Responding to Terrorism

Chapter 9 of the U.S. Department of Defense’s 1997 Annual Defense Report

The number and lethality of international terrorist incidents directed against U.S. interests increased last year. The Riyadh and Al Khobar bombings in Saudi Arabia resulted in the largest number of U.S. fatalities at the hands of international terrorists since the December 1988 downing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Terrorist violence represents a serious threat to U.S. personnel, facilities, and interests around the world.

Terrorism remains a complex phenomenon spawned by a mix of factors and motivations. Loosely organized groups of radical Islamics, such as those that carried out the bombing of the World Trade Center, pose a growing challenge. Established entrenched ethnic, nationalist, and religiously motivated terrorist movements continue to operate and have been joined by groups that espouse new causes and ideologies. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and international communism, leftist ideologically-based terrorists continue to operate. State sponsors of terrorism, particularly Iran, pose a significant continuing threat. Other state sponsors such as Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Sudan, although more cautious, provide safe haven and other forms of support to a variety of terrorist movements.

The world is in a period of transition and flux as it moves from the relative stability of the bipolar model to a new political order which has yet to be defined. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the East European communist regimes produced a power vacuum that has enabled nationalist, ethnic, and religious forces long thought dormant to reassert themselves and contribute to the volatility of the post-Cold War era. Violent militant Islamic elements, often with the help of state sponsors, now operate worldwide and have a demonstrated global reach.

Local and regional conflicts, famine, economic disparity, mass movements of refugees, brutal and corrupt regimes, and the increasing porosity of national borders contribute to instability — fueling a frustration and desperation that increasingly finds expression in acts of terrorism. Ready access to information and information technologies, coupled with the ability to communicate globally via the Internet, fax, and other media, provides terrorists new tools for targeting, fundraising, propaganda dissemination, and operational communication. Just as the established political order is in a state of fundamental flux and transition, so is terrorism and the challenge it presents to the United States, its friends, and its allies.


The terrorist threat has changed markedly in recent years, due primarily to five factors: the disintegration of the Soviet Union; changing terrorist motivations; the proliferation of technologies of mass destruction; increased access to information and information technologies; and the accelerated centralization of vital components of the national infrastructure, which has increased their vulnerability to terrorist attack. DoD expects that the majority of terrorism directed against U.S. targets will be tied to ethnic and religious conflicts. It will be primarily urban in nature, often occurring in capital cities. Terrorism for the foreseeable future will remain a weapon of choice for governments, groups, and other parties to conflict.

Traditionally, terrorist movements that affected U.S. security interests were politically motivated, and even the most brutal groups usually refrained from mass casualty operations for fear of alienating their political constituencies and potential recruits. Today, religiously motivated terrorism is increasingly ascendant. Religious zealots, when members of a terrorist group or cult, usually exhibit few such constraints and actively seek to maximize carnage. An additional threat comes from religious cults that view the coming millennium in apocalyptic terms and seek through violence to hasten Armageddon. DoD anticipates that as the year 2000 approaches, such movements will become increasingly prevalent, prominent, and lethal.

The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the availability of individuals schooled in their design and construction represent another development that impacts fundamentally on the nature of terrorism. The fragmentation of the former Soviet Union and the lack of adequate controls on biological, chemical, and nuclear technologies have resulted in a flood of buyers eager to purchase lethal material from an expanding black market or from rogue states. Added to this volatile mix are scientists and technicians prepared to sell their skills to the highest bidder.

An emerging and significant threat is represented by improvised biological, chemical, and nuclear devices that exploit technologies that once were the sole preserve of world and regional powers. The potential to decimate large population centers and wreak havoc on an unprecedented scale has devolved from nation states to groups and even individuals. The possibility of a biological Unabomber and all that implies is a fast approaching reality. Proliferation enables those who were traditionally at the margins to play a major role on the world stage. Improvised weapons of mass destruction will likely prove to be the great equalizers of tomorrow, providing the means for the disaffected and deranged to directly impact on the core interests of world powers.


Religious zealotry creates the will to carry out mass casualty terrorist attacks; proliferation provides the means. It is this nexus of will and means that has forever changed the face of terrorism. Traditional forms of terrorism like car bombs, assassinations, suicide bombers, and aircraft downings will undoubtedly continue, but their impact will diminish as the public becomes increasingly inured to such operations. In a world of competing headlines, terrorists will find it necessary to escalate the carnage in order to maintain their ability to intimidate and terrorize. As a result, increased experimentation with improvised biological, chemical, and nuclear devices may be expected as a means to rivet public attention and thereby advance the terrorist agenda.

