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Boston and the changing nature of terrorism

Boston and the changing nature of terrorism
Published 23 Apr 2013 

Sam Roggeveen has suggested that, in its response to the Boston Marathon bombing, America 'got it right'. Likewise, Sam linked to a piece by Thomas Friedman on the 'right' response to terrorism. 

I agree with Sam that President Obama's response was tone-perfect: strong, measured, resolute. The government response — ostensibly a law enforcement one — was appropriate. But Boston in April 2013 is not New York or Washington in September 2001. The difference between these attacks is not simply one of degree, it is one of type. The nature of terrorism altered dramatically between the 1970s and the attacks of 9/11. This is a widely under-appreciated aspect of America's response to those attacks.

This change is distinguished by two key aspects. The first is the concept of state-sponsors of terror. Since 1979 the US has become increasingly interested in moderating the behaviour of countries determined 'to have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.' The inaugural list was made up of Iraq, Libya, Syria, and South Yemen. The members of the list are currently Iran, Cuba, Sudan and Syria.

The second and equally significant aspect was the changing tactics of terror.

The terrorist groups of the 1970s and 80s used terror as a means to draw attention to themselves. Typically, left-wing extremists groups such as the Baader Meinhoff Gang, Action Directe, CCC, the Rosse Brigade, along with the Palestinian alphabet soup of the PFLP, the DFLP, and the PFLP-GC, all shared the same macabre modus operandi. They would kill people — maybe a dozen, but enough people to ensure the press came — and then they would release a manifesto or series of demands such as getting Americans out of West Germany, or West Germany out of NATO, or releasing their colleagues from prison in Madrid, etc. They had relatively modest goals which were clearly defined, politically motivated and revealing a traditional view of interstate relations. [fold]

They also didn't want to die. Then Ambassador-at-large for Counterterrorism, Paul Bremer, a person who knows more about the topic than practically anybody, commissioned a study in 1988 asking what percentage of terrorists between 1968 (after the 1967 Arab-Israel War, when records started being kept) and 1988 involved suicide attacks. The response was less than 2%.

The tactics and nature of the groups, however, began to change. The first of these new groups to come to light (and really only in retrospect) was Hezbollah and the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1982. The downing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie in December 1988 represents another harbinger of the shift. 

Then in the 1990s a new pattern of terrorism emerged. The goals were no longer modest, but were truly revolutionary and sought to alter the global power structure as opposed to a clearly defined objective linked to a recognisable political goal. And there was a shift towards events designed to inflict mass casualties.

Bremer, who would Chair and report the findings of the National Commission on Terrorism, said that one of the key indicators of this shift was in the confessions of the perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. The intention, according to the bombers, was to kill 250,000 people.  This is completely different from Action Directe attempting to kill 12 people on a subway in Paris. Bremer's report, released in June 2000, issued a very clear warning: we were dealing with something new, and something incredibly dangerous.

It is here that the nexus of the two new aspects of terrorism — state sponsors and changing tactics — starts to take on more dire potentialities. The nature of the countries identified as state sponsors of terrorism became increasingly relevant. Of the seven countries on the list in 2000, five of them (Iran, Iraq, Syria, North Korea, and Libya) were either working on or had used weapons of mass destruction. This was the warning Bremer tried (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) to convey to US decision makers. The immediacy and terrible potential of that nexus was brought into sharp relief on 9/11.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Bremer's prescient warning started to take on momentous significance. This is the 'profound vulnerability' that ex-Prime Minister John Howard spoke of in his recent speech to the Lowy Institute. Howard well understood the 'vulnerability' of the US after 9/11, as did Bremer before the fact. 

Put simply, states who sponsored and provided support for terror groups had, or were pursuing, nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Terror groups now existed who sought and publicly declared their desire to manufacture mass casualty events. This nexus of risk surpassed the acceptable threshold.

To equate the Boston attack with 9/11, either in magnitude or type, is as false a comparison as to conflate the strategy and goals of Baader Meinhoff with al Qaeda. The fact that Boston, the next major 'successful' terror attack on US soil following 9/11, more closely resembled the former is significant. To draw comparisons between the responses to the two events as like with like is fallacious.

The motivations or affiliations of the Boston bombers are not yet known and it would be unwise to predict that we have returned to the more restricted model of terrorism seen in the 1970s and 80s. However, the fact that President Obama was able to treat the Boston bombing as a law enforcement problem is not cause for condemnation of the leadership of 2001, it is a testament.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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