Tue, Jul 27, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Fighting the 'new' terrorism

To combat the increasing lethality of those who kill innocents in order to achieve political aims, we must look beyond the metaphor of war and take advantage of `soft power'

By Joseph Nye


As the presidential campaign heats up, critics argue that US President George W. Bush's war in Iraq has made the problem of combating terrorism worse. It is a serious charge, because the world needs a broader strategy against terrorism.

Terrorism is nothing new, nor is it a single enemy. It is a longstanding method of conflict frequently defined as deliberate attack on the innocent with the objective of spreading fear. The attacks on New York and Washington of 2001 were dramatic escalations of an old phenomenon. Terrorism today, however, is different from what it was in the past.

Nowadays, instruments of mass destruction are smaller, cheaper and more readily available. Cellular phones were used as timers in the attacks in Madrid in March. Hijacking an airplane is relatively inexpensive. Finally, the information revolution provides inexpensive means of communication and organization that allow groups once restricted to local and national police jurisdictions to become global. Al-Qaeda is said to have established a network in 50 or more countries.

Changes have also occurred in the motivation and organization of terrorist groups. Terrorists in the mid-20th century tended to have relatively well-defined political objectives, which were often ill-served by mass murder. Governments supported many covertly. Toward the century's end, radical groups grew on the fringes of several religions. Most numerous were the tens of thousands of young Muslims who fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, where they were trained in a wide range of techniques where and many were recruited to organizations with an extreme view of the religious obligation of jihad.

These technological and ideological trends increased both the danger of terrorism and the difficulty of managing it. Because of the unprecedented scale of al-Qaeda's attacks, the focus is properly on Islamic extremists. But it would be a mistake to limit our concern solely to Islamic terrorists, for that would ignore the way that technology is putting into the hands of deviant groups and individuals destructive capabilities that were once limited primarily to governments and their armies.

Deviant individuals and groups exist in all human societies, and they are now empowered in ways that were once unthinkable. Think, for example, of Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, or the Aum Shinrykio cult that released poison gas in the Tokyo subway system the same year.

Lethality has been increasing. In the 1970s, the Palestinian attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics and attacks by groups like the Red Brigades galvanized world attention at the cost of dozens of lives. In the l980s, the worst terrorist incident killed 300 people. The attacks on the US of September 2001 cost several thousand lives. This escalation occurred without using weapons of mass destruction.

If one imagines a deviant group in some society gaining access to biological or nuclear materials, it is possible terrorists could destroy millions of lives. To kill so many people in the 20th century, an Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin required the apparatus of a totalitarian government. It is now easy to envisage extremist groups and individuals killing millions without government help.

Politics has plagued efforts to agree on a common definition of terrorism at the UN. Some skeptics argue that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, and that treating suppression of terrorism as a global public good is thus merely the hypocrisy of the powerful trying to disarm the weak.

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