The Evolving Threat: Changing Responses

Tom Warwick

This entry is part three of an ongoing series on the evolution of America’s response to terrorism. You can read Part Two here.

“Their tragic loss reminds us that even when America is not at war, the men and women of our military still risk their lives for peace.”

-President Bill Clinton, USS Cole Memorial

New York City, 1993
On February 26, 1993 a blast erupted on the second level of the underground parking garage beneath the World Trade Center’s twin towers.  The blast, resulting from a car bomb placed in the garage by terrorists later linked to Al-Qaeda, killed six and injured one thousand people (CNN, 2016). After the attacks, the House Judiciary Committee’s Crime and Criminal Justice subcommittee met to discuss the events and how to prevent future attacks. In the report later released by the committee, the tone is one of concern, but not of dire urgency that would be evident in many of the post-9/11 literature.  Multiple times throughout the hearing, both Congressmen and their witnesses made reference to the need to increase law enforcement measures.  The Chairman of the committee, Charles Schumer, even made a point of asking, “what tools do we need to place in the hands of our federal and local law enforcement agencies to help them protect all of us” (Congressional Record, 1995).  There was very little reference to a military option throughout the proceedings. Throughout the committee hearing, there were also several references to prosecuting the people responsible through the criminal justice system.   “Our skilled law enforcement community will continue to make progress and that everyone involved in this cowardly act of terror will be identified, prosecuted, and punished.” “I believe in our FBI, and I believe that our Federal Bureau of Investigation working with the New York Police Department and the ATF and all other agencies will do their job…this is a law enforcement investigation that ought to be allowed to go on and continue until it reaches its finality…Under our law whomever the grand jury charges are entitled to a fair trial.” (Congressional Record, 1995). The statements made by the policy makers of the time (many of whom were still  in office around the time of the September 11th attacks) shows a preference for a law enforcement option when dealing with terrorist threats from outside of the United States.

The 1993 World Trade Center bombings would eventually end with six out of the seven conspirators being placed on trial and sentenced to prison terms of more than 100 years (CNN, 2016). In what might be the most striking example of a preference for law enforcement in the pre-9/11 years, the suspected “mastermind” behind the attacks, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, was captured abroad by the FBI and the State Department in February of 1995 and transferred back to the United States (CNN, 2016). Yousef was later convicted in an American court and sentenced to 240 years in prison. After this incident, it would be another five years after the bombings in New York before the United States would have to once again be confronted by this new brand of terrorism.

Kenya and Tanzania, 1998
    Eight years to the day after American troops were ordered to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, two bombs detonated almost simultaneously (Koppel,1998).  The bombs, which were separated by over five hundred miles, were placed outside of the US Embassies located in Kenya and Tanzania.  The explosions would result in the death of 224 people and would wound an additional 5,000 (CNN, 2016).  Responsibility for the attack would be claimed by Al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden, as retribution for the presence of U.S. troops in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina (CNN, 2016).

Two weeks later, President Bill Clinton ordered the launch of a retaliatory and preemptive missile strike against training bases and infrastructure in Afghanistan.  The missile strikes occurred just thirteen days after terror groups linked to Osama Bin Laden killed two hundred and fifty-two people and injured over five thousand in a coordinated attack on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. While this was not the first instance of the United States attacking terrorist targets, it was the first time the US had “given such primary and public prominence to the preemptive nature and motive of a military strike.”  This was the first time such a strike was launched in a “state which presumably is not to blame for the action triggering retaliation” and the first time the goal was not to attack a single terrorist, “but an organization itself”(Perl, 1998).  The apparent shift in policy would result in the first public debate over the law enforcement versus military question when debating the proper response to terrorist actions.

