TERRORIST THREATS TO THE UNITED STATES
Statement of Philip C. Wilcox, Jr. Before the Subcommittee
On Immigration and Claims, Committee on the Judiciary,
U.S. House of Representatives,
January 25, 2000
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Subcommittee:
When alert U.S. Customs officials caught an Algerian named Ahmed Ressam trying surreptitiously to bring bomb-making materials into the U.S. at Port Angeles in December, Americans were reminded again of our vulnerability to international terrorism. As always in such events, we asked ourselves: Does this apparent attempted terrorist bombing indicate a new and growing threat? And is there anything more we should do in the future to prevent such dangers?
Measuring the extent of terrorism and the threat it poses is a difficult challenge.
Terrorists operate secretly. The pattern of their attacks is erratic and unpredictable. Today’s terrorists are motivated by many causes, some of them difficult to fathom. In the past, terrorists usually identified their cause or group, but increasingly, they strike anonymously.
Established terrorist organizations and states that sponsored terrorism were behind most international terrorism in the 1970’s and 1980’s. But in recent years, ad hoc groups of terrorists, sometimes loosely linked, and often claiming to act on behalf of Islam, have been the most dynamic element in international terrorist attacks against the United States. These are deviants and fanatics who are betraying the tenets of Islam, just as other terrorists who have sometimes used Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and other religions to justify violence, have distorted and abused their faiths.
Islamic extremists were behind the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York in 1993, a conspiracy to blow up the UN, the Holland Tunnel and Federal buildings in New York, another conspiracy in 1995 to bomb American passenger aircraft over the Pacific, and two bombings against American military personnel in Saudi Arabia. Many of these extremists fought in the Afghan war against the former Soviet Union or received training in Afghanistan. Some, but not all, of these terrorists are linked to Usama Bin Laden, the Saudi Arabian fugitive who has been indicted along with others for the bombings of our embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam on August 8, 1998.
According to press reports, Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian arrested in Port Angeles in December, and suspected accomplices who have also been arrested, may have ties to the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, a terrorist organization that has killed thousands in Algeria. In the past, the Armed Islamic Group has not attacked Americans. I do not know if that organization has decided to strike at Americans. If so, that would be a worrisome development. But until the FBI completes its investigation, assigning blame to any group or organization for the December attempt would be premature.
How serious a threat to America is international terrorism? Measured by the number of international terrorist attacks in recent years, the threat is declining. International terrorism against all nationalities appeared to peak in 1987 when there were 666 such attacks, but declined more or less evenly to 273 in 1998. I understand the number for 1999 is roughly the same as for 1998, although the final data is not yet available.
The number of U.S. citizens who are killed or wounded by international terrorists is another measure of the threat. Since 1990, the average number has been about ten a year.
But statistics are not an entirely reliable guide to the international terrorist threat. A single event, like the bombing of Pan American Flight 103 in 1988 that killed 193 Americans and many others, shows that a single terrorist act can have a great traumatic impact.
Also, in measuring the overall impact of terrorism, domestic terrorism in the U.S. must be considered. Terrorism is not just an exotic foreign phenomenon. We have a long history of domestic terrorism in the U.S., including violence inspired by racial and religious hatred, anti-abortion killings, even violence by environmental extremists. The most serious threat of domestic terrorism appears to come from individuals and informal networks whose hatred of government inspires acts of violence. We were reminded of this danger in our midst by the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, that killed 168 people, the worst terrorism disaster for Americans in this decade.
We have been less precise in defining politically motivated crimes of violence in the U.S. as terrorism than we have such crimes against Americans abroad. Accurate statistics on domestic terrorism, to my knowledge, are not readily available. But domestic terrorism presents at least as great a threat to Americans as international terrorism, and perhaps a greater threat.
In assessing the threat of terrorism, the specter of biological, chemical, or nuclear terrorism, must also be considered. Thus far, there has been little terrorism of this variety, and the probability of mass attacks using such substances, based on past experience, is not high. Nevertheless, the potential consequences are so grave that the U.S. Government is taking major steps to prepare for and defend against such attacks.
