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World: Analysis From Washington -- The Terrorist Challenge

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 24 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The difficulties the international community now faces in overcoming terrorism lie in the nature of terrorism itself: its sources, its purposes, and the environment within which it operates.

All of these challenge the capacity of individual states and the international system to respond, but if they are understood, they can be addressed and turned aside even if the cost of doing so will in many cases be very high.

But as U.S. President Bill Clinton pointed out last week in the aftermath of the American bombing raids on terrorist facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan, the cost of not finding a way to do so will in almost all cases be even greater.

The sources of terrorism are well-known: the anger of individuals, groups and states who feel that their interests and values are being destroyed by the more powerful and who have concluded that their only recourse is to use violence to force the more powerful to defer to them.

As such, terrorism is preeminently the weapon of the weak rather than the strong, but that does not make it any less dangerous. If anything, it may make it more so both now and in the future.

In the short-term, weak individuals, groups, and states are likely to continue terrorist campaigns as long as they are convinced that the benefits of doing so are greater than the costs.

And in the longer term, the continuing imbalance in power around the world, within and among countries and cultures, seems likely to guarantee ever more recruits to causes that engage in terrorist activities.

If the sources leading people to turn to terrorism are well-known, the purpose of terrorism --to terrorize, to deprive people of predictability in their lives -- is sometimes forgotten in the aftermath of horrible acts.

When the terrorists blew up the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, their real "targets," of course, were not those buildings or even the people working in them. Instead, their targets were the United States and the citizens and governments of the countries where the attacks took place.

By attacking American embassies, the terrorists hoped to highlight the difficulties the U.S. has in responding and thus force the U.S. to behave in ways that would undermine American influence. And by so doing, they hoped to convince the peoples in these countries and elsewhere as well that any American presence entailed more costs than benefits.

For all these reasons, the terrorists acted with supreme confidence that they would gain whatever happened. But any strategy to deal with terrorism must reflect not only an understanding of the sources and purpose of terrorism. It must also reflect an appreciation of the advantages that three features of the modern world give those who engage in it.

First, the increasing internationalization of economic and political life simultaneously generates irritations among populations whose values and lifestyles are being overwhelmed and give them an increasing number of opportunities to act against the institutions of those they hate.

Second, the increasing emergence of a world-wide media environment, one in which an event anywhere is instantly reported everywhere, gives the terrorists the near certainty that their actions, inevitably limited however horrible they in fact are, will instantly acquire a global audience.

And third, the increasing ability of individuals and groups to acquire weapons of extraordinary destructive power, a reflection of both technological innovation and the weakness of political institutions in many countries, give terrorists the ability to do things they could never dream of in the past.

Given this situation, many people around the world appear increasingly frustrated as to how to respond.

But the nature of terrorism itself provides a key, one that open societies can exploit without transforming themselves and reducing their influence in the process. First of all, such open societies can marginalize the terrorists by addressing the concerns of the people the terrorists hope to attract to their cause.

Moreover, such societies can work to transform popular attitudes toward terrorism in these countries and more broadly. When there is no public support for terrorism, those thinking about engaging in it are less likely to.

And finally, open societies can use the enormous power at their disposal to attack terrorists directly, raising the costs to those who would use such illegitimate means to advance their causes.

No one of these things will be enough to win what many are calling the war of the future. But carefully combined, they will have the effect of limiting the impact of this modern plague. And that will represent a real victory in a battle that open societies do not want but cannot fail to fight.