RL31517 -- Combating Terrorism: Possible Lessons for U.S. Policy from Foreign Experiences, Summary of the Major Points of a Seminar

Updated August 6, 2004



Participants in a CRS seminar on the possible lessons to be learned from other countries' experiences in dealing with terrorism, generally agreed on three things. First, terrorism is a used by a wide variety of groups for a wide variety of ends. Second, the current threat that the United States faces from Islamist terrorism is most likely long-term. And third, policymakers must think through anti-terrorist actions in order to avoid consequences that may be worse than the original problem. Much of the seminar discussion focused on matters that two and a half years later became the subject of 9/11 Commission recommendations. A revised introduction highlights the discussion summarized in this report that is relevant to Commission recommendations. The remainder of the report has not been changed.

Discussions during the three hour seminar, held on January 22, 2002, centered on the relative utility of three main policy tools: (1) targeting members and leaders for arrest and assassination, or as speaker Christopher Hewitt labeled it, the "model of attrition," (2) negotiations, and (3) reforms. Hewitt, who has studied the effectiveness of anti-terrorism policies in five countries said that the only one that showed clear results was a "model of attrition," i.e., that arrest, internment, or killing of terrorists is the most effective means to significantly reduce levels of terrorist violence. Speaker Martha Crenshaw weighed the pros and cons of targeted assassinations, noting that for her the disadvantages -- principally the difficulty of avoiding mistakes and the possibility that assassinations would just encourage others to take the place of those killed -- outweighed the advantages -- principally that it was relatively more humane than a massive military response.

The most controversial subject was the utility of political and economic reforms in countries that harbor terrorists. Many questions were raised about Hewitt's finding that improving economic conditions did not have any effect on levels of terrorism, and that fairly extensive political reforms might decrease, but did not end terrorism. Some raised the possibility that long-term educational reforms, and other methods of changing perceptions, might have more success.

The difficulties of achieving negotiated settlements to end terrorism were examined. Participants suggested ways to increase the chances for successful outcomes. These included international support for legitimate core issues in order to increase support for negotiations, international participation in the negotiations; and the adoption of measures that would isolate terrorists, including steps to increase the rule of law, and anti-corruption, educational, and cultural programs.

The utility of controlling supporting structures for terrorism and restricting civil liberties were also discussed. Speakers noted that international cooperation is necessary to control arms and funds that usually flow from abroad.

(This seminar was made possible in part by a grant from the Charles H. Revson Foundation.)


On January 22, 2002, the Congressional Research Service sponsored a seminar on the possible lessons for U.S. policy from the experiences of other countries in handling their own terrorism challenges. Although other countries generally have not experienced international terrorist incidents resembling the events of September 11, 2001 in concept and in devastating execution, many have confronted very severe and prolonged domestic threats. To discuss whether there are policy lessons that the United States might draw from those countries, CRS invited several experts on international terrorism, and others with particular experiences in one or more cases to discuss the topic.

Although this seminar was held over two and a half years ago, several of the topics of discussion and speakers' points of view are relevant to the recommendations made by the report of the 9/11 Commission issued in July 2004. The following four paragraphs in this introduction summarize pertinent points on the utility reform (which was the major topic of discussion during the seminar), as well as on four subjects highly relevant to Commission recommendations. These subjects were (1) the possible tradeoffs between security and civil liberties; (2) the tradeoffs between security risks and costs; (3) international cooperation; and (4) terrorist financing. The remainder of the text is unchanged from the original publication of July 24, 2002.

Several of the Commission's recommendations dealt with a perceived need for reforms within Muslim countries: economic reforms, political reforms, and social reforms, most particularly education. One of the most controversial topics of discussion at the CRS seminar was the utility of such reforms. The debate centered upon the accuracy of the findings of a 1984 study by one of the speakers that demonstrated that levels of terrorism did not decrease when economic reforms were undertaken or when selected economic indicators improved, but rather that violence worsened when economic indicators were better. Other speakers and discussants raised several considerations as to why this finding may have been true: (1) terrorists may have intensified their activities as they found reforms counterproductive to their objectives; (2) if negotiations were going on they might have intensified activities to produce more concessions; (3) the government was unable to deliver the degree of reform needed or had undertaken reforms too late; (4) other government actions, such as stopping people on the streets, may have undermined the positive effects of reform; or simply (5) that the time frame covered by the study (four to eleven years, depending on the case) may have not been long enough to demonstrate the true results of reforms. One speaker pointed out that the timeframe over which one evaluates a situation can affect perceptions of a policy's effectiveness and outcome. (See pp. 11-14.)

There was some discussion as to whether Islamist terrorism was better addressed through long-term programs, such as secularized education, and whether changed circumstances could modify the social and psychological context which feeds terrorism. Speakers could not recall a precedent where the United States sought to change an educational system abroad to prevent the emergence of terrorism, but thought perhaps a domestic example, the influence of education in diminishing over time the power of the Ku Klux Klan, might provide insight into the possible utility of such an approach. One speaker said that he found the educational system to be one of the most significant factors in predicting the occurrence of terrorism. He attributed a large difference in the degree of terrorism in Quebec, Canada, and Northern Ireland, both of which have separatist movements within British cultures, to the deliberate nationalist indoctrination in Northern Ireland's schools. He also pointed to an example regarding Northern Ireland where a long term cultural shift in perception has been undermining the pro-terrorism culture there. (See pp. 13-14.) Speakers debated the degree to which the United States could affect Islamist terrorism by a change in its policies in the Middle East, particularly its policy towards Israel. (See pp. 15-16.)

The speakers also addressed two sets of tradeoffs that were raised by the 9/11 Commission. Noting that many of its recommendations called for the government to "increase its presence in our lives," the Commission advanced several recommendations designed to protect civil liberties while cautioning that security must be reconciled with liberty "since the success of one helps protect the other." One speaker opined that whether Europe's "severe" anti-terrorism laws granting extraordinary police powers in the 1970s and 1980s were effectively implemented depended upon the collection of good intelligence that could minimize the use of intrusive, repressive tactics. The Commission's recommendations also pointed to the dilemmas raised by evaluating risks within the context of limited resources, but concluded, in the case of transportation assets, that "terrorists should perceive that potential targets are defended." Discussion at the CRS seminar suggested that decisions setting priorities in terms of risk may be a difficult -- if not futile -- task, as even the highest degree of preparedness is not going to prevent terrorist incidents as terrorists turn to second level targets when more desirable targets are well guarded. The net result, according to one of the speakers, is that the United States will have to decide what degree of risk it is willing to bear, much as the United States decides to tolerate the risk of deaths on its highways and from smoking. (See pp. 15-17.)

