In This Review
Terrorism and America: A Commonsense Strategy for a Democratic Society (BCSIA Studies in International Security)

Terrorism and America: A Commonsense Strategy for a Democratic Society (BCSIA Studies in International Security)

By Philip B. Heymann

The MIT Press, 2000, 208 pp.
America's Achilles' Heel: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Terrorism and Covert Attack

America's Achilles' Heel: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Terrorism and Covert Attack

By Richard A. Falkenrath, Robert D. Newman and Bradley A. Thaye

MIT Press, 1998, 350 pp.
Inside Terrorism

Inside Terrorism

By Bruce Hoffman

Columbia University Press, 1998, 278 pp.
Terrorism With Chemical and Biological Weapons: Calibrating Risks and Responses

Terrorism With Chemical and Biological Weapons: Calibrating Risks and Responses

Edited by Brad Roberts

Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute, 1997, 140 pp.
The Ultimate Terrorists

The Ultimate Terrorists

By Jessica Stern

Harvard University Press, 1999, 176 pp.

According to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, last summer's embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania were not two more examples of old-fashioned terrorism. "What is new," she declared, "is the emergence of terrorist coalitions that do not answer fully to any government, that operate across national borders and have access to advanced technology." The bomb victims, she claimed, were caught up "in a new kind of confrontation that looms as a new century is about to begin . . . a clash between civilization itself and anarchy -- between the rule of law and no rules at all."

The secretary's words would have been accurate had they been uttered a century earlier, when a loose-knit transnational movement quite literally devoted to the promotion of anarchy wreaked havoc across the globe. From 1894 to 1901, anarchists managed to assassinate the president of France, the prime minister of Spain, the empress of Austria, the king of Italy, and the president of the United States. All this was accomplished without downloading weapons diagrams from the Internet; they relied instead on manuals such as Johann Most's widely distributed pamphlet, The Science of Revolutionary Warfare: A Little Handbook of Instruction in the Use and Preparation of Nitroglycerin, Dynamite, Gun-Cotton, Fulminating Mercury, Bombs, Fuses, Poisons, etc. etc.

Some anarchists showed no scruples in inflicting large numbers of civilian casualties. As the bomber of a crowded Parisian cafe put it at his trial, "[Anarchists] do not spare bourgeois women and children, because the wives and children of those they love are not spared either." And authorities responded then as they do today; one British police officer wrote in 1898, "Murderous organizations have increased in size and scope; they are more daring, they are served by the more terrible weapons offered by modern science, and the world is nowadays threatened by new forces which . . . may someday wreak universal destruction."

Extralegal political violence by individuals and groups has occurred throughout history, hysterical media coverage of today's terrorism "crises" notwithstanding. Even religious terrorism is nothing new. "Thug," "zealot," and "assassin" are now generic terms of abuse, but each entered the language as the name of a religious terrorist movement centuries ago (emerging from Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam, respectively). And contrary to official statements about the grave danger terrorism poses, most American national security experts and bureaucracies have traditionally paid it scant attention. Terrorism kills fewer Americans than does lightning, they say in private -- which happens to be true -- and overreaction to it is therefore a sucker's move. Conventional state violence is a far more serious and pressing threat, they insist.

In the last few years, however, this dismissive attitude has come under fire. Some argue that terrorism merits a higher priority now because other threats, like great-power war, have grown so remote. Others say the danger is mounting in absolute as well as relative terms because of changes in terrorist motivations, methods, and organization. And almost everyone was scared by the 1995 nerve gas attack on a Tokyo subway by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo. As terrorism expert Brian Jenkins has remarked, before that incident the debate over terrorists using weapons of mass destruction (WMD) pitted "disbelievers," who thought it would not happen because it had not, against "Murphy's Lawyers," who thought catastrophes were inevitable. The Aum Shinrikyo attack proved the first camp wrong but not the second camp right.

The appearance of several good new books on the subject is therefore a welcome surprise -- welcome because they help answer crucial questions and surprising because, with a few exceptions, the literature on terrorism thus far has not been especially distinguished. Bruce Hoffman's Inside Terrorism is a concise yet authoritative survey of trends in terrorism past and present. Philip Heymann's Terrorism and America gives us a sensible guide to how the U.S. government should respond. And three other volumes -- America's Achilles' Heel, by Richard Falkenrath, Robert Newman, and Bradley Thayer; The Ultimate Terrorists, by Jessica Stern; and Terrorism with Chemical and Biological Weapons, edited by Brad Roberts -- focus specifically on the WMD threat. All five books combine serious scholarship with practical wisdom, and the volumes by Hoffman and Falkenrath et al. are particularly comprehensive. What is most interesting, however, is that these independent efforts display a remarkable degree of consensus on the nature of contemporary challenges and what should be done about them.


