Combating Terrorism

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Combating Terrorism

T errorism endangers citizens and threatens the power of governments. Every government needs to be perceived as having the ability to keep its citizens safe from harm—both from external and internal attacks—if it hopes to keep the loyalty of those citizens.

In general, antiterror tactics fall into two categories: direct measures, designed to deal with terrorists themselves; and indirect measures, designed to win the confidence and support of the population. Each of these categories can also be divided into two subcategories: retaliatory measures, designed to punish for events that have already happened; and preventive measures, designed to avoid future incidents. There are thus four categories of antiterrorist tactics:

  • direct measures to retaliate for past attacks
  • indirect measures to retaliate for past attacks
  • direct measures to prevent future attacks
  • indirect measures to prevent future attacks

When a government faces a significant terrorist threat, it sometimes adopts broad-ranging measures that fall into more

than one of these four categories. Within each of these categories, governments have a number of tools at their disposal to put any of these four tactics into effect. Different branches of the government can bring to bear different capabilities:

  • The military can launch direct strikes against terrorist camps or strongholds. The military can also provide troops to guard likely terrorist targets or, occasionally, to assist the police.
  • The police can conduct criminal investigations, arrest suspects, and bring them to trial. They also may try to insert spies into terrorist groups. In some countries police can arrest suspected terrorists without specific charges, simply confining suspects in jail. They can also place limits on civil liberties, such as preventing citizens from moving around freely. The police can also mount guards around government buildings or other likely targets.
  • Immigration authorities can prevent all immigration or exert strong controls to prevent terrorists from entering or leaving the country.
  • Politicians can offer terrorist groups political concessions—compromises such as self-rule for ethnic minorities, for example—or a general pardon in exchange for stopping future attacks. Alternatively, politicians can grant some of the demands made by the terrorists' political opponents and thus drive a wedge between terrorists and the people they claim to represent.
  • Diplomats can negotiate international agreements, ban or limit trade, or prohibit the sale of weapons to nations that support terrorists.
  • Treasury officials can block funds or seize assets in banks to deprive terrorists of financial support.

Direct measures to retaliate for past attacks

Terrorism is a "poor man's war," using those weapons and tactics that small groups can afford. The weapons used to hijack American passenger jets on September 11, 2001, for example, included box cutters, simple knives available at any hardware store in the United States for two or three dollars. No national army, navy, or air force would think of using box cutters as weapons when they have access to high-altitude bombers, jet fighters, and tanks.

A traditional military response

One tactic used against terrorists has been to fight them as if they were traditional military foes by using warplanes, aircraft carriers, and army units to attack the territory where terrorists are concealed, even if the territory consists only of small encampments among a larger civilian population. This perception of terrorists as traditional enemies has sometimes led to retaliation against the government that has provided shelter to the terrorists.

Retaliating for September 11, 2001 The American response to the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon, headquarters of the U.S. military outside of Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, was a good example of a military response against terrorism. After the attacks were traced to the Al Qaeda (pronounced al KAY-duh) terrorist organization, President George W. Bush (1946–) demanded that Afghanistan, then controlled by the radical Islamist Taliban government, hand over Osama bin Laden (1957–), the leader of Al Qaeda, whom the Taliban was harboring, to the United States. The Taliban refused to do so without specific evidence showing that bin Laden had directed the attacks. In response the United States began a bombing campaign that within a few weeks toppled the Taliban government. By refocusing the effort away from Al Qaeda and onto the government of Afghanistan, the United States was able to bring into play its vastly superior military might.

Although U.S. military power quickly defeated the Taliban, the planes and aircraft carriers were not able to locate or capture the leaders of Al Qaeda, which had been the United States's key goal in the first place. After several months of bombing and fighting on the ground, as of September 2002 bin Laden remained missing—possibly in Afghanistan, in another country, or killed in the fighting. The operational capabilities of Al Qaeda remained unknown.

Words to Know

a pardon granted by a government for past offenses.
Civil liberties:
the basic rights guaranteed to individual citizens by law (freedom of speech and action, for example).
acts or examples of yielding or compromising, often unwillingly.
in diplomacy, a treaty signed by several nations to govern issues that concern all of them.
a legal prohibition on commerce.
the records of a diplomatic conference that show the agreements reached by the negotiators.
Trade sanctions:
a measure that puts restrictions on free trade taken by one or more nations to apply pressure on another nation to conform to international law or opinion.