The Commission Report also indicated through several recommendations the need for international cooperation, with one recommendation calling for the development of a comprehensive coalition strategy against Islamist terrorism. CRS speakers pointed to international cooperation as helpful in controlling sources of support for terrorist acts, in particular financing and arms. (See pp. 8-9.)

Participants and Topics

There were three speakers. The first was Martha Crenshaw, now the Colin and Nancy Campbell Professor in Global Issues and Democratic Thought at Wesleyan University, who gave an introduction discussing the complexities involved in developing a viable policy towards terrorism. As one of the first scholars to devote herself to the study of terrorism who continues to devote a major portion of her time to the subject, she has studied the phenomenon for over 30 years. The second speaker was Christopher Hewitt, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who has written a multi-case comparative study of the effectiveness of government policies towards terrorism, and a book published in the spring of 2002 on American terrorism. His comparative study, completed in 1984, looked at five cases, all modern democracies. Three were cases of ethnic or separatist terrorism: the IRA in Northern Ireland (1968-1973); the Basque ETA in Spain (1975-1981); and the EOKA in Cyprus (1955-1958). The other two were cases of revolutionary terrorism: the Red Brigades in Italy (1977-1981), and the Tupamaros in Uruguay (1968-1973). [Of these, the first two conflicts are still active to some extent.] The final speaker was Peter Probst, an independent consultant with nearly 30 years of experience with the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense. His formal remarks concentrated on perceived deficiencies in current U.S. policy.

Three additional people were invited to participate in the subsequent discussion with members of the audience. They were Imad-ad-dean Ahmad of the Minaret of Freedom, Marc Gopin, a visiting professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and specialist in conflict resolution, and Ulrich Seidt of the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. (For further biographical information on the speakers and commentators, see Appendix A.)

The three major issues that the speakers were asked to address were:

The speakers were also asked to weigh whether there are particular policies that might be useful, and to suggest policies which may not have yet been tried. There were three areas, discussed immediately below, on which there seemed to be broad agreement. There were many points of lively discussion and debate, the most salient of which are present in the section on Issues in Dealing with Terrorist Organizations. This report concludes with some considerations for U.S. policy that were raised throughout the program. (One hour, edited versions of the seminar are available in audio (AB50397) and video (VB60057) tapes. Online audio and video excerpts from the seminar are posted at http://www.crs.gov/products/multimedia/sem-020122.shtml.)

Areas of Agreement

Nature of Terrorism. An area on which the three speakers agreed was on the nature of terrorism, and the seriousness of the current threat to the United States. All of them saw it as a tactic used in many different contexts by people willing to inflict violence on military and civilian targets in order to obtain a variety of ends. In response to a question as to what was a terrorist organization, both Crenshaw and Hewitt thought it best to avoid labeling organizations as such, arguing that applying a "terrorist" label to acts, and not the actors, would facilitate clearer analysis and policymaking. Ahmad offered a definition: "deliberate targeting of civilians to create an atmosphere of terror with the intention of advancing one's particular cause."

Long-term Prospect of Violence. All also agreed that the United States may be dealing with international terrorism as a domestic problem for a very long time. "The United States is in a situation that is likely to last for generations," according to Probst. While others did not speculate on the time frame, there was general agreement that terrorism tends to become a long term, self-perpetuating problem, because it engenders a cycle of violence. Crenshaw pointed out that the problem in dealing with terrorism is, in many cases, "not just wiping out the terrorist network. It's [dealing with] a whole generation of usually young men who have been socialized into a certain culture of violence, and form a recruiting pool. You're not going to kill and arrest all those people, you can't. So in many cases the change that you anticipate, even with the best of policies and the best of circumstances, will be many years, twenty years, a generation down the pike..." She, as the others, cautioned that as long as the threat of terrorism exists, "even the highest degree of alertness and preparation is not going to prevent acts of terrorism taking place."

Unintended Consequences. Several speakers warned, in various contexts, that policymakers needed to think several steps ahead in formulating anti-terrorism policies, in order to avoid unintended consequences that could make a bad situation worse. Crenshaw pointed out two instances in Israeli policy where attempts to deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) were counterproductive, creating new and perhaps more dangerous adversaries and situations. According to Crenshaw, Israel attempted to deal with the PLO in the [late] 1980s by tolerating the emergence of Hamas as a rival to the PLO. Instead of creating a hoped-for "balance of power," this strategy "in the end may have created an enemy who was harder to deal with than the first enemy..." she said. Also [in 1978 and again in 1982], Israel sought to protect its northern borders from incursions by the PLO by invading Lebanon and occupying southern Lebanon. In 1982, "Israel succeeded in getting the PLO to withdraw and getting the PLO to go to Tunisia," she pointed out. "But of course in doing so they managed to create Hezballah."

Issues in Dealing with Terrorist Organizations

Attrition: Targeting Members and Leaders

In his review of his five country comparative study, Hewitt stated that the only policy tool that significantly reduced levels of terrorist violence was what he called a "model of attrition," i.e., the arrest, internment or killing of terrorists. "The more terrorists or suspected terrorists that you could arrest or kill, the lower level of violence was," he said. "It wasn't true for every country, but it was true for ... three of the five cases I looked at." He also added that the same held true in his more recent study of American terrorist groups. "There's a limited number of terrorists. If you could catch or kill enough of them, then the terrorism will fall off." According to Hewitt, such a policy requires good intelligence, obtained through good police work in surveillance, payoffs to informants, infiltration, and eliciting information from captured terrorists. The most success is had, he said, from intelligence gained from infiltration and information given by informants and turned or surrendered terrorists. Tactics of repression and mass searches are more likely to be counterproductive. "You need to be able to know who the terrorists are, so instead of searching a thousand houses...you go to one house, break down the door and grab the terrorist in there...You don't have to alienate a thousand households"

Hewitt also pointed to successes in countries which have used laws to facilitate gaining information from terrorists. He cited successes in Northern Ireland, gained from terrorists who surrendered and received amnesty and new identities in return for information, and in Italy, from terrorists who received reduced sentences.

