Facing the Threat of Terrorism

IN THE late 1980’s, terrorism appeared to be on the decline. However, a new breed of terrorist has emerged. Today’s terrorist threat comes primarily from extremists who have established their own funding networks—through traffic in drugs, private business, independent wealth, charities, and local financial support. And they continue to be as ruthless as ever.

Recent years saw a proliferation of senseless acts of terrorism. The World Trade Center in New York City was bombed, killing 6 people and injuring some 1,000. A cult released sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 and injuring more than 5,000. A terrorist leveled a federal building in Oklahoma City with a truck bomb, killing 168 and injuring hundreds. As the chart on pages 4 and 5 shows, terrorist acts of various kinds have continued up until now.

In general, terrorists seem to exhibit less restraint than they did in the past. The  convicted bomber of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 was quoted as saying that in order to get the level of attention he needed, he wanted “a body count.” The ringleader of the group responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York City wanted to knock one building into the other, killing everyone in both.

Also new is the choice of weapons at the disposal of terrorists. Louis R. Mizell, Jr., an expert on terrorism, stated: “We live in an age of unimaginable rage and apocalyptic arsenals: nuclear, chemical, and biological.” Extremists who want to make a greater impression are turning to the more lethal weapons that technology has made available.

Attacking With Zeros and Ones

What has been called cyberterrorism involves the use of modern technology, such as computers. One weapon is the computer virus, which eats data or freezes up systems. There are also “logic bombs” that fool computers into trying to do something they can’t, thereby forcing them to malfunction. As the economy and the security of nations increasingly depend on information networks, many feel that the public is more open to such terrorist attacks. And while most armies have systems to keep their communications up even during a nuclear war, civilian systems—power supplies, transportation, and financial markets—may be more vulnerable to sabotage.

Not long ago, if a terrorist wanted to cause a blackout in, let’s say, Berlin, he might have sought a job as a utility worker so that he could sabotage the electrical system. But now, some say, it might be possible for a trained computer hacker to darken the city from the comfort of his home in a remote village halfway around the world.

Not long ago a hacker from Sweden invaded a computer system in Florida and put an emergency-service system out of commission for an hour, impeding the responses of police, fire, and ambulance services.

“In essence we’ve created a global village without a police department,” observed Frank J. Cilluffo, director of the Information Warfare Task Force of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). And Robert Kupperman, senior adviser to CSIS, stated in 1997 that if terrorists choose to use high-tech methods, “no government agency currently exists to cope with the repercussions of their attack.”

Some analysts believe that computer terrorists have the technological tools available  to outwit any protection devices that security forces come up with. “An adversary capable of implanting the right virus or accessing the right terminal can cause massive damage,” said George Tenet, director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Terror by Chemicals and Germs

Concern also exists over the use of chemical as well as biological weapons. The world was shocked in early 1995 to hear of the terrorist poison-gas attack in the Tokyo subway system. Responsibility for the incident was laid at the doorstep of an apocalyptic sect.

“Terrorism has changed,” says Brad Roberts of the Institute for Defense Analyses. “Traditional terrorists wanted political concessions. But now, some groups say their main aim is mass casualties. That makes biological weapons appealing.” Is it difficult to obtain such weapons? The magazine Scientific American says: “One can cultivate trillions of bacteria at relatively little risk to one’s self with gear no more sophisticated than a beer fermenter and a protein-based culture, a gas mask and a plastic overgarment.” Once the germs are prepared, delivering them is relatively easy. Victims would not even know that a weapon had been set off until a day or two later. And by then it could be too late.

Anthrax is said to be a likely choice as a biological weapon. The disease gets its name from the Greek word for coal—a reference to the black scabs that typically form over sores that develop on the skin of those who come in contact with anthrax-infected livestock. Defense planners are more concerned about lung infections caused by breathing in anthrax spores. In humans, anthrax infection has a high mortality rate.

