The rise of the DIY terrorist
Wednesday 31 July 1996
The reason is that "political violence", as we have traditionally understood it, is no longer the problem. The World Trade Centre bombing in 1993, the use of nerve gas in Japan last year, the Oklahoma bombing, the attack on TWA 800 (if it was a bomb), and the Atlanta outrage all give the same message. Terrorism has changed.
Yesterday's measures, agreed by foreign and interior ministers of the G7 nations including Britain, set out improvements to transport safety, increased intelligence co-operation and plans to investigate terrorists' abuse of charities and other front organisations.
All these measures are welcome. But the G7 states and Russia, like most generals, are still preoccupied with fighting the last war. They have not addressed the main issue: the changed motivation behind terrorist attacks.
Instead of pursuing national self-determination, albeit by unconventional means, the ends of these groups are different, often undefined. And terrorist attacks, far from seeking to draw attention to a cause, or even elicit sympathy and support, are motivated only by vengeance and envy. That means they come without warning, and anonymously. That also makes them far more effective, and far more difficult for governments to cope with or to halt.
The irony is that the root cause of this new terrorism is an increasing divide between rich and poor, and consequent rising resentment against local elites and foreign exploitation. Anger at Western economic dominance has fuelled a revival of religious - notably Islamic - extremism. It is precisely the type of issue that G7 summits are best qualified to deal with. Yet the G7 meeting has not addressed these problems.
In the 1970s, when the study of terrorism emerged as an academic discipline, conventional war between nuclear armed blocs made straightforward confrontation unthinkable. Terrorism was interpreted as part of the continued struggle between east and west, even if conducted via surrogates, such as the IRA or Middle Eastern terrorists.
That's all changed. Far from reflecting divisions within the international system, separate and ever-multiplying terrorist cells rebel against the new collegiality of nations, exploiting divisions within those nations.
Conventional terrorist groups had ends which we could understand in terms of our own politics. The new ones do not. Old-style terrorist leaders were usually educated, politically motivated, middle class. Those of the new groups are not. Nor is it possible to identify states that sponsor new terrorism and so organise reprisals.
The more conventional terrorist organisations, such as the IRA, are more vulnerable to penetration by intelligence agencies than the smaller, more separate cells of the new-style organisations. Penetrating extremist cults, such as the Aum Shinri Kyo cult in Japan or extremist organisations in the mountains of Montana, is more difficult.
The new-style terrorists are therefore "anarchists", in the true sense. Most of the 19th century terrorist groups, including so-called anarchists and nihilists, had political aims, albeit poorly defined. Their successors in the 1990s do not.
The new-style terrorist groups can only be understood in terms of where they came from - Hizbollah, from the refugee camps in Gaza, Hamas, from southern Lebanon. Like all the new terrorist groups, they recruit from the marginalised and the dispossessed.
Algeria, where an estimated 30,000 have died in fighting, is perhaps the archetype: a very divided society, with a repressive government, which has led to a radical response by Islamic fundamentalists. And the conflict has spilled over, into France.
Professor Paul Rogers, of the University of Bradford, is one of a number of experts who believe that inequality in the distribution of wealth, both within countries and between them, is to blame. The poorest will always be the most resentful and the most easily inspired to react against perceived threats, such as immigration. Islamic fundamentalism, reacting against what they see as Western cultural and economic imperialism, and poor whites in the southern and mid-western states of the US, both fit the bill.
Terrorist organisation has changed along with motivation. No longer are big state sponsors or even extremist leaders directly linked with the people who carry out the attacks. The World Trade Centre bombing on 4 March 1993 is a prime example. Although the details are still unclear, it appears to have been masterminded by Ramzi Ahmad Youssef, a Palestinian travelling on an Iraqi passport, who used four dupes from an Islamic extremist group to plant the bomb. However, they needed spiritual guidance provided by Sheikh Abdul Rahman, an Egyptian mullah also resident in New York.
The attack was awesomely ambitious, and its scale suggests total disregard for human life. The 900kg bomb, using home-made nitro-glycerine to detonate a main charge of fertiliser, was surrounded by gas cylinders to enhance its effect. The idea was to collapse one of the two towers of the World Trade Centre into the other. Fortunately, the abutment against which it was placed was sufficiently robust to withstand the blast, although it came close to collapsing a nearby 26-storey hotel. Had the attack gone as planned, 50,000 people in the two huge towers could have been killed.
Terrorist attacks on airliners over major cities are designed to have similar effects. More conventional terrorist groups still limit their attacks, because to kill too many is seen as counter-productive. In contrast, the new-style extremists, motivated only by hate, know no bounds. The nerve gas attacks on the Tokyo underground were limited because the gas did not disperse as intended: had it done so, thousands might have been killed.
Splitting terrorist groups from their sponsors has made them far more difficult to counter. And a small terrorist cell with no political aim needs no sponsor. Whereas traditional revolutionary war theory, as preached by Mao, described guerrillas as fish swimming in the sea of the population, these fish need no sea. They are discreet, and discrete. The traditional approaches, through the exchange of intelligence, proposed at G7, and of winning the populace's hearts and minds so that they will turn in the terrorists will not work so well. A new approach is required, which will depend more and more on technological surveillance.
If there is any comfort, it is that terrorist cells need to keep their operations as low-tech as possible in order to avoid detection. The IRA, with its network of quartermasters and underground arsenals, is capable of using drainpipes and sheet metal to manufacture mortars and the bombs fired from them. The more isolated terrorist cells of the future will stick to the simplest devices - though they may still be devastatingly effective.
Any competent chemist can make mustard gas or the simpler nerve gases from agents commonly available from chemical companies. The main ingredients of home-made explosives - ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, sodium chlorate and sugar - are easily available. Mercury tilt switches can be found in old refrigerators.
Terrorists wanting to effect maximum damage might be tempted to build chemical weapons or, even easier, biological ones, which could be grown with the aid of a home brewing kit.
Most terrifying of all is the anonymity of the new-style organisations. Nation states cannot retaliate against a sponsor state, because there is none, and cannot explain who is responsible to their people, because they do not know. Whereas the political "terrorist" organisations we have come to know aimed to build something - however perverted and wrong they may have been - the new ones aim only to destroy. They are true terrorists. Their only aim is terror. The G7 countries have not begun to address that problem. Terrorist supplies available at a store near you ... Ammonium nitrate fertiliser; Weedkiller: mix with sugar; Gas cylinders: pack around your explosive to give enhanced explosive effect; Fireworks, shotgun shells for primer; Ingredients for pesticides: used to make nerve gas; Mercury tilt switches: from refrigerators (also try local rubbish dump); Plastic bags, dustbins, for encasing the device; Steel mesh, nails, nuts and bolts: they disintegrate into shrapnel, causing more damage to victims; Drainpipes, beer cans (to make mortars); Home brewing kit: for developing bacteria. Such biological weapons are highly unpredictable.
NOTE: For more details, see the Internet
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