Both Probst and Crenshaw concurred with Hewitt that good police work can be an effective means of dealing with terrorism. "Arrests and the rule of law do seem to be the most effective long-term way," according to Probst. Crenshaw also concurred that "you can, with good intelligence...wipe out a certain network, whether it's political or whether it's criminal." Crenshaw asserted that one could not arrest or kill all members of an organization, and raised the need to attempt to deal with the circumstances that spawned such organizations or networks. Unless you can do something about those circumstances, she argued, eliminating one adversary might only create another "that's stronger, more lethal, more committed, and has learned the lessons of its predecessors," creating a "very, very long run sort of problem."

Additional Drawbacks in Targeting Leaders. Crenshaw concurred that there were cases that demonstrated the utility of arresting leaders, but raised possible problems in the practice. She noted that the arrest in the 1990s of two top leaders - Abdullah Öcalan, head of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), in Turkey, and Aníbal Guzman, head of the Shining Path, in Peru, "did appear to have a very significant negative impact on those movements..." However, she also cited the Israeli experience with arrests and assassinations of leaders as a mixed one, and thought that it and other countries' experiences with such tactics deserved more study. "I'm not sure that we know which types of organizations are so dependent on a single leader that removing that leader really ends the organization and when it doesn't."

She pointed to a further problem that could ensue if jailing or killing the top leader did not put an end to the organization. "Sometimes what it does is deprive you of someone to negotiate with if in the long run you think you're going to have to negotiate with them." This, she pointed out, was a dilemma that the Algerian government faced in the 1990s, after it jailed the two top leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front, which was likely to win elections. When the government found it couldn't crush the group, however, it released the leaders in order to negotiate. It found, however, that they were no longer of any use because they had lost the trust of their former followers.

Weighing an Assassination Policy. Responding to a question on the issue of targeting leaders of terrorist organizations for assassination, Crenshaw listed common perceptions of the pros and cons of such a policy. She noted that she was leaving aside the moral issue of taking a life without due process. An advantage, she said, was that assassinations could be an efficient means to cripple an organization by removing the leadership or the people with key skills, and relatively more humane than using a massive military response in which many innocent people might be killed. She cited four disadvantages, however, which in her opinion outweighed the advantages.

Others picked up on the issues of the morality of an assassination policy, and its effectiveness. Probst asked why some consider it "morally acceptable to try to kill somebody by dropping a bomb from 30,000 feet, as opposed to a clean rifle shot....The chances for mistake or misstep, I think, are much greater when you engage in something like a bombing raid if you are trying to put a terrorist leader or terrorist planner out of commission." [In a later amplification, Probst stated that assassination can be a more humane tool than bombings or other acts of warfare, which are "indiscriminate and risk the killing of innocents," while an assassination carried out by a sniper "is relatively precise and sends a message." He added that "the primary aim of lethal operations is not 'retaliation' but, rather, to deprive a terrorist group of its leadership and brain trust, thereby, reducing the risk to innocent men, women and children who are the terrorist's prime targets. If, early in the game, we had been able to eliminate Osama bin Laden, Mohammed Atef, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, we probably would have been spared the tragedy of 9/11, and some 3,000 Americans would be alive today."] Probst also expressed concerns about the possible unintended consequences, and thought that policymakers need to "think through" secondary and tertiary consequences of an act. [Others commented on the morality issue in the discussion over assassination in the Middle East. See the second paragraph in the section below.]

Debate over Assassination in the Middle East. The application of these policies in the Middle East situation provoked some debate. Crenshaw stated that while in the United States consideration of an assassination policy has always assumed that the action would be pre-emptive, she thought Israel's assassination policy was retaliatory, designed to extract revenge. Retaliation, in her view, provokes counter-retaliation, currently in the form of the Palestinian suicide bombings. Although she said that Israel might judge that the advantages of such a policy outweighed the disadvantages, she had reservations. In her judgment, the Israelis had gotten "trapped in a need to respond," creating a vicious cycle from which it would be very difficult to escape. Ahmad, who supported Crenshaw's view that Hamas' actions are retaliatory, also stated that Hamas had offered to stop its suicide bombings if Israel would stop killings. [He later provided citations to support his view, as footnoted below. (1)] He argued that an assassination policy is problematic not because it is more or less moral than dropping a bomb or causing collateral damage, but because it is counterproductive. The problem, he said, "is that it invites a retaliation on the target of the person who authorized the assassination."

Gopin argued that the Hamas suicide bombings were not retaliation, and disputed the idea that Hamas had offered to stop its suicide bombings if Israel would stop its killings: "It was very clear from the beginning that they were training throughout the Oslo years for suicide bombing on a very concerted basis against civilians." He further argued that the Israelis regarded a policy of assassinating leaders as more humane than other possible tactics. "Believe it or not they see it as a kind of humanitarian lessening of the violence as opposed to tank shells, etc., in response to an attack against them."

Gopin also questioned whether assassinations can be an effective policy in circumstances where people are willing to die for their cause. "If so many people are committing suicide, in other words, they want to die, where is the preventive measure in terms of killing somebody?" He, as the others, concluded that an assassination policy, in Israel or elsewhere, can be counterproductive: "Arrest is humiliating, assassination exalted."

Dealing with Support Structures

Several of the discussants cited a need to control the sources of support for terrorist acts. As a corollary, some noted that such control would require the assistance of other nations.

Hewitt agreed that policies to cut off funding were helpful, but did not agree that such policies in themselves could curb terrorism. He attributed his reservations about the effectiveness of such policies to his belief that powerful terrorist groups get funding because they are powerful. He pointed out that his view is different from that of other analysts who believe that terrorists become powerful as a result of the funding, most notably James Adams, (2) and therefore view such policies as highly effective.

