Terrorism: An Aide Memoire

There is the perception that American involvement in wars against terrorism and even their use of terrorist tactics is something unique to recent times. This would be false and thus not solely related to contemporary political affairs.

The conflicts with Native Americans before and after American independence always had terrorism as an integral element – on both sides. Internationally we fought terrorism when we took possession of the Philippines after the Spanish American War in the beginning of the twentieth century. There are many examples of U.S. counter terrorism operations. Terrorism by Mexican bandit forces under the command of José Doroteo Arango Arámbula (Pancho Villa) was a principal weapon against the Southwest U.S. during the Mexican Border War that lasted more than two years after 1915. In more recent times – fifteen years after WWII – Washington became deeply involved in the 1960’s against various African independence movements supported by the Soviet Union that used terrorism as a principal weapon. The fact is that low level warfare involving civilians as both perpetrators and victims is, and has been, a factor throughout history worldwide. 

The issue of terrorism is complicated because the term is defined both as a form of warfighting, a method of subjugation of a civilian population and as simply a device to instill fear in an opponent – among other deadly actions. The fact is that one person’s view of a deadly inhuman act is another’s belief that these same terrorist acts are the only way to fight oppression. And both views can be and are justified. Of course, there are many forms of terrorism. These can range from psychological warfare, instilling fear in opposing forces and their civilian community, to simple brutality against a foe. It is certainly not limited to followers of Islam.

Perhaps the least understood aspect of terrorism is the utilization of carefully analyzed intelligence. The tragedy of 9/11 for the United States was the result of a carefully planned and executed operation by Al Qaeda, based on a well-thought out assessment of American symbols and their vulnerability. What was not well done was the fact that the terrorists did not consider their own vulnerability to an American counteraction. This is a mistake that often occurs especially by committed terrorist organizations that think only of their own destructive ambitions; this is often present when the activity is religiously driven without regard for human life, including their own.

The willingness of terrorists to die for their cause is a characteristic that is often undervalued when potential Western targets seek to establish defenses against possible attacks. The fact is – as the old saying goes – the best defense is a good offense. However, that is a problem when the defensive action requires extended operations directed at a distant target. Afghanistan is a good example. The need to remain in an operational mode a long distance from the homeland in order to protect that homeland is both a weakness and a strength in anti-terror ops. While an effective long-distance campaign is a method of keeping down local actions by a dedicated terrorist enemy operating in much smaller units, it is not a guarantee for preventing lower-level attacks back at “home base.”

It becomes extremely important for the civilian population of a given terrorist-targeted country to remain alert to the danger of the evolution of terrorist structures operating deeply under cover. It is instructive to realize that Osama bin Laden (OBL) came from an extremely rich and well-known family. This background tended to be perceived as non-involvement in terrorist activities – a major error in analysis.  His father had created a highly successful construction and community development firm with activities in many parts of the Middle East. The family was well-regarded by the Saudi Royal Family. OBL took advantage of the access and financial strength of his father’s creation to organize and fund Al Qaeda.

All this was occurring under the nose of the usually perceptive Saudi security structure. Al Qaeda and its offspring today still benefit from the wealth and contacts originally exploited by the now deceased OBL from his father’s firm. It is also true that one of the many methods of financing terrorist activities comes from numerous sources ranging from foreign governments to financial elements fearful of becoming targets and thus vulnerable to blackmail. The latter follows the tradition of modern organized crime

More and more terrorist organizations have become increasingly sophisticated in their operations and support structure. The overt side of terrorism, the harrowing attacks on civilian targets, actually distracts from the broader political purpose of local and regional domination. This maneuver, too, can be traced back to even ancient times. As the French saying goes: “All that changes remains the same.”  And that is especially true in the world of terrorism!