Antiterror Effort Up, Even as Threat Wanes

US to spend $7 billion next year, while number of attacks has fallen by nearly two-thirds since 1987.

Concerned by what is widely regarded as a major threat to Americans at home and abroad, the Clinton administration is redoubling the battle against terrorism, pumping more resources into the fight than ever before.

In addition to naming a new "czar" later this month to coordinate all federal antiterrorism efforts, the administration is expected to earmark a record $7 billion next year for security and antiterrorism programs.

The spending jump - up from about $5 billion in 1996 - is raising some concerns in Congress over whether current funds are being used effectively. The Government Accounting Office, a congressional watchdog agency, questions if the money is "focused on the right programs or the right amounts."

But those in the intelligence community argue that the massive investments of money, manpower, and energy to combat terrorism are paying off in a big way for the United States and other countries.

Despite tragedies like the 1993 World Trade Center bombing or the 1996 blast at the US military base at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, international terror attacks - including those against Americans - dropped precipitously in the past 10 years.

From a high of 862 incidents in 1987, the number of terrorist strikes dropped to a low of 290 in 1996. The 1997 figures, released last month by the State Department, chart eight more attacks than in1996 but a reduction in the number of deaths from 314 to 221, including seven Americans.

"We are seeing success," asserts a US official. "The money that the US government has spent has been well worth it."

Threat still looms

But some say that the decline coincides with the end of the cold war and the breakup of the Soviet bloc. As a result, they say, there's less money for terrorist groups in developing countries and a reduction of ideological tensions.

Still, US officials warn that the threat remains high, especially given the wide availability of lethal technologies and deadly know-how that terrorists have used in recent years to produce much-greater casualties than in the past.

"This is the kind of treadmill where if you don't run harder, you are going to fall off the back end really quickly," says a US intelligence official, in cautioning against complacency. "This is a business in which a single incident can be a tragedy and a gross intelligence failure."

Cooperation key to success

The big drop in international terrorism is linked to several factors, including intensified cooperation between Washington and other governments.

Says the official: "We have managed to forge many worthwhile relationships with other intelligence, security, and police services on the counterterrorism front." In many cases, he says, the ties are with countries that "once you get outside the counterterrorism realm" have little agreement with the US.

Experts say Western European nations first began working more closely in the early 1980s as they confronted an unprecedented onslaught of attacks by left-wing and Middle Eastern extremists. The US quickly joined the effort following strikes on American targets, including the Marine barracks and US Embassy in Beirut in 1983 and 1984.

Those incidents also prompted the US to launch a 10-year, $4 billion program to upgrade the security of its diplomatic and military facilities worldwide. Additional precautions were also instituted to better protect US personnel, and other countries took similar countermeasures. This combination is another major reason for the drop in terrorist attacks.

The 1984 bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut remains the last major terrorist strike against an American diplomatic mission.

While attacks on US government facilities have diminished enormously - from 121 in 1983 to just 18 in 1996 - American businesses and their employees remain targets of choice, because they are easier to hit. Still, most such attacks last year were minor bombings of oil pipelines by rebel groups in Colombia.

Geopolitical changes figure prominently, too, including Middle East peace efforts, the changing nature of extremist groups, and the end of the Soviet empire, experts explain. Many groups that pursued political violence in the 1970s and '80s were Marxist-Leninist. The collapse of the Soviet Union deprived them of support, forcing many to disband.

The decline of these groups was underscored by the recent self-pronounced dissolution of the Red Army Faction, a notorious German group responsible for numerous terrorism acts.

For the most part, officials say, groups driven by ethnic or religious motives now constitute the biggest threat.

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