Terrorism And Lethality

.. -ft wide crater six stories deep, and causing an estimated $550 million in both damages to the twin tower and in lost revenue to the business housed there31–as the more “high-tech” devices constructed out of military ordnance, with timing devices powered by computer micro-chips and detonated by sophisticated timing mechanisms used by their “professional” counterparts.32 “Professional” Terrorists Finally, while on the one hand terrorism is attracting “amateurs,” on the other hand the sophistication and operational competence of the “professional” terrorists is also increasing. These “professionals” are becoming demonstrably more adept in their trade craft of death and destruction; more formidable in their abilities of tactical modification, adjustment and innovation in their methods of attack; and appear to be able to operate for sustained periods of time while avoiding detection, interception and arrest or capture. More disquieting, these “professional” terrorists are apparently becoming considerably more ruthless as well. An almost Darwinian principle of natural selection seems to affect subsequent generations of terrorist groups, whereby every new terrorist generation learns from its predecessors, becoming smarter, tougher, and more difficult to capture or eliminate. Accordingly, it is not difficult to recognise how the “amateur” terrorist may become increasingly attractive to either a more professional terrorist group and/or their state patron as a pawn or “cut-out” or simply as an expendable minion.

In this manner, the “amateur” terrorist could be effectively used by others to further conceal the identity of the foreign government or terrorist group actually commissioning or ordering a particular attack. The series of terrorist attacks that unfolded in France last year conforms to this pattern of activity. Between July and October 1995, a handful of terrorists, using bombs fashioned with four-inch nails wrapped around camping style cooking-gas canisters, killed eight persons and wounded more than 180 others. Not until early October did any group claim credit for the bombings, when the radical Armed Islamic Group (GIA), a militant Algerian Islamic organization, took responsibility for the attacks. French authorities, however, believe that, while “professional” terrorists perpetrated the initial bombings, like-minded “amateurs”– recruited by the GIA operatives from within France’s large and increasingly restive Algerian expatriate community were responsible for at least some of the subsequent attacks.33 Accordingly, these “amateurs” or new recruits facilitated the campaign’s “metastasising” beyond the small cell of professionals who ignited it, striking a responsive chord among disaffected Algerian youths in France and thereby increasing exponentially the aura of fear and, arguably, the terrorists’ coercive power.

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Likely Future Patterns of Terrorism While it can be argued that the terrorist threat is declining in terms of the total number of annual incidents in other, perhaps more significant respects–e.g., both the number of persons killed in individual terrorists incidents and the percent of terrorist incidents with fatalities in comparison to total incidents–the threat is actually rising. Accordingly, it is as important to look at qualitative changes as well as quantitative ones; and to focus on generic threat and generic capabilities based on overall trends as well as on known or existing groups. The pitfalls of focusing on known, identifiable groups at the expense of other potential, less-easily identified, more amorphous adversaries was perhaps most clearly demonstrated in Japan by the attention long paid to familiar and well-established left-wing groups like the Japanese Red Army or Middle Core organisation with an established modus operandi, identifiable leadership, etc. rather than on an obscure, relatively unknown religious movement, such as the Aum Shinri Kyu sect. Indeed, the Aum sect’s nerve gas attack on the Tokyo underground34 arguably demarcates a significant historical watershed in terrorist tactics and weaponry.35 This incident clearly demonstrated that it is possible–even for ostensibly “amateur” terrorists–to execute a successful chemical terrorist attack and accordingly may conceivably have raised the stakes for terrorists everywhere. Accordingly, terrorist groups in the future may well feel driven to emulate or surpass the Tokyo incident either in death and destruction or in the use of a non-conventional weapon of mass destruction (WMD) in order to ensure the same media coverage and public attention as the nerve gas attack generated. The Tokyo incident also highlights another troubling trend in terrorism: significantly, groups today claim credit for attacks less frequently than in the past.

They tend not to take responsibility much less issue communiqués explaining why they carried out an attack as the stereotypical, “traditional” terrorist group of the past did. For example, in contrast to the 1970s and early 1980s, some of the most serious terrorist incidents of the past decade–including the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing–have never been credibly claimed–much less explained or justified as terrorist attacks once almost always were–by the group responsible for the attack.36 The implication of this trend is perhaps that violence for some terrorist groups is becoming less a means to an end (that therefore has to be calibrated and tailored and therefore “explained” and “justified” to the public) than an end in itself that does not require any wider explanation or justification beyond the groups’ members themselves and perhaps their specific followers. Such a trait would conform not only to the motivations of religious terrorists (discussed above) but also to terrorist “spoilers”–groups bent on disrupting or sabotaging multi-lateral negotiations or the peaceful settlement of ethnic conflicts or other such violent disputes. That terrorists are less frequently claiming credit for their attacks may suggest an inevitable loosening of constraints–self-imposed or otherwise–on their violence: in turn leading to higher levels of lethality as well.37 Another key factor contributing to the rising terrorist threat is the ease of terrorist adaptations across the technological spectrum.38 For example, on the low-end of the technological spectrum one sees terrorists’ continuing to rely on fertiliser bombs whose devastating effect has been demonstrated by the PIRA at St Mary Axe and Bishop’s Gate in 1991 and 1992; at Canary Wharf and in Manchester in 1996; by the aforementioned World Trade Center bombers and the persons responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing. Fertiliser is perhaps the most cost-effective of weapons: costing on average one percent of a comparable amount of plastic explosive.

