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Old Jun 23, 04, 7:52 am   #1
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Comparison of Terrorist Groups

(Mods -- Please move to OMNI if that's a better place for this topic )

I was thinking this morning during my run about the famous terrorist groups in the 1970s-80s and trying to compare them to the Al Qaida of today. Some names that popped into my head were: the SLA, Red Army Faction, Bader-Meinhoff, Black September, and the Weather Underground. I suppose you could even throw the IRA into the mix. I thought about similarities and differences and why none of the 1970s groups are around anymore. Then, I ran out of time (only an hour run this AM!) before I could draw any conclusions about whether or not we could learn from the "War on Terror" back then and apply those lessons to today. This is hardly a completely thought-out notion, but I'll try to briefly elaborate.

Similar or identical characteristics:

1. Both eras had groups organized and operating within the US, including US citizens among their members;
2. All of the groups committed terrorist acts against the US domestically and abroad;
3. The groups were well-hidden within the society and culture that existed during their particular eras;
4. Each group had political causes they thought could only be adopted through terrorist attacks;
5. The groups were externally funded and covertly supported by legitimate nations;
6. Both eras had groups with well-organized leadership.

Possible differences --

1. Threat of WMD use didn't really exist in the 1970s-80s, except for the threat of a Soviet-US nuclear exchange;
2. A lot of anti-US & West stuff happened politically and non-violently through the Cold War, perhaps reducing the need for lots of transnational terrorist groups;
3. Al Qaida has access to much more funding (But, if you were to compare them to the previous groups using then-year dollars, is this really true?);
4. Oil is a central theme;
5. Religion is a central theme;
6. Al Qaida is bigger and in more places (or is this really true if you aggregate all of the previous groups?)
7. Today's groups have thoroughly studied the previous groups, learned pertinent lessons, and have taken the art of terrorism war to the next level.

Somehow, all of the 1970s & 80s groups are either dead, in jail, disbanded, or at least dormant. All of this managed to happen without the Patriot Act, without the DHS & TSA, without overthrowing dictators by overt military action, and generally within the bounds of the Law of Armed Conflict. Are we trying to reinvent the wheel?

Does all this make for interesting conversation, or was there more blood in my legs than in my brain this morning?
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Old Jun 23, 04, 9:10 am   #2
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Great topic; lots of tangents

Obviously, this can turn into a very lengthy discussion. Interesting that you should mention Bader-Meinhof because that was my personal introduction to terrorism at a young age when I was an Army brat and my dad was stationed in Germany. It is the primary reason I joined the Army and entered a very specialized field. It is also the reason I joined TSA when I retired from the Army.

The terror groups of the 1970's can be broadly placed in three categories (yes, I know I'm opening myself up to sharp-shooting here):

Soviet sponsored terror groups. Many people in today's post Cold War world deny the depth and extent of the secret wars between the US and USSR. So there are those who are going to reject this at face value. However, this doesn't take away from the fact that the KGB funded, trained, equiped and in some instances directed terrorist actions aimed at undermining the US and its allies, forwarding the Soviet agenda disguised as socialism, or to overthrow weak governments and pave the way for Soviet intervention. Am I saying that the Soviets controlled every aspect of these terror groups? Not at all. In some cases, the Soviets merely provided funding and support as long as the goals were mutually beneficial. In others, the Soviets provided intelligence support, military advisors and more or less pointed these groups in certain directions. In other cases, the Soviets pretty much controlled these groups. It was an elaborate effort, and the Soviets had the capability and motivation to conduct this effort. The more the effort was directed specifically against Americans, the more layers of plausible deniability the Soviets shrouded themselves to avoid a direct US-USSR confrontation. Contradictory as this may sound, there was a safety valve in place with the threat of immediate global thermonuclear warfare looming over both superpowers. To say that the US didn't use the PATRIOT act or military intervention is misleading because that is ignoring the effects of the Church Commission which severely limited the CIA and FBI as a result of this clandestine war between the two superpowers. This effort spilled over into the domestic arena and the Constitutional rights of a great number of Americans were being violated for the sake of battling Communism. As for US military intervention, there have always been, and will always be, clandestine and covert operations.

