Intelligence and the Challenge of Terrorism in the 21st Century

Intelligence and the Challenge of Terrorism in the 21st Century

Only lately has terrorism been recognized as a strategic threat to the internal stability–and even survival–of countries. Terrorism is now seen as a threat to the security of the whole international community, including the United States, the only remaining super-power in the global arena. The United States’ President, Ronald Reagan, was probably the first political leader to understand the strategic role of terrorism, but he considered it more in the framework off the Cold War between the two super-powers–a tool in the hands of the Soviet Union, rather than a phenomena. Intelligence in the field of counter-terrorism is a different–and in many aspects a more arduous and difficult–task than the classical military and political intelligence against enemy or rival states. The lives of many people are in continual danger, often in real time during the very work of the intelligence agencies. The rules of the game are cruel, for the security peersonnel and for the terrorists themselves. The moral and ethical problems are more intricate. Therefore, the security and intelligence agencies involved in the fight against terrorism must work in a peculiar environment and must cope with problems not encountered in ot

ther fields of intelligence.

Trends in Terrorism in the 1990’s

In order to evaluate the threats posed by terrorism at the beginning of the 21st century it is necessary to sum up and analyze the main trends of the terrorism of the 1990s
Statistically, while the number of international terrorist attacks has decreased, the lethality of the attacks has increased dramatically. The suicide and car-bomb attacks are one of the main methods used to achieve this goal. The truck-bombs used in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salam against the American embassies are only the latest example. The radical Islamic groups have become during the 1990s the main perpetrators of international terrorism.
Terrorism as a tool in political or ethnic conflicts has spread to new arreas, mainly to Russia and the ex-Soviet republics and the volume of internal terrorism has sharply increased in many Arab and Muslim countries (Algeria, Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, etc.)
The first real non-conventional terrorist event, the sarin gas used by the Aum Shinrikyo cult in March 1995 for the attack in the Tokyo subway, has broken the taboo in the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), and this is a very significant event and precedent in the history of modern te

The United States has been for the first time the theater of major terrorist attacks – The World Trade Center in New York and Oklahoma City bombings – and also the country where a major right-wing terrorist attack took place – in Oklahoma. In Europe there were only many minor incidents involving right-wing extremists.
The number of states sponsoring or supporting terrorism has indeed diminished, mainly as a result of the crumbling of the Communist Block and the firm stand of the American administration towards rogue states. However, Iran, Syria and lately Afghanistan continue to present a threat to their regional neighbors and the international community.
The radical left-wing terrorism of the 1970s and 1980s in South America and Europe has almost completely disappeared or has been eradicated.

The Track Record of Intelligence in the Last Decade

How have the intelligence agencies of the various countries involved, and the international intelligence community as a whole, coped with these events and trends of the 1990s?
Taking into consideration the number of very serious incidents which have occurred, it seems that in spite of all the efforts deployed by the security and intelligence services they have failed to give the right answer to some of th

he challenges posed by the new terrorist actors.
The identity of the perpetrators of some major terrorist attacks, such as the bombings of the Israeli embassy and the Jewish community building in Buenos Aires, as well as the bombing of the American military personnel at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, is still unknown. Even those responsible for the deadly car-bomb attacks against the American Marines headquarters and the French military camp in Beirut in 1983, have not been yet identified and punished.
Major terrorist attacks have taken the intelligence agencies by surprise. This is true of the US, but also of Egypt, Israel and others. The major strategic surprise though was the sarin gas attack in Tokyo, although one might say that “the handwriting was on the wall” and little was done by the Japanese authorities to prevent it.
For the moment it would seem that the various security services have not found the correct response to the suicide attacks.

Intelligence Successes

However, there were also major successes and breakthroughs:
The US has invested a significant effort in identifying, tracking down and bringing to justice the perpetrators of terrorist activities against American citizens and interests. The identification and arrest of Ramzi Yo

