Anthony E. Mitchell is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. government faces a dilemma in the Persian Gulf: it needs to place military personnel in the region to fulfill strategic goals (such as enforcing sanctions against Iraq) but the constant threat of terrorism obstructs its very ability to achieve those goals. However important, it is hard to forward-deploy troops to the Middle East when within seven months, two major bombings, at the Saudi Arabian National Guard and Khobar Towers, killed five and nineteen American soldiers, respectively.

As these atrocities suggest, the existing strategy to cope with terrorism against U.S. armed forces—passive defense—has proven inadequate. The U.S. government needs to replace passive defense with a radically different approach that can prevent terrorist incidents. Rather than concentrate military personnel residences, they need to be dispersed. Rather than isolate them, they need to be integrated into the host countries. Rather than treat personnel as potential victims, they should be trained to participate in their own defense.


Since about 1982, Middle Eastern terrorists have—almost without anyone noticing—shifted tactics. The hijackings of old, which often culminated in the terrorists' own deaths, have nearly ended, replaced by attacks on targets that promise lower risk to the terrorists themselves (unless they are on suicide missions), higher casualties among victims, and no less extensive press coverage. Favorite targets these days are large concentrations of victims in what appear to them to be safe environments: embassies, barracks, crowded city buses, and high-density marketplaces. The targeting of concentrated personnel is consistent with a Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) document from 1981 that discusses the "choice of place and timing of an operation":

The enemy should be struck at its weak spots, and for the enemy, civilians are its weak spot. . . . The objective should be such that considerable damage will be caused to the enemy. It is desirable to attack tourist sites during the tourist season. . . . It is necessary to act in market places and where many people congregate, especially during holidays and vacations. Special attention should be paid to the season and timing of the operation.1

Nearly all the major terrorist incidents in Israel of late have fit this "focus-on-mass" profile, as have the attacks on the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut; La Belle discotheque (frequented by American servicemen) in West Berlin; the Jewish center and Israeli Embassy in Argentina; and the two Saudi sites.


Current U.S. antiterrorism strategy appears to be an agglomeration of reactions to earlier incidents and an accommodation to host governments. As policy now stands, personnel and facilities in the region are safeguarded by applying four techniques: passive defense, isolation, "beyond the gate" planning, and restrictions on movement.2

Passive Defense. Passive defense measures—guards, barriers, and fences—reduce damage caused by hostile action without requiring U.S. forces to take the initiative. It reflects the American desire to deploy an overwhelming combat force to conduct

Isolation. Force protection consists of renting existing facilities to house U.S. forces and adding modest security improvements, or moving entire facilities to remote locations; most Americans in Saudi Arabia are being relocated to Prince Sultan Air Base, some seventy miles south of Riyadh. In addition, embassies are now built at the outskirts of town.

"Beyond-the-front-gate" planning. The random aspect of terrorism has prompted policy-makers to urge local U.S. military commanders to "think and plan beyond the front gate."3 They are expected to anticipate potential threats and plan their responses. This means that they must work with host government agencies to increase security outside the compound where American military personnel are housed and based. Additionally, the local commander should integrate local law enforcement agencies into his security plan.

Restrictions on movement. Threatening intelligence reports result in personnel being temporarily restricted to bases, to ships in port, to barracks and residences. A mandatory buddy system also goes into effect, whereby American soldiers must travel in pairs outside of their bases. The buddy system appears to have worked without alienating Americans or offending the local population.

Unfortunately, the long history of successful attacks on U.S. government installations demonstrates that the four steps of this "plan-to-avoid" approach do not work. The military leadership appears to understand that they have left U.S. forces and foreign policy unnecessarily vulnerable. Secretary of Defense William Perry conceded in Senate testimony that "whatever we do and however much we invest in antiterrorist activities, we cannot eliminate the risk."4 General Binford Peay, commander of Central Command, described the problems at greater length:

Difficulties arise in detecting specific acts of terror before they occur. The terrorist is a criminal, not a soldier. He strikes indiscriminately at the target of his choosing, with any means, at any time. All targets are legitimate in his eyes. He seeks to inflict as much damage as possible to horrify and shock the local population and global audience and to embarrass the leaders of a country. Under the circumstances, there is no way to achieve absolute security for our military people or civilians living abroad.5

Fortunately, each major component of current strategy can be replaced or augmented by a more daring alternative that in fact better protects U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia.


