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Date: Thu, 14 Jan 1999 20:46:14 -0600 (CST)
From: Interhemispheric Resource Center <ircalb@swcp.com>
Subject: IN FOCUS: International Terrorism
Article: 52085
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.5480.19990115121703@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

International Terrorism

By Stephen Zunes, University of San Francisco, Foreign Policy in Focus, Vol.3 no.38, December 1998

Key Points

Recent U.S. presidents have claimed that international terrorism is a major threat to this country's national security and that the war against terrorism should be a major focus of U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, President Clinton, in his September 1998 speech before the United Nations General Assembly, identified international terrorism as a worldwide priority.

Random violent acts inflicted against civilians by international terrorists are truly horrific. Yet acts of terrorism worldwide have actually declined since the 1970s, and the number of Americans killed by terrorists is quite small compared to deaths from violent crimes, automobile accidents, preventable diseases, or poverty. That the fixation on terrorism is so grossly out of proportion to its impact on individual Americans raises serious questions as to whether the priority currently given to this problem may not be based more on ideological than strategic concerns.

Indeed, the fight against terrorism has been the justification for a series of controversial policies, ranging from tougher immigration laws to high military budgets to restrictions on civil liberties to arms shipments and training programs for repressive governments abroad.

Despite a great deal of attention from the highest levels of government, there appears to be little coherency in actual policy. According to Richard Davis of the General Accounting Office, “There does not seem to be any overall strategy to guide how we're spending money on counterterrorism” and, despite congressional eagerness to find such efforts, there seems to be “no oversight, no priorities, no strategy, and much duplication.”

Successive U.S. administrations have been criticized for their use of an overly narrow definition of terrorism that refers only to the killings of noncombatants by individuals or small groups of irregulars while ignoring the usually more widespread killings by sanctioned organs of the state against equally innocent people. Indeed, the U.S. has supported and continues to support governments that have engaged in widespread terrorism against their own populations. Furthermore, the U.S. has refused or has limited its cooperation in efforts to prosecute state terrorists-such as Chilean General Augusto Pinochet-when attempts are made to bring them to justice.

Even by the more restricted use of the term, however, the U.S. has demonstrated a propensity to ignore its own role in encouraging terrorism, both as a reaction to its foreign policies and even, at times, as a direct tool in the implementation of its policies. Related to this is the ongoing U.S. support of the governments of Indonesia, Turkey, and various Middle Eastern allies guilty of state terrorism on a large scale. Indeed, as the largest supplier of arms to the third world, and to the Middle East in particular, the U.S. allows potential terrorists easy access to weapons.

In recent decades, the U.S. has sponsored terrorist attacks, either directly or through intermediaries. In the 1960s, right-wing Cuban exiles were organized by the CIA to conduct a series of attacks inside Cuba that resulted in widespread civilian casualties. During the 1980s, the U.S. similarly organized, armed, and trained right-wing Nicaraguan exiles into an armed force that engaged in widespread attacks against civilian targets inside Nicaragua, resulting in the deaths of thousands.

Sometimes these U.S.-trained terrorists have subsequently used the skills and weapons they acquired against the interests of their trainers, as in the case of some supporters of the anti-Soviet Afghan resistance. And double standards have greatly harmed the effectiveness of the U.S. in gaining international support and cooperation in the struggle against terrorism. Indeed, such hypocrisy raises the question as to whether the U.S. is really opposed to terrorism in general or just to terrorism that threatens its perceived political and economic interests.

There is nothing inherent in Islamic, Middle Eastern, Irish, Basque, or other traditions that spawns terrorism. Terrorism is primarily the weapon of the politically weak or frustrated-those who are or believe themselves to be unable to exert their grievances through conventional political or military means. However illegitimate terrorism itself is, the political concerns that spawn such violence often have a reasonable basis. Effective intelligence, interdiction, and certain conventional counterterrorism efforts do have their place. But terrorism's roots are political, so ending it is at least as much a political problem as a security problem.

Problems With Current U.S. Policy

Key Problems

U.S. foreign policy toward international terrorism is far too focused on military solutions, including bombing raids by cruise missiles and fighter aircraft against targets in foreign nations. Though such air strikes have played well with the American public because they give the impression that the U.S. is taking decisive action to strike back at terrorists, in reality the U.S. war against terrorism has often taken the form of foreign policy by catharsis.

Surgical air strikes may make sense in wartime when the targets are heavy equipment, lethal weaponry, communications centers, and large concentrations of armed forces. Yet due to the nature of attacks organized by small groups using clandestine methods, “terrorist bases” generally contain none of these. As a result, such air raids make little sense strategically.

In addition, targeting terrorist bases, which are often in close proximity to populated areas, risks casualties among innocent civilians. In 1986, for instance, the U.S. bombed two Libyan cities in retaliation for suspected Libyan involvement in a terrorist attack against a Berlin discotheque that killed two American GIs. More than 60 civilians were killed in the bombing, including Libyan leader Muammar Qadaffi's baby daughter.