Israel fights the Intifada with jets Israel, which has long experience combating Palestinian terrorist tactics, also adopted a military strategy to combat the "Intifada" (pronounced in-tih-FAH-duh; an Arabic word meaning "uprising") campaign of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Following World War II (1939–45), during which an estimated six million European Jews were systematically killed by the German military, the ongoing call for a Jewish homeland became stronger. The United Nations, an international peacekeeping body, proposed the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel, carved from the land of Palestine, a former British mandate

and the traditional Holy Land of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. With the establishment of Israel in 1948, more than three-hundred thousand Palestinians were displaced, and after a series of wars in the area, Israel gained even more Arab land, forcing hundreds of thousands of additional Palestinians to seek refuge in surrounding Arab countries.

During the 1990s and beyond, Palestinian nationalists launched an ongoing campaign of strikes, demonstrations, boycotts, and attacks against Israeli control of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (disputed territories occupied by Israeli forces in 1967). Dozens of Palestinians and Israelis died in attacks in which individuals set off bombs strapped to their bodies in crowded markets, restaurants, or theaters. Others died when Palestinians drew weapons and started firing at crowds of civilians. Although most of these attackers died, they also killed many Israelis and spread fear among the population.

Israel used its military forces to respond to the attacks. Army tanks were used to bulldoze or shell buildings that housed offices of the PLO, and fighter jets bombed police stations, offices, radio stations, and even houses occupied by Palestinian leaders. Ultimately, however, these tactics failed to put down the uprising, which was still raging in late 2002. (See chapter 4.)

India and Pakistan threaten nuclear war On December 13, 2001, terrorists armed with machine guns opened fire outside the Indian parliament building, killing twelve people, including seven policemen. India blamed terrorists from Pakistan and the Pakistani government for allowing the terrorists to operate within India. There was a close and obvious parallel with the events of September 11, 2001, in which the United States blamed Afghanistan's government for protecting the Al Qaeda organization held responsible for the attacks in the United States.

Both India and Pakistan sent troops to their common border, and there were fears that the two countries might come to war over the raid and their long-standing dispute over the territory of Kashmir (see chapter 4). The prospect of a war between India and Pakistan was particularly worrisome became both countries possessed nuclear weapons. India demanded that Pakistan crack down on two terrorist organizations in particular: Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. Pakistan condemned the attack on India's parliament and arrested leaders of the two groups, which helped ease tensions slightly.

Criminal investigations and prosecutions

The specific acts used by terrorists—assassinations and bombings, for example—are also considered criminal acts in virtually every country in the world. In some cases police investigations and prosecuting crimes in courts are employed against the terrorists.

Pan Am Flight 103 On December 21, 1988, a Pan American 747 jet exploded during a flight from London, England, to New York, killing 259 people onboard and 11 people in the small village of Lockerbie, Scotland, over which the plane was flying. At first authorities were unsure what caused the plane to go down. British and American police combed the area for

pieces of the plane, trying to figure out why it crashed. Was it a bomb? Or did the plane break apart for some mechanical reason? A week later, British authorities announced that they had determined a bomb placed in the plane's luggage compartment was responsible for the crash.

In 1991, almost three years after the bombing, American authorities charged two Libyan intelligence agents on 193 felony counts for the attack on the plane. For seven more years, Libya refused to send the men to England to stand trial. To pressure Libya into handing over the suspects, the United Nations passed trade sanctions against Libya, which meant that other nations were required not to buy or sell certain items, including equipment for refining petroleum, to Libya until that country handed over the suspects. Finally, in April 1999, Libya turned over the two men after agreeing that they would be tried in the Netherlands in a trial conducted by Scottish officials under Scottish law. On January 31, 2001, slightly more than twelve years after the plane went down, one of the men, Abd al-Baset al-Megrahi, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He appealed the verdict but lost in March 2002. The other accused man, Lamin Khalifa Fhimah, was found not guilty and released. The case was said to be the most expensive and one of the longest to prosecute in British history.

World Trade Center bombing Just after noon on February 26, 1993, a powerful bomb exploded in an underground parking garage at New York City's World Trade Center. The explosion resulted in six deaths, about a thousand injuries, and extensive damage to the twin World Trade Center towers and nearby buildings. At the time, it was the worst terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil.

