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Terrorism Goes Global: Extremist Groups Extend Their Reach Worldwide

Despite the innumerable and oft-discussed ways in which we are vulnerable to them, terrorist attacks are rare. An attack occurs only when a perpetrator vile enough to commit it, a motive strong enough to rouse him to action, a target germane to the motive, and the wherewithal to act all converge at the same place and time. It follows that anything that raises the odds that these four factors will indeed come together will increase the incidence of terrorism. Several trends associated with globalization?the greater ease of moving people, resources, and information across borders, the greater transnational reach of institutional structures?thus have sustained or worsened international terrorism even as other trends, such as the precipitous decline of Marxist terrorism at the end of the Cold War, have tended to lessen it. In today’s globalizing world, terrorists can reach their targets more easily, their targets are exposed in more places, and news and ideas that inflame people to resort to terrorism spread more widely and rapidly than in the past.

Today’s globalized terrorism is exemplified by Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and later an abortive plot to bomb a dozen U.S. airliners out of the sky in the Far East. Of Palestinian extraction and raised in Kuwait, Yousef (who is now serving a 240-year sentence in a U.S. prison) was educated formally at a technical institute in the United Kingdom. He received his terrorist education at camps in Afghanistan. He came to the United States in September of 1992, organized the attack on the World Trade Center, and left the day the bomb went off. He later surfaced in Manila, where he put together the airline plot. When he was finally arrested in Pakistan in 1995, he was planning more terrorist operations elsewhere in Asia.

Globetrotters and Infrastructures

Terrorism’s reach is now worldwide in two respects. First, individuals such as Yousef travel widely. The same easing of border controls?especially notable in Europe?that has been a convenience to businessmen and tourists has also made it easier for terrorists to reach tempting targets and willing collaborators. Globetrotting by peripatetic terrorists has made ad hoc cabals, as distinct from large, well-known groups, a larger part of international terrorism. The group that struck the World Trade Center, for example, did not exist until its members, foreigners of diverse nationalities, coalesced in New York for that one attack. That they belonged to no terrorist group when they entered the United States underscores how the mere movement of highly discontented people can bring about the malignant combination of ringleader, collaborators, and target, despite passport checks at international borders.

Second, terrorists have extended their reach by building globe-circling infrastructures. Lebanese Hizballah, whose presence now reaches six continents, has led the way. But other terrorist organizations, with agendas as diverse as the Palestinian group Hamas or the Sri Lankan Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, maintain cells far from the lands where their goals and grievances are focused. The infrastructures extend the geographic options for attacks?witness Hizballah’s bombings of Israeli-associated targets in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s?but more often they further recruitment, fund-raising, movement of materiel, and other support functions. The overseas cells grow up most often near sympathetic expatriate communities (such as the Shia Lebanese in the border region of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay?the heart of Hizballah’s activity in South America), but they also settle elsewhere in the Western world simply to take advantage of superior civil liberties, social services, transportation, and communications.

The breakdown of controls in the former Soviet empire has complemented the larger global trends by opening up even more operating areas for transnational terrorists, especially Middle Eastern extremists. The emergence of the conflict in Chechnya as a new jihad has accelerated this trend.

Author

Paul R. Pillar

Former Brookings Expert

Nonresident Senior Fellow - Georgetown University

The greater mobility of terrorists and the proliferation of terrorist cells have blurred organizational lines. International terrorism has become the work less of distinct and well-defined groups than of networks (of individuals and of ill-defined and constantly shifting groups). Cells often contain members of more than one nationality, with affiliations to more than one group, and groups cooperate in procuring false documents and moving operatives. The blurring of organizational lines has made it increasingly difficult to determine responsibility for terrorist acts. The networks make it plausible to describe much that goes on in the terrorist world as “linked to” this or that group or leader (such as Usama bin Ladin), but linkage does not necessarily mean operational control.

The Electronic Connection

Advances in communications and information technology have facilitated worldwide terrorist operations just as they have normal commerce. Satellite phones are now standard equipment for terrorist leaders,who can remain otherwise inaccessible in a place such as Afghanistan while influencing events thousands of miles away. Terrorists also use the Internet for long-distance operational direction, with some larger groups using it for propaganda and proselytization as well.

Terrorist use of the Internet has sparked two concerns. The first is that the Internet could provide information on biological, chemical, or other unconventional agents that could be put to terrorist use. The second is that terrorists could use it to disable electronic infrastructures. Both are legitimate concerns, although probably neither threat is as great as is commonly feared. Terrorists no doubt have found useful information on weapons on the Internet, but little they could not have picked up elsewhere. And the few international cyberterrorism attacks so far have been crude and of little consequence. Information technology’s biggest impact on terrorists has involved the everyday tasks of organizing and communicating, rather than their methods of attack.

Accessible and Visible Targets

Through their personal mobility and their far-flung networks, international terrorists can reach more potential targets than ever before. They can strike wherever targets are vulnerable?for example, the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam?rather than in the lands, such as the Middle East, where their grievances arose.

Terrorists’ targets are also more mobile?and virtually ubiquitous. Foreign terrorists wishing to strike Americans have not only the traditional fixed targets such as U.S. embassies but also an increasing nonofficial American presence overseas?from the widespread commercial activities of U.S. businesses to individual Americans living or traveling abroad. U.S. missionaries in Colombia, trekkers in Kashmir, and car dealers in Greece have all been hit by terrorists in recent years.

The increasing American presence overseas has also stoked resentment of Uncle Sam’s large footprint on the rest of the world, raising the risk of extreme responses. The marketing of American goods abroad, for example, results not just in commercial facilities that may become targets, but in a more diffuse dislike of what is seen as an American cultural and economic intrusion.