After the Clinton Administration’s decision to use military force for preemptive means, a debate arose questioning the soundness of the option.  In a CATO institute foreign policy brief titled Does US Intervention Overseas Breed Terrorism? The Historical Record, Ivan Eland contested that the “United States could ‘reduce the chance of devastating, and potentially catastrophic, terrorist attacks by adopting a policy of military restraint overseas’” (Eland, 1998). Eland reviewed the history of terrorist attacks in the United States as far back as 1911 and linked each with a motivation spurred by US Military involvement abroad.  For example, Eland cited the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 as being motivated by the desire of Ramzi Yousef to “punish the United States for its policies in the Middle East;” the 1993 ambush of US peacekeepers in Somalia as an attempt to stop the “nefarious plot [of the United States] to occupy Islamic countries, as demonstrated by its involvement in the Gulf War;” and the embassy bombings as a means of objecting to “American support for Israel” (Eland, 1998).  Eland concludes that “all examples of terrorist attacks on the United States can be explained as retaliation for U.S. intervention abroad” and that by “adopting a new policy that would use military force only as a last resort in the defense of truly vital national interests” the US could “substantially reduce the chance of catastrophic terrorist attacks” (Eland, 1998).

Ruth Wedgwood, a professor at Yale Law School, disagrees. Wedgwood breaks down the strategies that were available to the United States at the time, tools that included: “tools of criminal justice,” “establishing new international norms,” “civil sanctions” and the “prudent use of military force.”  In the response to the embassy bombings, Wedgwood argued the United States attempted to use all four strategies. The District Attorney for the lower district of New York brought charges against bin Laden, civil sanctions were imposed on bin Laden, the US Government continued to work on multilateral antiterrorist conventions, and the United States launched missiles at targets in Afghanistan and the Sudan associated with the bin Laden network.  Wedgwood defends that last strategy by applying the “classical justification” of armed attack and proportionate self-defense, as well as the requirements under the Article 51 “right to self-defense clause” of the United Nations Charter.  Wedgwood ultimately concludes that in order to effectively combat terrorism it is not enough to engage in “an episodic ‘tit-for-tat’ or passive defense,” and  that “an idealist’s desire to address root causes will not suffice against an organization that opposes all secular regimes in the region or objects to Unites States protection of essential economic and political interests” (Wedgwood ,1999).  Instead governments must realize that, while “this is not a license to overrule good judgement” one may need to “place antiterrorist actions within the international legal paradigm of war, rather than unbroken peace, with a right of ongoing action against an adversary’s paramilitary operations and network” ( Wedgwood, 1999).

A Congressional Research Service report, written shortly after the embassy bombings, helps to summarize the pros and cons of a shift to a “proactive deterrent policy.”  The report begins by describing a policy shift being undertaken by the Clinton administration, and in a warning as old as the republic itself, urges Congress to assert the need to consult them in the creation of any new policy that “might result in an undeclared type of war” (Perl, 1998).  The report goes on to defend the new approach to combating terrorism, describing the shift as a possible way to show strength and world leadership and predicting that it would provide disincentives for “other would be terrorists.” The author of the report also asserts that the new “preemptive” policy could be more cost-effective, “thwarting enemy actions rather than trying to harden all potential targets, waiting for the enemy to strike and suffering damage,” could truly “damage or disrupt the enemy” and provide “governments unhappy with the US response an incentive to pursue bilateral and multilateral diplomatic and law enforcement remedies to remain active players”   (Perl, 1998).

The report is not entirely supportive of the new “proactive” policy shift, and is quick to point out that such a policy “undermines the rule of law” by violating the sovereignty of nations with whom we are not at war   (Perl, 1998).  The policy could also increase “the incidents of terrorism in the short run,” leave allies “feeling left out or endangered,” and could even be characterized as “anti-Islamic” (Perl, 1998).  The author of the report also expressed fears of the accidental radicalization of some elements of the population and the “consequences of mistaken targeting or loss of innocent life” (Perl, 1998).  The report concludes by offering alternative policy options such as: direct economic or political pressure, enhanced intelligence targeting, and not to over personalize conflicts and unintentionally glamorize leaders like bin Laden (Perl, 1998).  

