Updated: 11-Jan-2002 NATO Review

Web edition
Vol. 49 - No. 4
Winter 2001
p. 12-15

Fighting terrorism

Frank J. Cilluffo and Daniel Rankin (1) urge adoption of a flexible, comprehensive and coordinated strategy to fight terrorism.

Anthrax alert: The events of 11 September and the subsequent anthrax attacks have shown that greater attention must be paid to the terrorist threat
( © Reuters - 100Kb)

The events of 11 September have transformed America, American attitudes, and the world in which we live. The United States can no longer rely on the protection of the two oceans that have historically shielded its country and people. The terrorist attacks brought home the fact that, since the end of the Cold War, threats have become more complex and far-reaching. Instead of facing a single, predominantly military threat capable of wiping out the entire nation (and the world), we are faced with a myriad of threats, smaller in magnitude and harder to see and counter. Because these new threats are by their nature dynamic, amorphous and moving targets, efforts to combat them must be flexible, comprehensive and coordinated.

Terrorism does not emanate from one country, one religion, or even one group, but from networks that span the globe from East to West and North to South, irrespective of national boundaries. It is a transnational threat that requires a transnational response. The attacks against the Pentagon and the World Trade Center may have been carried out on US soil but the shockwave continues to echo around the world. How now are we to respond? How should the United States act to protect itself, its interests and its allies? What should our goals be in the short term? And what should they be in the long term?

The response must be holistic. Organisation, cooperation and coordination are the keys to successfully dealing with this problem. Initially, we must look at how we wish to formulate our responses and then focus efforts on marshalling the world's resources to mount a cohesive global response. Indeed, many of our efforts must involve other nations and organisations in order to be effective. Engagement with these nations is critical for anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism endeavours, where cooperation and understanding provide the keys to success. Critically, such cooperation works. The Jordanian authorities, for example, helped save countless American lives during the millennium celebrations by preventing planned attacks on American and other tourists in the Middle East.

Despite current emphasis on non-state actors, it is important to continue to pay attention to state actors or state-sponsored actors. This is because they still pose a threat and they can share information, technologies and capabilities with non-state actors. Indeed, a recent report on biological weapons by the National Intelligence Council stated that more than a dozen states are known to possess or are actively pursuing offensive biological capabilities. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the so-called "rogue" states feature on this list.

It is difficult to generalise about state intentions, development or possible use or delivery of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) because they differ from state to state. While it is true that greater resources to develop these weapons are available to state actors than non-state actors, usage by states remains constrained to an extent by the possibility of retribution and retaliation. The same does not tend to apply to non-state actors.

Traditionally, terrorism has been a political tactic, used by its practitioners to bully their way to the negotiating table. It has been a low-cost, high-leverage method that has enabled small nations, sub-national groups and even individuals to circumvent the conventional projections of national power. However, some of today's groups, motivated by radical religious or nationalist beliefs, no longer seek a seat at the table, but would prefer to blow it up and build something else in its place. The best example of this is Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaida organisation. In effect, Bin Laden is the chief executive and chief financial officer of a loosely affiliated group of radical terrorists, who share resources, assets and expertise, and who can come together for an operation and then disperse. Al-Qaida is simply the most visible head of a hydra.

Over the years, terrorists have become expert at using conventional weapons, such as explosives and firearms, to maximum effect. These have been and will continue to be their preferred weapons. They are cheap, easy to obtain and use, do not require extensive scientific capabilities to produce or employ, are "low profile" and hard to defend against. Moreover, terrorists are increasingly innovative in their methods of employing these weapons, and those methods have become more lethal.

Terrorists have also shown an increased interest in obtaining and using weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, Bin Laden has publicly pronounced that he considers it his religious duty to obtain them. The use of chemical weapons would be devastating but does have limits. The effects of a chemical agent are immediate, but it is possible to turn victims into patients by rapidly administering antidotes. The use of radiological or nuclear weapons by terrorists is less likely. The process of research, development and deployment of these weapons by non-state actors is extremely complex. The infrastructure required is difficult to hide or move - particularly for a non-state actor - and there are numerous ways to detect their development using existing methods and technologies. The danger here is that terrorists could either be given materials or weapons by a sympathetic state, could steal them from a poorly guarded facility, or could even buy them from a disgruntled or poorly paid guard or scientist.

Biological weapons give greatest cause for concern. There is a significant difference between biological and other threats because with a biological attack it may not be possible to work out when, where, or how it was launched for some time after the event. The added complexity of the biological threat lies in the highly infectious nature of many of its agents - such as diseases like smallpox or the plague - which multiplies the initial effect exponentially if allowed to spread through a population. These "silent killers" cannot be seen, do not announce themselves until symptoms arise, and the onset of those symptoms is often delayed until long after the initial exposure. This uncertainty, in contrast to the visible, finite explosion of a bomb, can cause considerable panic and paranoia, in addition to fatalities. These infectious agents best demonstrate the importance of building a system that not only provides options for a single threat but also tools to handle a variety of possibilities. As the threat is multifaceted, so too must be the defence.