Passive defense. U.S. military planners tend to approach force protection as a sterile, force-on-force, operational issue. That misses the point: fighting terror requires an understanding of terrorist aims. Static defense presents an opportunity for the terrorist to study a situation and take the initiative. It depends almost solely on physical security and virtually ignores politico-military issues. It lacks a clear definition of victory. Static defenses are expensive to implement; they require the acquisition of many new buildings and reinforcement of existing ones. By using a passive approach, planners mistakenly view the terrorist as an identifiable enemy with a clear and well-planned strategy, as though terrorism were a conventional threat. Technology, strategy, and weapons made the fortress mentality obsolete six decades ago; passive defense against terrorism is doomed to failure.

Active defense. Successful military planning emphasizes maintaining the initiative; antiterrorism planning must deny the terrorist the initiative. That means taking into account that the terrorist is the only enemy who denies the U.S. military an opportunity to go on the offensive. "A strong military force, by itself," Stephen Gotowicki notes,

does not deter terrorism—in point of fact, terrorism has developed as a response to strong governmental powers. Doctrine, equipment and the advanced technologies of the larger army do not provide it any advantages in confronting or preventing terrorist action.6

The concept of active defense harks back to the early cold war days, when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Europe realized that the overwhelming numerical superiority of the Warsaw Pact nations required that NATO develop new strategies. Active defense implies the application of some limited offensive actions while maintaining an overall defensive posture. Active defense in antiterrorism aims to confound terrorists by complicating their planning. Terrorism being unconventional warfare, active defense measures must also be unconventional. It includes: (1) Community engagement, such as the use of local transportation, briefings on U.S. military capability, volunteering at local charities, assisting medical authorities in medical screenings, wellness and vaccination programs, and attendance at local worship services. (2) Engagement with local law enforcement by creating a permanent security liaison team and two-way exchange programs. (3) Interagency cooperation with the Department of State and the embassy's Regional Security Officer.


Isolation. Deciding for a bastion of resident military personnel creates a false sense of security—and a myriad of security and politico-military problems. Additionally when the military presence in a friendly Middle Eastern country remains behind locked doors, terrorists achieve important objectives.

Isolated concentrations of American service members present an ideal target for big payoff terrorist attacks—attacks capable of attracting wide international attention and shaking the American public's support of a peacetime military operation through a single violent act with high numbers of casualties. The most notable case took place in 1983, when a single bomb at the Marine barracks in Beirut caused the United States to flee Lebanon.

Furthermore, separation from the host population may even incite an attack from a terrorist who sees it as a first sign of defeat—and just a short step from complete withdrawal. Worse, the sight of U.S. soldiers crowded in the middle of the desert, far from the host country population, harms the reputation of the United States and the host government, not to speak of its baleful effects on the morale of American personnel.

The two terrorist attacks against U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia are examples of the ineffectiveness of isolation. Both attacks were against a large and easily identifiable U.S. military force, and in the case of Khobar Towers, an improved and well-guarded target. Visitors to Khobar Towers before the attack remarked on the visible improvements to security. The consul general from Dhahran, for example, remarked that the wing commander had apparently "created Fortress America."7 Those security measures proved ineffectual, however, in part because no matter how isolated, some traffic in and out of the security compound is unavoidable. As the explosion at Khobar Towers demonstrated, bombs can be designed to overcome physical barriers.8

Concentrating a large number of U.S. forces in a physically small compound thus exposes the American centers of gravity,9 making them unnecessarily vulnerable. In conventional warfare, the objective of a campaign is to strike the enemy's center of gravity while safeguarding one's own. While a small number of American troops intermingled with a local population does not present terrorists with a center of gravity to attack, a large compound or residence teeming with American troops, as at the Marine Barracks in Beirut and Khobar Towers, does. There being no way to overwhelm a terrorist—who always maintains the advantage of tactical surprise—massing force makes no sense at all. In contrast, terrorists are dispersed, hard to trace, and assimilated into local society, and so deny U.S. forces a center of gravity to attack.