Its cost-effectiveness is demonstrated by the facts that the Bishop Gate blast is estimated to have caused $1.5 billion and the Baltic Exchange blast at St Mary Axe $1.25 billion. The World Trade Center bomb, as previously noted, cost only $400 to construct but caused $550 million in both damages and lost revenue to the business housed there.39 Moreover, unlike plastic explosives and other military ordnance, fertiliser and its two favourite bomb-making components–diesel fuel and icing sugar–are readily and easily available commercially, completely legal to purchase and store and thus highly attractive “weapons components” to terrorists and others. On the high-end of the conflict spectrum one must contend not only with the efforts of groups like the Aum to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons capabilities, but with the proliferation of fissile materials from the former-Soviet Union and the emergent illicit market in nuclear materials that is surfacing in Eastern and Central Europe.40 Admittedly, while much of the material seen on offer as part of this “black market” cannot be classified as SNM (strategic nuclear material, that is suitable in the construction a fissionable explosive device), such highly-toxic radioactive agents can potentially be easily paired with conventional explosives and turned into a crude, non-fissionable atomic bomb (e.g., “dirty” bomb). Such a device would therefore not only physically destroy a target, but contaminate the surrounding area for decades to come.41 Finally, at the middle-end of the spectrum one sees a world awash in plastic explosives, hand-held precision-guided-munitions (i.e., surface-to-air missiles for use against civilian and/or military aircraft), automatic weapons, etc. that readily facilitate all types of terrorist operations. During the 1980s, Czechoslovakia, for example, sold 1,000 tonnes of Semtex-H (the explosive of which eight ounces was sufficient to bring down Pan Am 103) to Libya and another 40,000 tonnes to Syria, North Korea, Iran, and Iraq–countries long cited by the U.S.

Department of State as sponsors of international terrorist activity. In sum, terrorists therefore have relatively easy access to a range of sophisticated, “off-the-shelf” weapons technology that can be readily adopted to their operational needs. Concluding Observations and Implications for Aviation Security Terrorism today has arguably become more complex, amorphous transnational. The distinction between domestic and international terrorism is also evaporating as evidence by the Aum’s sects activities in Russia and Australia as well as in Japan, the alleged links between the Oklahoma City bombers and neo-Nazis in Britain and Europe, and the network of Algerian Islamic extremists operating in France, Great Britain, Sweden, Belgium and other countries as well as in Algeria itself. Accordingly, as these threats are both domestic and international, the response must therefore be both national as well as multinational in construct and dimensions. National cohesiveness and organisational preparation will necessarily remain the essential foundation for any hope of building the effective multinational approach appropriate to these new threats.

Without internal (national or domestic) consistency, clarity, planning and organisation, it will be impossible for similarly diffuse multinational efforts to succeed. This is all the more critical today, and will remain so in the future, given the changing nature of the terrorist threat, the identity of its perpetrators and the resources at their disposal. One final point is in order given the focus of this conference on aviation security. Serious and considerable though the above trends are, their implications for–much less direct effect on–commercial aviation are by no means clear. Despite media impressions to the contrary and the popular mis-perception fostered by those impressions, terrorist attacks on civil aviation–particularly inflight bombings or attempted bombings–are in fact relatively rare. Indeed, they account for only 15 of the 2,537 international terrorist incidents recorded between 1970 and 1979 (or .006 percent) and just 12 of 3,943 recorded between 1980 and 1989 (an even lower .003 percent).

This trend, moreover, has continued throughout the first half of the current decade. There have been a total of just six inflight bombings since 1990 out of a total of 1,859 international terrorist incidents. In other words, inflight bombings of commercial aviation currently account for an infinitesimal–.003–percent of international terrorist attacks.42 At the same time, the dramatic loss of life and attendant intense media coverage have turned those few tragic events into terrorist “spectaculars”: etched indelibly on the psyches of commercial air travellers and security officers everywhere despite their infrequent occurrence.43 Nonetheless, those charged with ensuring the security of airports and aviation from terrorist threats doubtless face a Herculean task. In the first place, a defence that would preclude every possible attack by every possible terrorist group for every possible motive is not even theoretically conceivable. Accordingly, security measures should accurately and closely reflect both the threat and the difficulties inherent in countering it: and should therefore be based on realistic expectations that embrace realistic cost-benefit.

Indeed, there is a point beyond which security measures may not only be inappropriate to the presumed threat, but risk becoming more bureaucratic than genuinely effective.