One year later, on March 4, 1994, a federal court found four men guilty of planting the bomb and sentenced them to 240 years in prison. (A fifth suspect was convicted and given the same sentence in 1998.) The bombers' conviction was the result of a massive investigation by federal and state police agencies. Shortly after the bomb went off, investigators realized that it must have been brought inside the World Trade Center in a pickup truck or a van, since a car could not have carried the weight of the explosives and a larger truck could not have fit inside the parking garage. Within one week, more than three hundred investigators had sifted through 6,800 tons (6,168 metric tons) of debris created by the blast. In the process they located a piece of metal from the truck that had held the bomb, which had the vehicle's identification number on it. The number led them to a truck rental agency in New Jersey. In a rare stroke of luck, as Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents were interviewing employees at the truck rental firm, a man called asking to get back his refund on the truck. Shortly thereafter, the suspect, Mohammad Salameh, arrived to pick up his money and was promptly arrested.

Salameh's arrest led FBI agents to a house in Jersey City, New Jersey, where they found bomb-making materials, and to a storage locker that held other evidence. Agents also found links through Salameh's telephone records to other suspects. A week after the explosion, the New York Times newspaper had received an anonymous letter claiming responsibility for the bombing. FBI agents examined the letter and envelope and matched traces of saliva on the seal of the envelope to one of the suspects. They also found hidden files on his personal computer with wording identical to the letter mailed to the New York Times.

The trial of the four men began in early September 1993, a little more than six months after the attack, and ended six months later with guilty verdicts and long jail sentences for the convicted terrorists.

Oklahoma City bombing On the morning of April 19, 1995, a rented truck carrying a bomb exploded outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The explosion killed 168 people, including 19 children in a day-care center on the second floor. Through sheer luck, just eighty minutes later a highway patrolman in Perry, Oklahoma, stopped a car for driving without license plates and arrested the driver, a young man named Timothy McVeigh, who, it later turned out, had planted the bomb. McVeigh was convicted of the bombing, and in June 2001 he was executed by lethal injection.

McVeigh's conviction was the result of careful police laboratory work that linked him to the rented truck that exploded and to the purchase of the bags of fertilizer that formed the core of the bomb.

Indirect measures to retaliate for past attacks

Financial sanctions

Governments that help terrorists can be the target of retaliatory measures. After the United States and Great Britain accused the Libyan government of helping bring down Pan Am Flight 103, they persuaded the United Nations to issue trade sanctions against Libya until that country handed over the two men accused of planting a bomb on the plane and promised not to help terrorists in the future. Eventually, Libya handed over the two suspects and paid money to people who lost relatives in the crash. It was clear that the trade sanctions played a major role in causing Libya to agree to the demands of the United States and Great Britain.

Internal sanctions

Indirect measures taken against terrorists operating within a single country are more difficult to impose. The government can order the police to monitor closely the movements of people who live in areas where terrorists are thought to operate, but this tactic can backfire. People may become annoyed with the government for causing them so much inconvenience and feel they are being punished for something they did not do.

Direct measures to prevent future attacks

Direct measures to prevent future attacks include military strikes, target hardening, eavesdropping and surveillance, preventive arrests, and immigration controls and deportations.

Military strikes

Governments can order military attacks on places where terrorists are thought to operate. This tactic is intended to deny the terrorists a safe place to live and train for future attacks. Israel, which has been targeted scores of times by Palestinian nationalists, has often used this technique. In response to an attack, Israeli troops will go into Palestinian areas and destroy a building or take other steps designed to intimidate the nationalists and discourage future attacks. However, there is little evidence that this technique has been effective.

Target hardening

"Hardening" a target means making a building more secure against an attack, such as a bombing. Higher fences or stronger barriers may make it impossible for terrorists to drive a car or truck carrying a bomb close to the target. Reinforcing buildings can also make future bombings less effective—and perhaps less likely to be attempted.

Eavesdropping and surveillance

Law enforcement officials have long relied on surveillance (pronounced sir-VAIL-uhnts), or watching people, as a means of preventing crimes from occurring. In the nineteenth century, police departments in Europe often hired spies to join radical organizations and see if they were planning to commit any terrorist acts. Little has changed since then except the technology available to the police. Today, surveillance capabilities have been greatly expanded by two technical developments: the video camera and face-recognition software.