Terrorists do, however, somewhat expose their strategic center of gravity by depending on local aid for shelter and anonymity, as well as by assuming local apathy toward the intended victims. U.S. forces fail to recognize that vulnerability because of the policy of isolation, and so lose their opportunity for initiative. Indeed, the local population could provide U.S. personnel with one of their most effective allies in combating terrorism. In contrast, separation from the host society alienates U.S. personnel, isolating them, and making them anonymous to the local populace, so their deaths are met with apathy. In addition, such social and physical division makes it nearly impossible for American personnel to cultivate an effective intelligence network.

The target is as much a part of a terrorist act as the casualty numbers. Consider the following incident: in October 1991, Army personnel and their families were among the diners at a restaurant near Fort Hood, Texas, when a gunman drove his pickup truck through the restaurant window and opened fire.10 But because that incident took place in a public setting, and non-military personnel made up the majority of the forty-three victims, the public never perceived the incident as a terrorist act. Had the same gunman with the same motivation carried out his assault instead at the Fort Hood Post Commissary, and had the same proportion of Army personnel and families been casualties, the public reaction and perceptions of his motives might have been different. The public would view the event as an act of domestic terrorism—as was the case when the Oklahoma City Federal building was bombed in April 1995.

Dispersal. The above reasons make clear the need for decentralization: it makes sense to disperse personnel when not on duty and assimilate them into local society wherever possible.

On most missions, personnel must congregate to perform the organization's mission, for example, to perform aircraft maintenance, to facilitate staff level planning and exercises, to conduct briefings, and to perform other normal administrative tasks. Just because military personnel have to concentrate while performing their mission does not, however, mean that they need to be massed in billeting and residences. Instead, exclusive concentrations of Americans should be limited to essentials and otherwise discouraged, for such concentrations facilitate the terrorist's planning. Dispersal has several advantages.

• Dispersal complicates matters for terrorists by forcing them to engage in piecemeal execution of their objectives, putting them at greater risk.

• Dispersal precludes the use of weapons of mass destruction by terrorists. Because civilian casualties will undermine their goal of winning the support of the local population, terrorists try to avoid such casualties. As a result nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons are unthinkable against U.S. military personnel in an urban environment but remain possibilities in the middle of the desert. Thus, it should come as no surprise that no Saudi nationals were among the dead in the National Guard or the Khobar Towers blasts. The inadvertent death of a Saudi national would not have furthered the terrorists' goals. Busy streets, then, may be safer than isolated desert command posts.

• Dispersal permits American forces to be perceived by the local population as a group integrated into the community, and not as an alien occupation force. If the local population perceives the death of an American serviceman by a terrorist as the murder of a neighbor, the effect of the crime against the person becomes far-reaching within the community and supports terrorist aims less.

• Dispersal enables the host government to cooperate more easily with U.S. requests to participate in small-scale criminal probes rather than in a large-scale effort to piece together a highly publicized single high-profile act of violence.

• Dispersal has an offensive quality. Terrorists and their sponsors are most disturbed and threatened by the infectious nature of Western society. Populations around the world—including those living under the tyrannies that sponsor terrorism—are invariably drawn to the allure of the West's culture, industry, pluralism, and rule of law. Fear of Western society may in fact be one of the terrorists' greatest vulnerabilities; thus, the self-induced insulation of U.S. military forces achieves some of the terrorists' most important aims. In contrast, dispersing U.S. forces exploits those fears by enhancing intercultural relationships. That offers one of the very few opportunities to strike at a terrorist center of gravity.