Crenshaw thought that it would be "very helpful" to cut off "not so much the long-term social support structures, the supply of recruits, but money, finances, arms." She warned, however, that "there's no magic bullet." She also noted the need for international cooperation in implementing cut-off policies: "The British had a lot of success [against the Irish Republican Army] once they secured the active cooperation of the Republic of Ireland in cutting off money and weapons....who discovered and destroyed arms caches which were often in the Irish Republic..." and also "through the help of other governments who intercepted arms shipments...." Similarly, she pointed out that Spain could not begin to deal with the Basque separatist group, the ETA, until France helped Spain control their common border.

Gopin stated that the current Middle East situation is exacerbated by outside powers and interests. He contended that [elements in] Iraq [and] Saudi Arabia, and some western charities are contributing money to the support structure for suicide bombings in Israel, raising difficult considerations for U.S. policy. (3)

The Difficulties of Negotiations

A discussion on the utility of negotiations underscored the extreme difficulties of bringing negotiations to a successful conclusion. Negotiations were undertaken in three of the five cases that Hewitt examined, and they broke down in all three. Hewitt offered several different hypotheses on why negotiations in these and other cases did not work. For one, he thought that in some cases the demands are "so thoroughly polar that there's no negotiation possible" because there is no way the parties can "split the difference." "What democratic government is going to allow a socialist revolution to take place?" he asked. "What democratic government is going to allow a section of its territory to leave its authority and form an independent state?" He also cited studies that indicate that some fighters may want to keep fighting because they don't know what else to do. (4) In addition, Hewitt stated that cease-fires are commonly used as a way to "re-equip and regroup" and to bring in new recruits, so that when the negotiations break down, conflict resumes at a higher level. Gopin agreed with this assessment: "Negotiations do, when they fail, create more terrorism."

Hewitt and Gopin both ventured that negotiations and unilateral responses to grievances would only work if undertaken before terrorist violence begins. "...Once you've got terrorism working, negotiations probably don't do much," according to Hewitt. For Gopin, the answer also lay in trying to address problems that are potential sources of violence before organizations develop terrorist structures: "It boils down to knowing the soup from which terrorism comes versus [knowing] the highly professionalized structures and terrorist cells that you might be examining. You want to cut it off before it gets to that point."

Dealing with Factions. The speakers were asked if the large number and divergence of groups, and factions within groups, in the Middle East will make it impossible to bring an end to conflict there through negotiations. Crenshaw pointed out that British dealings with the Irish Republican Army were just such a case, and the same was true in Germany where some of the groups gave up the armed struggle, but others emerged who were not under their control. She also pointed out that it was a common psychological misperception that "we're always prone to see these groups as monolithic when they're not monolithic at all."

Ahmad suggested that the differences among factions might be dealt with by understanding the value of each issue at stake to each of the groups involved. Outsiders, he said, have to distinguish between peripheral issues, which can vary from group to group, and core issues, upon which all parties to one side of the conflict agreed. In dealing with the core issues, outsiders have to judge which are widely considered legitimate. If negotiations are focused on those issues, they might not appease the terrorist groups, he argued, but may have an impact on the political dynamics of negotiations by appealing to many groups who support the terrorists. "If the demand is on a core issue that is unacceptable to us [the United States as an interested party] and illegitimate, then we have a problem and [U.S. support for] negotiation is not possible. But if the demand is for an issue that is quite legitimate, for example a demand that some state adhere to international law, then [by supporting that demand you will not satisfy all groups] ... but you will appeal to a whole bunch of groups who are siding against our position and may be engaged in what we consider terrorism." Thus, terrorists may be neutralized by undermining support for them in the broader society. This would apply to the current situation in the Middle East, Ahmad argued, stating that even if a position that urged Israel to henceforth abide by the Geneva Conventions [and pertinent U.N. resolutions] would not satisfy Al Qaeda, it still would satisfy many other groups.

Improving the Possibilities of Negotiations. Two suggestions were made for improving the possibilities of successfully concluding negotiations. Seidt stated that although negotiations may be difficult, the possibility of a successful negotiated outcome should not be written off completely, particularly in cases where the conflict is over territory. To increase the possibilities of success, he argued that negotiations should involve not only the two parties in conflict, but also a third party in the role of mediator or facilitator. Looking at the recent increase in violence and terrorism in Israel, for example, Seidt judged that the level of violence and terrorism in the Middle East was far lower as long as the United States was involved in the Middle East peace process, but that it rose when the United States disengaged. (5)

Gopin thought that peace processes "without simultaneous and steady steps to increase the rule of law" were doomed to failure. Simultaneous anti-corruption, education, and cultural measures should be undertaken to guarantees that a process "is moving towards co-existence." A peace process needs to "slowly and steadily isolate terrorism," he argued, "and not blindly give endless sums of money that end up being used to create a corrupt system that further feeds the terrorists."

Gopin also thought that terrorism strategies should be measured for their effects on both leadership and on the "soup" that feeds terrorism, i.e., the people who provide either active or tacit support for terrorists because of their sympathy with their cause. He thought it might be necessary to develop different policies to deal with each. He pointed out that the ability of leaders to negotiate will depend on how their followers judge the potential acceptability of a possible outcome, and that depends partly on their assessment of the current situation.

Utility of Reforms

Hewitt's most contentious findings were that reforms and accommodation did not lead to the cessation of terrorism. Hewitt contended that while many analysts view addressing the "root causes" of a conflict through political and economic reforms as essential in order to "dry up the water in which the fish swim," his study led him to doubt the utility of that approach. The study examined the relationship between levels of terrorism and political reforms, and between the levels of terrorism and several economic indicators, including unemployment, the standard of living, and inflation, and levels of terrorism. Regarding reforms, he found that even when most of terrorists grievances were addressed, the level of terrorism only decreased, it did not end. Hewitt noted that in two cases -- Spain and Northern Ireland -- fairly extensive reforms were made, without affecting the levels of violence. He also found that "improving economic conditions doesn't have any effect on the level of terrorism." In every one of the five cases he examined, Hewitt said that "if anything, there was actually more terrorism in the good months than there was in the bad months."

Obstacles to success. Hewitt's remarks led to an extended discussion on the possibilities of generalizing further from his findings in five cases with limited time frames, and on the motivations of individual terrorists and the sentiments of those who support terrorist organizations. One audience member questioned whether Hewitt's findings would hold true if he looked at the same cases over decades (the time frame of his studies ranged from four to 11 years), and if these findings would necessarily hold true in all cases. Hewitt conceded that they might not.