Discussion of the future threat, the authors agree, should begin with recognition that previous predictions of rampant catastrophic terrorism have proved grossly exaggerated. Although WMD have been available for decades, terrorists have generally not tried to acquire them, let alone use them against actual targets. Until recently, in fact, terrorists had not even begun to exploit the full destructive potential of conventional weapons. The reason is simple: most terrorism involves carefully calibrated acts of symbolic violence designed to advance a political, social, or bureaucratic agenda, and true mass murder could be counterproductive. It might stigmatize the cause in the eyes of important international or domestic audiences, provoke massive retaliation from the authorities, or spark conflict within the terrorist group itself. Garden-variety terrorists, as Jenkins once famously put it, want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.

To the extent that such rational calculations are indeed the reason we have escaped catastrophic terrorism in the past, they should continue to impose restraints in the future on mainstream terrorist groups, those with a known address and somewhat limited objectives. Hoffman's book traces the history of such organizations from the anarchist and leftist terrorism of the late nineteenth century, through the nationalist and separatist terrorism of the colonial and postcolonial era, to the international and state-sponsored terrorism of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. In recent years, he notes, religious terrorism has increasingly come to the fore. And while the number of terrorist attacks has declined, the number of casualties per attack has increased.

This is where the story starts to get truly worrisome. All five books warn of the increasing danger of nontraditional terrorists, whose behavior is less predictable and who might seek to maximize bloodshed. Three such types quickly come to mind: religious fanatics who consider violence a sacramental act or believe they are the direct instruments of divine retribution; eschatological cults with a penchant for violence; and disturbed or hate-filled activists who want to inflict pain on a grand scale. The good news is that such groups and individuals are few and far between. The bad news is that all three types do exist -- as the World Trade Center bombing, the Japanese subway attack, and the Oklahoma City bombing testify -- and there is reason to believe their numbers may be growing. (Establishing whether this is indeed the case, and if so why, should be a top priority for future research.)

More bad news is the fact that WMD capability is gradually coming within range of many substate actors through the general diffusion of scientific skills and dual-use technologies. To be sure, terrorists content to cause dozens or hundreds of casualties will probably stick with conventional methods. Yet the more ambitious of them might be tempted by chemical, biological, or nuclear alternatives, whose respective profiles are summarized neatly by Falkenrath et al.:

Chemical weapons suitable for mass casualty attacks can be acquired by virtually any state and by nonstate actors with moderate technical skills. Certain very deadly chemical warfare agents can quite literally be manufactured in a kitchen or basement in quantities sufficient for mass-casualty attacks. . . .

Many states and moderately sophisticated nonstate actors could construct improvised but effective biological weapons. . . . Culturing the required microorganisms, or growing and purifying toxins, is inexpensive and could be accomplished by individuals with college level training in biology and a basic knowledge of laboratory technique. Acquiring the seed stocks for pathogenic microorganisms is also not particularly difficult. . . .

Nuclear weapons are within the reach of tens of states, with the most significant constraint being the ability to produce plutonium or highly enriched uranium. If this obstacle were avoided through the theft or purchase of fissile material, almost any state with a reasonable technical and industrial infrastructure could fabricate a crude nuclear weapon, . . . [as could] some exceptionally capable nonstate actors.

"Weapons of all three classes," they add, "are deliverable against a wide range of targets, and defense is difficult." There seems to be general agreement that of the three, chemical use is the most likely scenario, nuclear use the least likely, and biological use the scariest because it is both relatively easy and highly deadly.

The intersection of the trend involving motive and the trend involving opportunity is what made the Aum Shinrikyo case so disturbing. After all, as Stern points out, this was a group whose members penned ditties such as the following:

It came from Nazi Germany, a dangerous chemical weapon,

Sarin, Sarin!

If you inhale the mysterious vapor, you will fall with bloody vomit from your mouth,

Sarin, sarin, sarin, the chemical weapon!

Song of Sarin the Brave. . . .

Given these trends and the fact that terrorists tend to copy each other's methods, one can understand why all these books consider catastrophic terrorism a seismic event whose probability is low but rising. Weapons of mass destruction will not become the car bombs of the next few decades, they argue, but the situation nevertheless calls for precautionary measures to reduce vulnerability, head off attacks, and manage potential consequences.


