Terrorism's Trend Lines
Friday's blasts in two African capitals show terrorists are forced to evolve in their tactics.
AMMAN, JORDAN — Just after the US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, a call was placed to a newspaper in Cairo to claim responsibility.
Playing out a script well rehearsed in the Mideast for decades, the caller said he was from the Liberation Army of the Islamic Sanctuaries, a previously unheard of group.
Even the journalist who took the call doubts it was genuine, and - except for a threat received from Egypt's Islamic Jihad and published by the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat - investigators have few clues yet, or even a sense that the bombings were the work of Mideast extremists.
But the fact that terrorist attacks are often accompanied by multiple claims of responsibility points to the reason terror continues to be an attractive weapon for those who use it: Their message is heard around the world.
For more than half a century, most terrorists originated in the Mideast. Some did it for national redemption, others for revenge, and still others against a panoply of enemies - real or imagined. Their tactics and targets have evolved as the world learns how to deal with them. In recent years, terrorism has generally declined, although the threat against Americans remains serious.
The US State Department says it receives 30,000 threats a year and takes every one seriously. The FBI database starting point for suspects is reported to include 200,000 individuals and 3,000 groups.
One of the precedents in the Middle East was set in British-run Palestine in the late 1930s and early 1940s, when the Zionist terrorist groups Irgun, Stern, and Haganah attacked British and Palestinian targets. The breakthrough came with the spectacular destruction in July 1946 - less than two years before Israel was declared a state - of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.
This was the impenetrable fortress, the British military and civilian headquarters, wrapped in steel doors and barbed wire and constantly guarded. When milk churns packed with high explosives in the basement sheared the building in two, the message was sent around the world that a new nation was about to be born.
Menachem Begin, who masterminded the King David attack, and later prime minister of Israel, described in his book "The Revolt" the thinking behind such acts of terrorists. "There are times when everything in you cries out: your very self-respect as a human being lies in your resistance to evil," Mr. Begin wrote. Then, playing on Descartes' words, he added: "We fight, therefore we are."
But the creation of Israel left a losing side too. To the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians dispossessed of their land in 1948, that event is still called "al Nakbah," the Catastrophe. It sowed the seed for modern terrorism, and for future attempts at more and more spectacular attacks that seek to grab the world's attention.
That lesson was learned in the late 1960s and 1970s by Palestinian guerrillas, who recognized the propaganda value of making their issue known through violence. First gathered in 1955 for cross-border attacks into Israel as fedayeen ("those who sacrifice themselves"), Palestinian guerrillas made their global breakthrough in 1972 at the Olympic Games in Munich, Germany.
A handful of members of the Black September group - so named after the brutal crushing and expulsion of Palestinian forces from Jordan by King Hussein in September 1970 - broke into the Israeli team rooms and took Jewish athletes hostage.
After a drawn-out saga that included helicoptering to a waiting airplane, all but three of the guerrillas were killed along with all of the hostages. A Palestinian spokesman, quoted by British journalist David Hirst in his book "The Gun and the Olive Branch" (1977), claimed that "A bomb in the White House, a mine in the Vatican ... could not have echoed through the consciousness of every man in the world like the operation of Munich.... It was like painting the name of Palestine on the top of a mountain that can be seen from the four corners of the earth."
The King David lesson had been learned and put into practice, and galvanized Palestinian warriors. The classic definition of Black September, as noted by Mr. Hirst, holds true of terrorists today, for whom it is "more of a calling than a state of mind."
As one youth described terrorism in Mr. Hirst's book: "It cannot be pinpointed, tracked down, or crushed. It has no name, no flag, no slogans, headquarters, or base. It requires only men who have the determination to fight and succeed and the courage to die."
The 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran galvanized Islamic extremists, especially of the minority Shia sect scattered throughout the Islamic world, and in southern Lebanon, when Ayatollah Khomeini demanded the export of the revolution. The example was put forth: 52 Americans were taken hostage and held 444 days.
Americans became targets, and in 1983 the US Marines barracks in Beirut were bombed, leaving 241 dead. American troops soon pulled out. The bombers likely got what they wanted.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union at the turn of the decade, the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and the subsequent Arab-Israeli peace process, many Middle East groups that had carried out terrorist attacks either disappeared or lay low.
But as the attacks against the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania attest, the King David lesson has not been forgotten. Who did the attacks in Kenya and Tanzania? Fingers point in many directions. High on the list of backers is multimillionaire Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, who lives in Afghanistan and earlier this year vowed to wage a Holy War against American military and civilian targets.