INTER-AMERICAN COMMITTEE AGAINST TERRORISM (CICTE)
Remarks by Ambassador Michael A. Sheehan
U.S. Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism
To the Inter-American Committee on Terrorism
Annual Meeting, Miami, Florida, October 28, 1999
Mr. Secretary General, distinguished delegates:
Thank you for being here for this historic First Regular Session of CICTE, and for giving me the opportunity of chairing this important meeting.
In my remarks this morning, I hope to
First, the most recent trends in international terrorism.
In this business, it is easy to become overly pessimistic, and it is important always to plan with the worst case scenario in mind. However, there is actually quite a bit of good news to tell on the subject of international terrorism, and it is useful to review our successes periodically -- to learn lessons and to underscore that we have prevailed in the past and will do so again, even as terrorists adapt their methods to our countermeasures.
Let me start with a bit of background on terrorism. The modem era of counterterrorism burst into the international consciousness on Sept 5, 1972 -- ten days into the two-week Olympics in Munich, Germany -- when eight members of the Black September group took over a dormitory housing the Israeli Olympic team. The terrorists shot two team members during the assault, and nine others were killed during a botched rescue attempt at the airport where the hostages and terrorists were waiting to board an escape plane.
We in this hemisphere sometimes see ourselves as isolated and far removed from developments that occur on the other side of the Atlantic. I'm sure that many of us at one time believed that terrorism was something that happened in the Middle East or in European capitals. The horror of the Munich massacre, so the thinking went, could never happen here.
That false view of the threat of international terrorism was shattered for citizens in my country by the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. And all of South America and most of the world shared a sense of shock following the two deadly bombings in Buenos Aires, in 1992 and 1994. These bombings proved that well organized terrorist cells can plan, finance, and execute major attacks far from their base of operations.
In fact international terrorism actually originated in our hemisphere. We date the advent of modem terrorism from 1968, four years before Munich, when revolutionary movements began forming throughout the Americas. The following year, in 1969, the first terrorist kidnapping of an American ambassador took place when Ambassador Burke Elbrick was taken hostage in Brazil by members of two revolutionary groups.
In those early years of the still-new phenomenon, Latin America saw more international terrorist attacks than any other region. Following Munich and the rise of terrorist organizations in Europe, it was that region of the world that saw more attacks than any other.
Sadly, in the years that have passed since then, people in every other region of the world would come to the realization that they, too, were not invulnerable to the threat of terrorism. No region, no country, no individual is immune from the threat.
The 70s and 80s were what some experts call the "era of terrorism" -- and indeed both decades were marked by numerous airline hijackings, kidnappings, hostage situations, and ruthless bombings of civilian targets such as the international airports in Rome, Vienna, and Athens. As we look back on these decades, we remember our own American tragedies, including the American diplomats who spent over a year held hostage in our embassy in Tehran beginning in 1979, the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, and the downing of Pan Am 103 in Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. Many of you have your own national stories about how terrorism has impacted your own countries and citizens, at home and elsewhere.
The primary motivation of terrorists in the 70s and 80s was political. We fought leftist groups, separatists, and other politically motivated actors. Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia were swarming with groups fighting for changes in existing political structures, borders, and leadership. Just think of some of the groups, many of which are no longer in the terrorism business: the PLO, Italian Red Brigades, Japanese Red Army. Two other prominent organizations, the IRA and the Turkey-based PKK, have recently renounced terrorism and begun cease-fires.
Another common feature of these decades was the prominent role that states played in supporting terrorist activities. Some state sponsors routinely used terror as an instrument of state policy to attack their opponents, both foreign and domestic.
Today, state sponsorship is much weaker relative to the 70s and 80s. The decline of state-sponsored terrorism was no accident. After some years of hesitation, the international community got together and mustered the resolve to respond - and hijackings and political hostage-taking has been reduced dramatically. State sponsors realized that they could no longer blatantly support terrorist groups, plan terrorist attacks, and harbor criminals with impunity. The best example is Libya.
In the mid-80s Libya directly or indirectly supported some of the most violent and deadly organizations, including the notorious Abu Nidal Organization which ran terrorist training camps on Libyan soil. That is changing. On April 5th of this year, Libya turned over two individuals who will be tried for the Pan Am 103 bombing in Lockerbie, Scotland that claimed 270 lives. The arrest of the individuals comes eleven years after that December 1988 bombing.
Unfortunately state sponsorship has not been fully eliminated. The USG still maintains seven state sponsors on its list of terrorist-sponsoring states, and unfortunately we have no intention of altering this list any time soon.
But as state sponsored terrorism has declined, we face a somewhat different challenge today. And the report card on our recent efforts to fight terrorism is mixed. According to our annual report on international terrorism, which by the way can be found on our Internet web page, the total number of international terrorist incidents dropped in 1998. However, while incidents are becoming less frequent, the number of casualties is increasing. Much of this increase, however, is due to the tragic bombing of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on August 7, 1998.
