IN the 1970s and early '80s terrorists in the world's imagination spoke with a vaguely European accent. They were well-educated, refined in their own way, but heedless of human life in their pursuit of Marxism or some other sort of secular religion. Those were the decades of the Red Brigades, Black September, the Japanese Red Army.
Today the terrorist bogeymen speak Arabic. They are dedicated to their versions of religion with a fierceness that no secular ``ism'' could engender. The followers of Hizbullah and Hamas seem poorer and less well-taught - but in their own way, more frightening. Terrorist violence seems less targeted, more random, more brutal.
``You're seeing an evolution in terrorism,'' notes a United States official who tracks the issue for the State Department. ``Terrorism today tends to produce more acts of spectacular impact,'' such as the recent bombing of a Jewish community center in Argentina.
This week's capture of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, the infamous Carlos the Jackal, was probably the result of this shift, note experts. Son of a prominent Venezuelan lawyer who himself was a dedicated communist, Carlos was once a feared assassin. He was a useful weapon for Soviet bloc countries and secular revolutionary Arab regimes.
But his time was past. Radical Islamic groups dedicated to the destruction of Israel and the rejection of modernity have little use for Carlos' brand of commitment.
Thus Sudan - itself a nation added to the State Department list of terrorist supporters last August - felt no compunction about handing Carlos over to France once he wandered into its clutches.
A State Department report on patterns of terrorism pointedly notes that five of the 15 suspects arrested in the wake of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing were Sudanese citizens.
With further Trade Center bomb trials starting soon, Sudanese leaders may have thought that ``here's an opportunity for us to score points with the international community,'' the State Department official says.
The capture of Carlos and a spate of bombings in the wake of Israel's recent rapprochement with Jordan may give the impression that terrorism as a whole is on the upswing. While developing peace moves in the Mideast may yet produce a spasm of violence, the trend in recent years has in fact been a decline in the number of worldwide terrorist acts.
Anti-US attacks fell to 88 in 1993, down from 142 the year before. About 21 percent of world terror takes the US as its target.
The spectacular bombing of the World Trade Center was, in a way, an anomaly - it was the only incident in 1993 that resulted in US fatalities.
But the Trade Center attack may be a glimpse of the future. The number of drive-by shootings and pipe bombs may be going down, while big assualts against large targets that garner flamboyant publicity may be on the horizon, especially if terrorists grow desperate in the face of Middle East peace efforts.
``The worst is yet to come,'' claims Yonah Alexander, director of the terrorism project at George Washington University in Washington. ``Terrorism today is much more vicious and dangerous.''