State (other than the USSR) sponsored terror groups. This is really part of the genesis of the type of terrorism we face today. For the most part (and, yes, I know I am skimming over a broad range and leaving out a bunch of groups), this is where groups like Abu Nidal, PLO, PFLP, Black September and other covertly state sponsored groups come from. Their fight was limited to regions and primarily focused on Israel. Black September's reach into the international arena during the Munich Olympics was a first (and, yes, I was there, too). Americans victimized by these groups were essentially victims by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. It wasn't until the take-over of the US embassy in Teheran in November 1979 that the Muslim fanatics discovered it could take on the US with relatively little consequence. This is not meant as a political shot against Jimmy Carter, although he is largely responsible for mishandling this incident. It is also a reflection of our society and culture. We simply weren't prepared for this type of warfare. Indeed, we didn't even see it as warfare and had a tendency to look at it as violence and politics caught up in a vortex. The irony is that we were really masters at fighting the secret warfare sponsored by the Soviets yet were completely ignorant of this type of state-sponsored terrorism. Again, not trying to be political, but it wasn't until the Reagan administration that we really tried to fight this brand of terrorism, and in some cases we were quite successful. The attacks on Libya taught countries like Syria, Iraq and Iran that they were dealing with a determined foe who wouldn't hesitate to strike. The flaw in our policy was waiting for enough evidence before striking. I say flaw because it still reflected a court room mentality rather than battlefield approach. All of that unravelled in the mess that became known as Iran-Contra. It wasn't until September 11th that we finally abandoned the idea of treating terrorism as a crime and began to look at it for what it really is: wafare. Ironically, the number of states who sponsor terrorism dropped significantly. In my humble view, Iran, North Korea and Syria continue to sponsor international terrorism. Afghanistan and Iraq were put out of business.

Non-state sponsored terror groups. These groups have always existed throughout time. They owe no allegiance to any political group or government. Any associations with a government is simply a matter of convenience and mutual benefit. They were trivial and insignificant during the 70's due to the Cold War, and in the 80's due to the greater agenda driven by the powerhouses of terror in Iran, Libya, Syria and Iraq. They have emerged as the greatest terror threat today and most difficult to defeat. They are the private entrepreneurs of terrorism and use governments as conduits rather than sponsors. This is how the Taliban got caught up in the war on terror, not so much by sponsoring al Qai'da, but by allowing it to exist. With state-sponsored terror groups, the solution was simple: attack the government that sponsors them and the terror will stop. This worked to a certain extent but was inhibited by mainly political considerations at home. We see it today when the US is accused of fighting Israel's war. It's not so easy to do so against these non-state sponsored groups. For example, it's often pointed out that the majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi. True, however, this doesn't mean that the Saudi government sponsored the 9/11 attacks. It does mean that the Saudi government allowed a faction of radical fanaticism to exist which resulted in some of its members conducting these acts, and this is something the Saudis are trying to correct. But it's not as easy as pointing fingers at the Saudi government and blaming it for 9/11. The Taliban, on the other hand, was given a chance to cooperate and it refused. It paid the price by being overthrown and replaced by another form of government.

The difficult part about fighting this current brand of terrorism can be explained by addressing how the first two types basically went away. With the fall of the Soviet Union came the collapse of the support structure for many of these groups. That's an easy, if not oversimplified, explanation, but that's essentially what happened. Not all of these groups disappeared, and some were able to find other sponsors. As for state-sponsored terrorism, I believe that once the US showed its determination to strike back at countries like Libya and Iraq, those nations who support terror groups have by and large backed off or otherwise limited their involvement with these groups. Again, Syria, Iran and North Korea are exceptions to the rule. We have no real solution for the current group, but chasing them down no matter where they hide is certainly a step in the right direction.

I think these groups will eventually hinder themselves. In Iraq, for example, these groups can enjoy some support from the population as long as they kill American soldiers and marines because the US is seen as an occupational force. However, they are killing more and more Iraqis, and will soon have no choice but to go against the new Iraqi government itself. This may backfire and result in less popular support and more cooperation by the local population in helping to catch these terrorists. Beheading the South Korean is more likely to draw more international efforts to combat these groups than if they had just limited it to murdering Americans. This is what happens when a group such as this has no government sponsor that can see the bigger picture and think in terms of long-range goals. It is also why we were able to counter the Soviets, and to some degree, the Iranians, Libyans, Syrians, Saddam's Iraq and the North Koreans.

Interesting topic. I could go on and on, but have to draw the cut-line somewhere.

Last edited by Bart; Jun 23, 04 at 9:17 am
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