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Calmly taking terror's measure

A top expert draws upon data as well as experience. His verdict? The threat is here to stay, but we can cope.

January 31, 2008|Greg Krikorian | Times Staff Writer

Brian Jenkins knows terror. It's personal.

As a university student in Guatemala, he endured harrowing military interrogations because his friends and classmates included anti-government guerrillas. As a member of the U.S. Army's Green Berets, he served in Vietnam and witnessed terrorism up close as a tactic of the Viet Cong.

And as a young analyst for Santa Monica-based Rand Corp., he launched the think tank's terrorism research program nearly 40 years ago, tracking attacks around the world on 3-by-5 index cards. Today his database fills hard drives, and he has become one of the world's top authorities on the subject.

In some ways, Jenkins knows too much. He is immersed routinely in risk assessments and intelligence reports brimming with the stuff of nightmares. His assessment: "We are not going to end terrorism, not in any future I see."

Yet he exudes calm. His Southern California home -- neither fortress nor bunker -- is in a leafy, accessible neighborhood. He is a relaxed frequent flier, traveling more than 200,000 miles a year, much of it to terrorism conferences or briefings around the world.

And he thinks the country can cope as well.

"During the Cold War both the U.S. and Soviet Union spent a great deal of time and money understanding each other. To a great extent, that spared us from mutual annihilation," Jenkins says.

Similarly, he says, in the war on terrorism "we have to have a better understanding of what we're up against." Demonizing terrorists as "wicked and evil" plays into their hands, while learning about "their quantifiable goals and understandable motives" demystifies them.

Knowledge, he says, is the antidote to anxiety.

The challenge is complicated, however, by evolution. Terrorist methods, motives and members keep changing.

So he remains a full-time student of terrorism. For that, Brian Michael Jenkins, 65, relies not only on the latest classified reports but on his lifetime experience.

Guatemala City, 1965

As a 23-year-old student, Jenkins knew he was in trouble when Guatemalan authorities insisted that he answer a few questions about some of his anti-government classmates at the University of San Carlos.

Though not an activist himself, the young American knew many who opposed the military dictatorship. Some were political demonstrators, some were considered terrorists.

He was ushered into an interrogation room, spare -- furnished with a single table -- and claustrophobically small. Military men asked the questions -- harsh, intimidating, endless questions. They suspected Jenkins was in league with their enemies.

"It was scary, and I was nervous," he recalls.

At some point, his questioners abruptly walked out. No explanation. Hours went by. Jenkins contemplated the table, the walls, the silence.

"At least with an interrogation, you are talking to someone," he says. "But alone, you have no idea what will happen . . . and your mind imagines all sorts of horrific outcomes.

"If [they] had wanted to make me disappear, I would certainly have disappeared, and no one would have ever known. And that was a stunning realization."

The experience taught Jenkins that a government should never be allowed to wield power arbitrarily. It came rushing back after the Sept. 11 attacks, amid the national debate over "extraordinary renditions," a CIA program under which terrorism suspects have been transferred to countries known to use torture.

"I thought about . . . being sent off to a dungeon," Jenkins says.

"It doesn't matter if you sometimes get the right people. That sort of capriciousness is completely incompatible with what I think we are as a nation."

Vietnam, 1966

With the 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam, Jenkins had a tough assignment. He lived in the countryside among villagers, trying to recruit as many as possible into a pro-U.S. counter-guerrilla force.

The locals felt threatened by all sides of the conflict.

"When looking at the war, from the perspective of the peasants, we were not providing security," Jenkins says. Villagers too often were the luckless bystanders victimized by violence or crop damage inflicted by both U.S. and Viet Cong forces.

That first combat tour would provide a valuable lesson, he says, in how not to fight terrorism.

"If in the process of going after terrorists you create terror, then you are going to be in conflict forever," he says. And accepting high levels of "collateral casualties" among the local population is sure to be "a losing strategy."

Jenkins would return to Vietnam repeatedly over the next three years as part of a special military advisory group for Gen. Creighton Abrams, commander of U.S. forces in Southeast Asia. He was assigned to long-range planning and ended up warning in a classified report about "the danger that . . . we will fail in Vietnam."

He also recognized changes foreshadowing a new day in global terrorism.

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