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U.S.: Analysis From Washington -- The Algebra Of Terrorism

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 10 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A leading U.S. government specialist on terrorism has outlined the complex algebra that leads to terrorism attacks and, in so doing, has implicitly described the difficulty of the tasks that those who want to reduce or eliminate terrorism now face.

Paul R. Pillar, the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, is the author of a new book called "Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy." Its basic conclusions are summed up in an article which appears in the current issue of the Washington magazine "Brookings Review."

The book and the article were prepared before the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.

According to Pillar, terrorist attacks become more likely when four elements come together: individuals and groups willing to engage in such acts, a motivation that they find persuasive, the availability of targets, and the means to carry out the attack. Anything that "raises the odds" that these four factors will come together, Pillar suggests, "will increase the incidence of terrorism."

Those who want to combat terrorism, Pillar says, must either reduce the chance that these four factors will come together or lower the intensity of any one of them.

In many respects, this logic is similar to the reasons fires arise and the ways in which firefighters combat them. For a fire to happen, there must be heat, fuel, and oxygen, and for a fire to be extinguished, removing one or reducing one or more of these factors will allow the firefighters to succeed.

But there is a significant difference, one that lies behind Pillar's analysis and that undoubtedly will become more obvious with each passing day. That difference lies in the fact that those who seek to combat terrorism not only have less control over most of the elements involved but also must reckon with the likelihood that efforts to eliminate one factor in the terror equation may have the unintended consequence of intensifying another.

Clearly, no government by itself or in concert with others can either prevent the appearance of individuals willing to engage in such acts or determine that no one will conclude that there is sufficient reason for them. Consequently, following Pillar's analysis, governments will inevitably try to protect potential targets and to deny potential terrorists the wherewithal to act at any particular time and place.

The first of these tasks involves increasing security around key sites, and the second requires destroying the communications and control networks that terrorist groups have developed to carry out their actions. Both of these tasks fall within traditional understandings of threat and response to threat, and it is not surprising that governments almost inevitably turn to these first.

But Pillar's analysis suggests that actions in these spheres alone may have the effect of intensifying both the willingness of those ready to conduct such actions to act against certain targets and even serve to reinforce what the terrorists have identified as their motives for action. Such intensification in turn means either that the groups involved will turn to other targets if their primary targets are now beyond reach or that other terrorists may emerge.

Such a development is all the more likely, Pillar indicates, because extremist groups are able to use the very features of the modern world -- rapid transportation, near instantaneous communication, and the openness of the societies they abhor -- against those societies in particular.

To say all this is not to say that terrorism cannot be fought. Rather it is to highlight that, as U.S. President George W. Bush has repeatedly said, the fight against terrorism is not only different from any war the West has ever had to wage before but also that this fight more than others is going to be longer and more difficult than anyone now can imagine.

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