Other speakers and commentators, as well as Hewitt, offered several hypotheses as to why Hewitt's findings would be true, at least in some cases. Their explanations included judgments on the motivations of terrorists, their vested interests and tactical considerations, and the difficulties of governments in meeting their demands, and the timing of reforms, as discussed below. Gopin and Ahmad, however, both argued that in developing policies to control terrorism, it is necessary to distinguish between the effects of policies on the terrorists themselves, and the effects on their supporters. "The real question is the support group for them, and the ways in which those support groups destabilize or can destabilize efforts to stabilize countries such as Palestine or such as Pakistan. And that's where economic issues and psychological issues and gestures and cultural relations...would become operative," Gopin said

Vested Interests, Tactical Considerations, Difficult Demands. Probst, commenting on Hewitt's finding that terrorist activities spiked when reform was at its height, opined that perhaps the reason was that "terrorists felt most threatened by economic reform. The idea being that if the economy of the area improves, their recruiting pool will likely lessen or dry up. If you remove the core grievances, it's true you'll still have a core group of terrorists, but recruiting replacements might be much more difficult." Although Hewitt had not interviewed terrorists to assess their motivations, but only looked at empirical data, he also offered reasons related to motivations to explain why his data would accurately reflect the situation. Noting that he had found that periods of political and economic reforms were periods when violence spiked, he posited that terrorists might be making cold calculations that they could force the government to more concessions if they escalated the amount of violence. (6) He also speculated that sometimes reforms might not work because what was needed was beyond what the government could deliver.

Hewitt also suggested that it was difficult to separate out the impact of reforms and economic improvements because, despite improvements in economic conditions, the general situation might not be perceived as improving when "so many other things were going on" simultaneously. "Once you've got violence started, there's a whole dynamic of violence itself. One reason...for example, why economic reforms may not work is you're pumping money in, but the terrorists are blowing up buildings and factories...so it's sort of a vicious cycle. And there are also other factors...people being stopped on the streets and harassed and so on."

Timing. The timing of reforms might also be a factor. Ahmad, echoing Crenshaw's idea that there were points at which the cycle of violence excluded help, posited that reforms did not work because they were undertaken so late "when the cause was lost already." Hewitt stated that one reason that so many ethnic groups with territorial grievances did not turn to violence was that some governments made concessions to them in a timely fashion, before the situation reached one of violence.

Economic Motivations. Whether economic factors were among the motivations of people for joining organizations and undertaking terrorist acts, or for continuing to commit acts of terrorism, was also discussed. Hewitt said that he did not find much of a correlation between deprivation and the incidence of terrorism. As counter-evidence to the idea that poverty and economic deprivation motivates people to participate in terrorism, Hewitt noted that nationalist terrorists tend not to come from the most disadvantaged groups, but rather are a cross-section of their society, and that revolutionary terrorists tend to come from privileged classes. He pointed out the Basques came from a rich region, and that ethnic Basques within that region tend to be better off than the inhabitants who are not ethnic Basques.

Ahmad, however, indicated that just because terrorists did not come from the poorest groups in a society did not discredit the idea that economic deprivation contributes to terrorism. In his view, the economic motivation was not necessarily the amount of an individual's own income, but the perception of "theft" from a group with which one identifies, i.e., whether one group was being exploited or "raided" to give prosperity to another. He thought that when examining economic rationales, analysts should not think of them on an individualistic basis. Rather, he said, analysts should "look at a complex feeling of affiliation and sympathy for people and empathy people may have with one another." He drew a parallel between the situation of Germany after World War I, when the victorious allies required Germany to pay hefty reparations, which many see as an important factor in the rise of Hitler, and the economic deprivation in Iraq , which he believes resulted in the "creation" of Osama Bin Laden. Even though Osama Bin Laden "himself is quite wealthy, he is able to have credibility among the masses"of the Arab states, Ahmad argued, "because of the extreme dispossession and deprivation of the Iraqis."

Several of the speakers and the commentators suggested that the extent to which economic conditions motivate terrorists may differ from the extent to which they motivate terrorists' supporters. Gopin also distinguished between two types of suicide bombers. He thought the motivations were different for those suicide terrorists who are "highly organized and highly trained." and those who are driven to suicide for economic motives because of "a desperate situation or the desperation of the circumstances." With funding believed to be provided by outside sources to support the families of suicide bombers, for the later group, Gopin said, "it's basically like a life insurance policy....There are many people signing up simply because it's the best way in a bad situation for them to have a future for their family."

Potential for Long-term Change. Some speakers and audience members raised the possibility that terrorism may be addressed through long-term programs or circumstances that would change the social and psychological context which feeds terrorism. For some, taking a long-term perspective was crucial in developing and assessing options. Ahmad argued that the "scope of one's view", i.e., the time frame over which one conceptualizes a situation, can affect perceptions of a policy's effectiveness and outcome. "When you're looking at a longer term, things may look very, very different than they do when you look at the short term," he stated. Gopin wondered whether "counterterrorism academic research can become wider to examine things over the long term, not just in terms of what's going on with this terrorist cell, but what's going on in the larger culture that can be correlated positively or negatively with...the strength of terrorism." Two areas were mentioned where change might be encouraged: educational reform and cultural shifts attributable to changing perceptions (discussed below).

Educational Reforms. One member of the audience asked whether it might be productive for the United States to invest substantially in secularized educational institutions in developing countries. Crenshaw stated that she did not know of any precedent where the U.S. tried to change an educational system abroad so as to prevent the emergence of terrorism, but speculated that it would take some 20 years for effectiveness to show. There was some discussion as to whether there were other applicable precedents. The suggestion that the United States has changed the nature of Germany and Japan after World War II through educational systems drew some skepticism as a precedent because the United States was also engaged in extensive political reform in those countries. Others looked to domestic situations for possible precedents. Probst mentioned that education over time diminished the power of the Ku Klux Klan, "and made Martin Luther King a hero..." an example that Crenshaw and others thought a more valid precedent.