oussef, responsible for organizing the World Trade Center bombing, and other wanted terrorists responsible for past or present activities, are witness to the American tenacity in using intelligence in the fight against terrorism. France has done the same with the most famous international terrorist of the 1970s, Carlos, extradited from Sudan. Germany has achieved the extradition or the arrest of some of the terrorists responsible for assassinations or hijackings in the 1970s and 1980s. Japan has also invested significant effort to bring to justice members of the Japanese Red Army which acted abroad, mainly in the Middle East.
Many terrorist attacks have been prevented or foiled, but successes of intelligence services generally are not published. In one known case at least, the swift FBI deployment after the World Trade Center bombing and its infiltration of the group involved, foiled a much greater plan to bomb the United Nations building and the Lincoln tunnel in New York.
From the organizational point of view, the security and intelligence agencies have taken serious steps to improve their capabilities. The FBI has tripled its counter-terrorism force after the World Trade Center attack and the CIA has created a Terrorism Warning Group to deal with the threat at the highest civilian and military level. The German authorities have greatly enhanced the police and security units dealing, successfully it must be said, with the right-wing violent activities. Russia has formed new elite units in order to cope with the threat of terrorist attacks against its nuclear facilities, and so on.
The international cooperation has improved, mainly on the bilateral level. Even the Israeli Security Service is cooperating, with all the existing limitations, with the various Palestinian apparatuses. A new European body, Europol, is a step in the improvement of cooperation at the regional level. The Arab League countries have arrived to an agreement to coordinate their intelligence and security activities against the radical Islamist movements, although Israel is still considered by them as a legitimate target for the same movements.

Trends in Modern Terrorism

The question now is what lies ahead in the way of terrorist threats and what responses must the intelligence agencies prepare in order to foil or at least minimize these threats. First, let us take a look at the new trends in modern terrorism:
In the estimation of most of the analysts, researchers–and of the main intelligence services– terrorism will continue to be a serious threat in the next decade on the strategic and tactical level. The continuous and growing instability of the international environment on the economic, social and political level; the impossibility of attaining a new balance of power in the international system; the extensive technological changes, combined with the millennium anxiety–all these factors will provide a fertile ground for the old, and probably also the new kind of organizations, such as radical ecological or abortionist movements or various esoteric cults and sects.
Ethnic conflicts, as those in the former Soviet Union (especially the Caucasus), Yugoslavia and in various parts of Africa, seem to be increasing, in spite of positive developments, as witnessed by the peace agreement in Northern Ireland or the cease-fires announced by ETA in Spain and the PKK in Turkey. The appearance of what some researchers call “the gray zones” like Somalia and some regions in Central Africa, where there is no real representation of democratic countries or international agencies, turns these regions into a kind of intelligence vacuum, where terrorist organizations can find a safe-haven and a basis for future activity. These development represent a real threat not only to the neighboring counties, but also to the industrialized democratic ones. Osama bin Laden’s boasts about his role in ousting the Western forces from Somalia was not mere bragadocio.
The strategic assassination of important leaders during key political moments could continue, as has occurred in the past with Sadat and the attempts on president Mubarak of Egypt, the assassination of Indhira and Rajib Gandhi in India, the plan to kill the Pope, or the assassination of prime minister Rabin in Israel.
Right-wing radicals will probably continue to expand the strategy of what they call “leaderless resistance,” whereby militants and groups operate independently of each other, without reporting to a central headquarters or single leader for direction or instruction. This strategy has proved itself in the Oklahoma City bombing and could be adopted by new radical left-wing groups, as results from their discussion of this concept on the Internet.
The use of the Internet and the computer networks will represent a major challenge in the near future. Such use could include use of the nets not only as a propaganda tool, but also as a means of communication between militants of terrorist organizations and between various organizations. Organizations can also use the net for fundraising, transferring of money and other organizational needs; and last but not least, for waging cyber-attacks on the essential civilian and military facilities of the “enemies.”
Regarding other types of non-conventional weapons, terrorists are less likely to use chemical and biological weapons than conventional explosives. However, the likelihood that terrorists may use chemical and biological materials may increase over the next decade. Chemical and biological agents are less likely to be used than conventional explosives, at least partly because they are more difficult to weaponize and the results are unpredictable. Although the likelyhood of terrorists’ use of chemical and biological weapons is low, some groups and individuals are beginning to show interest in such weapons, as shown by bin Laden’s interest in acquiring such capabilities. The threat of nuclear terrorism is even less certain, but some kind of threat or low grade attack, such as the one tried by the Chechen rebels in the forest surrounding Moscow using radioactive materials, is not unfeasible.

