Boaz Ganor is the founder of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and deputy dean of the Lauder School of Government and Diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. He is the author of several books, most recently the just-released The Counter-Terrorism Puzzle: A Guide for Decision Makers (Transaction Publishers). Mr. Ganor lectures on terrorism and counter-terrorism at the High Command Academic Courses of the Israel's Defense Forces. He addressed the Middle East Forum in New York on April 8, 2005.


Unfortunately, terrorism is a vague term, so that Osama Bin Laden would say he is against terrorism. We need a clear definition. I propose that it be defined as "the deliberate use of violence aimed against civilians in order to achieve political gain." Even for just causes, terrorism is an illegitimate tactic.

Liberal democratic states confront threats from international terrorism that are unlike anything seen previously. The threat emanates from networks of radical Islamic terrorist groups dispersed across the globe.

Keep in mind that the main aim of terrorism is not to kill and destroy but to maximize anxiety and put pressure on governments to yield on policy. This is equally true of Bin Laden, Hamas, the IRA, and other organizations. We can win each battle, but if one's people remain afraid, we are losing.

I distinguish between two types of fear – the rational, which is connected to the actual probability of harm; and the irrational, which is connected to the possibility of threat. The second type of fear is the sort that leads to concessions. For example, while 300 Israelis died from terrorist attacks in one year, 600 Israelis died in car accidents in the same period. Yet no one considers not traveling to Israel because of the threat of being hurt in a car accident.

Origins of jihadists

The origins of this network lies with the mujihadeen in Afghanistan fighting the Soviet Union from 1979 until the Soviet exit from the country a decade later. After 10 years of war, the mujihadeen could point to an amazing victory over the superpower that soon after ceased to exist.

The mujihadeen who came to Afghanistan from around the Muslim world divided into three groups. One group stayed in Afghanistan and became the eventually nucleus of Al-Qaeda. The second returned to their home countries, Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and beyond, where they started working with local jihadist movements or joined larger Islamic radical movements. The third group wanted to return home but took asylum in Western or non-Arab/Muslim countries.

Umar Abdal-Rahman (the blind sheikh) is an example of the third category, someone who could not return to his homeland of Egypt and so settled in the United States. In 1993, he masterminded the World Trade Center bombing, which was designed to kill 50,000 people by toppling one tower on the other.

The threat is thus three-pronged. It includes a terrorist vision of unlimited carnage, carried out by men highly trained in explosives and warfare and equipped with an ideology they seek to spread at the expense of everyone else, including more mainstream Muslims, whom they regard as infidels.

These violent Islamists are limited by shortage of manpower, however, so they are patient and intend to accomplish their designs gradually. Osama bin Laden seeks first to gain control of places where the majority of his supporters are located, such as Central Asia and some Arab countries. He does not aim to conquer Saudi Arabia, Jordan, or Egypt but wants radicals from those countries to conquer them from within.

Looking at the major terrorist attacks since 9/11, most of them have occurred in Muslim countries: Turkey, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia and so on. The targets have usually been non-Muslims: Western tourists, Jews, other non-Muslim locals, and so on. These acts are aimed at shaking the stability of Muslim countries whose economies rely largely on tourism. Once their regimes shake and cave in, the next phase is to launch the final battle against the West and America.

United States – the Strategic Enemy

Jihadists see the United States as a major obstacle because its influence prevents the Islamists from achieving the first stage of their plan. It supports some of these regimes, its economic influence cannot be ignored, and it has the muscle to fight jihadists around the world. Thus, Bin Laden issues videocassettes basically calling for the United States to do two things: to withdraw its forces from the Middle East and to cease assisting Arab regimes.

If Washington were to withdraw its support, the region's stability would be shaken - what Bin Laden wants. The 9/11 attack was not meant to destroy the United States or destroy the American economy; it was a intended to create anxiety that would pressure the government to shift its policy.

Bin Laden is enamored with the use of suicide attacks, the ultimate smart bomb, a tool to maximize casualties and damage, including psychological damage. In Israel, the number of suicide attacks, as a portion of all terrorist acts is less than 0.5 percent. Yet over 50 percent of casualties resulting from terrorist attacks come from suicide bombings. It is an effective method to kill and spread fear. This makes suicide terrorism Al-Qaeda's favorite method. When combined with non-conventional terrorism, which includes chemical, biological, or even nuclear attacks, it becomes truly frightening.

The uses of terrorism

Terrorism has a mathematic quality, requiring motivation and operational capability. Counter-terrorism's goal is to curtail both factors, and that requires being both proactive and diligent. When asked in an ABC interview years ago if he would ever use non-conventional weapons in his attacks, Bin Laden replied that he would regard it as a sin to not to use every means at his disposal to, as he put it, defend the Muslims from the infidels.

We have seen evidence of this willingness in recent years. Several terrorist operations along these lines were thwarted, such as a poison gas attack on the London Underground and a suicide bombing of the Jordanian intelligence building in Amman, to have been followed by the release of cyanide.

Note that religious sanction by Islamist clerics has been granted for such attacks, even if they lead to mass Muslim casualties, for this is seen as defensive warfare, ultimately saving the lives of even more Muslims.

Islamists are not so much fighting against American troops as they are in combat against Coca-Cola, McDonalds, the Internet, and Microsoft. They feel threatened by the embodiments of American culture. This implies that withdrawing American troops will solve nothing. More generally, defensive retreats do not result in less aggression from terrorists.

The Israeli experience confirms this. There were more successful suicide attacks prior to the partial reoccupation of the West Bank in early 2002 than afterwards. Attempted suicide attacks increased at that time but their success rate dropped off dramatically. Going on the offensive, not pulling out, was important in reducing the effectiveness of Palestinian terrorism.