Both the positive and negative statistics reflect one ma or trend: while we are making progress in limiting terrorist activities, attacks have become deadlier, and terrorists are no longer reluctant to kill or wound large numbers of victims -- now all too often civilians. This can be attributed to a shift in who and what is behind terrorist acts today.
Today's terrorist threat comes primarily from non-state actors with less direct ties to governments, such as Usama bin Laden and the al-Qaida network, Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, the FARC in Colombia, and the PKK in Turkey. Terrorists are acting on their own and are resorting to car bombs, suicide bombings, and attacking civilian buildings and diplomatic posts. They have their own funding networks -- through narcotrafficking, private businesses, independent wealth, and local financial support. They are individually recruiting new members. In many states where the government is weak in providing basic public services, these groups create parallel public institutions, such as schools, public health services, and social networks. Through this outreach, independent terrorist networks are able to make inroads into communities and recruit new members -- which in turn provided them operational security for their activities. They are also exploiting volatile areas, such as Chechnya and Dagestan. Their infusion of resources and training in conflict-ripe areas make for a very deadly mix.
The work of non-state terrorists is facilitated by the globalization of communication, and the ease with which organizations -- both good and bad -- can spread their message and communicate with others throughout the world. The Internet is used by many to share their message and recruit new members,, while email and other newer technologies are used to communicate from Afghanistan to Kenya to Yemen and around the world.
Today, the principal motives are primarily religious and cultural. Think about groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, Al-Qaida, the Harakat of Pakistan (HUM). Cultural and/or religious ideologies form the basis for their activities and provide a platform for rallying support among the general population. (Let me note, however, that many groups often distort the actual teachings of a specific religion, in order to fit their objectives or justify their actions. These groups' violent reputations ensure that the common person would not dare challenge them.) The terrorist preachings of these groups so often provide the disenfranchised with an idealistic alternative to the bleak future they face in war-torn or troubled countries like Afghanistan, Colombia, Sri Lanka, and many others.
There is another dangerous factor linked to the use of religious and cultural ideologies. These groups' self-proclaimed link to religion or culture puts others from these religions or cultures in a dilemma. True believers or patriots are fearful to challenge these groups. For example, some Muslims seem reluctant to stand up and renounce that terrorism that is allegedly committed in the name of Allah is, at the end of the day, a simple criminal act. Many would rather remain silent than be seen as siding with the West in its condemnation of terrorist violence. Legitimate Pakistanis, Irish, or Indians who are interested in a stronger country risk seeming like traitors if they oppose the "patriotic" terrorism.
Also in this collection of religious and cultural ideologues are groups like Aum Shinrikyo. Groups that are more apocalyptic, preaching concern about doomsday or the threat of the millennium. We definitely see an increasing, trend in these kinds of organizations. In the US, we see this phenomenon as well. Timothy McVeigh, the convicted bomber of the federal office building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people, including 18 children, was associated with the racist Christian Identity Movement in the United States.
In general, these emerging non-state actors exhibit less constraint than state actors and other groups did in past decades. They are less concerned about killing random civilians, whether the civilians are standing at an Israeli bus stop, worshipping in a church in Colombia, or walking in front of an American embassy in Africa. Their choice of victim is no longer a specific political target, but rather any one who is deemed in opposition to their ideology regardless of the collateral damage to innocent bystanders. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was quoted as saying he wanted a "body count" in his bombing - as it was necessary to get the level of attention he wanted for his twisted mind of conspiracy theories and hate. Ramzi Yousef, the leader of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York City, wanted to knock down the one tower into the other and kill every one in both high rise office buildings.
It is our responsibility to counter these new threats. An effective campaign to counter terrorism and bring to justice those who have perpetrated terrorism acts must be multilateral and tightly coordinated. Terrorists are cunning and will, exploit any gap they see between countries or within a country's own counterterrorism efforts. In addition, our strategy must not only be a strong defensive, but also a strong offensive.
In the short term, we must erect an effective defense to today's threat. We will spend a lot of time and resources erecting barriers around vulnerable targets, closely monitoring our borders and airports, improving local security's capacity to detect terrorist planning and activities, and to respond to them. As I stated, this defensive stance is just one piece of the counterterrorism strategy. This alone cannot be our solution. If it is, we relegate ourselves to always being on the defensive. If we do this, the terrorists have already won the battle. Realistically speaking, we cannot defend all possible targets, including those like East Africa, as quickly as they can plan operations. That is why any defensive strategy of pouring concrete must be complemented with more proactive law enforcement, intelligence collection and analysis, and political action.
In the medium and long term, we have to utilize our law enforcement capabilities to restrict terrorism operations and planning. We must strengthen intelligence gathering and use it aggressively to pursue terrorists. This means breaking up cells, disrupting movements, and prosecuting known terrorists. We need to close the seams where terrorists find room to operate. This takes cooperation among states because terrorist groups will find safe haven in either failed states or states that are not particularly threatened by their organizations. Some countries would prefer to "let sleeping dogs lie" if a terrorist organization does not seem to directly threaten their interests. This idea of "blind tolerance" cannot be permitted - even for seemingly benign cells.
