Terrorism Expert Sounds Battle Cry
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Terrorists in the years ahead will become less politically motivated and more attuned to religious, fanatical zealotry. Less concerned than ever about international repercussions, they will seek ways to reap mass casualties on an unprepared public. The United States will most often be their target.
Peter Probst, a specialist on international terrorism with DoD’s special operations and low-intensity conflict office, made these predictions during the 1997 DoD anti-terrorism conference here. Probst said the nature of terrorism is changing fundamentally, and DoD’s approach to countering terrorists must undergo similar changes.
Because it’s effective and cheap — and sponsorship can be easily disguised or denied — terrorism increasingly will be the weapon of choice for extremists, Probst said. Political terrorism is declining, he said, supplanted by religiously motivated terrorist acts — and the change spells trouble.
“In contrast to their politically motivated counterparts, terrorist groups or cults motivated by religious ideology exhibit few self-imposed restraints,” Probst said. “They actively seek to maximize the carnage, believing that only by annihilating their enemy they may fulfill the dictates of their guru or god.”
This difference of perspective affects terrorists’ choice of targets and weapons. “Religious zealotry creates the will to carry out mass casualty attacks, and proliferation provides the means,” Probst said. “This marriage of will and means has forever changed the face of terrorism.”
Whereas truck bombs have been the weapon of choice in several major terrorist incidents, Probst sees that changing. He said he fears DoD won’t change correspondingly.
“We have not been very good at anticipating change,” he said, “and once we have identified change, we have not proved very adept at developing an effective response.” The time will come, he said, when U.S. countermeasures will make truck bomb attacks too difficult or too costly. But terrorists are adaptable and will soon find a new approach, he said.
While anti-terrorist analysts look at this eventuality, they tend to focus “beyond the perimeter fence, on some sort of stand-off attack using exotic weaponry,” Probst said. Instead, he said, planners should focus on an inside-the-fence threat that could come from the very people DoD employs to make up rooms, serve food, groom lawns and perform other such services at overseas installations.
“Such workers may be recruited from the local population or provided by large contract firms,” Probst said. The latter category often is made up of third-country nationals whom “we know little or nothing about,” he said. “At best, the contracting firm may have done cursory [background] checks.”
It’s possible terrorists could infiltrate installations through such contracts, Probst said. A single terrorist could conceal a toxic agent such as anthrax in as small an object as a cigarette, then, when nobody’s looking, poison the iced tea or Kool-Aid that sits at the end of the counter in the cafeteria.
Biological and chemical agents could become terrorists’ new weapons of choice, Probst said, because they are easy to conceal and would cause mass casualties. And the terrorist would be long gone by the time symptoms begin to appear, he said.
Such tactical use of biological weapons could easily gain strategic value for terrorists, Probst said. “If 50 or 100 of our [people] at some remote installation in some Third World country came down with this unknown condition, we would air-evac them as quickly as possible. But what would happen if simultaneously our terrorist group alerted the major wire services that they’d carried out an attack against ‘the Great Satan’ … and would similarly strike against any country that permitted our aircraft to land or offered us any form of assistance? What started out as a tactical attack very quickly might develop strategic overtones and implications.”
Terrorists will try to have a major impact on U.S. policy because they’ve enjoyed past success, Probst said. “We should all remember that one driver in one suicide attack against our Marines in Beirut turned American policy 180 degrees and drove the greatest world power out of Lebanon,” he said.
Probst said he doesn’t think the United States can defeat terrorism by relying on old thinking and methodology. “To rely predominantly on a group’s historical record as a predictor of future behavior is to court disaster,” he said. “If the demonstrated capabilities of terrorist organizations remain the primary criteria for anti-terrorism planning, we will continue to be reactive in our thinking. We will be much less likely to anticipate change and much more likely to be blindsided.”
Instead, DoD should take several new approaches to countering terrorism, Probst said. First, the military should send mock terrorist “red teams” against its own installations to identify and pinpoint vulnerabilities, he said. “To assume that terrorists are aware of vulnerabilities and won’t exploit them is dangerously unrealistic,” he said. “It’s far better that the red team [identifies weaknesses] and perhaps [causes] some embarrassment than to leave that task for the terrorists.”
Next, he suggested formation of an anti-terrorism institute. To effectively fight fanatical terrorists and better anticipate changes in tactics and targets, Probst said, it’s necessary to understand “what makes your adversary tick. What does he fear? What does he value? What are the demons that drive him? And most important, how can we best exploit that knowledge?
“To provide such insights, we need to be able to draw on the knowledge of social psychologists, cultural anthropologists, linguists and historians, as well as experts in crosscultural communication.” Gathered in an institute dedicated to understanding terrorism, such individuals would identify trends and potential threats and develop new tactics, strategies and policy initiatives to combat terrorism, he said.
Finally, he suggested formation of operational teams, tailored to meet a specific terrorist challenge. Such teams would include the FBI, CIA and DoD, he said. “But depending on the nature of the problem, [a team] could also include experts in exotic languages, covert actions, applied psychology, information warfare and whatever other specific skills might be needed to neutralize the threat. After resolving the threat, the team would disband.
“Such teams would operate transnationally, just as the terrorists do,” Probst said. “They would not be bound by bureaucratic considerations or turf issues.”
Probst said such approaches to terrorism “must increasingly become the norm, if we are to maximize the effective use of our resources and hunt the terrorists to ground.”