The nightmare scenario is that of a terrorist organisation using a combination of attacks, or that of a state actor and non-state actor working in unison. This could be the release of a toxin in a shopping mall, coupled with the blowing up of a power plant to deprive an area of energy and hacking into the phone system to stymie communications. A lowtech, high-tech combination is a dangerous possibility, for while Bin Laden may have his finger on the trigger of an AK-47, his nephew may have his finger on a computer mouse. This simple, but horrific example demonstrates the need for an integrated, comprehensive approach rather than one trying simply to isolate and counter a single threat.

The events of 11 September and the subsequent anthrax attacks have shown that, in addition to maintaining vigilance on traditional fronts, greater attention and resources must be paid to the terrorist threat. Prior to 11 September, there was no consensus on what constituted the primary threat to the United States. Some thought it was terrorist attacks against US military installations abroad, others believed it was the rise of China, another faction a North Korean attack on South Korea and another, a rogue state firing a missile at the United States. Even now, while there is consensus on terrorism being the overriding threat, there is some dissent on what form it might take. The public is overwhelmingly concerned with biological attacks, specifically anthrax. As a result of these concerns and the fact that its own employees were targets of anthrax attacks, Congress has focused on biological agents. The Pentagon, by contrast, is primarily concerned with protecting its personnel abroad and with a possible inter-continental ballistic missile attack. Despite these differing perceptions, it is important not to focus solely on one aspect of the problem to the detriment of capabilities in others and consequently invite attacks in those areas where we are the least prepared.

In moving forward, it is important to find answers to a series of difficult questions. Are our existing structures, policies and institutions sufficient? And what has been done right and what needs improvement? The time has come for a cold-eyed assessment and evaluation of current approaches that considers and appreciates what has worked, what has not worked and what has not been adequately addressed. Only then is it possible to go on to the next step of crafting an effective counterterrorism strategy.

While Bin Laden may have his finger on the trigger of an AK-47, his nephew may have his finger on a computer mouse

While WMD terrorism is a crosscutting phenomenon, government is organised vertically. Clearly, government must adapt to be able to cope and manage the myriad of multi-dimensional issues that WMD terrorism poses. "Stove-piping" will not work. Effective organisation is the concept that not only lies at the heart of a comprehensive national counter-terrorism strategy but also underpins it from start (meaning pre-event preventive, pre-emptive and preparedness measures) to finish (meaning post-event crisis and consequence management and response). Currently, an artificial line is drawn between crisis management and consequence management. This distinction has proved unworkable in practice. Crisis management (immediate response and apprehension of perpetrators) and consequence management (treating mass casualties and restoring essential services) occur simultaneously and must be dealt with simultaneously.

Our concept of national-security planning needs to be broadened to encompass WMD counter-terrorism as well as critical infrastructure protection, such as telecommunications, electric-power systems, oil and gas, banking and finance, transportation, water-supply systems, government services and emergency services. We need to recognise that no single federal agency owns this strategic mission, that national security is no longer the exclusive responsibility of those agencies that have traditionally been tasked with it. New players must be introduced, including health and human services, state and local authorities, and the private sector. All assets must be integrated and brought to bear. At present, however, many agencies are acting independently. This produces overlap and confusion about authority, duplication of capabilities, incompatible systems and wasted expenditure, and needlessly raises the risk. Many state and local governments and federal agencies have made progress in their preparations for dealing with terrorist attacks. What they lack is cohesion. We need to build on those centres of excellence that do exist and weave them into a cohesive and comprehensive national strategy. In this respect, President George Bush's call, prior to the events of 11 September, for Vice President Dick Cheney to establish a national plan and create an Office of National Preparedness was exemplary. Moreover, this momentum has been maintained with the creation of the Office of Homeland Security under former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge.

All capabilities have to be included in this effort. The medical, public-health and humanservices communities are especially critical to bioterrorism preparedness and response. It can take days, or even weeks, for the symptoms of biological agents to manifest themselves. In this case, the first responder, the very tip of the spear, is likely to be a primary-care physician, healthcare provider, veterinarian, agricultural inspector, pathologist or even perhaps an entomologist. Here again, the need for effective organisation is in marked contrast to the current state of affairs. That said, the response to the ongoing anthrax attacks has been admirable. It has demonstrated the need to bring new players to the table and provided timely lessons on how to improve responses.