Often such air strikes are based on faulty intelligence, such as the April 1993 bombing of a Baghdad neighborhood in reaction to an unsubstantiated allegation of an Iraqi assassination attempt against former President Bush. Likewise, in August 1998 the U.S. bombed a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant, claiming it was a chemical weapons plant controlled by a foreign terrorist leader. The Clinton administration subsequently refused to release the supposed “evidence” prompting these strikes or to allow independent investigations by the United Nations.

More fundamentally, rather than curbing terrorism, such strikes often escalate the cycle of violence as terrorists seek further retaliation. In 1988, Libyan agents allegedly blew up Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in retaliation for the U.S. strikes against Libyan cities. Meanwhile Libyans, Iraqis, Palestinians, and other peoples victimized by U.S. bombing raids are likely to become more hostile toward the U.S. and more sympathetic to the terrorists.

There are serious legal questions as well. International law prohibits the use of armed force except when a nation is under direct attack. The U.S. claims that Article 51 of the UN Charter allows such military actions, but Article 51 deals only with self defense; neither retaliatory strikes nor preemptive strikes are included. The U.S. has so far refused to seek prior Security Council approval for preemptive military action.

Another problem with U.S. policy is that the United States has itself sponsored international terrorism. The most serious single bombing attack against a civilian target in the modern Middle East was the March 1985 blast in a suburban Beirut neighborhood that killed 80 people and wounded 200 others. The attack was ordered by CIA director William Casey and approved by President Reagan as part of an unsuccessful effort to assassinate an anti-American Lebanese cleric. Such actions have given the U.S. crusade against terrorism less credibility in much of the world.

Still another problem has been the politicization of the terrorism issue. For example, Syria and Cuba remain on the State Department's list of terrorist states, despite the U.S. admission that they have found no evidence of terrorist involvement by either of those countries in more than a decade. More revealing still is the U.S. offer to drop such labels, which would allow for the lifting of certain sanctions, if those governments acquiesce to U.S. demands in unrelated policy areas. Similarly, some Palestinian groups have been labeled “terrorists” simply for opposing the U.S.-sponsored peace process, even though they have renounced terrorism.

U.S. double standards extend to the issue of extradition and sanctions. For example, the U.S. has successfully pressured the United Nations to impose strict sanctions against Libya for its refusal to extradite two of its agents implicated in the Lockerbie bombing. But the U.S. has refused to extradite individuals-all of whom have had ties to the CIA-charged with acts of terrorism in Venezuela and Costa Rica, including blowing up a Cuban airliner in 1976.

Toward a New Foreign Policy

Key Recommendations

Although there is no foolproof set of policies that will protect the U.S. and its interests from terrorists, there are a number of policy shifts that would likely reduce the frequency and severity of terrorist strikes. These shifts must be based in part on the understanding that terrorist attacks are generally rooted in social, political, or economic desperation, which must be addressed for antiterrorism efforts to have any chance of success.

The tactics of terrorists can never be justified. But the most effective weapon in the war against terrorism would be to take measures that would lessen the likelihood for the U.S. and its citizens to become targets. This does not mean a retreat from international leadership or compromising fundamental U.S. values or interests. What it does mean is changing policies that victimize vulnerable populations in ways that result in them holding the U.S. responsible for their suffering and thus becoming easy recruits for anti-American terrorists.

Such a policy change would include an end to unconditional U.S. military, economic, and diplomatic support of governments that invade and occupy neighboring countries, attack civilian targets in villages and refugee camps, or deny people their right of self-determination. A large number of anti-American terrorists in recent years have come from Palestinian and Lebanese families who have been directly harmed by actions of the U.S.-backed Israeli government. American calls for the rule of law and respect for human life ring hollow as long as Washington supports governments that violate international law and perpetrate violence against innocent civilians. A related policy change is the need to distinguish between fringe groups whose primary function is inflicting violence against innocent people, where more aggressive measures may be appropriate, and popular, multifaceted organizations that also contain a terrorist component, where a broader and more nuanced strategy is more appropriate.

Another policy shift must be away from supporting irregular groups that may be prone to terrorism. Many of the most notorious terrorists in the world today received their training from the CIA as part of U.S. efforts to undermine leftist governments in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan. There must also be an end to any direct involvement by any branch of the military, intelligence agencies, or any other part of the U.S. government in acts of terrorism. And the U.S. must cooperate in handing over to responsible governments any terrorists currently within U.S. jurisdiction when extradition is requested.

Only rarely do terrorists arise within genuinely democratic societies. Although an unstable individual or a small group of individuals can engage in such violence under virtually any political system, the large and sophisticated networks that are most dangerous tend to come from countries where their ability to affect the political process by other means has been limited.