Paradoxically, progress has made key elements of the national infrastructure increasingly vulnerable. These elements include telecommunications, energy distribution, banking and securities, transportation, military/defense, water supply, emergency services, and public health.

As countries modernize, they become increasingly dependent on sophisticated technologies, with computers both running and linking vital, once disparate systems into a national infrastructure. Because of its complexity and interdependence, infrastructure presents unique targeting opportunities to a technologically sophisticated adversary. Complex national infrastructures are vulnerable because they all have critical nodes or choke points that, if properly attacked, will result in significant disruption or destruction. The attack may be computer generated or rely on more conventional assaults employing truck bombs, dynamite, or cable cutting to unleash a chain of events in which a service grid, pipeline, or air traffic control system collapses in a cascading effect.

Major power failures that black out large parts of the country, systemic problems with the air traffic control system, and breaks in highly vulnerable gas and oil pipeline systems are covered in detail by the press, discussed on radio talk shows, and dissected and analyzed on the Internet. Terrorists, as part of the attentive public, are increasingly aware that the national infrastructure represents a high value and vulnerable target.

Technological advances may have the unintended consequence of increasing system vulnerabilities. For example, fiber optic cables enable phone companies to use a single line to carry tens of thousands of conversations that not many years ago would have required thousands of separate copper cables. The results have been greater efficiency, better service, and lower costs; however, there is a downside. Progress has heightened infrastructure efficiency, but the resultant reduction in redundancy has produced vulnerabilities that make U.S. infrastructure an increasingly attractive terrorist target. International banking and finance, transportation, the electric grid, the gas pipeline system, computer links and services, and more than 90 percent of all DoD communications are dependent on the telephone system. Major disruptions in service can be caused by an errant backhoe operator or an enterprising terrorist.


DoD divides its response to terrorism into two categories. Antiterrorism refers to defensive measures used to reduce the vulnerability of individuals and property to terrorist acts. Counterterrorism refers to offensive measures taken to prevent, deter, and respond to terrorism. Both fall under the rubric of Combating Terrorism. Force Protection is the umbrella security program involving the coordinated efforts of key U.S. departments and agencies designed to protect military and civilian personnel, their family members, and U.S. property from terrorist acts.

In response to the recent tragedies in Saudi Arabia, the Joint Staff established a Deputy Directorate for Combating Terrorism under the Director of Operations, Joint Staff. The Directorate is charged with the mission of supporting the Chairman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in meeting the nation’s security challenges as they relate to combating terrorism now and into the next century.

DoD also has been a leader in recognizing the vulnerability of the national infrastructure. To obtain a better understanding of the nature and extent of the problem, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy on March 9, 1995, established the Infrastructure Policy Directorate. Its primary responsibilities relate to infrastructure warfare and information assurance. The Directorate has briefed senior government and cabinet officials and is conducting an in-depth examination of key infrastructure elements to determine how they interrelate and how best to protect them from attack. A series of working groups have been established to ensure continuity of effort.

To meet the challenge, the Deputy Secretary of Defense in August 1996 established the Critical Infrastructure Protection Working Group (CIPWG) to support actions directed in Executive Order 13010, Critical Infrastructure Protection, which was signed by the President on July 15, 1996. The CIPWG addresses issues related to threats and vulnerabilities of the defense infrastructure and information systems, develops recommendations for assurance technologies and procedures, and examines roles for DoD in infrastructure protection and assurance.


In recognition of the changing nature of the terrorist threat, DoD on August 27, 1996, established the Antiterrorism Coordinating Committee (ATCC). The committee meets monthly, as well as on an as needed basis. Its purpose is to identify issues that affect force protection, exchange ideas and information, and develop policy recommendations. It also serves a valuable function by providing a synergism that enhances the effectiveness of DoD’s antiterrorism planning. The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict and the Joint Staff Director for Operations co-chair the ATCC Senior Steering Group. Meetings are attended by representatives from the Services; the Joint Staff; the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence; the Defense Security Assistance Agency; the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA); and other DoD elements as required.

To further the exchange of knowledge and experience, for the past seven years DoD has sponsored the Annual Worldwide Antiterrorism Conference. These conferences not only draw on the expertise of the U.S. antiterrorism community but on an international array of security, intelligence, and law enforcement specialists who offer new insights, perspectives, and recommendations for action. Each conference focuses on a particular theme and specific force protection issues. The 1996 theme was changing the terrorism mindset. Conference participants explored ways to make antiterrorism increasingly proactive rather than primarily defensive and reactive. They devoted considerable effort to the critical examination of terrorist attacks and the lessons learned. A conference report forwarded to Secretary Perry contains detailed recommendations for consideration and implementation.