Why is anthrax such an effective biological weapon? The bacterium is easy to cultivate and is highly resistant. It would take  several days before the victims would experience the first symptom, a flulike malaise and fatigue. A cough and mild chest discomfort follow. Then come severe respiratory distress, shock and, within hours, death.

Nuclear Weapons in the Hands of Terrorists?

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, some wondered whether a stolen nuclear weapon would turn up on the black market. Many experts, however, doubt that this will ever happen. Robert Kupperman, quoted earlier, notes that there is “no evidence that any terrorist group has sought to acquire nuclear material.”

A more immediate concern is the nuclear bomb’s quiet but deadly cousin—radioactive material. It does not explode. There is no blast or heat damage. Instead, it emits radiation that destroys individual cells. Bone marrow cells are especially vulnerable. Their death sets off a cascade of effects, including hemorrhaging and the collapse of the immune system. Unlike chemical weapons, which degrade once they come in contact with oxygen and moisture, radioactive material can continue to inflict damage for years.

An accident in Goiânia, a city in south-central Brazil, illustrates how deadly radiation can be. In 1987 an unsuspecting man opened a lead canister attached to a piece of abandoned medical equipment. The canister contained cesium-137. Fascinated by the stone’s luminous blue glow, he shared his find with his friends. Within a week the first victims began coming to the local health clinic. Thousands were checked for signs of contamination. About a hundred residents became sick. Fifty required hospitalization, and four died. The thought of what might have happened had the cesium been intentionally dispersed gives antiterrorism experts nightmares.

The Staggering Cost

The tragic loss of human life is the most obvious result of terrorism. But there are broader implications. Terrorism can destroy or delay the peace process in trouble spots on the planet. It provokes, prolongs, or entrenches conflicts, and it accelerates the cycle of violence.

Terrorism can also have an impact on national economies. Governments have been forced to spend enormous amounts of time and resources to combat it. For example, in the United States alone, antiterrorism spending was budgeted at more than ten billion dollars for the year 2000.

Whether we notice it or not, terrorism affects us all. It influences the way we travel and the choices we make when we travel. It forces countries around the world to spend huge amounts of tax money to protect public figures, vital installations, and citizens.

So the question remains, Is there a lasting solution to the scourge of terrorism? This will be discussed in the next article.

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Terrorism in the Name of Ecology

A new type of terror has taken the form of “arsons, bombings and sabotage in the name of saving the environment and its creatures,” reports the Oregonian newspaper. These destructive acts have been called ecoterrorism. At least a hundred major acts of this type have occurred in the western United States since 1980, with damages totaling $42.8 million. Such crimes are typically intended to disrupt logging, the recreational use of wilderness areas, or the use of animals for fur, food, or research.

These acts are considered terrorist acts because they involve violence intended to change the behavior of individuals and institutions or to alter public policies. Ecoterrorists frustrate investigators by hitting remote targets, often at night, and leaving little evidence but charred ruins. Until recently, crimes in the name of environmental protection had limited, local impact and drew little attention. But targets have grown larger in recent years. “The objective of these people is to bring attention to their cause for change,” said special agent James N. Damitio, a veteran U.S. Forest Service investigator. “And if they don’t feel like they’re getting that attention, they try something else.”

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Terrorism and the Media

“Publicity has been at once a primary goal and a weapon of those who use terror against innocent people to advance political causes or to simply cause chaos,” says Terry Anderson, a journalist who was held in captivity for nearly seven years by terrorists in Lebanon. “The very reporting of a political kidnapping, an assassination or a deadly bombing is a first victory for the terrorist. Without the world’s attention, these acts of viciousness are pointless.”

[Pictures on page 8, 9]

1. A suicide bombing in Jerusalem, Israel

2. Ethnic terrorists bomb a bank in Colombo, Sri Lanka

3. A car bomb explodes in Nairobi, Kenya

4. Family of the victims of a bomb explosion in Moscow, Russia

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Heidi Levine/Sipa Press

A. Lokuhapuarachchi/Sipa Press

AP Photo/Sayyid Azim

Izvestia/Sipa Press