Gopin said that he thought "a counter-terrorism strategy without a legislative package that encourages new systems of education globally is going to fail." Hewitt said that one of the reasons that he tends to downplay economic factors is that one of the most significant factors he found in predicting the occurrence of terrorism was the character of the educational system. "I think what makes terrorists and what makes terrorist supporters...is the kind of socialization they have." He pointed out that there was a large difference in the degree of terrorism in Quebec and in Northern Ireland, which both have separatist movements within British cultures. He attributed the difference to deliberate nationalist indoctrination in Northern Ireland's schools, which was not present in the case of Quebec: "Education in the Catholic schools of Northern Ireland, the parochial schools which virtually every Catholic went to, was a kind of indoctrination in being an Irish nationalist" Comparing the writings of Northern Irish Catholic groups with those of Greek Cypriot groups, Hewitt found similarities in that both emphasized the role of education in promoting their cause.

Crenshaw raised concerns about the wisdom of placing too much emphasis on long-term policies, warning that short-term policies should not be slighted. "Obviously the seeds come both from within societies like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, as well as U.S. global presence as the world's only superpower after the end of the Cold War," she said. "Surely, we can work toward educational reform in these countries... But it's very difficult still to predict what will happen, to know in the long term what exactly is going to happen...."

Changing Perceptions. Hewitt cited the possibility of long term cultural shifts in perceptions, or reality, that can undermine the social and psychological support base for terrorism. He discussed changing perceptions in Northern Ireland as a example that might help clarify possibilities for Israel. He pointed out that the Irish Republic's 1937 constitution had claimed the territory of Northern Ireland, the only constitution that he knows of with a claim on the territory of another state. (7) That provision, he said, "scared the Protestants and encouraged the Catholics" in Northern Ireland, contributing to a culture which fomented terrorism. (He drew a parallel between that document and the founding documents or "constitution" of the PLO which he said called for the total destruction of Israel. (8)) With time, however, he said "Northern Irish Catholics have suddenly realized that Southern Ireland [i.e., the Irish Republic] is not that crazy to have them," and this realization is prompting a shift in perception that is contributing to a change in the pro-terrorism culture.

Gopin discussed the importance of what leaders in the Islamic world say on influencing perceptions. He pointed to recent statements by the Pakistan President as one indication of the type of change needed. "For example, [General Pevrez] Musharraf made a major speech in the last couple of weeks....[saying] our Islam is not going to be captured by extremism. He said we're going to have a jihad for economic stability, not a jihad against the United States. That [was] a hermeneutic development to the concept of Jihad within his culture, and in his religion that was revolutionary."

Debate over Respect for Civil Liberties

Hewitt noted that European actions against terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s were all carried out in the context of "severe anti-terrorist laws" granting extraordinary police powers. While he found it difficult to assess the effects of the laws themselves, he thought that whether they worked depended on whether they were implemented in such a way that they avoided means such as mass searches that would alienate the population. He pointed to the collection of good intelligence, as "the crucial factor" in effective implementation. "You need to be able to know who the terrorists are, so instead of searching a thousand houses...you go to one house, break down the door and grab the terrorist in there....you don't have to alienate a thousand households but you get the terrorist." Such intelligence was gathered through various means: surveillance, low-level cash payments, infiltration of terrorist groups (which, Hewitt said, can be relatively easy in some cases, impossibly difficult in others), and dealing with captured terrorists by promising reduced sentences (as in Italy) or giving amnesty and a new identity (as in Northern Ireland) in return for information on their comrades.

Crenshaw thought that one lesson to be learned from the experiences of European liberal democracies with domestic terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s was that despite policies "that clamped down pretty severely on terrorism...civil liberties did survive." She suggested that restrictions on civil liberties to protect citizens of well-established democracies against terrorism were not as "great a dilemma as perhaps some people have seen it in past years." "While some [measures] may have been arguable [and] some were criticized," the European democracies were resilient, she further indicated, surviving their encounters with terrorism "in a very robust sort of fashion."

Issues Regarding U.S. Policymaking

How Much Can the United States Control the Sources of Terrorism?

One theme that reoccurred throughout the seminar was the degree to which the United States can control the factors that promote international terrorism, particularly in the current situation in dealing with the multi-pronged threat of Islamist terrorism. Crenshaw emphasized the degree to which the situation was outside of U.S. control. "We can't force Egypt or Saudi Arabia to reform....and in many cases the results of what you do are so long-term and so contingent, that you will find it hard to persuade a government to take risks for policies when you say the pay-off may be twenty years from now," she argued. She also warned that the public should not be led to expect that there can be a perfect solution to the problem. "It's not to say one shouldn't be prepared," she said, "but it's very difficult to have the kind of security that the public could be led to expect."

Ahmad held that while there are actors in the Middle East that the United States can't control, there are situations there that the United States can control. He cited as "definitely under our control" three of Osama Bin Laden's objections to U.S. policy in the Middle East: sanctions against Iraq, the supply of arms to Israel, and the presence of American troops on Saudi soil. Regarding whether it is in the U.S. interest to continue supporting Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Ahmad said that George Washington had pointed out "that an entangling alliance with another foreign country is not in America's interest," and therefore it would be an affirmation of U.S. interests "to stop supporting an illegal occupation." Referring specifically to Israel, Ahmad made suggestions that, in his view, would help the United State assert control in the Middle East, i.e., "don't legitimize terrorism by engaging in it or sponsoring it yourself," and "don't provoke it [terrorism] by engaging in unjust policies against people who have no other resources than resistance."

Probst took issue with the idea that the United States should alter U.S. policy on these issues, however, arguing that to do so "would be simply to capitulate" American interests "wherever they might be challenged." Such a capitulation, he argued, would whet the terrorists' appetite." Probst stressed that there is no problem between the United States and Islam, but said that there is a "cultural war" between America and "a small but very well-funded band of extremists who, as some Muslims have said, have hijacked Islam." Although there are things which are out of U.S. control and must be recognized as such, Probst argued, "when we defend our interests candidly and well...we not only earn the respect of other countries who may be innately hostile to us, but we also create an atmosphere in which there is much less chance of misreading signals." "Misread signals lead to conflict, and conflict can often burgeon into war."

