WASHINGTON — As federal investigators move closer toward declaring the downing of TWA Flight 800 an act of terrorism, one question underlies the tragedy: Why? What kind of thinking would lead someone to put a bomb on a plane filled with hundreds of innocent people?
In the popular mind terrorists are often pictured as crazed and two-dimensional foreign zealots - criminals unable to function in normal society. Their acts seem irrational and reactionary, their perceptions no deeper than a view of America as a Great Satan. The destruction of a civilian airliner is surely a despicable act. It bespeaks an utter loss of moral perception. But fighting such acts requires an accurate view of the mind of the perpetrators. Terrorists are not cartoon cut-outs.
To paraphrase a famous definition of war, terrorism is politics by other means. Sometimes merely rage, it is often violence with a highly specific agenda or grievance waged by disciplined actors who lack means for a sustained war. In fact, conventional wisdom to the contrary, studies show terror groups eschew unstable individuals; they can't be counted on.
From a political point of view, an operation as drastic as the destruction of Flight 800 could indicate sophistication - the pushing of a policy, the cementing of an alliance. If, for example, Iranian President Rafsanjani is attempting a more open policy with the West (he reportedly is), radicals opposed to that policy might down a US airliner to undercut him by keeping Iran as a pariah.
"Don't imagine [Flight 800] is some simple Hallmark card greeting like 'America we hate you,' " says Yahya Sadowski, an expert on terrorist groups at the Brookings Institution. "We are looking at a level of organization higher than anything seen before. It likely has a specific message attached."
No cause for TWA downing yet
As of this writing, US law enforcement authorities had not said definitively that the crash of Flight 800 was caused by a terrorist act. Lack of specific evidence continued to frustrate investigators who are attempting to piece together what happened in the skies over Long Island on July 17.
But federal agents still strongly believe that the crash was caused by an explosive device - perhaps a bomb planted in the forward cargo container. Key parts of the plane's front, including a cargo door and parts of the left side of the fuselage, have been pulled from the ocean. Other front end pieces, including the forward wheel well and the cockpit, could provide evidence of a bomb's deforming power.
If investigators decide decisively that a bomb was the disaster's cause, their next question is obvious: Who did it? Many suspects exist - from anti-government Saudis to Serbs to some unknown demonic genius from Des Moines. If terrorism in fact downed the TWA flight, the passengers' murder indicates the depth of feeling that many Americans, long sheltered from wars and violence, may find it hard to fathom.
What differentiates terrorists from those who are merely angry, often at the US, is their ability to focus and act. They turn diffuse anger into a coherent program, despite risks to themselves and their families.
"Terrorists feel a responsibility to address their political context," says Khalid Duran, a terrorism expert in Washington.
Far more important to terrorism than individuals, however, is the group they belong to. Whether a paramilitary organization financed by a state, or a free-floating operation, the group is where ideology, fervor, and motivations get discussed. Groups operate by rules and routines. They provide meaning. Their leaders, moreover, are not always committed to the purity of a cause, but, like leaders in many areas, are ambitious and interested in power and control.
"The guy so angry he will kill himself in the first attack is likely never to rise in the group," says Sadowski. "There are plenty of 18-year olds raised in refugee camps with enough hormones. But today's techno-terrorism requires more."
Intelligence officials say two political Islamist groups are under special attention in the wake of Flight 800. One is jointly run by an Afghan leader and a Saudi businessman. US investigators would like to talk to both men in regard to the bombings that hit US-related targets in Riyadh and Dhahran this year. The Islamic Alliance is the other - a group centered in the Pakistan refugee camp of Jalozai that spawned Ramzi Youssef (real name Abdul Basit), who is charged in the World Trade Center bombing.
In an irony, both groups were originally funded and trained by the CIA as part of the "pipeline" of support for the freedom fighters battling the Soviets in Afghanistan. "Afghan experience was an extraordinary watershed," says one former CIA official, "a transforming moment. The fighters felt they could defeat a superpower. You start to hear in the 1980s that Islam itself is a superpower."
Political Islamist groups represent a strong growth area in extremism. Sometimes the faith plays a strong element in the acts. Experts point out that for some of these believers the US presence in Saudi Arabia is anti-Islamic under a number of interpretations.
While not in the Koran, the hadith, the sayings of the Prophet, forbid an Islamic country from being protected by a non-Islamic power. Saudi Arabia especially, as protector of the two holiest Islamic sites, Mecca and Medina, falls under this warrant. Many Islamist thinkers in an American Internet group monitored by Steven Roberts of the University of Utah felt the bombings were justified since US forces were in the country illegally.
Yet while the growth of terror around Islam-labeled groups is high, their varied motives buck stereotypes. Mr. Youssef-Basit is reportedly indifferent to Islam; his rhetoric in prison is more anti-Israeli. The Islam of some groups is not unlike the Christian rhetoric of some American right-wing militia groups.
It is one factor among many, and generally distorted. Actually, the views of many Islamic groups share more in common with the anti-technology, anti-modernist thinking of Unabomber suspect Theodore Kaczynski - than anything related to the Prophet.
Given the repression of dissent in states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in fact, Islam is more often a cover for a liberation struggle. "This is more politics than Islam," says Mamoun Fandy, a Georgetown University expert on the Gama Islamiya in Egypt. "Islamic rhetoric is political rhetoric in disguise."
Roots of anti-American sentiment
Of course, many groups are angry with the conduct of American foreign policy, something relating directly to terrorism at home.
The FBI is looking variously into groups out of Cuba, Colombia, and the American heartland, officials say. There could be, for example, a Serb connection to Flight 800. Experts point to a motive: US-led forces bombed Serbs in the past year.
"I don't think it was the Serbs," says one Bosnian expert. "Anything is possible. But this hasn't been their style. Karadzic will be back in power in six months. What do they gain?"
Yet groups operating in Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, and Egypt are the most closely examined. "We are more in the cross hairs today because of US policy in the Middle East," says terrorism expert Larry Johnson.
Arab grievances center in three main areas: US support for allied leaders in Egypt and Saudi Arabia viewed as repressive at home; an American presence at odds with tradition; and a view that the US uncritically supports Israel at the expense of the Arab world.
The election of a hard-line Likud government in Israel has thrown an explosive new factor into this grievance mix.