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January 6, 2004

Thoughts on Terrorist Targets


by Jon Basil Utley

As a longtime writer, who observed four revolutions and lived with terrorism in several Latin American nations, herewith a few observations.

Despite all the warnings for us to fear indiscriminate killing from Al-Qaeda, thinking about their past targets is the way to understand them. All have been against U.S. military or government, e.g. the embassies, U.S. war ships, or major economic targets, e.g. the World Trade Center. Know your enemy and its strengths and objectives is the first rule for fighting effectively. We need to separate out our propaganda (that they are senseless killers) in order properly to analyze their objectives. Al-Qaeda's great strength is its dedication and the number of volunteers willing to do suicide missions, its growing numbers worldwide (not just among Arabs), and its decentralization.

Al-Qaeda is not the wicked witch which just wants to kill Americans because we are good, as our president tells us. Rather, it is an extremely intelligent, ruthless and fanatic organization with a sole objective, to get America and Americans out of the Muslim world and, secondly, out of Europe and Asia. Simply killing Americans is not their objective. What they want is to inflict real cost and pain upon us first economically and then, if possible, with nukes or bio/chem weaponry to make us pay a cost for our foreign interventions. Secondly they want to make America the enemy of the whole Muslim world (a program in which they are abetted by many American fanatics also) or better of the whole 3rd world.

This analysis brings the following conclusions –

1) Al-Qaeda won't repeat past actions. Planes now have fortified cabins and security search, but mainly pilots no longer have orders to do anything hijackers tell them, which was the old policy. Now they will fight back and passengers too will fight figuring they'll be killed anyway if their plane is hijacked. Suicide terrorism has changed government orders and policies from old days.

2) The greatest threat to airliners is from shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles. There were reportedly thousands, and certainly there are hundreds in Iraq. These were under tight control when Saddam ruled. After the war they were robbed and sold on the black market and are now widely distributed.

a) Bush's policy of declaring all terrorists as equal enemies of U.S. also has the effect of pushing them all to ally against us. Colombian terrorists have reason to ally with Arab ones (to get U.S. military out of Colombia) and Colombians have the channels to smuggle anything into the U.S. Successful smuggling is usually based upon bribes and blackmail of border and customs guards. It usually works – witness the ever ongoing drug smuggling.

b) Shooting down several civilian airliners would devastate flying and severely damage the U.S. economy, a main Al-Qaeda objective.

c) However, a large airliner can probably survive a single missile hit. The missiles carry small explosives and planes can fly on one engine. Judging from Al-Qaeda's past actions, they would wait until they had quite a number of missiles in place and try to knock down several planes at one time.

d) Real targets in America for suicide bombers to do the most economic or psychological damage are tunnels, ports, communications, and such. They would love to make highway travel as much of a pain as airline travel. Why waste a suicide-willing terrorist on a plane when he could take out a key tunnel with a car bomb? Just the threat would have Americans lined up for dozens of miles at every tunnel.

3) Another great threat is stolen Russian (and other nations') nuke materials, (even our own are not fully accounted for), e.g. enriched uranium for a dirty bomb or even a real nuke. Here, too, the program of U.S. aid to collect such material has fallen behind because of concentration on the Iraq war. Also, since the neo-conservative takeover of American foreign policy, many foreigners really hate America, or rather, American policies, so we have many more enemies who might look the other way or accept bribes from terrorists, thus allowing them to get nukes or nuclear material.

4) Easier to hit are American targets and American civilians overseas. Already the U.S. Navy fears to allow shore leave in nations with substantial Muslim populations. American business interests and American citizens overseas are now warned by our own State Department that they have become potential targets.

5) Logic is for Al-Qaeda to play it cool and attack in a new way to frighten us and throw us off guard and to try to disrupt and even bankrupt America with unending threats. Think about an earlier threat from a captured prisoner to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge, taken seriously in media and by police. We were as dumb as the proverbial country hick who was offered to buy the bridge, from which story the threat was taken. How can a few explosives blow up the bridge? The real target of any suicide bomber would surely be the New York tunnels, not bridges.

What Washington Should Do

1) Washington must spend money on civil defense instead of mainly for offensive weapons, e.g. F-22s, nuclear submarines, foreign armies and such. For example, commercial planes should be fitted with anti-missile systems. Washington is working glacially on this matter. It should be a priority, but military budget making is dominated by lobbyists for offensive weaponry. There is not much lobby for defensive weapons.

New York City is still woefully under-funded for civil defense, e.g. reports indicate that firemen and police can still not communicate easily in the field. Instead civil defense money is squandered on small town America, giving them exotic technology and money instead of focusing money on vital economic targets.

2) Work all out to get control or help Russians control stealable nuke materials and bombs. This effort was recently let slide because of concentration on attacking and occupying Iraq.

3) Work with other nations to control 3rd world rogue powers and threats. The Administration is now returning to this policy. America cannot do this by going it alone and antagonizing the rest of the world with our arrogance and self-righteousness. We must work with the major world powers to control this great threat. We do not gain in this by antagonizing them.

4) Work seriously for peace between Palestine and Israel. This is the thorn in the whole world's back. Peace means compromise and fairness for both sides. The issue is increasing being recognized as such. A recent International Herald Tribune article analyzes the forces which are creating the chaos which is the real enemy of most of the world and the greatest threat to American interests.

5) Stop terrifying all Americans with general alerts. Ivan Eland explains how Israel and England do it. Widespread Washington alerts are just helping terrorists spread fear and respond to increased radio chatter. When they hit it will be when we are unprepared anyway.

For an excellent overview of the general terrorist situation see this Christian Science Monitor analysis – so much for the War Party's claim that capturing Saddam has made us safer from terrorism. Go here for links to reports about how Al-Qaeda is achieving its objectives.


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  • Jon Basil Utley is associate publisher of The American Conservative and Robert A. Taft Fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. A former correspondent for Knight Ridder in South America, Utley has written for the Harvard Business Review on foreign nationalism and was for 17 years a commentator on the Voice of America. He is director of Americans Against World Empire.

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