Grand Strategy and Improved Organization

The question of whether or not the United States needs a "grand strategy" towards terrorism was raised by Crenshaw, who nevertheless stated that she would "stand by my conclusion that it is very difficult to come up with a viable, grand strategy for dealing with terrorism." However, she also noted a "longing" for such a strategy. There are many difficult questions that she thought would need to be answered in order to formulate such a policy, most involving cost-benefit decisions necessary to shape such a strategy: How much tolerance of risk do we have as a society? Do we face one threat or many smaller threats? Would a grand strategy be too costly? What would be the cost to achieve certain levels of protection? Crenshaw pointed out that the United States tolerates a lot of risks that are not associated with terrorism, such as deaths on the roads and highways, and smoking. "Do we feel more keenly about terrorism that we're willing to pay more to defend against it," she asked, "because the grand strategy that we propose...might be extremely costly...."

Crenshaw noted that Germany, beginning in 1972, had organized its bureaucracy to effectively deal with terrorism. She doubted, however, that the United States government would be similarly capable of organizing an effective structure.

Seidt described the rationale for the German organization, and the three main elements of its strategy. He recounted that in the 1970s, when Germany found itself faced with a terrorism threat after the 1972 killing of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, the government decided it needed to start to deal with the problem at the strategic level, not the operational level. To confront the threat it faced from the Red Army faction in Germany and the Palestinian organizations with which it had relations, the German government adopted a strategy of attrition. That strategy included "good old solid police work" and operational thinking, but it also integrated traditional intelligence work, and sought to discern the "mind set" of the terrorists, i.e., the forces driving the terrorists and their sympathizers. One of the greatest problems in implementing the strategy, Seidt said, was the conflicting operational thinking of the different state agencies, of police work, and of intelligence work, and the question of who was to direct the comprehensive strategy. At the end "we ended rather at the top of the whole political system, namely in the Chancellor's office."

Crenshaw questioned whether the United States was appropriately organized to combat terrorism, and made two recommendations. One was that the State Department office of counterterrorism assume a more important role. The other was that implications for terrorism become an integral part of all foreign policymaking. "We can no longer compartmentalize terrorism and say it's separate from the rest of our foreign policy. It's not separate, it's never been separate, and it always has to be a part and parcel of overall formulation of foreign and defense policy."

Many participants seconded Crenshaw's suggestion that there be a constant flow of money to study and deal with terrorism. She noted that in the 30 years that she has been studying terrorism, money seems to follow a crisis and dry up when the crisis is perceived to have passed, undermining efforts to understand the phenomenon.

Feasibility of Infrastructure Protection

Probst urged greater funding for security, claiming that there are several security measures "that are recognized as being needed but are not implemented because they're judged to be too expensive, too inconvenient, or simply too hard. And then after the terrorists exploit that particularly vulnerability, and there are too many dead, we find the money and we embrace the inconvenience and we discover that in reality it wasn't too hard after all." He noted that he thought that the "next terrorist incident of major proportions is likely to involve weapons of mass destruction: biological, chemical, radiological, or maybe even nuclear." He looked at targets that he thought were natural targets for future terrorist actions, and thought they should be protected. Probst cited several statements by Osama Bin Laden that his target was the United States' economy, and then said that when he looked at the lack of protection around Wall Street, it made his "blood run cold."

Hewitt and Crenshaw argued that even the highest degree of preparedness is not going to prevent terrorist incidents from taking place. They pointed out that the list of potential targets is long, and cited several examples in other countries where terrorists turned to second level targets when the most obvious targets were well guarded. Crenshaw pointed out that U.S. policymakers will have to consider what risks they, and U.S. society as a whole, are willing to take, and how much they are willing to spend in order to guard potential targets, and believed they might conclude that such protection might be too expensive.

Suggestions for Further Study

Virtually all participants argued that there is a need for further study on the causes and conduct of terrorism. Several of the speakers noted an inconsistency in U.S. attention to and funding for counter-terrorism measures, with a tendency to peak during crises and fade afterwards. Seidt suggested from the German experience that it is necessary to be patient, be modest, put a slow and steady stream of money into it. Among the specific suggestions were the following.

Appendix A: Participants' Biographies

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad is President and Director of the Bethesda-based Minaret of Freedom Institute, a non-profit educational and policy research organization. The Institute's purposes are to counter distortions and misconceptions about Islamic beliefs and practices, demonstrate the Islamic origins of modern values, expose American and Islamic-world Muslims to free market thought, and advance the status of Muslim peoples. Dr. Ahmad is an Adjunct Professor teaching courses on religion and science, and on Islamic Science, Politics and Economics at the University of Maryland, and an Adjunct Professor at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, where he has taught courses on theories of social change and on Islam and development. He is also President of the Islamic-American Zakat Foundation, a charitable organization. He is the co-editor of Islam and the West: A Dialog (1998), and the author of Signs in the Heavens: A Muslim Astronomer's Perspective on Religion and Science (1992), and "Political Economy of Liberty in the Arab and Islamic Middle East," in the Middle East Policy Journal (Vol. 3, 1994). He graduated cum laude from Harvard University, and holds a Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics from the University of Arizona.

Martha Crenshaw is now the Colin and Nancy Campbell Professor in Global Issues and Democratic Thought at Wesleyan University, where she has taught international politics and foreign policy since 1974. She is one of the first U.S. scholars to publish on terrorism with a case study of the National Liberation Front in the Algerian war, Revolutionary Terrorism: The FLN in Algeria, 1954-1962 (1978). She has published numerous comparative and policy-relevant books and articles. Her books include Terrorism and International Cooperation (1989), and several edited works, among them Terrorism, Legitimacy, and Power: The Consequences of Political Violence (1983), and Terrorism in Context (1995). Her articles include Theories of Terrorism: Instrumental and Organizational Approaches in Inside Terrorist Organizations, edited by David C. Rapoport, New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. She serves as president of the International Society of Political Psychology, and is on the Executive Board of Women in International Security. She has a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia.