Heymann offers a range of intelligent, if unsurprising, suggestions for handling traditional terrorist threats, from avoiding concessions, cooperating with allies, and prosecuting suspects, to relying on crack hostage-rescue teams or military retaliation where appropriate. He makes a persuasive case for avoiding overreaction, arguing both that it would be tragic for democracies to abandon their cherished freedoms and principles in a quest for absolute security and that there is little reason to believe that a heavy-handed approach to counterterrorism would work. After much hemming and hawing, however, even he seems to favor some increase in domestic intelligence gathering, concluding that "the limited threat to uninhibited discussion posed by even reasonable efforts to monitor organizations preaching violence is a price worth paying to prevent political violence."

The other authors agree that in addition to the standard responses, governments can and should do more to prepare for the worst-case WMD scenarios. They make a number of strikingly similar policy recommendations, among which are the following:

Improve intelligence collection and analysis. The groups that cause the greatest concern -- religious fanatics, cults, and freelance extremists -- are precisely those that usually fly below the radar screen of standard intelligence collection. They tend to be isolated from society and may have no prior criminal history. The U.S. government should therefore change its practices in order to track the activities of such groups wherever they might be and monitor indicators of small-scale WMD programs. It also needs to improve epidemiological surveillance systems at home and abroad. These could alert authorities to accidents from covert biological weapons programs and provide early detection of attacks in progress, which could be crucial for effective response.

Restructure bureaucratic organizations. Current U.S. efforts to prevent and respond to WMD terrorism are spread across a vast number of agencies at different levels of government with little real coordination or direction. Bureaucratic styles and missions clash; information is compartmentalized and left unanalyzed; some tasks are duplicated while others slip through the cracks. Each author has a different pet solution to this problem, but two ideas appear frequently -- that the government should set up a central interagency catastrophic terrorism response center and that the Department of Defense should play a greater role in handling WMD attacks on U.S. soil. Many experts feel that weapons of mass destruction are simply not a specialty of the FBI, and where the potential for catastrophic terrorism is concerned, the FBI's reactive law enforcement approach needs to be supplemented by -- if not subordinated to -- the more aggressive national security approach of the White House and the Pentagon.

Enhance domestic preparedness. Quick and appropriate responses could drastically limit the scale of disaster should a catastrophic terrorist attack ever occur, while delay or chaos would multiply the mayhem. All the authors agree, therefore, that more needs to be done to protect critical infrastructures; coordinate federal, state, and local readiness; train "first responders"; stockpile medicines and vaccines; and develop and disseminate technologies for identifying WMD use. Here the 1996 Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act -- the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici amendment -- represents a good start but needs regular funding at much higher levels and should be followed up with further efforts.

Deal with the Russian challenge. The single best way to lower the probability of nuclear terrorism is to control fissile material, and vast stockpiles of such material lie poorly protected in Russia. Helping the Russians control these and other material and human remnants of their massive WMD programs is critical. Here again, the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici plan represents a good start, but it needs vastly greater funding and complementary measures to boot.

Outlaw WMD possession by substate actors. To deter future terrorists and lay the groundwork for prosecuting others, several authors suggest, the U.S. government should support efforts to make WMD possession by individuals or substate groups a universal crime under international law. Furthermore, the government should educate relevant industries about the WMD terrorist threat and push them to adopt strict self-policing and reporting measures, so that covert or unauthorized WMD programs can be identified and stopped early.

To the credit of the Clinton administration and some in Congress, in recent years the government has begun to move in the right direction in many of these areas. The president's recent proposals to increase preparedness against chemical and biological terrorism are sound and deserve support, as do his calls for more funding for efforts to manage Russian WMD materiel and scientists. But ships of state take a long time to turn and -- rhetoric aside -- it will be a while before the new course is reached. What these books show clearly is that the main obstacles ahead are not intellectual or practical but rather political and bureaucratic.

Implementing the agenda outlined above, for example, would take little more than another couple of billion dollars a year, combined with strong leadership and a coherent national strategy, and would help prepare the nation against covert WMD use by rogue states as well as terrorists. Yet worthy measures such as improving epidemiological surveillance or controlling foreign fissile materials attract few powerful backers because they are unusual, unsexy, and provide comparatively few opportunities for pork. Grandiose schemes like ballistic missile defense, in contrast, enjoy funding and attention far out of proportion to their true practical value. (Stern voices a common complaint when she writes that "ballistic missiles are the least likely method of [WMD] delivery, and yet American taxpayers spend roughly ten times as much on defense against [them] as on the entire program to prevent WMD terrorism.")

In the end, the answer should be neither complacency nor hysteria but rather modest, sustained investment in countermeasures and preparedness. Individuals take out insurance policies all the time to hedge against disasters that will probably never occur. This is one case where governments should do the same -- and count themselves lucky if the premiums are ultimately wasted.

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  • Gideon Rose is Deputy Director of National Security Studies and Olin Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he chairs the Roundtable on Terrorism.
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