Yemen, 2000
    The discussions surrounding the 1998 embassy bombings showed that the political leadership in the United States  was beginning to sway from its strictly law enforcement view of combating terrorism, and was beginning to accept the idea that there was a military or intelligence option. In October of 2000, more weight would be added to the military option side of the scale, when a small boat laden with explosives attacked the US Navy destroyer Cole as it refueled in the harbor of Aden, Yemen.  The attack, which would later be linked to Osama bin Laden, resulted in the death of seventeen of the ship’s crew, the injury of an additional thirty-nine, and serious damage to the ship.

As with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1998 embassy bombings, the FBI was tasked with leading the investigation into the attack; however, unlike in the past examples there was a lingering doubt as to whether or not the FBI was the appropriate agency to take lead.  In a Congressional Research Service report, a recommendation was made that Congress reconsider the role of the FBI in counter terrorism.  The report in part asks if it “is appropriate for the FBI, traditionally a domestic US law-enforcement agency, to take a de facto lead role in overseas investigations of terrorist attacks” (Perl & Rourke 2000).  The authors point out that “while he FBI’s investigative skills are critical to such investigations, some argue that other skills outside the FBI’s area of specialization, including having an in-depth understanding of the forging countries and cultures and the diplomatic ability to secure host nation cooperation, are equally important components of such investigations”   (Perl & Rourke 2000).

In the same Congressional Research Services report, the authors offer a more in-depth conversation about the role of the intelligence community in counter terrorism. The report encouraged members of Congress to explore the question raised by observers about the “role of intelligence collection, analysis, and dissemination in the Cole attack and in preventing other terrorist attacks against the United States”   (Perl & Rourke 2000).   There was a concern at the time that there may have been the “existence of information and analyses from the Intelligence Community that might have helped prevent the attack [on the Cole] had it been given greater consideration or been disseminated more quickly”  (Perl & Rourke 2000).   These concerns about the dissemination of intelligence also were addressed in the Department of Defense USS Cole Commission report. The commission found that the Department of Defense did not allocate sufficient resources or “all-source intelligence analysis and collection” in support of combating terrorism (Cole Commission, 2000). The commission recommended that the Secretary reprioritize human intelligence (field officers and human sources) as well as signals intelligence (intelligence gathered by intercepting communications) resources so that sufficient emphasis is applied to combating terrorism (Cole Commission, 2000).  The concerns raised by both the Congressional Research Service and the Cole Commission regarding the allocation and dissemination of useful intelligence would resurface just months later when the initial investigation into the 9/11 attacks began.

The ultimate conclusion of the events surrounding the attacks on the USS Cole was muddled with regard to who had jurisdiction, the military or law enforcement.  The responses that began before the September 11th attacks were primarily law-enforcement centered.  The FBI began the initial investigation and worked in tandem with the Yemen government. However, after the start of the ‘War on Terror’ the perpetrators and planners of the attacks would be captured and held in CIA “black sites” and eventually transferred to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (CNN, 2016). One conspirator, Abd al Rahim al-Nashrir, would spend nine years in the custody of the CIA before being formally charged and tried as a conspirator in the Cole attacks in 2011 (CNN, 2016).

This period leading up to the attacks of September 11th 2001, can be characterized by incremental shifts in policy.  During these period the United States bore witness to a type of enemy it had never seen before.  Unlike the ‘troubles’ taking place in Northern Ireland or the lone wolf domestic terrorist attack seen in Oklahoma City, Al-Qaeda and its affiliates existed outside of the government’s jurisdiction.  Since the traditional law enforcement measures used to take on the IRA and McVeigh would not work against Al-Qaeda, the United States began to turn to a strategy that would: military action.  The use of this military action would be used cautiously at first, but a triggering moment would result in a rapid adoption of this new plan.   

You can read the next part of this series here.

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