The ultimate terrorist: myth or reality?

In the last decade, terrorism has emerged as one of the most important political issues in the United States. Unlike its European partners, the US virtually escaped the horror of terrorism during the Cold War era. This is no longer true. Terrorists now select targets in the United States itself.

Throughout the 1990s, a series of explosions shattered America’s peace of mind, raising fears about further attacks and calls for punitive action against the perpetrators and their alleged sponsors. Perhaps the most memorable of these instances was the February 1993 World Trade Center bombing, as a result of which 10 Muslims were convicted of waging “a war of urban terrorism” against America and of plotting to kill Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The subsequent trial ­ coupled with the revelations that the perpetrators had conspired to carry out a bloody campaign to destroy the United Nations and other New York landmarks and force the United States to abandon its support for Israel and Egypt ­ deepened Americans’ fears about the security threats associated with Islamic militancy.

It is within this context that some US officials and many commentators have linked terrorism to Islamic militancy. What is disturbing, however, asserts Professor Richard Bulliet of Columbia University, is that Americans have quite readily accepted the notion that acts of violence committed by some Muslims “are representative of a fanatic and terroristic culture that cannot be tolerated or reasoned with.”

Many books and policy pamphlets have examined the terrorist threat, contingency plans have been drawn, and the US security apparatus has been mobilized and trained to deal with potential terrorist attacks. It is estimated that the US government will spend about $10 billion in the next decade to shield its home front against conventional and non-conventional terrorist assaults. In other words, the threat of terrorism has spawned a big industry, and has struck fear and horror in the American psyche.

At this juncture, it is difficult to separate myth from reality and to assess the relative weight of the terrorist danger. Yet here is another book, The Ultimate Terrorists (Harvard University Press), by Jessica Stern, who served in the National Security Council in the Clinton administration, and who now teaches at Harvard University, that seeks to clear the muddy waters and lift the fog of confusion and misunderstanding.

Ironically, Stern  begins not by examining concrete empirical cases but rather by graphically detailing hypothetical terrorist attacks as well as their potential effects.

Throughout the study, Stern examines the impact of terrorism on the United States and asserts that the latter is a “vulnerable society” because of the diversity of belief systems among its citizens.

She defines terrorism as being simply (a) aimed at non-combatants, (b) violence used for dramatic purposes, and (c) as being inherently indiscriminate and inherently random. Her definition also includes domestic as well as international and state terrorism.

Stern also notes that state terrorism is not just used by state acting against its own citizens, but also is used against other states as a tool of war. Her examples include Iraq, Stalinist Russia, and Guatemala. However, Israel does not figure anywhere in this neat classification.

Stern argues further that modern terrorism will continue to take place for the following five reasons: (1) growing importance of irrational religious groups, (2) increased violence of extremist groups, (3) availability of materials and know-how on the black market, (4) nuclear proliferation (for example Iraq), and (5) technological advances like the internet.

In fact, the author claims to discern a rise in random violence because extremist groups appear to proliferate.

Stern devotes a great deal of time and space to examining terrorists’ capacity to use Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD): although this capacity is and will remain low, their potential effects will be devastating. Yet at the same time, Stern acknowledges the difficulties inherent in studying WMD because of “the lack of comprehensive data makes it impossible to analyze broad trends in terrorism.”

Like the rest of its genre, this study has many more ifs and probable scenarios than readers might be able to digest.

Stern’s most valuable contribution lies not in assessing the nature of the terrorist threat but in highlighting the big dichotomy between this real threat and the irrational fear of the US public of being exposed to chemical and nuclear warfare: “Experts tend to focus on probability and outcomes, but public perception of risk seems to depend on other variables: there is little correlation between objective risk and public dread.” For example, after World War II the US public became synthesized to the risk of nuclear weapons and radiology.

According to the author, the “US deliberately took advantage of the horror such weapons inspire” to sell its new deterrence and Cold War policies to an initially skeptical public. Even the media, observed Stern, has tended to highlight terrorist incidences, intensifying fear and panic as a result.

In this context, Americans’ fear of nuclear weapons not only started a mania for building backyard bomb shelters, but also enabled their government to invest billions of dollars in new war technology.

However, Stern shies away from asking big, critical questions: should not observers and academics keep skeptical about the US  government’s assessment of the terrorist threat? To what extent do terrorist “experts” indirectly perpetuate this irrational fear of terrorism by focusing too much on farfetched horrible scenarios? Does the terrorist industry, consciously or unconsciously, exaggerate the nature and degree of the terrorist threat to American citizens?

Many Americans show a healthy skepticism toward their government and decline in trust in the last half century as a result of their access to the information revolution and having proof of government lies. “This lack of trust in government and in scientists has significant implications for terrorism,” Stern contends. “Societies who feel alienated from the government and from one another are more vulnerable than more cohesive societies to terrorist violence and also provide more fertile ground for breeding extremists.”

Stern here puts her finger on a highly critical philosophical and moral issue. How can the US ruling elite gain the trust and confidence of their citizens? To what extent does current American foreign policy reflect the ethos and values of the American people? What explains the gap that exists between government and citizens? Can the issue of terrorism be dealt with differently and creatively by not frightening peoples but rather by gaining their trust?

Again, Stern shies away from drawing relevant public policy recommendations. A gulf exists between her description and prescription, raising serious questions about the intellectual rigor and depth of her analysis.

“Who are the terrorists?” Time and again, Stern lists religious extremists who would be more likely to use biological warfare than others in an attempt to “emulate God.” Technical, political, moral, and organizational constraints aside, Stern claims that Christian patriots and radical Islamists might be able to overcome these obstacles and use weapons of mass destruction.

Although the author has no historical precedent to augment her claims, she singles out Osama bin Laden as a leader with the organizational capacity to employ such destructive weapons.

Stern mentions revenge as a motive and reiterates the importance of state sponsorship of terrorism, particularly Iraq’s. While she praises Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in the 1980s, she is silent on the former’s brutal crackdown on Palestinians. Not a single mention of Israel’s bloody record.

What is to be done? Stern calls on the US to deter states which sponsor terrorism, to update its laws and restrictions, and improve domestic preparedness. In particular, the author stresses the threat that the former USSR, with its unprotected internal borders and endless potential for unemployed physicists and unrecorded materials. Accordingly, the US should stop the brain drain of Russian scientists, analyze and secure its data bases, strengthen its laws, investigate individuals, monitor communication, and “prohibit the dissemination of information.”

Does not the last recommendation perpetuate and deepen citizens’ alienation and mistrust of their government, the very same concern she bemoaned earlier?

How about the rights of privacy, First Amendment rights, and the Freedom of Information Act? Instead of focusing on domestic preparedness, why not invest in education concerning the actual versus mythical risks of terrorist attacks? Why not target issues of governmental mistrust and the roots of alienation instead of band-aid recommendations on the whole non-proliferation issue. Why not think originally?

One final thought. Stern does not engage in any kind of Islam-bashing and she does not seem to be preoccupied with the so-called “Islamist threat.” More than anything else, her book raises many disturbing questions about how America and its “experts” have coped with their recent encounter with the terrorist phenomenon.

Fawaz A. Gerges holds the Christian A. Johnson Chair in International Affairs and Middle East studies at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, and wrote this commentary for The Daily Star





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