Terrorism in the 21st Century

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A Good News Interview With Christopher Dobson

Editor's note: Never before in history has the terrorist threat been so all-encompassing. Following the July suicide terror bombings in London, The Good News interviewed British author and journalist Christopher Dobson, one of the world's most knowledgeable authorities on terrorism, to help our readers better understand today's terrorism.

The Good News: How would you define terrorism? And does it ever really work?

Christopher Dobson: A good working definition is a paraphrase of the United Kingdom's Prevention of Terrorism Act. Terrorism is defined as the use of violence for political goals and includes any use of violent force for the purpose of putting the public or the community in fear.

Terrorist groups have no arms that can really face the Western military might head-on. But they do feel that they can cause the West so much grief that it will eventually give up the struggle.

In fact terrorism does work in certain circumstances. Previously we saw the end of the European terror groups like the Baader-Meinhof gang [a German terrorist group of the 1960s and '70s]. They all went in time.

But from their point of view, the Irish Republican Army has in fact achieved a great deal of what they set out to do through the means of terror. Whether they could have achieved an equal amount by peaceful political means is another matter. I am convinced that they could have achieved as much by peaceful ordinary democratic politics.

But they don't look at it that way. They say, "We achieved this through the gun and semtex [plastic explosives], and otherwise we would not have done it." So from their point of view terrorism was a great success.

I am sure that the present Islamic terrorists look at it in the same light. From their point of view, they are going to win. They are going to kill "the great Satan," the United States, and "the little Satans," Great Britain and Israel. They will continue their efforts despite the losses they are taking.

GN: In what way has terrorism today changed from the terrorism of the 1970s?

CD: It has changed principally in its scale. The terrorism of the 1970s was on a much smaller scale—smaller bombs, assassinations, some car bombs. The most effective method used in the 1970s was, of course, hijacking—which we don't see much of anymore except, of course, to use planes as lethal weapons of attack. We saw what happened with nearly 3,000 people dead as a result of 9/11. That sort of thing did not occur in the 1970s.

We have also seen the great rise in suicide bombers. There were no suicide bombers in the 1970s. I believe the first suicide bombers emerged in Lebanon from Hamas and Hezbollah. Although small in scale, they were quite remarkable in their effects.

There were some women involved, and they were very effective in that area. But overall the incidents had very little effect in the West because it was regarded as something out of our ken that was never going to happen in Europe or in America. Today you get these suicide bombers working in Iraq almost every day. It's a major business now.

Going back a bit I remember the suicide truck bombing of the French and American barracks in Lebanon in 1983. More than 200 American marines and some 60 French soldiers were killed. In effect this operation was very successful because after that the French and the American marines withdrew from Lebanon. This was an indication to the terrorists that they could succeed through using suicide bombers.

These are very potent weapons. We saw in London in this last week something we never, ever thought we would have to see here—tragic loss of life and massive disruption caused by four young men and
four bombs.

Although there are those of us who have been warning for many years that a bomb on the London Underground [subway system] would be the terrorists' most effective weapon in this crowded city, not really much notice was taken of those warnings.

I think this attack was only a matter of time. The London Underground is very vulnerable. Millions of people use it every day and you cannot possibly stop every person getting on board and search them for bombs. It is a target for causing utmost destruction, producing a great deal of fear and disrupting the economy of the country.

This is the other way in which terrorism has changed—the targets have changed. Remember, poison gas was used in the Japanese Underground. There is always a possibility of water supplies being poisoned. There is also a possibility of somebody building a "dirty bomb" packed with radioactive material.

GN: Do you think terrorists could successfully use chemical, biological or nuclear weapons of mass destruction against a Western nation like Britain, the United States or Israel?

CD: I think there is a possibility that these weapons will be used. Of course, they are more complicated and more easily discovered by security forces. Therefore, they are currently less useful than the ordinary high-explosive bomb, which has proved to be a very effective weapon. But if the terrorists see that these more complex weapons will give them an advantage, they will take that route. We have seen how they have developed their techniques over the years.

GN: What do you see as the primary aim or goal of today's terrorism?

CD: Ultimately, and I say "ultimately" advisedly, the aim is to have Islam as the greatest power in the world. But before you get to that stage, in their view, you have to restore the pride of the Islamic people. You have to get rid of regimes like the Saudi Arabian monarchy and have such countries taken over by hard-line Islamists. You have to wipe out rival groups of Islam.

GN: For some time we have heard that poverty and oppression are the root causes of terrorism, yet the London bombers and others have been shown to be educated and members of the middle class. Osama bin Laden is a multimillionaire and his right-hand man is an Egyptian doctor. What can you tell us about the motivation of many of today's terrorists?

CD: I think that it is wrong to assume that terrorism comes from poverty. It does not! Otherwise the whole of Africa would be full of terrorists.

Terrorism is carried out mainly by educated people because in a perverse way they understand what they are doing. They are capable of being taught; they are capable of listening to teachers in the mosques. These are not things that come easily to poor, poverty-stricken people. Yes, you can arouse a mob of poor people to riot and to kill people, but you cannot really rely on ill-educated people to learn the technicalities of modern terrorism.

GN: Israel seems to have dramatically reduced the number of suicide bombers over the last year or so. To what do you attribute that?

CD: Israel has always regarded itself as being at war and it reacts to terror as if it is at war. It has also taken various physical measures that have made the bombers work harder. For instance, there's the great fence, the great wall that they have built which has made the bombers' life more difficult.

They have adopted measures of punishment that we have not adopted in the West, although some of them derive from the prewar period of British rule. At that time if a terrorist was discovered, he himself might be hanged or put in prison, but his family home would also be blown up. Collective punishment was imposed.