We must "drain the swamp" in which terrorists operate. Terrorists can only exist if they have space in which they can operate. This space is found in countries or areas over which no legitimate government has full control lawless areas in which any criminal can move relatively freely. Today's swamps include Afghanistan, parts of Sudan, the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, and the rural jungles of Colombia.
Draining these swamps means eliminating the existence of those areas in which terrorists can operate. We must ensure terrorists have no place to go, to hide, to plan, and to prepare for further attacks. It means making clear to governments that don't exert control over these areas that they have a responsibility to do so and that they will be held accountable for controlling these areas. This requires a coordinated international effort to pressure those states, such as Afghanistan, which harbor terrorists, to Police these swamps, expel the terrorists and shut down areas of operation. This also means putting pressure on other states - many of whom are our allies - to be increasingly vigilant to cut off terrorist trafficking of money, weapons, or equipment through these countries. And of course prohibiting terrorists to transit the countries as well.
This also means a shift in our public rhetoric. Too often we allow terrorism -- which is criminal activity -- to be put in the light of religious expression, freedom fighting, or political statement. The international community already offers groups legitimate means of expressions, and violence and terrorism are not among these legitimate forms of expression.
I'd like to say a brief word about the talks now underway between the Government of Colombia and the FARC. In several cases we have seen groups turn away from terrorist attacks and towards peace, engaging in a dialogue with a government and working within a peace process. The IRA is engaged in such a process, having maintained a cease-fire for more than a year. The PLO renounced terrorism more than ten years ago, and now the Palestinian Authority is pre-empting planned terrorist attacks, arresting individuals with links to terrorist organizations. The United States believes that the history of peace processes makes it clear that a managed, disciplined process is necessary in order to carry out negotiations that decrease the threat of terrorism. But the cessation of terrorist attacks must precede the start of negotiations, and terrorist attacks must not be tolerated while negotiations are underway. We hope that the Government of Colombia will emulate previous successful peace processes and refuse to tolerate any additional terrorism by the FARC. Experience has proven that this is essential to concluding a long-lasting and dependable peace.
Terrorism is a crime. Plain and simple. Terrorists are common criminals, just like the murderers who sit in prisons in our countries. The fact that they espouse a political or religious rhetoric does not change the fact that murder is murder. We must make this point clear in the media. We must let terrorists know that we see them like common criminals, and intend on prosecuting them like any other criminal.
We must create an international political environment that makes clear to terrorists that the international community has a no tolerance policy for their attacks, and even for their planning. This must act as a disincentive for them to use terrorism. This doesn't mean only public rhetoric, this means sending messages through action. If they see that we are draining the swamp, watching their activities, prosecuting past terrorists and restricting today's planners, they will think twice. We must mobilize all of our law enforcement and policy resources to break up cells, no matter how benign they appear.
Let me take a moment to share with you a bit of background on the Nairobi bombing, some information that has not been shared too widely. This incident has provided many lessons learned about our own vulnerability, as well as the extent of planning that goes into such an operation. The plot against the American embassy in Nairobi was actually hatched five years earlier in 1993 during the US and then UN operations in Somalia. Initial reconnaissance of our embassy began in 1994, and the operatives and explosives required for the mission were assembled in 1996. The attack, you will remember was only 14 months ago.
The strategic direction of this attack came from South Asia, more specifically from Afghanistan. Operational control and other support worked its way through at least two other countries in Europe and Africa and spanned thousands of miles over vast oceans and deserts. And this attack was conducted simultaneously with the bombing in Dar es Salaam, over 500 miles away to the south. This demonstrates a high level of planning and an enormous global reach. I want to underscore the terrorist reach can span continents with relative ease.
But as sophisticated as the coordination proved, to be, the operation itself was actually conducted by amateurs and included an array of mishaps and mistakes. For example:
Here are just a few lessons learned from this incident which we should consider. Naturally there are many more from this and other incidents:
And finally, every area is a potential target. We cannot rest on the fact that any one area - such as our embassies in East Africa - is not vulnerable simply because it is not in the heart of terrorism networks.
We have an enormous but important challenge ahead of us. It is not, however, one that is insurmountable if we continue international cooperation and coordination, intelligence sharing, and a rigorous, austere intolerance for terrorism in our own countries. Today we begin the task of forging a coordinated hemispheric response to the challenge of terrorism. CICTE offers us an unprecedented regional framework for this task. Working together here in Miami, we have an extraordinary opportunity to promote hemispheric cooperation on vital security issues and to significantly enhance our ability to protect our citizens from the deadly, indiscriminate violence of terrorists.
I hope these thoughts have been useful for you and will help provide some broad context for our work here. I look forward to continuing our discussions.