In Britain there are an estimated 1.5 million video surveillance cameras constantly watching public places, such as sidewalks, shopping malls, airports, and train stations. Some law enforcement officials have proposed installing an even bigger array of video cameras in the United States—cameras that would join the tens of thousands already in place in banks, stores, shopping centers, and other places where security guards want to keep an eye on what is happening. In essence these cameras allow guards to be at many places at the same time; one person can scan a bank of ten or twenty television screens for any suspicious activity.

What makes surveillance cameras an even more powerful antiterror weapon is face-recognition software, computer programs that can scan the faces of people caught on camera and compare them to pictures of known criminals or suspected terrorists. In the wake of the September 11 bombings, this technology was put in place at airports in Boston, Massachusetts; Providence, Rhode Island; San Francisco, California; Fresno, California; and Palm Beach, Florida. Even before the September 11 attacks, the police department in Tampa, Florida, installed cameras equipped with the recognition software to watch people walking down the street in a nightlife district and to scan the crowds attending the 2001 Super Bowl in that city. The purpose was to spot people who were wanted for crimes, but the software never succeeded in identifying any suspects, and its use was suspended. Whatever the limitations on such software, the continuing increase in computer processing capabilities suggests that such systems will be practical in the near future.

However, civil liberties organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are opposed to widespread use of video surveillance, arguing that it is subject to abuse. For example, law enforcement officials have been known to use surveillance systems to spy on estranged spouses, blackmail individuals over actions captured on camera, target minorities such as African Americans for special attention, and take other unauthorized actions.

Terrorism and Civil Liberties

Government actions to prevent terrorism can sometimes come into conflict with important civil liberties, such as those rights guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bars unreasonable searches. That amendment is meant to prevent the government from barging into people's houses or from stopping people on the street without a good reason. But terrorists may look like everyone else, and police can be tempted to stop people who they think are acting "suspiciously."

The government's erring on the side of caution was illustrated in a small way in Massachusetts after the attacks of September 11, 2001. About a month after the attacks, a state patrolman guarding a water reservoir stopped a car on a road near the reservoir, concluded the man who was driving the car had been drinking, and arrested him. The driver claimed the charge should be dropped because the policeman had had no good reason to stop him, and his constitutional right against unreasonable search and seizure had been violated.

The patrolman argued that he had been ordered to stop cars near the reservoir to look for possible terrorists on the basis of a general warning by the federal government that terrorists might soon launch another attack on the United States. In March 2002 a state judge ruled in favor of the accused driver. The warning was too general, the judge said, to justify stopping any particular driver.

Although the case centered on one minor incident, constitutional law experts said the principle was important: To what extent should a general fear of terrorism give police powers they might not otherwise have? Experts on both sides of the issue agreed the argument would continue as long as terrorism was perceived as a threat.

For years, police agencies have had the ability to listen in on telephone conversations. In the United States, this has required permission from a judge (a "wiretap warrant"), but in other countries, the government's legal abilities to eavesdrop are much greater. As early as 1947, a number of English-speaking countries, including the United States and Great Britain, secretly agreed to share intelligence information. As part of this agreement, these countries operate an automated system code-named Echelon. It is believed that Echelon monitors international electronic communications, such as telephone and satellite signals. The highly secret agreement—its terms have never been revealed—is thought to use computer software to listen for certain words or phrases that might be of interest to the government. The FBI has also from time to time installed a system called Carnivore on the computers of Internet service providers in the United States. The Carnivore system can scan the electronic mail messages of suspects for evidence of crimes; in essence, it acts as a wiretap for electronic communications. Both Echelon and Carnivore have been the subject of intense controversy due to their potential to invade people's privacy.

As satellite and cellular telephones, as well as email, become more commonplace, it seems likely that the antiterrorist capabilities of electronic surveillance will also increase—although not without strong objections from people concerned about civil liberties.

Preventive arrests

In the United States, citizens are protected from being arrested without a good reason. In order to arrest someone, the police must go to a judge and present a reasonable case that the person has already committed a crime—not that he or she might commit a crime in the future. If the judge disagrees with the police, he or she will refuse to issue a warrant (official permission) for the suspect's arrest.

Other countries, however, allow police to arrest people on the suspicion that they might commit a crime, such as a terrorist act, in the near future. And even in the United States, the ability to keep people in jail without accusing them of a crime has been applied to noncitizens who have overstayed their visas (permission for a foreign citizen to be in a country). In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, hundreds of immigrants were detained in jail indefinitely for visa violations. Many of them were citizens of Muslim countries.

