The terrorist strategy: to deny the West the battlefield of its choosing


The open way of life in Western democracies is the perfect cover for the modern terrorist, writes Tom Clonan

The current war on international terrorism is a classic example of what is termed an asymmetrical conflict. It has also provoked a classic response on the part of the terrorist.

The US and its allies have employed the full range of economic and technological assets available to the West in order to crush a numerically and technologically inferior foe. Spy satellites and enhanced imagery intelligence have enabled the West to target al-Qaeda training areas and camps deep in the desert and mountains of Afghanistan. Sophisticated fast jet aircraft, target acquisition systems and so-called smart munitions are then employed to neutralise pockets of isolated resistance.

On the other hand, Taliban and al-Qaeda forces must resort to mules, pack horses and the ubiquitous Kalashnikov in order to prosecute their war aims. In this scenario, the terrorist must make the enemy's advantage his disadvantage. In other words, the economic and technological systems that so empower the West have become the primary target of the terrorist.

In order to strike at this underbelly - that which sustains US and EU military supremacy - the terrorist has made maximum use of certain characteristics of Western culture and society. In short, the anonymity and relative freedom of movement accorded Westerners in the gesellschaft of our large cities has become the perfect cover for the 21st-century terrorist.

In this manner, the terrorist is bringing the conflict straight to the enemy or Great Satan of the West. As a result, many major American and European cities have become way stations and transit points for al-Qaeda operatives. Once in situ, such terrorists, mingling with the host population, may assemble, deliver and disperse weapons of terror according to their own timetable.

These operatives will have learned from classic terrorist set-pieces such as Canary Wharf, where the target was infrastructural and related to the commercial and economic viability of the state.

In order to inflict the maximum physical and psychological damage in this way, nuclear, biological and chemical agents are the weapons of choice for the terrorist. Their use or threatened use would likely cause more havoc and damage than any Twin Towers-style attack.

The radioactive "dirty bomb" highlighted recently by the arrest and detention of an al-Qaeda suspect in the US is a perfect example of a highly effective low-tech threat to a Western target.

Delivering a conventional explosive device surrounded by medical and industrial-grade radioactive material to the heart of a city would not pose a major logistical problem for the terrorist.

The concept of such an attack forces the target population to raise their threat assessment. In such an environment, for example, all bomb threats, real or otherwise, and even suspicious packages would have to be treated as potential doomsday scenarios by the authorities.

The siege mentality thus created demonstrates the very essence of terrorism.

Putting it bluntly, the mere suggestion of such an attack and the reaction it provokes is a form of constant subliminal terrorism. It affects the psyche of the ordinary citizen in the street and creates an extraordinary strain on the administrative and security budgets of urban centres.

As alternative weapons of mass destruction, for the terrorist, chemical and biological agents rank as attractive and viable options.

Such weapons, while relatively easy to obtain and deliver to an urban centre, are difficult to disperse. For this reason they would most likely be deployed in enclosed areas such as underground public transport systems or in the air-conditioning systems of high-rise buildings.

Despite such dispersal problems however, low-tech solutions can be found. For example, the Aum Shinri Kyo members who spread the nerve gas, sarin, in the Tokyo subway in 1995 did so by transporting the gas in lunch-boxes, which they then punctured with umbrellas in the carriages. Such a low-tech approach, despite its inherent limitations and danger to the user, has a huge psychological impact on the target population.

For cost-efficiency however, and for ease of delivery and dispersal, the ultimate low-tech weapon for the urban terrorist would be the use of biological agents.

Consisting of viral and bacterial agents, the biological arsenal contains threats such as small pox, yellow fever, cholera, plague and anthrax. In all of these cases the agents would be delivered to the target area by human courier and dispersed through the water supply or food chain.

To this end, the terrorist would target state assets such as reservoirs and sites for the mass distribution of food products. In selecting such a target, the terrorist will aim for maximum symbolic and psychological effect. Hence, vectors considered sensitive such as baby food or medicines might be targeted.

The strategy adopted by the al-Qaeda network to date has been to deny the West the battlefield of its choosing. In this new war on terrorism, the US and its allies have been forced to quit the conventional battlefield, which favours the massed concentration of high-tech military hardware.

The battlefield has now become the streets and workplaces of major cities and, more importantly, the hearts and minds of citizens far from the front.

When the terrorist exploits fear of the unknown, panic and paranoia in the civilian population, the only remedy lies in education, public awareness campaigns and vigilance. As information is power, it may be the case that this approach is the best way in which to conquer the current threat to our economic and psychological well-being.

Tom Clonan is a retired Army captain. He lectures in public relations in the School of Media of the Dublin Institute of Technology