Washington — For the last two years, international terrorism has declined, says L.Paul Bremmer III, the United States ambassador at large for counterterrorism. This reflects an increasingly solid counterterrorism network among concerned countries, Mr. Bremmer says, and a growing consensus that terrorists should be treated as criminals, not political activists.
He calculates that incidents of international terrorism (as distinguished from terrorism carried out by domestic groups in their country) declined about 6 percent in 1986 and have so far dropped about the same amount this year. This stands in sharp contrast with the 20 to 30 percent annual increases in the early 1980s, he says.
Despite this cautious optimism, Bremmer says the war is far from won. This week's terrorist attack on US servicemen in Barcelona, in which a US sailor was killed, demonstrates the continuing threat. Hostage taking remains a particularly troublesome and effective form of terrorism, he says. The pressures on governments to make deals creates divisions in the international front against terrorists, Bremmer says, and may be making it more difficult for the US to get its eight hostages out of Lebanon.
States, such as Libya, Iran, and Syria, also continue to support and use terrorism despite international pressures to desist, Bremmer says. (See related story, next page.) Thus, closer and better international cooperation is needed, but the trends are in the right direction, he adds.
Western publics just got fed up with terrorism, Bremmer argues, and started demanding that their governments develop effective counterstrategies. ``We are now beginning to see the benefits,'' he says. One example is air safety. Twenty years ago, Bremmer says, there were 15 to 20 international hijackings a year; there were two each in 1986 and '87.
This reflects international cooperation on security and criminal prosecution. Work continues on ways to better detect bombs in hand luggage and baggage, he says, and just this month the International Civil Aviation Organization ordered all airlines to institute checks to ensure that all luggage is matched to passengers before takeoff.
More generally, the degree of police and intelligence cooperation among countries has multiplied, Bremmer says. Rather than seeking to cut deals, countries are now saying, ``Let the cops do their job,'' he adds.
Cooperation in Europe has improved markedly in the last two years, he says, with the traditionally reluctant French acting as a motor force. The result has been a sharp drop in terrorist actions in Europe and the crippling of many terrorist groups.
Similarly, governments have begun to make the tough decisions needed to bring terrorists to justice, with new laws and successful trials, Bremmer says. Britain, Italy, West Germany, France, and others have convicted terrorists with stiff sentences.
The one area of real concern, Bremmer says, is hostage taking. In recent months, four foreign hostages have been freed in Lebanon. Western intelligence sources say more than $1 million each was paid for a West German and for a Korean. Two French hostages were released in what appears to be part of a deal with Iran.
Bremmer declines to comment directly on the ransom reports, but he says ``the impression is around that hostages are being ransomed in one way or another, not necessarily with money but with some kind of promises or whatever. ... If hostage holders, particularly the people holding the eight American hostages, get the impression that governments will be willing to make concessions to get their citizens out, that will only prolong the agony of the Americans held hostage. It will only make it more difficult for our government to get our hostages out.''
Hostage situations are among the most difficult for governments to handle, Bremmer says, because of the immense humanitarian and political pressure to free citizens. But the best way to win their freedom and prevent more hostage taking, Bremmer argues, is through a ``solid front'' by concerned countries not to make concessions. Washington has made this point clear to countries with hostages in Lebanon, he says. The US government's message to hostage holders is that ``they cannot achieve their objectives by taking Americans hostage. ... They're not going to get their way,'' Bremmer says. The administration learned a lesson in wrongly trying to sell arms to Iran, he says; firmness has to be the policy.
Bremmer argues that the US has to use the full range of tools available to fight terrorism. This includes quiet diplomacy, public statements and accords, covert action, and overt military action, as in the 1986 attack on Libya.
The threat of escalation adds to the efficacy of more quiet methods, other counterterrorism officials say. They note, that the US has had significant success in closing down operations of several terrorist groups, including the one headed by Palestinian renegade Abu Nidal (the nom de guerre of Sabri Banna), with quiet diplomacy. The US approaches a country with information about an activity or individual and says, ``We are concerned about this terrorist-related activity that your government may not be aware of.'' In most cases, officials say, the government concerned has reacted constructively.
US counterterrorism strategy is succeeding, Bremmer concludes, but success depends on credible firmness by the US and other governments in bringing terrorists to trial, not ceding to their demands, and pressuring all states to stop supporting terrorism.