Marc Gopin is a consultant and researcher with a specialization in the relationship among culture, religion, and war and conflict, particularly as it pertains to the Middle East, and a trainer in conflict resolution. He is a Senior Associate with the Preventive Diplomacy Program at The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He is also a Visiting Associate Professor of International Diplomacy with the Fletcher School of Tufts University and a Senior Researcher in its Institute for Human Security. He has taught conflict resolution in several countries, and at several academic institutions, including the Conflict Transformation Program of Eastern Mennonite University and the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution of George Mason University. Dr. Gopin's has worked extensively on conflict resolution between Arabs and Jews, and in multi-faith cooperation on global problems. He is the author of Between Eden and Armageddon: The Future of World Religions, Violence, and Peacemaking (2000), and Holy War, Holy Peace: Religion's Role in Solving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (forthcoming 2002). He has a B.A. from Columbia University, rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University, and a Ph.D. from Brandeis University.

Christopher Hewitt is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he teaches courses on political violence. In his earliest published work on terrorism, The Effectiveness of Anti-Terrorist Policies (1984), first prepared for the State Department, he wrote on the policy applications of other countries' experiences. Since then, he has done extensive work on terrorism and political violence, including comparative articles such as Terrorism and Public Opinion: A Five Country Comparison (1990), and two books: Consequences of Political Violence (1993), and The Encyclopedia of Modern Separatist Movements (2000, with Tom Cheetham). Among his many articles and book chapters are "Separatism, Irridentism, and Terrorism: a Comparative Survey 1945-2000" in Countering Terrorism through International Cooperation (1991), "The Cost of Terrorism: A Six Country Study, " in Terrorism: An International Journal (Fall 1988), and "The Dog that Didn't Bark: FLQ Violence as an Issue in Canadian Politics,: in Conflict Quarterly (April 1990). His forthcoming book, Understanding American Terrorism: from the Klan to Al Qaeda, will be available this summer. He has a B.Sc. from the London School of Economics in Economics, and a Ph.D. in Sociology from Brown University.

Peter S. Probst served with the Central Intelligence Agency and the Office of the Secretary of Defense for most of his 30 year career. He recently left government to establish a private consultancy, and joined the Washington-based Institute for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence as its Vice-President and Director of Programs. His work at DOD primarily focused on the future terrorist threat and the development of strategies, tactics and policy initiatives to most effectively counter it. While at DOD, he co-authored a major study: Terror-2000: The Future Face of Terrorism. Recently, he participated in meetings with senior government officials held in Moscow in conjunction with a National Academy of Science symposium on how best to combat catastrophic terrorism. Before joining DOD, Mr. Probst served 20 years with the CIA in both the Directorate of Operations and the Directorate of Intelligence. During his later years there, he worked extensively in intelligence analysis and production, preparing reports and studies for use by senior government officials, including the President. He is currently a member of the International Research Group on Terrorism, sponsored jointly by the British Airey-Neave Trust and the U.S. Institute of Peace. He also served with the U.S. Air Force Intelligence Service, retiring with a reserve rank of Lt. Colonel. He holds a B.A. in history and a M.A. in anthropology/archaeology from Columbia University.

Hans-Ulrich Seidt joined the German Foreign Service in 1982. He has held assignments in Moscow, NATO Headquarters in Brussels, and the Bosnia Special Task Force. From 1994-1997, he was Lecturer for International Security Policy at the Internationales Studienkolleg der Robert Bosch Stiftung; from 1997-1998 he was a Senior Research Fellow at the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik. At the time of this seminar, he was assigned to the Embassy of Germany in Washington, D.C.


1. (back) Ahmad later provided two references for that statement: (1) On the Palestine Information Center website on Hamas, under the heading "About Hamas" and the subheading "Military Action in Hamas Program," the organization states: "Anxious to see no civilians on either side fall victim to the conflict, Hamas took several initiatives proposing that both sides stop targeting civilians and that they be excluded from the scope of conflict. However, the Zionists rejected these initiatives and by doing so they showed their terrorist nature...." http://www.palestine-info.co.uk/hamas/index.htm.)

(2) On the Palestinian News website, in an article of November 1999 (Issue 101), entitled Hamas: "We Won't Attack Israeli Civilians if Israel Stops Attacking Palestinians," Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, described as "Hamas' founder and spiritual leader," is cited as, within the context of a series of interviews with Israeli and Arab media going "so far as to propose an open-ended moratorium on attacking Israeli and Palestinian civilian by both sides. 'The Ezzul Deen al-Qassam [a military wing of Hamas] fighters are aware that Islam is against targeting civilians who are non-combatants.' He suggested that attacks by Hamas' military wing on Israeli civilians were mostly a reaction to bloody Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians, including the murder of 29 worshipers by an Israeli settler in February of 1994. Yassin even reiterated an earlier proposal by the Movement's military wing, proposing a freeze of armed attacks against Israelis, including settlers, in return for a freeze on all settlement activity."

2. (back)James Adams, The Financing of Terror: Behind the PLO, IRA, Red Brigades and M-19 Stand the Paymasters: How the Groups that are Terrorizing the World Get the Money To Do It. The American edition publication information: New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986.

3. (back)Although before the date of this seminar Saudi Arabia was viewed as uncooperative in blocking such funds, after the date of this seminar, some U.S. officials stated that the Saudis were increasingly cooperating with the United States on controlling funding to groups in the Al Qaeda network (see Saudis Crack Down on Charity Linked to Al Qaeda Network, The Washington Post, March 12, 2002, p. 11). However, still later reports indicated that officials thought that further progress was needed on controlling funding to terrorist groups (see Bush Looks to Mend Arab World Fences, The Baltimore Sun, April 25, 2002, p. 14A).

4. (back) Robert P. Clark. Negotiating with ETA: Obstacles to Peace in the Basque Country, 1975-1988. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1990.

5. (back) Although no one at the seminar countered Seidt's statements, not all analysts have agreed that the level of violence is related to U.S. participation, as reflected by debate within the Bush Administration on this issue.

6. (back) He cited one book, To Take Arms: A Year in the Provisional IRA by Maria McGuire, (London: Macmillan, 1973) which makes reference to such calculations by the IRA.

7. (back) This claim was removed in the constitutional amendment which took effect on December 2, 1999.

8. (back) As adopted by the Palestine National Council in 1968, the PLO Covenant stated in Article XV that "The liberation of Palestine...aims at the elimination of Zionism in Palestine..." This article, which is widely interpreted as denying Israel's right to exist, was deleted as part of the subsequent Oslo peace process.

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