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Reassessing Terrorism

Dean Richard Ward
Richard H. Ward

By Dick Ward
Dean of the College of Criminal Justice
Sam Houston State University

For many people in the United States the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is best viewed as a wakeup call to a threat that has hung over the global community for more than half a century. What has changed is the increasing capability of those who would take innocent lives to utilize new forms of weaponry, and the willingness of individuals to sacrifice their lives in pursuit of some amorphous goal that has virtually no probability of success. Unfortunately, attacks such as those we witnessed on September 11 in the United States are not uncommon in many countries throughout the world. What distinguishes this most recent tragedy is the large number of lives lost, the massive destruction of facilities, and yet another twist on the tactics of terrorism.

The threat is not new, nor was the attack much of a surprise to anyone who has studied terrorism. The literature on this subject and the research about the phenomenon has grown substantially over the past three decades. The US government has expended billions of dollars on training first responders, law enforcement personnel, and military personnel to deal with the terrorist threat. Visions of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), attacks on infrastructure and computer systems, and a growing awareness of society's vulnerability to dedicated fanatics have dominated headlines for years. Yet, for most Americans, terrorism has been something that happens somewhere else -despite the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center and the 1995 attack on the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma.

In the weeks ahead pundits and so-called experts will criticize every aspect of US security preparations and our relationships with intelligence and criminal justice agencies in other countries. One can argue that a successful attack of such magnitude represents a failure in the intelligence community, but that failure must be shared by a population larger than the national security apparatus. Hindsight presents some interesting revelations; however, it is important to note that most of what is being said now about what needs to be done rests in memoranda and reports in filing cabinets across the nation.

There is a need not only to improve the intelligence function, to place greater emphasis on human intelligence, but also to improve our use of electronic surveillance and technology. No doubt the intelligence community will be given greater latitude in the use of tools that have been abandoned over the years in the interest of civil liberties. The use of informants and undercover operations will be resumed on a much larger scale. New laws will be passed. Increased training and the purchase of equipment will be approved. Those who represent a threat will come under greater suspicion, and criminal investigation procedures will be broadened. The use of military assets will increase significantly, in the US and abroad. And it is likely that greater efforts will be made to bring other countries into the anti-terrorism loop through funding, training, and other forms of economic and military support.

The concepts are not new. What will be new is a dramatic change in the will to attack what is now perceived by most people as a common enemy and a common threat. To be successful the response must be measured and incremental. To maintain public support governments must recognize the mistakes of the past that caused the law enforcement and intelligence communities to lose support. Random searches and overzealous enforcement serve no legitimate or sensible purpose. The enemy is a criminal element, frequently operating within a law-abiding community. Today, the enemy may be radical fundamentalists, but terrorism is not limited to Middle Eastern groups: domestic terrorism, frequently involving single-issue groups, has not disappeared.

Unfortunately, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have provided a new script for would-be fanatics- recognition that one need not secure traditional weapons to undertake a major attack. Knives and box cutters served the terrorists well in September, and aircraft became the weapons of mass destruction.

Years ago, at a meeting run by the FBI on future terrorist threats, the current scenario was discussed. The group, of which I was a part, recommended a number of target-hardening initiatives, including making the cockpit more secure. All of the suggestions went unheeded, largely because of the costs involved. So-called "sleeper-cells" have been known to exist by the FBI for years, yet little has been done to act on them because authorities feared the ramifications of civil rights complaints. Research on bomb-resistant luggage compartments has progressed, but the costs of making them have been viewed as too high by airlines. Restrictions on the collection of information and intelligence operations have made certain areas, such as university campuses, off limits, even where national security was involved. In one Midwestern university the president refused to allow the FBI to "create" a student record as a means of building a background for an undercover operation involving national security.

Perhaps a sense of complacency, the belief that current restrictions on law enforcement and intelligence gathering were adequate, and fears of past abuses can be blamed for part of the failures that led to the loss of more than 5,000 lives. Perhaps the inability of governments to work together and provide a common front against terrorism can be blamed. Perhaps the intelligence community failed. Little can be accomplished in finding fault. It is the future that must be addressed now, and this will require leadership at all levels.

John O'Neill, a retired FBI senior official who died in the World Trade Center when it collapsed, spent much of his career in counter-terrorism. He was an outspoken and harsh critic of many of the policies and procedures that placed restrictions on the ability to conduct national security investigations. Speaking at a conference several years ago he noted that most Americans are not really aware of the threat that terrorism poses.

Still, the terrorist threat has been chronicled extensively in the media, and in films and books. The airplane scenario was outlined in the plot of a novel by Tom Clancy. Other writers, both fiction and non-fiction, have laid out a multitude of scenarios, many of them springing from the thoughts and warnings of those in the defense and intelligence communities. It is reasonable to assume that many terrorists and fanatics, such as Timothy McVeigh, developed their ideas and plans by paying attention to such sources.

In assessing the future of terrorism, then, it makes little sense to argue that the attack in September was something new or unexpected. The intelligence community was aware that a major attack was coming, although it appeared that it might be in Europe or Asia. Over the years the intelligence community has had a great many successes in preventing attacks, many more than are known to the public. The most recent tragedy displays a much larger, well-planned effort by a group of dedicated fanatics who were willing to give their lives. They were, no doubt, supported by yet another group of dedicated extremists, many of whom were living and operating in the United States as well as abroad. If the links to Osama bin Laden are established, which is likely, and he is captured or killed, it will not terminate the threat: even if he did plan and finance the operation, it is obvious that there are a great many others ready to pick up this unholy cause.

Terrorism, therefore, whether domestic or global, will be with the world through the decades ahead. Like crime, it will not be eliminated, but reducing the threat [and number] of catastrophic attacks must be a high priority. This will involve much greater levels of cooperation among countries, a much improved intelligence capability, and the recognition that honest mistakes will be made. As a nation of laws, the United States will be hard-pressed to find the balance between doing what is necessary to combat this threat successfully and maintaining the essential nature of our freedom and civil liberties. Research, training, improved technology, infrastructure protection, and public awareness become critical elements in developing a measured approach to coping with future threats.

In America, the selfless dedication of police, firefighters, medical personnel and an awakened and involved citizenry represent the greatest display of unity that this country has seen in a long time. This energy and growing cooperation with a global community offers hope that terrorism can be attacked in a rational and successful way.

Dr. Richard Ward, a former NYC detective, is currently dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University. He has studied terrorism for more than 20 years, visiting more than 50 countries throughout the world in his work, and founded the Office of International Criminal Justice.

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SHSU Media Contact: Frank Krystyniak
Sept. 20 2001
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