The Rising East


Sunday, December 23, 2001

Today’s terrorists are more
sophisticated, more
serious, more deadly

Running through a gathering of Asian and American journalists here last week was an expected theme: Terror. Even so, the incisive dissection of terror that has materialized since Sept. 11 opened more than a few journalistic eyes to the nature and extent of the threat that has become so much a part of our everyday lives.

As one speaker said: "The attacks of Sept. 11 have made it incandescently clear that the world of terrorism has changed dramatically."

Perhaps most revealing: The assertion that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter was shown to be a myth. The freedom fighter attacks the government or armed force that oppresses him; the terrorist assaults innocent civilians trying to achieve his political objectives.

The Afghans who fought a guerrilla war against invaders from the Soviet Union in the 1980s were freedom fighters. The al-Qaida thugs who rammed two airliners filled with civilian passengers into the World Trade Center in New York to murder 3,500 airline passengers, office workers and visitors were terrorists.

In recent years, a new facet of terror has been the suicide terrorist. Before, terrorists were willing to risk their lives in an attack, but would escape if they could. The suicide terrorist, said another speaker, "intends to die in the process of conducting the attack."

Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the federal office building in Oklahoma City in 1995, planned to get away with it. The terrorists who piloted the planes that plowed into the World Trade Center meant to die as they destroyed their target.

Suicide terror, the analyst said, costs little since it does not require escape routes. It quarantees casualties since the terrorist can choose the time, location and circumstances of the attack. Moreover, there would be no fear that a captured terrorist would reveal information. Lastly, the analyst said, "it has an immense impact on the public and the media due to the overwhelming sense of helplessness."

These and other insights came out in the seventh annual Honolulu Security Seminar arranged by the Center for War, Peace and the News Media of New York University. To encourage candor, those who addressed the seminar were not to be identified. This writer was the seminar coordinator.

While Sept. 11 awoke Americans to the reality of terror, the seminar's speakers showed that it is more widespread than realized. In Sri Lanka, 50,000 people, most of them civilians, have died in 25 years as Tamil separatists have sought to secede. Communal violence between Muslims and Christians has taken hundreds of lives in Indonesia as have rebels in at least two provinces. Terrorists in the southwestern Philippines have kidnapped and murdered Filipinos and foreigners.

Another new element: "Globalization constitutes a powerful facilitator for this long-standing form of political warfare," said a specialist in counter-terror. So far, however, he said that al-Qaida "seems to be the first and only group to take advantage of globalization."

The network of instant communications, rapid transport, relatively unrestricted flows of money, lax visa programs, and the movement of hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers are the stuff of modern terror. "Ten years ago," the expert said, "I doubt that the operation that brought down the World Trade Towers technically could have been possible."

Discussions during the seminar made clear that there is no silver bullet with which to stop terror but rather a combination of actions are required, as President Bush has contended over the last three months. The White House last week issued a report, "The Global War on Terrorism: The First 100 Days," to cite its accomplishments.

Persuading or forcing governments to stop giving terrorists safe haven is a top priority. So is eliminating the leadership of a terrorist organization. As has become abundantly clear since Sept. 11, good intelligence that is swiftly analyzed and disseminated is essential.

A lack of human intelligence, meaning spies infiltrating terrorist organizations, was cited even as everyone acknowledged the difficulty of carrying that off. Better border controls, more scrutiny of those who apply for visas, finding and expelling illegal immigrants were advocated as was requiring all Americans to carry a national identify card.

Not a happy topic to ponder in the week before the holidays, but anything that sought to help readers and viewers to be forewarned about terror was worth the effort.

Richard Halloran is editorial director of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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