The growth of mass media has made news available to more people in more countries, heightening awareness of the American “intrusion,” and also speeding and spreading awareness of controversial, inflammatory events that might impel some people to violence. New Arab satellite television stations such as the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, for example, now quickly inform mass audiences in the Middle East of details of partisan clashes that would once have reached far fewer people far more slowly.

Terrorists can also exploit the expanded capabilities of the mass media themselves. Twenty years ago the main media-related issue of terrorism was how coverage of hostage situations might help terrorists achieve the impact they sought on Western populations. Today, terrorists are apt to think at least as much about howthe media reach their own constituents?the mostly non-Western people who share the terrorists’ grievances and among whom they seek at least tacit support for their operations. Bin Ladin is noteworthy at least as much for his skill in manipulating the media (particularly through taped television interviews) to reach Muslim audiences as for his expertise as a terrorist financier and operational commander.

Plentiful, But Not Always Usable, Data

Several developments mentioned above are double-edged swords for terrorists. Modern electronic media, for example, have on occasion become a source of valuable insights for counterterrorist forces. The more terrorists move information, money, and themselves around the globe, the more data are available on what they are up to. But the practical difficulties of collecting and exploiting that data are greater than commonly realized.

Consider international travel. The data accessible to immigration officers at ports of entry and to commercial air carriers on international routes may seem a potential trove of information on the movements of international terrorists. There have been proposals to “mine” these data for counterterrorist purposes, as well as legislation to require the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to keep records on all aliens entering the United States. The problem begins with the sheer volume of data. Each year more than a half trillion people enter the United States, two-thirds of whom are aliens. Duplicate names, the use (by terrorists, among others) of false names, and the inconvenient fact that many people it would be good to catch are not yet on record as having committed terrorist crimes are major challenges, no matter how sophisticated the automated search techniques used. The people and institutions who must furnish the data may withhold it because of resource constraints, suspicions, or other reasons. Indeed, the plan to catalog data on aliens entering the United States encountered resistance not only from Canada but from U.S. border state representatives because of concerns about back-ups at crossing points. Given that track record, foreign sources of data are apt to be even more problematic. In the end, intercepting terrorists who cross borders to conduct attacks will always depend in large part on luck and alert border officers, as it did when an Algerian named Ahmed Ressam was arrested in December 1999 while bringing explosives into Washington state from Canada.

Information collected from international travelers in a more targeted way, however, can help the counterterrorist effort. The U.S. intelligence community’s Tipoff system, for example, relays sanitized information about terrorists derived from intelligence to immigration officers at points of entry to the United States and to consular officers issuing visas at U.S. embassies worldwide. Since its inception several years ago, the program has resulted in more than 500 suspected terrorists being denied visas, scores more being denied entry at border control points, and several being arrested.

Flows of money pose similar problems in acquiring and exploiting terrorist-related data. High hopes have often been expressed for countering terrorism by interdicting its financial “lifeblood.” But the use of false names on accounts, the commingling of funds used for terrorism with those used for legitimate purposes (particularly in certain nongovernmental organizations that facilitate, wittingly or unwittingly, the activities of terrorists), and other practical problems often dash those hopes. When terrorists move money internationally, they usually avoid the Western banking system. Most often they avoid any banking system, instead using informal money-changing arrangements (common in the Middle East) or physically moving currency.

Another reason the financial target is elusive is that it is small. The business of killing someone or blowing something up is far less expensive than transnational enterprises such as narcotics trafficking or arms smuggling. Terrorists, unlike other global criminals, do not need to launder lots of cash.

The terrorist-connected money that does flow across international borders is also hard to interdict because few other countries have the institutions (or the laws) that the United States does for freezing or seizing illicit assets. Even European governments lack an equivalent to the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. The closest counterpart is sometimes only a single official in a finance ministry, justice ministry, or central bank.

The Good Guys Going Global

The obvious lesson to draw from the increasingly transnational character of terrorism is that counterterrorist efforts must be as globalized as the terrorists themselves. This is far more than a matter of legal authorities or even the geographic reach of U.S. law enforcement or security services. The United States has asserted extraterritorial jurisdiction over terrorist crimes since the 1980s, and its intelligence services have always operated worldwide. If counterterrorist activities are to go global, it will require a broad outlook in planning defensive measures against terrorism. It will also mean enlisting the cooperation of foreign partners in going after terrorists offensively.

Defensively, the key point is that terrorists go where they see the opportunities, thus undermining distinctions between high- and low-threat areas. Relaxed security reflecting a belief that the threat is low offers terrorists an opportunity that may well increase the threat. The State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security has deemphasized previous high-threat, low-threat distinctions and considers the entire world as a high-threat area in planning the security of U.S. diplomatic missions.

Offensively, the principal goal should be to disrupt worldwide terrorist infrastructures. The best way to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States is to impede foreign terrorists long before they plan such attacks or travel to carry them out. That cannot be done without the help of foreign governments. Their security and police services, not those of the United States, must do most of the work of investigating, arresting, confiscating, and otherwise obstructing the work of international terrorists.

Nevertheless, there are limits to what counterterrorism can accomplish, and the vulnerabilities associated with globalization help to set those limits. For the United States, being an especially attractive and exposed target for terrorists is the downside of being the premier power?and the most prominent free society?in an integrated world. The free trade and free travel that undergird this country’s wealth and liberty also make it the prime terrorist target. Its position as leader of the West and the only remaining superpower?at a time when Western cultural and economic influence is greater than ever?also breeds resentments that make the United States the number one terrorist target. Terrorism will continue to be a price of superpowerdom.

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