Preventive arrests are similar to another practice, called "profiling." In many cases of terrorism in the past, there has been little to distinguish the terrorist from anyone else in the

community. But in the case of September 11, most of the hijackers of the planes used to target the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and, unsuccessfully, the U.S. Capitol were from Saudi Arabia. As a result, after the attacks authorities paid exceptionally close attention to other people from Muslim countries, Arab countries in particular, and Saudi Arabia especially. One Arab American who worked as a bodyguard for President Bush was denied passage on a U.S. plane flight about two months after the attacks. He claimed he was kept off the plane simply because he appeared to be of Arabic descent. The airline said he was kept off the plane because he was carrying a gun and behaving in a hostile manner.

Immigration controls and deportations

International terrorism can be countered by strict controls on travel between countries. The September 11 attacks were carried out mainly by Saudi Arabian citizens in the United States on visas. In the future, such visas may become much more difficult to get, and government authorities may work harder to keep track of people once they enter the country to make sure they do not overstay their visas.

Indirect measures to prevent future attacks

Indirect preventive steps are designed to make it harder for terrorist groups to operate, either inside a country or internationally. Such steps are "indirect" because they are not aimed at specific individuals or groups but rather at the general manner in which terrorists function.

Immigration Control: Easier Said Than Done

Six months after hijackers steered planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing thousands of people, a Florida flight training school received notices from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) that student visas for Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi had been approved. The two men, who had studied at the flight school, were believed to be among the nineteen hijackers who seized the planes on September 11, 2001. President George W. Bush told reporters that when he read newspaper accounts of the visa approvals, he was "plenty hot." Although the INS was roundly criticized, the incident illustrated how difficult it is to keep track of the tens of thousands of visa requests granted each year.

International treaties

Acting through the United Nations (UN), some countries have signed international agreements (called conventions and protocols ) to deal with terrorism cooperatively. There are twelve such agreements, covering such topics as sending accused terrorists to other countries to face trial and returning hijacked airplanes. Not all countries have signed these agreements, and some countries do not abide by their terms, so they are not always effective. In 1963 more than 170 countries signed an agreement called the Tokyo Convention to cover actions that affected the safety of aircraft. The agreement authorized a plane's pilot to take steps to protect the passengers' safety, including restraining anyone thought to be endangering the plane. The convention also required countries to arrest offenders—such as hijackers—and return the plane to the control of its pilot. The Hague Convention of 1970 made it an international crime to hijack an airplane and required nations that signed the agreement to punish hijacking severely or to extradite hijackers. (Extradition is the process by which one country hands over a person suspected of committing a crime to the country in which the crime took place.) As hijackings became more commonplace in the early 1970s, 176 countries signed another agreement, the Montreal Convention of 1971, to cover the bombing of planes in flight. It made it a violation of international law to injure anyone aboard an aircraft in flight or to put a bomb aboard a plane. Like other conventions, the Montreal agreement required countries to arrest violators or hand them over to the countries whose planes were involved.

A 1973 UN agreement outlawed attacks on government officials, including heads of state, foreign ministers, and others. This agreement commits governments to punish for the murder, kidnapping, or other attack on such officials, their official buildings or private homes, or means of transportation such as an official car. As hostage-taking became more common in the 1970s, the Hostages Convention of 1979 made it a crime to take hostages in order to force a government to meet a terrorist's demands.

Other UN-sponsored conventions make it illegal to steal or transport nuclear materials to achieve terrorist ends and put other targets in the same class as airplanes, including airports, ships, and offshore platforms like those used to drill for oil. In 1991 an international agreement made it illegal to manufacture plastic explosives (which cannot be detected by airport scanning machines) and provided for adding special chemical "markers" to explosives so they could be traced to their source after an explosion like the one that destroyed Pan Am Flight 103. Two other international agreements made the bombing of public places an international crime and required countries to take steps to prevent terrorist groups from receiving funds, including through charitable organizations. This last protocol, agreed on in 1999, removed bank secrecy laws (laws that allow a bank to keep information about its depositors confidential) as an excuse for not cooperating in international investigations of terrorism.

