WASHINGTON — A few years ago, the Pentagon's secretive Office on Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict quietly buried one of the most comprehensive reports ever commissioned on the changing patterns of global terrorism.
The "Terror 2000" findings compiled by 41 experts--including former ranking CIA, FBI, State Department and Rand Corp. officials, as well as an ex-KGB general and Israeli intelligence agent--were deemed too alarmist and far-fetched. "Outrageous," commented one CIA official. Even a sanitized version designed to promote public preparedness was axed.
The only catch is that many of its predictions have since come true.
Among them: International terrorism would reach American shores, potentially targeting a major U.S. financial center. Home-grown zealots would pose big-time threats to domestic security.
Within three years of the 1993 report, massive bombs at the World Trade Center in New York and the federal building in Oklahoma City became the deadliest acts of international and domestic terrorism ever carried out in this country.
"Terror 2000" also predicted that overseas extremists would use chemical or biological agents in a couple of major subway systems. In 1995, an extremist group released sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway, killing 11 and injuring thousands. "There's only been one. But then we haven't yet hit the year 2000," project director Marvin J. Creton noted wryly in an interview Saturday.
The lesson, looking back, is that of all the forms of warfare that exist at the 20th century's end, terrorism may be the most intractable.
The simultaneous bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on Friday underscored that lesson with deadly force. Whether motivated by ideological hatred, financial greed or religious passions, terrorists have moved further and faster in devising imaginative new targets and tactics than government counter-terrorism officials can keep up with.
In the aftermath of the East Africa carnage, Terror 2000 offers a road map to what lies ahead. One of its fundamental conclusions, endorsed by a host of independent experts, is that trends in terrorism will continue to mutate in the post-Cold War world.
Even the most conservative prognosis contained in the report is that terrorist acts against the United States are likely to increase at an annual rate of at least 15% for several years to come. Since the report was issued, the rate has jumped up and down, with no clear trend. But the volatile period envisioned in the report is distinguished by what it calls "superterrorism," involving sporadic but sensational attacks, often featuring advanced weaponry.
"Future terrorists will find they need ever more spectacular horrors to overcome this [American] capacity to absorb what previously would have seemed intolerable," the report states. "We must be prepared to defend against dangers that only a few years ago seemed impossible."
Perhaps the most ominous development is that, like everything else, superterrorism is going global.
Consider one hypothesis about the devastating car bombings in Kenya and Tanzania: The sites hit were in Africa. The real target was an ocean away in America. Several terror groups deemed capable of such an attack are in the Middle East and South Asia. If the bombs contained Semtex or C-4--extremely powerful explosives used in several major terrorist acts--the raw materials may have come from a fourth continent, Europe.
On the eve of the new millennium, terrorism is evolving on several key fronts:
Terror 2000 warned that extremists who traditionally sought to shock and scare their foes through selective strikes are increasingly shifting to indiscriminate acts against mass targets.
Gone are the days when Marxist groups kidnapped American diplomats or businessmen to demand release of political prisoners, as was in the case in the 1969 seizure of U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Charles Elbrick, the first modern act of anti-American terrorism.
Extremism instead is now characterized by attacks far grander in size, casualties and impact.
"In some ways, we're a victim of our own success," said Bruce Hoffman, director of Britain's Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. "As we've made it appreciably more difficult for terrorists to reach their traditional targets, they've just calculated how much bigger their bombs or weapons have to be to reach their targets or how many lives it will take to have an impact."
In one uncannily accurate prediction, "Terror 2000" warned that extremists may try to maximize their impact by moving beyond one-at-a-time attacks to multiple, simultaneous targeting, thus demonstrating their reach and taxing governments' ability to respond. That's exactly what happened in Africa, when the two car bombs exploded within minutes of each other in cities about 400 miles apart.