The Tasks Facing Intelligence

In light of the above threats and trends, what will be the task of the security and intelligence services and how they can better cover the large array of terrorist groups and organizations?
To begin with, the threat of large scale acts of terror and the potential of non-conventional terrorism will enhance the need to prevent and foil the terrorist schemes and give warning before such acts happen. In the case of chemical or nuclear terrorism without warning even the first-responder teams could be destroyed before they act; in case of biological threat the early warning could at least permit the immunization of the population endangered.
Secondly, the existence of small groups and cells of highly motivated religious extremists, right-wing fanatics, unpredictable esoteric or millenarian cults, which in many senses act anarchically, means that the work of penetration and infiltration of these groups is highly difficult. The case of the assassin of the late prime minister Rabin is an example of the problematic posed by these groups.


From the above it follows that the use of human sources, professionally known as Humint, should be expanded and perfected: the counter-terrorism expertise, the cultural knowledge and the language aptitudes of Humint officers should be improved. The dealing with composite multi-national groups like the one formed by Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman in the U.S. or bin Laden’s Islamic World Front for Fighting Jews and Crusaders, or the kind of cults as Aum Shinrikyo represent a formidable challenge in the way to penetration. The inconclusive results of the American cruise-missiles strikes against bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan and the pharmaceutical plant in Sudan are only a fresh example of the importance of good human sources in the heart of terrorist organizations.

Open Sources

Open sources are important because they provide context as well as warning or tip-off. Terrorist organizations have ideological programs and they need to explain to their sympathizers and the public at large their goals and targets. In the age of Internet and open media there is need for a careful examination and analysis of all the available material. Often, intelligence agencies dealing with terrorism neglect the importance of this kind of information. It is perhaps the field in which it is the duty of the academia and the university researchers to take care of and to advance the knowledge of terrorist ideologies, doctrines and strategies.

The Internet

The Internet will become more and more the place were much of the virtual, but also conspirative activity will take place. One of the problems with which the security services will have to deal will be the encoding of the communications between militants of terrorist cells and groups. The American administration has not succeeded in preventing the proliferation to clandestine organizations of the PGP system of ciphering. For instance a radical right wing group, the Thule Netz in Germany, used sophisticated ciphering and had eight levels of encoding before reaching the highest echelons of their net.

Non-conventional Terrorism

As regards the proliferation of non-conventional means of warfare, particularly to the extent that it may touch terrorism and affect the security of whole countries, the next decade will certainly present the intelligence agencies with the most formidable task. The challenge in this case is double: on the one hand the necessity of penetrating and monitoring the activities in this sensitive field of the various groups and organizations; on the other, to spot, monitor and neutralize the providers of raw materials, technology and know-how used in the preparation of such weapons. This mission is connected with the overall task of preventing the proliferation of WMD to rogue states, but in many senses it is more intricate.

International Cooperation

It is accepted axiom today that the cooperation on the bilateral, regional and international levels is essential in preventing and neutralizing not only international terrorism, but also internal terrorism in many countries. Terrorism in Algeria, Egypt, Sri Lanka, etc. is closely connected with the activity of exiled militants and front organizations in other countries or the raising of funds by expatriated so called humanitarian organizations. Without a sincere and close cooperation between the various countries in the intelligence field, every one will become at one time or another victim of terrorism, and examples of the past are well known. There is urgent need for an international legislation concerning terrorism.
Nevertheless it must be clear that the activity of the intelligence agencies and the international cooperation will be affected and influenced by the international environment: the new international laws and human rights necessities; the political limitations of the various countries as regarding the definition of terrorism; the threat of expansion of conflicts to other countries and the fear of more innocent victims in case of an external involvement.


To sum up, the intelligence work against terrorism in the 21st century will be an arduous and complicated task, which will necessitate a close look to the new social and technological developments, an objective analysis of the new trends and threats, and much vision.
Intelligence is essential in countering terrorism, in diminishing its tactical effects and strategic importance. Yet, without a comprehensive, intelligent and firm policy of the governments involved terrorism will continue to present a real threat to the future generation.


Paul R. Pillar, Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy, Brookings Institute Press: Washington, DC, 2001

David C. Rapoport, ‘Fear and Trembling: Terrorism in Three Religious Traditions,’ American Political Science Review, Vol. 78, No. 3 (September 1984).

Adrian Guelke, The Age of Terrorism and the International Political System, I. B. Tauris: New York, 1998, p. 3

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