Dispersal also makes many demands on the U.S. military, however. While it substantially lowers the risk of a single high-impact terrorist incident, it does bring increased risk to each individual. Dispersal thus requires increased training of personnel, improved communications technology, a network of local contacts, and heightened situational awareness. The policy-maker must be willing to assume some risk by trusting individuals to follow proper security practices. Yet, the effectiveness of such a strategy is demonstrated by the fact that diplomats, attaches, Mutual Defense Office personnel, and Military Assistance Group personnel with families have resided throughout the world since the end of the Second World War and few have been the victims of highly publicized terror attacks.

In those cases where the host government wants American military in the country to be totally isolated, policy-makers should still ask themselves whether it is in U.S. interests to do so. Insisting that a host population not mingle with U.S. personnel defeats a portion of the intended deployment. Fulfillment of many missions, such as sanctions enforcement, can then be executed in greater safety from another location. If it is in fact prudent to isolate U.S. forces, then the ultimate invisibility comes from an exclusively naval option.


Restrictions on movement. The arrival of incessant, ominous intelligence reports effectively creates a fortress mentality. Personnel restrictions based solely on sketchy intelligence compromise U.S. military objectives, security strategy, and prestige. Changing behavior with every report renders U.S. forces vulnerable to disinformation (the deliberate spreading of false information), which can be used to manipulate a force's security posture.

Training. Instead, planners should assume terrorism to be a constant, unavoidable threat to American military personnel in the Persian Gulf region. Military personnel need comprehensive training that begins before movement overseas, so that each individual develops an antiterrorism mindset and becomes his own security manager. During such training, personnel would be introduced to Middle Eastern culture and shown how to assimilate. They would initially learn to recognize surveillance, drive offensively, practice personal threat reduction techniques, and understand the terrorist's tactics. When overseas, they would learn about local religious customs, demography, and local politics. They would be kept informed of changes in the local threat assessment, including any signs of potential targets, terrorist's goals and any change in terrorist tactics.

In the event of heightened threat conditions, personnel ought to be dispersed in their living and working environments, either by suspending work for a short period or relying on technology for work to be accomplished remotely. Routine is an ally of the terrorist, so staggering and altering schedules help confound him.


"Beyond-the-front-gate" planning. This approach is unrealistic, for few if any field commanders have the authority, jurisdiction, or diplomatic mandate to pursue outside-the-gate solutions. Furthermore, U.S. planners lack the latitude to structure defenses as they would in a conventional war scenario, because the United States is not an occupation force and cannot demand security concessions from a host government. The Department of Defense (DoD) requires that "actions to combat terrorism outside of the United States will comply with applicable status of Forces Agreements (SOFAs), other international agreements, and memoranda of understanding." Accordingly, the DoD insists that "All reactions to incidents of a political nature. . . be coordinated with the U.S. Embassy and the host nation as appropriate."11 No wonder field manuals instruct local commanders to consult with their legal advisers before taking any action against terrorists.12

There is much valuable work done on ways to avert terrorism within the United States that has little value for a Persian Gulf venue.13 For example, attempting to deny the means for executing an act of international terror in the Middle East is a hopeless exercise.

Challenging states that sponsor terrorism. Strategic action, military or economic, against states that sponsor terrorism offers a more effective way to contain that problem. Failure to confront and denounce acts of organized terrorism immediately encourages both the terrorists and their sponsors to continue using that brutal and cowardly method of furthering their agendas. Tehran sponsored and supported terrorist actions with nearly complete immunity throughout the Middle East in the early 1980s; the absence of forceful multilateral action then may explain continued Iranian support of terrorism now.

Unilateral actions against states that sponsor terrorism, such as Israeli actions against Syria or U.S. actions against Iran, have proven relatively unproductive; for lasting results, such actions require support from many governments, as in the cases of Iraq and Libya. Whereas unilateral U.S. air strikes on two Libyan cities in April 1986 proved to be an isolated gesture, not part of an effective strategy to permanently stamp out Libya's sponsorship and support of terrorism, Libyan-backed terrorism has been quieted subsequent to the Pan Am 103 bombing in December 1988. The combination of international condemnation and U.N. sanctions since 1992, appears to account for Libya's long hiatus from terrorism.