The international conventions do not always work, and they are not always followed by countries that harbor, or provide a safe place, for terrorists. But they provide justification for countries that do sign the conventions to enforce the rules or to punish countries that do not. Such punishment can include seizing financial assets or banning international trade with countries that do not cooperate with worldwide antiterrorism efforts.

Information warfare

Terrorism by its very nature is a battle of information and communication. In most instances terrorists know they cannot defeat the military organizations of the governments they target. Instead, their goal is to alter public perceptions through their attacks. In the contemporary world, mass communications are critical for achieving this goal. In response, governments take both defensive and offensive measures to counter terrorist efforts in the information war.


Many terrorist organizations conduct publicity campaigns to communicate their message to the public. Sometimes terrorist attacks are part of such campaigns—as when terrorists hijack aircraft or kidnap victims and demand that statements be published or broadcast in exchange for their release. Other times, terrorist leaders grant interviews to journalists, expecting that their attacks will generate widespread interest in what they have to say. In the American media this can benefit both the journalist and the terrorist: television programs looking for a bigger audience (in order to sell more advertising) will promote an "exclusive interview" with a terrorist leader, helping to expand his audience as well as the network's (see Chapter 2).

To counter these tactics—and to keep terrorists from gaining popular support—some governments prevent print and electronic media from publicizing terrorists' positions. This censorship can extend to forbidding the press even to mention that terrorist attacks have occurred, lest the public believe that the terrorists have power or that the government cannot stop them. Censorship takes different forms in different countries, depending on national attitudes and laws regarding freedom of the press. In some countries, the government can arrest editors and shut down newspapers. In democratic countries, like the United States, constitutions often guarantee freedom of the press, and censorship requires subtler techniques. Governments may ask broadcasters to censor their news programs voluntarily on patriotic grounds, arguing that publicizing terrorists' opinions helps their cause and hurts the security of the government under attack.

For example, in October 2001, following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice (1954–) asked the major U.S. television networks not to broadcast the entirety of taped statements by or interviews with bin Laden. She argued that the videos might contain secret codes or instructions to terrorists hiding in the United States. The major networks agreed to the request. In the midst of the rise in patriotism that followed the attacks, refusing to go along with the government might have made a network seem unpatriotic and hurt its ratings—even though the government never provided evidence that the bin Laden tapes contained any secret codes.


Government officials have used the threat of terrorism to justify keeping information secret from the public. The kind of information judged to be useful to terrorists can extend almost indefinitely. In New York state, for example, following the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, state officials ordered government workers to limit information available on the Internet, including "information related to systems, structures, individuals, and services essential to the security, government, or economy of the state." This included data on electrical power, gas and oil storage, transportation, banking and finance, the water supply, and emergency services. Other examples of information removed from the Internet by federal and state government agencies following the attacks include records of driver's licenses, maps of power lines, and databases that provide information about population.

Officials said they feared that terrorists could use such information to help them plan attacks, although there was no evidence that this had happened in the past.

Some critics pointed out that almost any information could be kept secret from the public by claiming that it might be useful to a terrorist. "Terrorism" could be used as an excuse to draw a veil of secrecy over government operations that had never been targeted by terrorists. For example, hiding information about factories that produce toxic (poisonous) wastes could help the factory owners keep their business practices secret from the people who lived nearby. Critics of the new security measures argued that open government served a greater good than the hypothetical danger that a terrorist could use such data to design new attacks. They pointed out that terrorists usually use simpler techniques, such as parking a van carrying a bomb in the basement garage of an office building or smuggling weapons aboard airplanes to carry out a hijacking.


Regardless of its violence, terrorism by its very nature is a form of psychological warfare, intent on causing fear to achieve its ends. A basic weapon against terrorism is to inspire confidence in the government and hatred for the terrorists. Governments have many resources at their disposal to combat terrorism in public opinion, both at home and in other countries.

Managing news In most countries the government has almost automatic access to the news media: a spokesman for the government is virtually guaranteed coverage on the evening news or in print media. In democratic countries, political leaders usually have spokesmen whose only job is to present information in the best possible light. In the case of terrorism, propaganda, or communicating one's own ideas to a large number of people, often starts by labeling an incident or an organization as "terrorist" in nature. It can also mean exaggerating the danger that more such incidents will occur.