Where, then, should we draw the bottom line in assessing the threat of all forms to terrorism to the U.S. and our citizens? The toll of casualties and property damage caused by terrorism, even when we include domestic terrorism, is modest compared to more mundane forms of murder and mayhem that Americans confront every day. For example, the average annual number of Americans killed by terrorism in recent years, international and domestic, is probably less than two dozen each year, whereas, according to press reports, thirteen American children are killed by gunfire each week.
But the threat of terrorism, both international and domestic, lies beyond its objective impact in numbers of people killed or injured or property damaged. Terrorism, among all forms of violent crime, is a peculiar evil, since it inspires fear and creates disruption far beyond the direct casualties is inflicts. Traditionally, that has been the essence of terrorism and the goal of terrorists - to create fear. The killing of innocent victims by surprise and at random, for political reasons, gives terrorism a particularly heartless and frightening character. This, and the spectacular drama of bombings, aircraft hijackings, and other major terrorist attacks, creates a unique and powerful psychological impact and a sense of collective vulnerability. Also, terrorism, as a compelling human-interest story, is intensely - and sometimes sensationally - covered by the media, far more than other more mundane forms of violent crime. This coverage multiplies the fear and emotional trauma that terrorism inspires, and thus enhances the power of terrorism.
It is the fear and disruptive impact that terrorism, both international and domestic, creates, more than the relatively modest number of casualties it causes, that makes terrorism such a threat to our sense of security and well being. This is one reason why our government, and those in other democratic societies, give such high priority to combating terrorism. There are other reasons, as well, for example, the harmful effect of terrorism on our foreign policy, and the economic toll it takes.
We must fight terrorism vigorously. At the same time, we should not exaggerate the threat it creates, awful as it is, lest we inadvertently enhance the influence of terrorists and enlarge the fear they seek to spread.
What more should the U.S. do to minimize the risk of terrorist attacks, international and domestic? I use the word "minimize" since it is not realistic to expect that we can eradicate terrorism altogether, any more than we can end other kinds of violent crime.
First of all, based on my former experience as Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the Department of State, I think the U.S. has sound counterterrorism policies and a very resourceful and effective counterterrorism programs.
The rule of law is at the heart of U.S. policy. Over the years, the Congress has enacted tough anti-terrorism laws that have strengthened our ability to investigate and prosecute terrorist crimes at home and abroad. Although we have broad and strong anti-terrorism laws, we have wisely resisted suggestions for changes in our laws that would curtail our civil liberties in order to monitor, detect and apprehend terrorist suspects. A weakening of our democratic, constitutionally protected, freedoms, would, of course, be a gift to the terrorists, whose values are profoundly anti-democratic.
The U.S. has also worked to strengthen international law, in the form of eleven treaties designed to combat a wide range of terrorist acts and strengthen international cooperation.
Also in the international realm, the U.S. is working with friends and allies to help spread the truth that terrorism is a crime and is an unacceptable as a form of political protest, whatever the cause. A zero-tolerance approach to terrorism is growing, in contrast to past decades, in Europe, in most of the Arab states, in Latin America and in Asia. But this process is still incomplete. For example, Afghanistan has thus far refused to extradite the terrorist suspect, Usama Bin Laden, and some governments have not fully abandoned state terrorism.
The U.S. has also helped build an international structure of anti-terrorism cooperation through an intensive process of consultation and cooperation between the State Department, FBI, CIA, Department of Defense, FAA, and their counterparts in scores of countries. As a result, more and more nations are working with the U.S. and other states to track down and punish terrorists.
The payoff for the U.S. has been success, working with friendly governments, in identifying and bringing to justice many terrorists involved in major terrorist crimes against the U.S. in recent decades. These crimes include the World Trade Center bombing, the bombing of Pan Am 103, the killing of CIA personnel and others at Langley, and the bombing of our embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam.
