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A New Kind of Terrorism: Silence Is Deadlier

August 18, 1996|Bruce Hoffman | Bruce Hoffman is director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University and a Rand consultant

ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND — It has been a month since TWA Flight 800 exploded and crashed into the sea off Long Island. Despite the tons of aircraft parts, pieces of luggage and other personal effects dredged from the murky water, no evidence has been discovered that conclusively pinpoints the cause of the tragedy. Numerous theories have been advanced, ranging from catastrophic mechanical failure to a terrorist bomb or shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missile. Perhaps most baffling, however, is the absence--if the crash turns out to have been a terrorist attack--of any credible claim of responsibility.

That no group or person has yet come forward to claim responsibility for the incident would appear, at first, to suggest that it was not a terrorist act. After all, one of the enduring axioms of terrorism is that it is designed to generate publicity and attract attention to the terrorists and their cause. Accordingly, the argument goes, if terrorists did blow up TWA Flight 800, they would surely want to trumpet their "success" and reap the media limelight focused on the tragedy.

While this contention may well have been germane to terrorism in the past, it had already become ominously anachronistic well before the TWA crash. Indeed, in recent years, a new pattern of terrorist activity has emerged whereby the most lethal acts--those involving large numbers of fatalities such as the ill-fated TWA flight, for example--more often than not have gone unclaimed.

At one time, terrorists were far more accommodating. The first generation of modern international terrorists, who emerged in the late 1960s and early '70s, generally took credit for their acts, explaining, in often painfully turgid and long communiques, the reasons or rationale behind a particular operation. In this way, they sought not only to "justify" the violence they wrought but also to obtain the "oxygen of publicity" that many believed they craved. As a result, however disagreeable or repugnant the terrorists and their tactics may have been, we at least knew who they were and what they wanted.

Terrorists today seem more reluctant to identify themselves as the perpetrators of specific acts, for good reason: The impunity they once enjoyed is long gone. In the 1970s, for example, many governments, including some U.S. friends and allies, regularly made secret deals with terrorists. In exchange for the terrorists' agreement not to strike within their territories, these countries turned a blind eye to terrorist activities in their own back yards that would otherwise have invited arrest and imprisonment. One result was that extradition requests were frequently ignored. Captured terrorists often managed to "escape" from custody. Routine border-control procedures were only nominally enforced, thereby enabling terrorists to transit freely across international frontiers.

The situation today is quite different. Having themselves been "burnt" by the terrorists whom they previously sheltered, many of these same countries are among the most ardent proponents of international efforts against terrorism. They tend to promptly act on extradition demands for captured terrorists. Thus, many terrorists who once roamed vast parts of the globe unmolested are languishing in jail or awaiting trial for crimes committed, in some instances, more than a quarter century ago.

Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, more popularly known as "Carlos, the jackal," is probably the most famous case. In 1994, Sudan, a country better known for its alleged support of international terrorism than for its efforts to combat it, seized "the world's most-wanted terrorist" in his Khartoum apartment and delivered him to France, where he is on trial for offences dating from the 1970s. Similarly, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the accused "mastermind" of the 1993 bombing of New York City's World Trade Center, is on trial in a Manhattan federal district court, having been extradited from the Philippines last year.

Equally significant has been the greater willingness of some countries to use military force in response to terrorist attack and provocation. Apart from Israel, few countries in the 1970s took any direct action against terrorists or the countries that sheltered and supported them. Rather, pious condemnation and verbal castigation were preferred. Not surprisingly, many terrorists acted with a bravado and impunity that displayed little fear of government retaliation, much less reprisal.

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