U.S. President George W. Bush has promised a war against terrorism. But terrorism has plagued the world for years -- its perpetrators representing a wide variety of religious and political beliefs. Are the unprecedented attacks on 11 September a new form of terrorism? For the answer, RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten speaks to a leading expert on international terrorism.
Prague, 17 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Horrendous as the 11 September attacks on the United States were, they fit the standard definition of terrorism, according to Paul Wilkinson, one of the world's leading authorities on the subject.
Wilkinson, who heads the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at Scotland's Saint Andrews University, spoke to RFE/RL about this phenomenon. What, then, is terrorism? Wilkinson said:
"It is not a synonym for violence in general. It is a particular form or type of violence which can be briefly described as coercive intimidation -- that is extreme violence, or the threat of extreme violence in order to coerce a target into conceding to the terrorists' aims and usually to service political ends. In fact, the modern age of terrorism is mainly motivated by politics."
The fact that the perpetrators of the 11 September attacks went after civilian targets and have neither issued a claim of responsibility nor made any demands is also in keeping with modern trends.
"I don't think that shows any change in the essential character of terrorism. Terrorism is a weapon that is used to try to reach a wider audience than the immediate victims of the target, of the violence. And of course, it is usually a form of violence which involves the deliberate killing of civilians. It is seen as extra-normal by the society in which it occurs because it is clearly a violation of the norms of opposition and political dissent."
Some commentators consider the formation of coordinated, multi-national terrorist coalitions, such as the one that is likely to have been behind the U.S. attacks, an especially menacing development. Wilkinson agrees, but he notes that this is not new:
"Even in the 1970s, the terrorist Carlos the Jackal was building up a multi-national group which carried out a number of attacks, including the hijacking of the oil ministers in Vienna in 1975. So, the idea of using terrorism as a kind of trans-national weapon, ignoring frontiers and using the mass media and modern communications, that is not new. It is the scale of this, the degree of evil committed by these terrorists in America that passes a new watershed."
Experts point to three sets of conditions in which terrorist movements can flourish. First, when terrorist leaders manage to unite members of an ethnic or religious minority who have grievances that they feel are not properly addressed by the government. This is the case in Spain and France with the Basques and with the paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. Terrorism can also flourish when law and order has broken down and a government has lost partial or total control over state structures on some or all of its territory, as in the case of Colombia and its rebel insurgencies.
The third case, more relevant to America and other Western countries, is the society that aims to maintain a high degree of freedom and civil liberties, and well as minimal controls on the activities of citizens on their territory. While giving one's citizens a high degree of individual liberty does not cause terrorism, such an environment makes it easier for terrorists to operate.
Western Europe, in particular Germany and Italy, faced this problem throughout the 1970s, as various local Marxist and anarchist revolutionary groups organized assassinations, kidnappings and terrorist attacks. The United States faced it with Timothy McVeigh's bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in April 1995. And it is facing it now, in the wake of the New York and Washington tragedies.
Terrorist operations, especially if managed on the scale seen in New York and Washington, require financing. Suspicion for the U.S. attacks has fallen on Saudi extremist Osama bin Laden, in part, because of his vast wealth and consequent ability to fund such a plan. But Wilkinson notes that, unfortunately, wealthy terrorists are not only to be found in the Middle East and certainly not only among Muslims:
"If you look at Latin America for an example, the enormous money that FARC -- the Colombian terrorist organization -- gains from kidnap and ransom and from its huge stake in the drug crime business, shows the scale of money that can be gained by these organizations which are so often interwoven with international organized crime. The financial resources of the Middle Eastern-based groups are by no means unique. This is a factor which has become apparent in the development of terrorism in many areas of the world."
The irony is that while state sponsorship of terrorism appears to have decreased, relative to levels in the 1970s and 1980s, this has cleared the way for semi-autonomous groups to take their place.
"The reduction in the number of state sponsors of terrorism, who were very important in the 1970s and 80s, is a welcome development. But what it has resulted in is increasing self-help by the terrorist organizations and their support networks. They've simply found alternative ways of obtaining the weaponry, explosives, the finances that are necessary to give them all the logistics support they need. And some of these organizations are as wealthy or wealthier than many nation states. Add to that [the fact] that some groups -- FARC in Colombia is another good example of that -- have virtual control over large slices of territory: FARC has an area of Colombia as big as Switzerland in which to operate."
Established in 1964 as the military wing of the Colombian Communist Party, the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, has grown from a small organization to a virtual mini-state with an army of over 12,000 professional soldiers financed by an estimated 300,000 peasants harvesting coca for drug production. Profiting from growing poverty and official corruption, the FARC has broadened its activities to include arms trading, kidnapping, and extortion.
A similar trend has been observed among terrorist groups in a number of countries, especially Africa, and parts of Asia, where many governments retain only tenuous control over their territories. This, says Wilkinson, makes any war against terrorism a special challenge.
"These gray areas -- in Central Asia, parts of Latin America, parts of Africa -- make the problem of combating terrorism all the more difficult. It is not something which can be defeated in a dramatic military blow. Although there may be a very useful role for military force, in our crackdown on terrorism globally we would be gravely mistaken if what thought that this, in itself, would be the solution."
Headway in the war against terrorism, experts agree, will only be achieved when intelligence-gathering capabilities are boosted, global financial flows are better tracked, and poverty -- the root cause of much human misery -- is alleviated. It promises to be a long war indeed.