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1997 In Review: Fewer Terrorists Strike, But More Viciously

Washington, 10 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- From Latin America to Africa to the Middle East, the world continued to be plagued by a rash of violent, bloody and largely indiscriminate acts of terrorism in 1997.

Terrorism, as defined by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), is the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, a civilian population or any segment to further political or social objectives.

There are two classifications of terrorism, says the FBI -- domestic and international. Domestic terrorism is defined as terrorist activity involving the citizens or territory of one country, whereas international terrorism involves citizens or territory of more than one country.

There were a number of both domestic and international terrorist acts in 1997, with several incidents making international headlines and capturing the attention of the world.

For example, in April, the world was riveted when government troops in Peru stormed the Japanese ambassador's residence in the capital city of Lima, dramatically freeing dozens of hostages who had been held for four months by an anti-government, Marxist guerrilla group. All the terrorists were killed in the raid and one hostage died.

Algeria, now in midst of its sixth year of a harsh anti-government campaign, also suffered a particularly severe wave of domestic terrorism in 1997. Much of the world watched in horror as indiscriminate bombings, assassinations and a series of brutal civilian massacres took hundreds of lives and injured thousands more.

Israel, no stranger to terrorist violence, also endured a number of terrorist attacks this year. Three separate suicide bombings in two different cities killed dozens of people and injured hundreds of others.

Egypt was also the target of terrorism in 1997 when at least 70 people, including 60 foreign tourists, were systematically murdered at a 3,400 year-old temple in the ancient city of Luxor. A militant Islamic group wishing to overthrow the government of President Hosni Mubarak claimed responsibility for the attack.

Yet, despite these and other numerous terrorist acts of 1997, the U.S. State Department says the number of international terrorist attacks is actually decreasing.

In its annual report on global terrorism released in April, the State Department said that international terrorism peaked in 1987 and has been declining ever since.

However, the report adds that there is a growing and deadly trend among terrorists toward more ruthless attacks on mass civilian targets and the use of increasingly powerful bombs.

For example, statistics show that the death toll from terrorist attacks jumped sharply from 1995 to 1996 -- a 91 percent increase in just one year.

In order to counter these types of attacks, the U.S. and many nations have been adopting a policy of "zero tolerance" for terrorism.

America took a strong stand against terrorism last year when U.S. President Bill Clinton signed into law the "Anti terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996."

The law grants broad power to U.S. law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism. Provisions of the law include a ban on fundraising in the U.S. for terrorist organizations, and a stipulation that allows the U.S. to deport or bar terrorists from American soil without being legally compelled to divulge classified information about them.

The act also imposes stiff penalties, including the death penalty, against convicted terrorists.

The U.S. invoked this law many times in 1997 not only to fight international terrorism but to combat domestic terrorism as well.

For example, U.S. federal prosecutors sought and won the death penalty in the case of Timothy McVeigh. McVeigh was convicted in June for the worst act of terrorism on American soil -- the 1995 bombing of a federal building in the midwestern state of Oklahoma. The bomb killed 168 people and injured hundreds more.

Now federal prosecutors are seeking the death penalty under the same statute for McVeigh's alleged accomplice, Terry Nichols. Nichols' trial is currently underway.

Also sentenced to death this year for a terrorist attack on U.S. soil is Mir Aimal Kasi. Kasi, a Pakistani citizen, was convicted in November of murdering two Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employees and wounding three others in a 1993 shooting outside CIA headquarters in Virginia.

Prosecutors also want the death penalty for "Unabomber" suspect Theodore Kaczynski. Kaczynski is accused of mailing bombs that killed three people and injured 23 in an anti-technology terror campaign between 1978 and 1995. Jury selection is now underway for his trial.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright also took critical steps in 1997 to combat terrorism.

In October, Albright designated 30 groups as terrorist organizations -- freezing their assets in the U.S., making it illegal for the groups to conduct fund-raising activities on American soil, and barring its members from entering the country.

Among those groups on the list are the Palestinian Islamic movement Hamas, the Armed Islamic Group -- active mainly in Egypt -- and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Aside from classical terrorist attacks such as bombs and indiscriminate violence, there was also the recognition in 1997 that another type of terrorism is becoming a serious threat worldwide.

The threat, called cyberterrorism, is an attack on a nation via its computer systems and networks. Attacks can be aimed at a wide variety of targets such as financial institutions, communication arrays, nuclear power stations, military installations and government agencies.

After 15 months of intense study, a U.S. presidential commission issued a report in October warning that America had become increasingly vulnerable to a cyberterrorist attack.

Says the report: "Today, the right command sent over a network to a power generating station's control computer could be just as effective as a backpack full of explosives, and the perpetrator would be harder to identify and apprehend."

According to the report, since America's security, economy and even way of life are now dependent on a complex network of electrical energy, communications arrays and computers -- an attack on any one America's critical systems could seriously jeopardize U.S. national security.

The report says the U.S. still needs to protect itself against bombs and guns, but that cyber threats have to be taken seriously.

The report also says that the rapid growth of a computer-literate population around the world ensures that hundreds of millions of people have, or will soon have, the skills necessary to plan and carry out such an attack against any nation.