Solid teamwork here in Washington among counterterrorism professionals in State, Justice, FBI, CIA, Defense, Treasury, Energy, FAA and other agencies is another reason for these successes.
There were suggestions after Ahmed Rassam tried to carry bomb materials across the Canada -U.S. border that we should do more to control our borders against penetration. This incident has renewed the focus on Section 110 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 that calls for automated entry and exit controls at all U.S. ports of entry.
The United States, as an open and democratic society, is more exposed to terrorism, both international and domestic, than authoritarian states. The process of globalization of trade, travel, and contacts at every level has created enormous benefits for our country. At the same time, it has also made it easier for international terrorists to roam more freely around the world. Yet we have stringent visa requirements for visitors from many nations. We have tightened our immigration and deportation laws in recent years to discourage entry by terrorists and other undesirables and to expel such elements. And we have effectively used computerized data banks and other electronic systems to screen out undesirables. Still, terrorists and suspects occasionally penetrate these defenses, entering from other continents and, as we saw in December, from Canada.
Such occasions have been rare, judging from the very few international terrorist attacks within the U.S. In my view, controls of the kind called for in Section 110 are not warranted by the extent of the danger, nor would they, it seems, have a significant effect on the entry of terrorists or other criminal elements into the U.S. Such controls, of course, would have no effect on domestic terrorism, and they would be very expensive, thus diverting resources from other more effective law enforcement and security programs. For these reasons, I recommend that Section 110 be amended to eliminate such controls.
I believe that Section 110 or other measures that would significantly restrict or slow traffic across the U.S. Canada and U.S. Mexico border could do more harm than good. These neighbors are two of our closest trading partners. Many North American industries are integrated and depend on rapid flow of exports and imports. The volume of visitors for family reasons, shopping, or tourism from these countries is also huge and lucrative. The economic cost and major inconvenience to Americans who cross these borders daily would be very high prices to pay for additional controls
A more effective means of minimizing the penetration of our northern and southern borders by terrorists is close cooperation with the Canadian and Mexican Governments.
Since Mexico has not been a focus of international terrorism, our border control relationship with Mexico has been more concerned with narcotics, illegal immigration and other crimes.
As for Canada, speaking from long and direct experience working with Canadian counterterrorism officials, I can assure you that the U.S. and Canada have a cooperative relationship in the area of counterterrorism that is in unique in terms of its closeness, multiple levels of contact, and success.
Our Federal law enforcement, intelligence, immigration and customs officials, and our police and other authorities at the state and local levels, have extraordinarily close relationships with their Canadian counterparts and cooperate literally around the clock. This relationship has been strengthened by a system of sharing computerized information systematically on undesirable elements that might attempt to penetrate our respective borders. The U.S. and Canada also have a valuable cooperative relationship for research and development of counterterrorism technologies.
At the policy level, the State Department works closely with Canadian counterterrorism officials in dealing with both bilateral and multilateral terrorism issues. These ties are the best insurance of protection of our northern border.
There are other areas, however, where the U.S. could to more to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks against Americans abroad, and to make it more difficult for international terrorists to move freely around the world and enter our country.
First of all, in my view, the Congress and the Clinton Administration have not provided adequate funds for protecting our diplomatic missions abroad, although the terrorists bombings of our embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in August 1998 were a cruel reminder that we are still vulnerable.
The Accountability Review Boards that were appointed to make recommendations after these bombings, chaired by retired Admiral William Crowe, in which I participated, recommended far more ample funding to build and reinforce American embassies overseas. Unfortunately, although funding has increased to some extent, adequate funds for safe embassies have not been made available because of overall limitations on State Department budgets.
If we are serious about terrorism, and I am sure we are, we must do a better job of protecting our foreign missions, which have traditionally been targeted by international terrorists. It is not fair to the men and women of many agencies who serve us abroad to do less.