Additional strategies for combating terrorism include cooperation with the host government, deploying minimal forces, and denying the terrorist's immediate goals.

Cooperation with the host government. U.S. interests in most cases complement those of a host government, a fact that local commanders can use to involve the host government early and often to establish an effective and acceptable defense plan. Loose security and sympathy for terrorists within the host government are potential drawbacks that may counteract the effectiveness of the antiterrorism plan. Better yet is for resident diplomats to be involved in every phase of planning to ensure host government support.

Deploying minimal force. Some host governments consider a highly visible American military presence a permanent threat to their society. They worry that the infectious nature of Western society will threaten established social norms and inspire the questioning of religious law. In such cases, the U.S. government should consider doing as host governments ask. Administrative, logistical and, support functions should be outside the host country as much as possible. Information technology permits remote execution of required support. Integrating information technology and its associated capabilities into antiterrorism planning is a prudent and relatively inexpensive method of reducing vulnerabilities. In some cases it might be more suitable to station the troops over the horizon.

Deny the terrorist's immediate goals. Identify what the terrorists achieve in a specific attack and adjust local security policy to deny terrorists their ends. For example, terrorists know that American public opinion and resolve constitute the strategic center of gravity for U.S. forces to remain in a host country. They perceive high casualty numbers as the U.S. center of gravity and a means to sway U.S. public opinion. If preventing the probability of any terrorist attack proves impossible, it is conceivable to eliminate some of the conditions that lead to high casualty numbers. That requires the planner to identify U.S. centers of gravity and to nullify them.

That process reverses the normal decision-making process: Instead of identifying the enemy center of gravity and planning to destroy it, as in planning for conventional warfare, one identifies the terrorist's immediate goals and denies them to him. Because the terrorist does not provide a concentrated force to attack or a geographic node to neutralize, such an approach may prove to be the most effective.


1 From the minutes of a May 13, 1981, meeting of the Supreme Military Meeting, Arab Liberation Front, headed by Yasir Arafat, p. 10, captured and translated by Israeli intelligence.
2 "Combating Terrorism in Saudi Arabia," Defense Issues, vol. 11, no. 59: prepared statements by Defense Secretary William J. Perry, Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, and Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III to the Senate Armed Services Committee, July 9, 1996, pp. 7, 14, 16.
3 U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, Fort Monroe, Virginia, Force Protection: Antiterrorism 1997, part 2, p. 2, at
4 "Combating Terrorism in Saudi Arabia," pp. 3, 6.
5 Ibid., p. 13.
6 Stephen H. Gotowicki, "Middle East Terrorism: Form of Warfare or Mission Impossible?" Military Review, May-June 1997. At, p. 4.
7 "Report of Investigation: The Khobar Towers Bombing," prepared by the inspector general and the judge advocate of the Air Force, June 25, 1996, p. 5, at
8 A tank truck with approximately 1,200 pounds of a fast-burning explosive was backed into the Khobar Towers perimeter fence at the point closest to the building. The driver of the truck escaped in a second vehicle (and was not captured). A rooftop guard observed the truck and suspected a bomb. He went floor to floor warning the residents to leave the side of the building nearest the truck. The blast took off a side of the building and caused stairways to collapse; flying debris caused deaths and injuries as far as 600 feet from the building.
9 The term "center of gravity" derives from Karl von Clausewitz; the Department of Defense lexicon defines it as "those characteristics, capabilities, or localities from which a military force derives its freedom of action, physical strength, or will to fight." Department of Defense On-line Dictionary at
10 Scott Pendleton, "Texas Town Stares down Tragedy," The Christian Science Monitor, Mar. 12, 1992.
11 "DoD Combating Terrorism Program Procedures," Department of Defense Instruction, Number 2000-14, June 15, 1994, p. 2.
12 "Military Operations in Low Intensity Conflict," Field Manual 100-20/Air Force Pamphlet 3-20 (Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, Department of the Army and the Air Force, Dec. 5, 1990), pp. 3-7.
13 David C. Resing, "Averting Terrorist Forays Requires Prudent Planning," National Defense, Sept. 1995, pp. 36-37.