Perhaps the most important tool in counter-terrorism is intelligence. Accurate and timely information, coupled with proper analysis is the lifeblood of the campaign against terrorism. Every aspect of the campaign from diplomatic, military, financial and political operations to the provision of warnings about future attacks relies largely on our intelligence. More specifically, the breadth, depth and uncertainty of the terrorist threat demands significant investment, coordination and re-tooling of the intelligence process across the board for the pre-attack (warning), trans-attack (pre-emption) and post-attack ("whodunit") phases. Multi-disciplinary intelligence collection is crucial to provide indications and warning of a possible attack - including insights into the cultures and mindsets of terrorist organisations - and to illuminate key vulnerabilities that can be exploited and leveraged to prevent, pre-empt and disrupt terrorist activities. To date, signals intelligence has provided decision-makers with most operational counter- terrorism intelligence. While a robust technical intelligence capability is important, enhancing our human intelligence capability is even more so. Here, the United States needs to strengthen its partnerships with foreign intelligence services.

While it is impossible to negotiate directly with extremists like Bin Laden, diplomacy does play a major role in combating terrorism. The shift away from political and towards ideologically based terrorism means that many more countries have become direct targets of escalating acts. As a result, many countries now have a vested interest in studying terrorism. Indeed, many already possess a breadth of knowledge and experience on the subject that the United States should draw on. Cooperative pursuit of common interests is a hallmark of good diplomacy and often leads to further cooperation on other issues.

A comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy should incorporate a full spectrum of activities, from prevention and deterrence to retribution and prosecution to domesticresponse preparedness. All too often, these elements of strategy are treated in isolation. Such a strategy must incorporate both the marshalling of domestic resources and the engagement of international allies and assets. And it requires monitoring and measuring the effectiveness ("benchmarking") of the many programmes that implement this strategy, so as to lead to common standards, practices and procedures.

A complete WMD counter-terrorism strategy involves both preventing an attack from occurring - including deterrence, non-proliferation, counter-proliferation and pre-emption - and preparing federal, state, local, privatesector and non-governmental capabilities to respond to an actual attack. In short, our counter-terrorism capabilities and organisations must be strengthened, streamlined and then synergised, so that effective prevention will enhance domestic-response preparedness and vice versa.

In conducting this assessment and evaluation and in constructing a national strategy, all possibilities have to be considered. We cannot protect against everything, everywhere, all the time from every adversary and every modality of attack. We must prioritise with the understanding that vulnerable areas will remain. And we must accept these vulnerable areas, minimise them and not allow them to hinder our efforts. What we will find, though, is that this investment will have beneficial secondary and tertiary effects. Most of the institutional changes we make to improve organisation, cooperation and coordination will be beneficial across the board, not just for WMD incidents. Strengthening the ability to deal with extraordinary, and especially catastrophic, events provides tools and capabilities that are equally valuable in dealing with "ordinary" situations, such as natural outbreaks. Preventive measures, designed to address nightmare scenarios, also have utilitarian, day-to-day, functions and benefits.

Within the federal government, we must develop for counter-terrorist purposes smooth channels of inter-agency and intra-agency coordination and cooperation. Many agencies have had little experience working together, such as the intelligence community and the defence, justice, health and human services, agriculture, and energy departments, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Institute of Health. Certainly, we need to envisage a better partnership between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Health and Human Services, one capable of galvanising the publichealth and medical sector in response to bioterrorism. Further, and with specific regard to the private sector, the expertise of the commercial pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors has yet to be genuinely leveraged.

The United States needs to develop integrated surge capabilities for the entire health-care system. We must first identify all existing assets and how they could be mobilised. Next, we need working strategies to be able to balloon care-giving efforts, at both the regional and national levels. Additionally, we need to reach out to the international health-care community to coordinate efforts and provide a global epidemiological surveillance and monitoring capability with the resources to respond immediately to a crisis. Monitoring global infectious diseases helps build expertise and research and can provide advance warning for a bioterrorist event. Here, too, is an example of where immediate strengthening of resources for national and international security purposes would have immediate secondary and tertiary benefits.

Biological agents also demonstrate more clearly why statecraft is of paramount importance. Many biological and chemical agents can be developed clandestinely, making the detection of programmes and/or acquisition of biological/ chemical capabilities so vexing, as seen in Iraq. Furthermore, given that most biotechnology research and development is dual-use in nature, it is possible to wrap efforts to acquire offensive biological agents in a cloak of legitimate research. The danger of theft from Russia or of countries sharing information, technologies or materials with terrorists is considerable.

The task is enormous and requires efforts on many fronts: law enforcement, military, intelligence, finance, diplomacy, homeland defence, and health care. This effort of statecraft must bring together the greatest possible international coalition and marshal all available resources to face this challenge. We cannot shy from it because of its magnitude. We can, and must overcome it.

CSIS analysis of the terrorist threat and responses, including details of an exercise simulating the effects of a bioterrorist attack on the United States, can be found at: http://www.csis.org

  1. Frank J. Cilluffo recently chaired two committees on homeland defence and counter-terrorism at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS). Since writing this article, he has become special assistant to President Bush for homeland security. Daniel Rankin is a defence and national security analyst at CSIS.