Often these countries display small pockets of ostentatious wealth in the midst of enormous poverty. Therefore, encouraging the development of democratic institutions in autocratic countries, national freedom in countries under foreign control, and sustainable development in impoverished societies would be major positive steps in limiting potential terrorist recruits. Too often the U.S. has supported dictatorships, occupying armies, and inappropriate economic policies, making enemies out of oppressed populations.

Such changes in policies would not be “giving in to terrorists.” Supporting democracy, justice, and the rule of law is supposed to be the cornerstone of the U.S. system. It is perhaps not surprising that we become the target of terrorists primarily when we stray far from those values. Only a reclaiming of such values will make us truly safer.

If they do not become unnecessarily obstructive-and as long as civil liberties are respected-conventional security policies at airports, government buildings, and other possible targets should continue, as should intelligence gathering efforts. But simply addressing the security aspects of terrorism, as U.S. policy currently does, is merely confronting the symptoms rather than the cause. The war against terrorism cannot be won until the U.S. also ceases its pursuit of policies that alienate such large segments of the international community, particularly in the Middle East and elsewhere in the third world.

International terrorism is a global problem. Unilateral action merely isolates the U.S. from the allies it needs in the fight against terrorism. The United States must learn to cooperate more with other nations and international agencies to be truly effective against what is an international problem.

The most effective short-term strategy against terrorism involves intelligence and interdiction, which works best when it is part of a transnational effort. Holistically, the U.S. should work closely with appropriate agencies within the United Nations and other international organizations to develop a unified strategy that would cover not just law enforcement, but sustainable development, democratization, demilitarization, and human rights.

The U.S. is a target of terrorists in large part due to our perceived arrogance, hypocrisy, and greed. Becoming a more responsible member of the international community will go a long way toward making the U.S. safer and ultimately stronger.

Stephen Zunes is an Assistant Professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco.

Statistical Background

Total Spending (millions $)

Department/Agency Amount
Defense $3,671.1[a]
Energy 1,420.0[b]
Transportation (FAA)[c] 296.8
State 162.5
Treasury 682.5
Health and Human Services 13.8

[a] This amount constitutes about 1.5% of the total DOD budget and includes force protection and other security measures.

[b] Includes security at Department of Energy facilities and nonproliferation program costs.

[c] Includes only the FAA. Totals represent estimates from three FAA entities with programs to prevent terrorism.

Source: GAO, Combatting Terrorism: Spending on Governmentwide Programs Requires Better Management and Coordination (GAO/NSIAD-98-39, Dec. 1997).

Sources for More Information


Noam Chomsky, Pirates and Emperors: International Terrorism In the Real World (Brattleboro, VT: Amana Books, 1990).

Edward Herman, The Real Terror Network: Terrorism In Fact and Propaganda (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1982).

Peter Sederberg, Terrorist Myths: Illusion, Rhetoric and Reality (Englewood, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1989).

Ehud Sprinzak, “The Great Superterrorism Scare,” Foreign Policy, No. 112, Fall 1998.

U.S. GAO, Combatting Terrorism: Spending on Governmentwide Programs Requires Better Management and Coordination (GAO/NSIAD-98-39, Dec. 1997).

U.S. GAO, Combatting Terorism: Threat and Risk Assessments Can Help Prioritize and Target Program Investments (GAO, April 1998).

U.S. GAO, Combatting Terrorism: Observations on Crosscutting Issues (GAO, April 23, 1998).

U.S. State Department, Pattern of Global Terrorism, April 1998 (available at: http://www.state.gov).


Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Center for Democracy and Technology Counter-Terrorism Issues Page

The Center For Democracy and Technology “works for public policies that advance civil liberties and democratic values in new computer and communications technologies.” Counter-Terrorism Page
http://www.terrorism.net An attempt to “provide a single resource for people interested in the areas of terrorism, counter-terrorism and international crime.”

Electronic Privacy Information Center Counter-Terrorism Proposals
EPIC aims “to focus public attention on emerging civil liberties issues and to protect privacy, the first amendment, and constitutional values.”

Emergency Response & Research Institute Counter-Terrorism Page
The Emergency Response & Research Institute (ERRI) addresses such issues as anti-terrorism, counter-terrorism, open source intelligence gathering, and crisis management skills.

Federation of American Scientists

Fund for Peace

Henry L. Stimson Center

International Association of Counterterrorism & Security Professionals
Securitynet is being built by the IACSP (International Association of Counterterrorism & Security Professionals) to “provide professionals in the law enforcement, military, government, and corporate security industry a comprehensive intelligence network that will provide the necessary tactical and educational information to prepare and hopefully deter terrorism in all of its forms in the fast approaching 21st century.”

Strategic Assessment Center
“From the revolution in military affairs to regional forecasts, the Strategic Assessment Center applies gaming, simulation, and innovative analysis to some of the most vexing international security problems.”

Terrorism Research Center
The Terrorism Research Center provides information on terrorism and information warfare.

United States Institute of Peace