Second, I believe we could do more in the way of anti-terrorism training and technical assistance to foreign governments who are exposed to terrorism, and whose countries are used as refuges or transit points by terrorists. For example, the State Department’s Anti-Terrorism Assistance Program is a successful effort in this area, but it could be expanded. Since many terrorists rely on counterfeit passports or other forged documents, one area that deserves attention is technical and financial assistance to governments that lack modern, forge-proof passports and modern border control systems and technology.
Third, and finally, we must recognize that terrorism, like other forms of political violence, is often an extreme symptom of conflict caused by political, ethnic, economic and other factors. Effective counterterrorism cannot be a stand-alone policy that is limited only to diplomacy, law enforcement, intelligence and other programs of counterterrorism, per se. These programs are vital, but they are not enough unless we also address the root causes of terrorism.
This requires U.S. engagement in efforts around the world to deal with the root causes of conflict, especially, poverty, overpopulation, and environmental degradation. The U.S. is the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation, and we have enormous capabilities. Yet we are doing less in these areas to protect our interests that we were twenty years ago. The funds we spend on foreign affairs, the non-military side of national security, have been cut virtually in half, in real terms, in the last decade. These cuts have reduced our presence overseas and our ability to protect our interests abroad. They have limited our participation in many programs designed to create a safer, less violent world. For example, the U.S. now ranks 20th among nations on a per capita basis in the funds we spend on economic development assistance.
Restored funding for full U.S. engagement abroad will not, of course, stop terrorism or violence altogether. These are conditions of human life that will never be totally eradicated. But greater attention to the root causes of terrorism and political violence, and adequate funds for dealing with these causes and resolving conflict through diplomacy and other programs where the U.S. can make a difference, will help reduce the threat of international terrorism to our country and citizens.
Terrorist Threats to the United States
Oral Statement of Philip C. Wilcox, Jr. Before the Subcommittee On Immigration and Claims, Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, January 25, 2000
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Subcommittee
The arrest last month of a suspected terrorist trying to smuggle bomb components across the U.S.-Canada border reminded us of our vulnerability to international terrorism. We asked ourselves: Is this evidence of a growing threat? And is there anything more we should do to prevent such dangers?
Measuring the threat of international terrorism is increasingly difficult. It is a more amorphous phenomenon that in previous decades, when states who sponsored terrorism and well-established terrorist organizations were the main actors.
This is no longer true. The most active international terrorists today are loosely organized extremists who claim, falsely, to act on behalf of Islam. The affiliation and motivation of Ahmed Rassam, the Algerian who was arrested in Port Angeles in December, have apparently not yet been established, or at least made public.
So where is the bottom line in assessing the threat of international terrorism?
Mr. Chairman, there have been very few acts of international terrorism inside the U.S. Also, international terrorist attacks abaroad against all nationalities have declined in the last decade. There were 666 such incidents in 1987, the peak year, compared to 273 in 1998 and roughly the same number last year. Only a small fraction of these were against Americans. The number of American deaths suffered in international terrorist attacks has also declined sharply since the 1980’s to less than ten a year in the past decade.
In measuring the threat of terrorism, we should also consider domestic terrorism, like the bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995 that killed 168 Americans. I believe this danger is at least as great, if not greater, than the threat of international terrorism.
In any case, statistics are not always an accurate measure of the damage caused by terrorism. A single major act, like the bombing of Pan Am 103 in 1988, that killed 193 Americans, can cause much greater trauma that many smaller acts combined.
Compared to other forms of violence and mayhem the probability of terrorist attacks against Americans quite small. For example, an estimated 13 American children a day, and many more American adults, die by gunfire each day in non terrorist incidents, vastly more than the comparatively miniscule number who are killed annually by terrorists.
But once, again, statistics are not a very accurate measure. Terrorism is designed, above all, to create fear. Its psychological and emotional impact, which is multiplied in our media driven culture, is vastly greater than the relatively few casualties it inflicts.
We must continue to fight terrorism aggressively because of its uniquely cruel quality and its disruptive effects. But we should be careful not to exaggerate the threat, lest we inadvertently enhance the influence of terrorists and enlarge the fear they try to spread.