Ironically, while governments are often eager to downplay the size or strength of terrorist groups, on other occasions they want to magnify the apparent danger. In the wake of September 11, 2001, for example, the FBI and other government agencies issued numerous warnings about possible terrorist attacks in the near future. These warnings, which proved to be false alarms, served several purposes:

  • To indicate that the government was on the job, monitoring the activities of terrorist groups, after the shock of the September 11 attacks.
  • To help justify the major expenses associated with the effort to find and attack terrorists, both abroad and in the United States.
  • To justify security measures that, in other circumstances, might seem to restrict ordinary citizens' freedom of movement.

Managing public opinion Governments can turn the public against terrorists in many ways. In countries where the government controls the news media, this is an easy task. But even in countries where the government does not own the media, government spokespeople and politicians can get their points across in a way that can change citizens' opinions. Among the techniques used to do this are:

  • Magnifying fears of future attacks. Although it is the terrorist's goal to sow fear, sometimes governments do this as well. False warnings of more attacks, for example, can make citizens agree to new restrictions on their freedoms.
  • Controlling the vocabulary. The words government officials use to describe political friends and enemies have a significant impact. Using the word "terrorist" to describe a political enemy can transform that person into a criminal. On the other hand, calling the same person a "freedom fighter" when he (or she) is a political ally can turn that person into a hero. Sometimes opposing sides use both of these terms to describe the same person. Even in countries that have an independent news media, reporters and editors tend to follow the government's lead in choosing which terms to use.
  • Blurring distinctions. There are major differences between terrorists. They fight for different goals and use different tactics. By using the word "terrorist" to describe all such people, government spokespeople and the news media can blur the distinctions among the various groups and make everyone who resorts to political violence seem the same.

Role of the media

The media—newspaper, radio, and television—plays a major role in terrorism. Both terrorists and the governments they are attacking try to put forward their case in the media. When the government owns or controls the media, terrorists have to turn to the media in other countries to get their message out. When the media is independent of government control, there is a "public relations" battle between the two sides.

In the case of independent media, the media itself takes an active hand in the struggle that is not always obvious—partly because it involves material that is never printed or broadcast.

What is news?

In most countries, television news lasts thirty or sixty minutes each night, minus time for advertising. How do TV journalists decide what to include in this limited amount of time? A terrorist bombing or assassination is almost sure to make the news. It is dramatic, it supplies vivid pictures, and it attracts a big audience to the program. On the other hand, a statement issued by an opposing political group (an announcer reading text) does not make for exciting television. The result is that the political side of terrorism is lost and audiences see only the acts of violence. Focusing on violence rather than politics can make terrorists seem one-sided: people who commit violent acts for reasons that are not understood.

Attracting an audience

In the United States network television is free to the viewer. Networks need advertising to pay their costs, and to get advertising dollars they need to appeal to big audiences. Newspapers have the same economic needs, since the price of the paper does not cover the expense of producing it. Consequently, the media is tempted to concentrate on news that will please the audience and help bring in advertising dollars. Network and newspaper editors know that most people want to watch news that confirms what they think to be true, rather than news that challenges their beliefs. This can limit the range of opinions presented on television news and in newspapers and may even cause some producers and editors to focus on one angle of a story in order to attract a particular audience and boost advertising revenues.

Responding to terrorism

Terrorist attacks are seldom an end unto themselves. Terrorists plant bombs or take hostages to achieve a greater end, such as gaining political power or changing a government policy. The United States has used different responses to terrorist attacks. Sometimes what Americans say on the subject differs sharply from their actions.

The U.S. State Department summarizes America's policy toward terrorism in four principles: 1) make no concessions and strike no deals; 2) bring terrorists to justice for their crimes; 3) apply pressure on countries that sponsor terrorism; and 4) support the counterterrorism capabilities of countries that work with the United States.

After terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the United States demanded that Afghanistan's government hand over bin Laden, who was suspected of guiding the attacks. When Afghanistan refused, the United States unleashed a bombing campaign that brought down the Taliban, the radical Islamist government that was providing a safe haven for bin Laden.

However, the United States has not always responded so forcefully to terrorist attacks. In October 1983 terrorists bombed the headquarters of a U.S. Marine Corps peacekeeping force in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 241 American soldiers. In response, the administration of President Ronald Reagan (1911–) ordered a battleship to shell suspected terrorist positions in the hills of Lebanon and then withdrew the Marines—which was the terrorists' goal all along.