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Fast, Cheap and Out of Control

by James Dunnigan

Terrorism has gone freelance, and that makes it harder to deal with. Many more terrorists, largely amateurs, are out there. They are volunteers, and on no one's payroll. They follow their own inner voices, taking few, if any, orders from anyone. The new terrorists are, in effect, fast, cheap and out of control. They are the decentralized terrorists.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the disappearance of bases and sanctuary in Eastern Europe, terrorists have had a hard time finding a safe place from which to operate. This has turned out to be an advantage. In the past, most terrorists were organized, with bases, leadership, training camps and central planning. Some of that still exists, with Osama Bin Laden and Iran being the most prominent examples. But even Bin Laden and the Iranians have found it more prudent, and efficient, to simply provide money, technical support and inspiration for any Islamic radicals willing, and seemingly able, to have a go at it. This is decentralized terrorism, a much more diverse and elusive foe for anti-terrorist efforts.

Algerian Ahmed Ressam recently was convicted for trying to carry out bombings in the United States - during the 2000 New Year's celebration. Crossing the border from Canada with bomb-making material, Ressam was arrested by an alert customs official. Subsequent investigation linked him with other Algerian radicals and members of the Osama Bin Laden organization. While the older generation of terrorists, trained in Russia, took legitimate jobs and lived quietly while planning operations, the new breed, like Ressam, often engage in criminal activity to sustain themselves and pay for their terrorist activities. Operating with criminals provides access to weapons and bomb-making supplies, as well as more experience in dealing with the police and anti-terrorism efforts.

The gangster terrorist also has an easier time operating in the United States. America has always been difficult for the traditional terrorist, for immigrants are less likely to provide cover and support for terrorists in America than in other parts of the world. This is because they find more acceptance in America, creating immigrant groups with fewer grudges against the government and more inclination to report terrorists, or at least refuse to provide cover and support. In Europe, and most other parts of the world, foreigners have a harder time of it, assimilate less and are more likely to assist, or at least not betray, terrorists.

But terrorists operating among criminals have excellent cover for their operations. Most criminals are not terrorists, so an Arab or Sudanese trying to buy weapons among gangsters will be seen as someone plotting a crime, not carrying out a terrorist attack. Moreover, it is considered bad manners among criminals to ask another crook what he is up to. You never know who might be a police informer. Terrorists also know that criminals are less likely to go to the police, as this might expose the potential informer's criminal activities. The FBI and local police have been more successful getting tips about terrorist activity from immigrant communities than they have from the criminal underground.

Terrorist organizations like the Bin Laden group and the Iranians keep in touch with terrorists, and potential terrorists, through Islamic political and charitable organizations overseas. These outfits do carry out legitimate charitable work. They collect money and goods for needy folks back in the old country. But since these are largely volunteer organizations, it's easy for a Bin Laden or Iranian agent to join up and keep an eye on things and seek out potential recruits. This is not too difficult, as radical Islam is always popular with some (usually young men) in Islamic communities. If a terrorist recruiter approaches one of these dedicated lads, he feels quite flattered, and often is eager to be recruited.

But the quality of such recruits often is quite low. Carrying out training in the United States or Western Europe can be dangerous (a local Moslem can figure out what's going on and tip off the cops). Often, the recruits are given money to "make a visit home," where they are in turn spirited off to a terrorist training camp in Iran or Afghanistan. This has become increasingly dangerous as American surveillance (satellites, electronic, bribes to passport control officials in Moslem nations and so on) spots these trips and marks the new recruit as someone to be watched when he comes back to America or Western Europe.

As a result, terrorist operations increasingly are carried out with poorly trained people. Bin Laden or the Iranians often will send in technical experts to help out with the complicated stuff. These guys are pros and have received training on how to keep a low profile. But the heat is on in places like the United States, so "how to" manuals, CDs and electronic files (via email) are sent instead. These items usually turn up when a suspect's home is searched.

The problem is that with all these amateur terrorists running around, you have a hard time keeping an eye on them. The FBI and CIA have increased their anti-terrorism efforts in the last decade, but the increased popularity of the fast, cheap and out of control terrorists is taxing government resources. You can only keep under observation those suspects who seem most likely to be planning something.

That approach risks missing the activities of a group that is about to do something. So far, police pressure has kept terrorism in North America at bay. But the terrorists have simply moved to foreign nations with weak (or sympathetic) police and a few American targets. The FBI has a hard time operating overseas, and the CIA is trying to beef up its offshore manpower. But with Arab refugees (from Palestine, Lebanon and Afghanistan in particular) all over the world, the fast, cheap and out of control form of terrorism will continue to have an edge.


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