What more should the U.S. do to minimize the risk of terrorist attacks?
First of all, I believe the U.S. has very effective counterterrorism policies and programs, based on my former experience as Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the State Department,
The rule of law and the criminalization of terrorism are at the heart or our policy. In the last decade, we have broadened and strengthened our laws to enable us to investigate and prosecute terrorist attacks on Americans abroad, as well as at home. Our laws are necessarily tough, but in shaping them, Congress has wisely resisted proposals that would compromise our democratic and constitutional liberties. To do so would be a gift to terrorists, whose values are profoundly anti-democratic.
We have also worked hard to forge a growing international consensus that terrorism is a crime that must be punished, whatever the political motive, and we have many successes. Cooperating with foreign governments, and law enforcement and intelligence agencies, we have tracked down and brought to justice many fugitive terrorists responsible for some of the worst attacks on Americans in recent years, for example, the World Trade Center bombing.
The arrest of Ahmed Rassam in Port Angeles in December has raised new questions about whether we need tighter controls on our land borders with Canada and Mexico. Specifically, it has renewed the focus on Section 110 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 that calls for automated entry and exit controls at all U.S. ports of entry.
The U.S. has benefited in many ways from the huge flow of trade, tourism, shoppers, commuters, and family members across our borders with Canada and Mexico. I am concerned that the attempted controls in Section 110 could seriously hinder this flow without providing extra assurance that this would stop surreptitious entry of terrorists and other criminals. Besides the high cost such controls could create for the trade, business and other ties we have with our neighbors, I understand they would require very large resources to implement.
In considering any changes, we should focus on the fact that very few international terrorist attacks have occurred within the U.S. over the years, and there is no clear evidence that such threats across our land borders are rising. I recommend, therefore, that Section 110 be amended to exempt our land borders from the prescribed controls and that we look for other ways to enhance the safety of our land borders.
The most effective way of minimizing penetration of our land borders is close cooperation with the Canadian and Mexican Governments. Since Mexico has not been a focus of international terrorism, the bulk of my experience was working closely with Canadian law enforcement and counterterrorism officials.
Mr. Chairman, I can assure you that the U.S. and Canada have a cooperative relationship in counterterrorism that is unique in its closeness, multiple levels of contact and success. U.S. and Canadian officials at every level, Federal, state, and local, are in touch, literally around the clock, on border security and law enforcement issues. Recently these ties were further strengthened by a joint computerized information system for sharing data on terrorists and other suspects who might attempt to enter our two countries. This is a superb relationship, and it works.
What else can we do to prevent terrorist attacks on our citizens, at home and abroad? I will mention only two, given the shortness of time.
First, we need greater protection for our officials abroad against terrorist attacks. American embassies have been targeted many times by terrorists, most recently in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Yet, notwithstanding these tragedies, security for our embassies is still being short changed. Surely we owe it to the men and women from many agencies who protect our interests abroad to solve this problem and provide adequate funding promptly.
Second, we need to recognize that counterterrorism cannot be an effective as a stand alone policy. We are working aggressively to investigate and punish terrorism. But we must also do more to address the root causes of terrorism.
Terrorism is often – though not always- a symptom of conflicts, political, economic and ethnic, that lead to political violence. Poverty, overpopulation, environmental degradation, and other ills of under development are breeding grounds for such conflicts. Although these conflicts and the violence they generate are often distant, they can directly affect our security.
Today, notwithstanding our great wealth and superpower status, we are investing about half of what we spent ten years ago on international affairs. I’m talking about non-military U.S. expenditures for diplomacy, and a wide range of programs that reduce conflict and protect our national security abroad. For example, today, we rank 20th in per capita expenditures on economic development assistance. Because of budget cuts, and we are less engaged overseas in areas where we can make a difference.
Mr. Chairman, a comprehensive effort to reduce the threat of international terrorist requiresnot only the effective counterterrorism programs we now have. It also requires adequately funded U.S. efforts overseas, to get at the roots of conflict and terrorism.