To better prepare for the terrorist threats of the future and how they might impact on U.S. security interests, DoD in 1994 prepared a major study entitled, Terror-2000: The Future Face of Terrorism. The aim was to forecast the nature of the future terrorist threat, projecting significantly beyond the traditional one year timeframe. The study drew on the expertise and experience of American and foreign terrorism experts in an effort to anticipate changes in terrorist targeting, tactics, strategies, and capabilities. Many of the core predictions have come to pass and others appear increasingly likely. Central to the study were recommendations on how best to meet the future terrorist threat.

In response to the November 1995 bombing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Secretary Perry established the Antiterrorism Task Force. The task force was directed to develop a plan of action to eliminate complacency and significantly enhance the security of DoD and DoD-associated facilities and personnel worldwide. The task force forwarded 22 major initiatives and recommendations to Secretary Perry, who approved an implementation plan on July 15, 1996. The more recent Downing Report, which examined the June 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers, produced a second set of recommendations. These have fundamentally changed the way DoD does business with regard to antiterrorism.

As a result of these two tragedies, a number of initiatives have been implemented. On September 16, 1996, Secretary Perry issued a revised Directive 2000.12, entitled DoD Combating Terrorism Program. This directive mandated Department-wide combating terrorism standards. In recognition that intelligence is the first line of defense, steps are being taken to improve its collection and use, and to get the intelligence product into the hands of the local commanders. DIA is engaged in an aggressive long-term collection and analytic effort designed to provide the type of information that can aid local commanders detect, deter, and prevent terrorist attack. Close working relationships between DIA and other members of the national intelligence community are being made even stronger, and intelligence exchanges with U.S. friends and allies have been increased.other members of the national intelligence community are being made even stronger, and intelligence exchanges with U.S. friends and allies have been increased.

To better protect the public and U.S. military forces from the consequences of a chemical or biological terrorist attack, the Commandant of the Marine Corps established a Chemical/Biological Incident Response Force (CBIRF). Formed in April 1996, the CBIRF is uniquely qualified to perform consequence management in an environment contaminated by chemical or biological agents.

In addition to DoD’s accelerated focus on combating terrorism activities, steps are being taken to improve overall force protection. These include giving local commanders operational control over force protection; strengthening cooperation with host nations; raising funding levels of force protection programs, particularly in the area of antiterrorism; making the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the focal point for force protection activities, including initiatives to standardize antiterrorism and force protection training for deploying forces; and realigning certain force protection responsibilities from the Department of State to the Department of Defense. In addition, antiterrorism will be made a special interest item for inspectors general throughout the Department, and the Defense Federal Acquisitions Regulations will be changed to ensure antiterrorism readiness of DoD contractors.


Counterterrorism refers to DoD’s offensive combating terrorism capabilities. These capabilities provide means to deter, defeat, and respond vigorously to all terrorist attacks against U.S. interests, wherever they may occur. Resources allocated to these sensitive activities have been significantly increased, and efforts are underway to maximize readiness so that U.S. counterterrorism forces are trained and equipped to meet any challenge posed by future forms of terrorism. U.S. counterterrorism forces receive the most advanced and diverse training available and continually exercise to maintain proficiency and to develop new skills. They regularly train with their foreign counterparts to maximize coordination and effectiveness. They also engage with counterpart organizations in a variety of exchange programs which not only hone their skills but also contribute to the development of mutual confidence and trust.


The war against terrorism will be a protracted conflict. It is war in which there are no front lines and in which terrorism’s practitioners have intentionally blurred the distinction between combatants and noncombatants. Terrorism differs from traditional combat because it specifically targets the innocent and, as a result, is particularly repugnant. Because each terrorist group and the challenge it represents are unique, DoD must work with the interagency counterterrorism community to develop a flexible response that is a mix of political, economic, military, and psycho-social capabilities, tailored to meet a broad range of challenges and threats. Terrorism is more than the bomb and the gun. It is a struggle that ultimately is fought in the political arena and, as such, is also a war of ideas and ideologies. Combating terrorism requires patience, courage, imagination, and restraint. Perspective is essential. Overreaction and bombast play into terrorist hands. Good intelligence, a professional security force, and a measured response are necessary. Most important for any democracy in its struggle against terrorism is a public that is informed and engaged, and understands the nature of the threat, its potential cost, and why the fight against terrorism is its fight too. It is how well the United States meets this challenge that will determine the winners, the losers, and the price paid by each.

OODA Analyst

OODA Analyst

OODA is comprised of a unique team of international experts capable of providing advanced intelligence and analysis, strategy and planning support, risk and threat management, training, decision support, crisis response, and security services to global corporations and governments.