disaster changed the nature of this type of warfare, but it has also put the history of terrorism and the writing of this history in a new perspective. One ...

There is little doubt that the catastrophic attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have transformed our understanding of terrorism. Not only has the disaster changed the nature of this type of warfare, but it has also put the history of terrorism and the writing of this history in a new perspective. One small footnote to the passage from the old to the new understanding of terrorism involves the superterrorism debate started in Foreign Policy three years ago.

In The Great Superterrorism Scare (Fall 1998), I was highly critical of Washington doomsayers who managed to obtain and channel billions of dollars to preparing the nation for biological/chemical/nuclear terrorist attack. I argued that the administration’s excessive fear of terrorists using weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the continental United States was largely unwarranted. I further contended that anti-U.S. potential terrorists, including religious fanatics, were much more likely to try and devastate the United States using conventional explosives. I also made the point that most state-sponsored terrorist organizations were highly unlikely to use WMD in the continental United States for fear of eliciting massive American retaliation. My conclusion was that mass destruction terrorism would only come, if at all, from a small and predictable list of candidates devoid of political reasoning, hope, and post-attack survival instincts. I therefore recommended that the United States not overspend on superterrorism but devote most of its allocated counterterrorism money for human intelligence gathering and preemptive operations against likely candidates.

In a second Foreign Policy article, Rational Fanatics (September/October 2000), I tried to call attention to the most risky terrorism of our timesuicide bombing. Though formally unrelated to the 1998 article, the 2000 article actually expanded on my original argument. I proposed that the most devastating terrorism of our time has been suicide bombing, i.e., terrorists instilling fear and destruction by exploding themselves in public places. The lack of anti-terror deterrence, because of the terrorist’s determination to die in the attack, was shown as key to the success of terrorizing the target community. Expanding on my 1998 thesis, I suggested that the likelihood of terrorists using suicide bombing was much higher than terrorists resorting to superterrorism. I argued, however, that there were ways to counter suicide terrorism that involve a systematic struggle against the organization’s chain of command and its larger supporting constituency.

The September 11 disaster has put the superterrorism debate through a brutal reality check. Occurring three years after the start of the debate, this disaster has made it possible to assess some of the key issues speculated about theoretically. Here are the results as I see them: First, in spite of the administration’s expectation that the mass casualty terror attack on the continental United States would be conducted with WMD, the actual attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon used conventional means. Not a shred of biological, chemical, or nuclear substance was needed to kill more than 5,000 people and devastate the cities of New York and Washington, D.C. Second, the terrorists chose to shock America with suicide terrorism, a highly scary yet most conventional and expected form of Muslim terrorism. None of the superterrorism proponents ever cared to mention suicide bombing. And finally, the catastrophic terror attack was neither sponsored by an anti-American rogue state nor by a state-sponsored terrorist organization. It came from an organization belonging to my very short list of potential superterrorism suspects-from the mill of Osama bin Laden, a largely apolitical stateless renegade devoted to catastrophic revenge and ready to die for Islam.

While the September 11 reality check on the superterrorism debate supports many of my 1998 and 2000 assessments, I admittedly failed to expect that the Qaida terrorists would succeed in killing thousands of civilians by conventional explosivesupgrading car bombs to plane bombsand coordinate their attacks in unprecedented precision. In my worst nightmares I did not expect the heinous innovation of simultaneously transforming four large commercial planes into flying bombs. Nor did I expect the readiness of highly educated pilots to commit suicide in a large group. The pilots who crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon did not fit any of the profiles of known Muslim suicide bombers.

What are the lessons from the September 11 catastrophe? What are the policy changes I should have added to my 1998 and 2000 articles had I had in mind the September 11 scenario? First, we must be aware of the enormous mass casualty capabilities of innovative terrorists, using conventional weapons and explosives. Second, we should not follow fixed profiles of suicide bombers. We must be ready for the worstthat some of the best and the brightest among the enemy would decide to sacrifice themselves for the cause. Third, we must increase surveillance among domestic radical groups and expand the FBI’s search authority. And finally, we should conduct preemptive strikes against bin Laden-like terrorists, i.e., political criminals with proven records of terrorism, unquestionable motivation to kill Americans, and megalomaniacal psychologies.

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