Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Lessons of past in stopping terrorism

International cooperation and effective propaganda are crucial.

By Abraham McLaughlinStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / October 31, 2001


Skip to next paragraph

With the reality setting in of just how long the war on terrorism may last, Americans can take heart from the fact that terrorism has been battled - and even beaten - before.

Certainly, history's record on fighting terrorism is mixed, and many conflicts continue. But consider these high-profile instances:

• Abu Nidal - the most-feared terrorist of the 1980s - was debilitated by a one-two punch of international cooperation and tough pressure on his nation-state sponsors.

• A string of Marxist-Leninist terror groups operating from Latin America to Asia have largely collapsed under government force, as well as the weight of their own ambition.

• Britain's iron-fisted response - coupled with negotiations - has nudged the seemingly intractable Northern Ireland conflict closer to resolution. Last week's decision by the Irish Republican Army to disarm has pumped fresh hope into the peace process.

Clearly, America's war on Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network is unlike any previous battles against terror. The "new terrorism," as specialist Mark Juergensmeyer calls it, is more likely to be carried out in the name of God - and with more far-reaching goals than traditional tangible aims such as independence or economic justice.

Yet there are also similarities to past battles - and signposts that give guidance for this new war. "A lot of this isn't new," says Bruce Hoffman of the Rand Corp, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank. "You don't have to reinvent the wheel."

One important lesson, which the US is well aware of: Winning the public-relations war is crucial. Terrorists try to whip up support among disaffected populations. Dissipating that support - through humanitarian actions, propaganda, even policy changes - is crucial to victory.

Another important element is international cooperation - and indeed, the US is already benefiting from cooperation with Britain, Germany, Italy, the Philippines, and some of the 60 countries where Al Qaeda terror cells are believed to be operating.

In the 1980s, for instance, the Abu Nidal Organization was wreaking havoc in Europe and the Middle East. It was responsible for 900 deaths or injuries in 20 countries, including machine-gun killings at the Rome and Athens airports in 1985. The US State Department called it "the most dangerous terrorist organization in existence."

Then, because of a coordinated international pressure campaign - as well as brass-knuckles tactics used by some intelligence services against the group's members - Abu Nidal was kicked out of several countries, including Syria and Libya.

"We turned him into a vagabond," says L. Paul Bremer, head of Marsh Crisis Consulting in New York and the former ambassador who chaired the National Commission on International Terrorism last year. The strain on the organization led to infighting, which thwarted its ability to carry out attacks. Abu Nidal himself is now inactive and reportedly living in Iraq.

Working in concert

Indeed, history suggests one of the best ways to combat terrorist groups is to "so disrupt their operations that they're unable to function," says Mr. Bremer. And in an era of global money flow and quick travel, such disruption requires many nations to work in concert. Strong-arming nations that support terror is a key element of this cooperation. Libya, for instance, turned over Abu Nidal - and two men suspected in the 1988 downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland - partly to help shed its image as a pariah state.