So, strangely enough, the Israelis have this basis of huge countermeasures to build on whereas the British have seemingly forgotten about all those measures. This is because we are no longer a colonial power, and also the British people are a much more tolerant people than we were when a colonial power.

GN: What can the West realistically do to effectively stop terrorism?

CD: Going back to your question about poverty, people would say that you had to put all these wrongs right, and in particular you had to give the Palestinians their land back—that being, in their view, the main cause of terrorism today.

But I am not sure that this is the way forward. We obviously have to take all the military and security measures we can. We have seen the British Parliament agreeing this week on new measures to be taken—measures we would have thought absolutely impossible a few years ago.

I can remember being in Cyprus in the 1950s when terrorists were blowing up and shooting people in their aim for independence. Yet we were still allowed to go out to the planes on the airfields and see our friends off. There were no searches—just a look at your passport and you went through.

The next step was, of course, with the IRA. Suddenly nonpassengers were not allowed to go out to the planes and your bags were searched. We now regard bags and suitcases being searched as a normal procedure. But when it was first introduced, it was thought a terrible infringement on our freedoms.

Now it is all being taken a step further. We now have devices that not only look into our suitcases, but we also have instruments that see what we are wearing underneath. So gradually, with each terrorist outrage, the countermeasures are being stepped up, much to the disgust of libertarians. But we must face the fact that we have to do it.

The other thing is, what can we do to win hearts and minds? It is obvious that the terrorists are winning hearts and minds among their young men and women. How can we win them back? That's going to be a very long process and a very difficult one. It's going to require the involvement of Muslim leaders all over the world. So often, of course, their teachers have taken the other route, and that's where our great difficulty lies.

GN: How do we deal with homegrown terrorists among us here in Britain? Their own ethnic groups heavily influence them both at home and abroad.

CD: I think the big point here is integration. These terrorists are Brits that are born here of British nationality. They talk with British accents, which is very confusing to us. Obviously they are Arab or Indian or Pakistani from their appearance, but they speak with Birmingham or other British accents.

This is awfully confusing. What we have to do is to make sure that British accents prevail over the tribal, clan warfare of their parents' or grandparents' home country, and that's going to take a very long time. We have to try to integrate them into the British way of life.

They should not live in Muslim ghettos, but they do. If you emigrate to a country, you will go where your original countrymen already are because you feel comfortable there. And you tend to open your own restaurants and your own clubs.

That's going to take a very long time to break down. Of course, integration has taken a terrible blow with the London bombs because many people don't trust any young Pakistani even though he may in fact be a true Brit. That is a really bad step backwards.

GN: The London Underground packs in people like sardines every weekday morning. There does not appear to be any way of realistically preventing another terrorist attack. Can you comment on that?

CD: I am afraid there is little way of preventing a terrorist attack without imposing all sorts of restrictions that will be almost impossible both economically and politically.

It is always a danger we have to face. The terrorist has the advantage of always having the initiative. He can decide where he wants to attack, how he wants to attack, and, with a suicide bomber, he has the ability to walk into a place, prepare to attack and walk out again if conditions aren't right. He can choose whatever target he wants.

And there are other targets just as vulnerable as the London Underground. There are the football [i.e., soccer] stadiums people are packed into every weekend and quintessential English cricket matches, not to mention theaters and cinemas. All these are potential targets.

GN: What are Western governments doing at the highest policy level to combat terrorism?

CD: They are introducing stricter and stricter measures. They are trying, behind the scenes, to get governmental cooperation.

Certainly the intelligence services of the West are working together far more than ever before because this is a common problem. If they don't work together, then terrorists will slip through the net. You have to put aside national feelings in all this and cooperate.

Although we have seen Mr. Blair and Mr. Chirac quarreling over various important aspects of national life, I don't think they quarrel very much over the way in which they approach terrorism. Cooperation is the answer to trying to solve the problem.

GN: Roughly speaking, how many terrorist organizations are there in the world today?

CD: Roughly speaking, I think there are possibly 30 to 40 that we have to worry about. The major terrorist organizations today are, of course, Islamic.

Al-Qaeda itself is rather like a huge worldwide company with a headquarters and with semi-independent groups in any countries where there is a strong fundamentalist Islamic influence. So while we talk of al-Qaeda as being one terrorist group, it really isn't. It consists of a number of terrorist groups spread around the world who may come together for certain operations. They usually carry out operations in their own countries in the name of al-Qaeda.

GN: To what extent do these terrorist groups cooperate?

CD: The al-Qaeda groups do cooperate. They conduct corporate "business" through e-mails and through mobile phones, which are a tremendous advantage. But in another way they are also an advantage to the security forces because they can listen in, which is a major weapon in the war against terrorism. ETA in the Basque region of Spain and the IRA have cooperated in the past.

GN: Is there anything else you'd like to mention in closing?

CD: One of the great debates going on in Britain today is between the far right and the far left. It is between people who believe that strict, very uncomfortable measures should quickly be taken to curb terrorism and people who believe that any attempt to curb terrorism ultimately infringes on people's rights.

There is this great debate going on and it is one that must be watched very carefully. If one side wins utterly we get measures imposed on us which none of us would enjoy. And if the other side wins utterly, the terrorists will be given many more opportunities to carry out their attacks. GN

Christopher Dobson has authored or coauthored many books on terrorism, including Terrorists: Their Weapons, Leaders and Tactics; Black September: Its Short, Violent History; The Never-Ending War: Terrorism in the 80's; The Carlos Complex: A Study in Terror; The Weapons of Terror: International Terrorism at Work and Counterattack: The West's Battle Against the Terrorists.

Mr. Dobson has worked as a journalist for The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Express and has been assistant editor for The Daily Mail. He lives in England with his wife Shirley. They recently celebrated their 50th anniversary.

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